Matt Llano on being coached by Ryan Hall, bouncing back from injuries, and the state of U.S. men’s marathoning

Written by Kevin Liao.

With his personal best of 2:12:28, Matt Llano is one of the fastest marathoners in America. But with an up-and-down last few years, including a slew of injuries and a recent coaching change, Llano is ready to bounce back and make CIM his comeback race.

We chatted with Matt after he completed one of his final training runs in Flagstaff, Arizona before heading out to Sacramento.

Word on the street is legendary U.S. marathoner Ryan Hall is coaching you now. What were the conversations that went into you making that decision?

I started working with Ryan the first week of September. I split with NAZ Elite back in June. My plan at the time was to coach myself through the end of this year and then see what my options may be.

It was earlier this year that Ryan had announced he, Sara, and their family were moving to Flagstaff and that he was starting a professional group, so that was in the back of my mind.

I started doing some of my own workouts and quickly realized how challenging it was not to have anyone to train with, drive fluids, or hold a watch.

I met up with Ryan at a coffee shop one day and we chatted about what he was looking for in an athlete and what I was looking for in a coach. We thought it had potential to be a really good relationship. It was texting back and forth later that evening when we decided to start working together.

We’ve all seen Ryan Hall the athlete and the fearlessness he ran with. What is Ryan Hall the coach like on a day-to-day basis?

Ryan still believes in that kind of fearless mindset.

He has set some pretty aggressive steps for my training. Some of my long marathon tempos have been way faster than anything I was doing before. At first, that was really terrifying for me.

I have this benchmark for marathon workouts I’ve done for the last four years. One of the first tempos I did under Ryan’s coaching was way faster. I didn’t think I could hit the pace, but I gave it a shot and it actually came really easily.

Over the last couple of months, I’ve reset my own expectations. When I first came to the marathon, I had very high goals for what I thought I could achieve. Over time, I still have some of those same goals, but I struggled to believe I was capable of achieving those goals. It’s been a couple months of letting go of the limits I had put on myself.

You have a very fast 2:12:28 marathon best. Some could see that as a daunting mark to try to beat every time you’re lacing it up for a marathon. How do you approach knowing that fast PR is out there?

The last couple years for me have been up and down, to say the least.

After Berlin in 2015 where I set my PR, I ran the 2016 Olympic Trials hurt to the point I couldn’t train the way I wanted to. I then had to take four months off to have surgery on my pelvis.

I came back to run New York that fall and tore my laborum in the race. I had to take another six months off to have surgery as well.

It was 10 months after that laboral surgery when I ran the Frankfurt Marathon, which was a bittersweet experience to run 2:13:42. I certainly was not in my best fitness there, but it was encouraging to come back and be just over a minute off my PR.

Coming in to CIM, my training has been mostly uninterrupted for two years. The marathon fitness and the marathon specific tempo runs are better than they’ve ever been. There’s a lot to be excited about. I just hope it all comes together on Sunday.

Given all you’ve been through, how did you make the decision to run your only marathon of 2018 at CIM?

Starting back in January, I had a bunch of respiratory issues that I saw several doctors for and yet we couldn’t figure out what was going on. It was affecting me no matter the run — easy runs, workouts, long runs. We tried a whole array of things to help, but nothing was working.

The issues finally started resolving themselves around July and August, so the biggest thing for me was to have as much time as possible to move past all of those issues. I didn’t want to run an early fall marathon because I didn’t feel I had enough of the quality work before stepping on the start line.

CIM was the sort of end of the road that would still allow me to run one or two other marathons before the end of 2019.

It also made sense to get back to a U.S. championships. I know it’s a course that can be fast if we get good conditions and good competition.

There’s been chatter on the message boards and among pundits about the state of U.S. men’s marathoning. You have Galen Rupp up front and a group of guys, including yourself, in the 2:11-2:13 range who would potentially contend for the top three spots at the Olympic Trials. How do you approach those potential matchups in 2020?

I’ve read a couple articles about this topic. A lot of us are in that similar realm. To be honest, I’ve gotten away from being in a marathon and thinking about racing people. That is something I hope to work on in the next 15 months leading up to the trials. The trials is not necessarily going to be a time trial based on what I think the course in Atlanta is going to be like.

I’m excited to keep working with Ryan to keep chipping away at PR’s and gain more experience. In February 2020, I have no doubt that the team is going to be really hard to make. After finishing sixth at the last trials, I just want to put myself in the best position to make the team.