As our sport expands, it can be tricky keeping track of every runner I need to know about. Some race previews we get it right, others, a dark horse will rise through the clouds to put themselves on the radar. That’s why it’s especially nice when people get in touch with me to let me know about them! Kim Matthews is one of those ultra runners, based in Vietnam and she’s just become the first overseas runner to take out the Asia Trail Master series.
I spoke to Kim to grab a little more understanding about her running background, being a vegan and why she’s racing over in Asia right now.
Tell us a little more about your running background and history?
In 2008 my husband (Danny) and I, on a whim, signed up for our first 5 km race at the Melbourne Marathon running event. Neither of us were athletes and had never covered this distance before. We surprised ourselves by running the entire way, and experienced the famous runner’s high after finishing with a lap of the MCG. We knew straight away we had found an activity we were passionate about, so we entered several more races around the city. We enjoyed the 8-10 km distance, and felt no desire to try anything longer, so we stayed with this for some time before increasing the distance.
It wasn’t until 2012 that I completed my first half marathon, and then 2014 my first marathon at the City to Surf in Perth. By this stage we were living in Fremantle and I was running about 4 days per week. On the other days I was cycling, kickboxing and going to the gym, plus competing in triathlons in the summer. All-round fitness was my main priority at this stage, and running was just one subset of this. Once I finished the marathon though, I knew I wanted to find a greater challenge.
What drove you to running ultras and why the move to Asia?
In 2015, after completing the marathon, Danny and I travelled through Central America for six months and running took a back seat. During the long bus rides I listened to running podcasts, several of which discussed ultramarathons. The more I heard about them, and the stories of survival, the more I knew that I wanted to experience one for myself. I did some research online and found a 50 km race in Marysville, Victoria at the end of the year. I started training the day I arrived home, and I had 14 weeks to get myself from zero to ultra. My training progressed perfectly and I had a fantastic run. I was fortunate enough to be the first female over the line.
It was during our Central America holiday that we decided we wanted to live in a different country, to experience a new culture at a deeper level. We didn’t mind where we went, as long as we could find jobs and it was deemed a relatively safe place to live.
Not long after returning to Australia a job offer came up for Danny in Bangkok. He is a chef, and there was a British restaurant looking for a new head chef to commence at the end of 2015. With very little thought we both jumped at the chance to move to Thailand. I had no idea if I could find a job (I am a speech pathologist), where we would live or, most importantly, if I could keep up my running, but that didn’t stop us from packing up our belongings and heading over to Asia.
I was lucky to find a job even before I left Australia, and as soon as I arrived I joined the a local running club, the Bangkok Runners. This is where my running really took off. Without this group I would have been lost. They showed me where to run, where to find running supplies, helped me sign up to races and drove me out to the trails. It didn’t take long before I realised that the trail running scene was huge in Thailand, and that I would have no difficulty finding races to run in. Training wasn’t easy, with Bangkok being pancake-flat and no trails within two hours of the city, plus the relentless heat and humidity was a killer. But I could still run, and that was the main thing.
I signed up for several races within Thailand in 2016, and was surprised to perform well in both road and trail events. In 2017 I discovered the Asia Trail Master series, and started looking abroad. I focused exclusively on ultra marathons, deciding that my love of trails far exceeded my love of road running. I relish being out in nature, with the mountains, the scenery, the views inspiring me to push forward.
There are struggles too, such as getting lost (many times), falling (many times), being chased by wild dogs (nearly every race), being stung by wasps, suffering heat stroke, vomiting and the general low points where I wonder if I will be able to finish. But once I cross that finish line all doubts and negative feelings disappear, and I am on top of the world.
In May 2017 my husband was offered a new job in a hotel in Ho Chi Minh City, which provided better employment prospects than his current position. Again not much deliberating went into this decision, so once again we packed up and this time we headed east to Vietnam. Like Bangkok, Saigon is completely flat with not a trail in sight. Trail running isn’t as established here as it is in Thailand, so there are far fewer events to join. (This helped in my decision to run overseas with the Asia Trail Master series.) While there are many great aspects about living the Asia (the food, the friendly locals, the lax laws, the warm weather, the cheap cost of living, driving a scooter to get around), training for trail races has been one of the most difficult to adapt to.
Can you give us a little more background on the Asia trail master series? How many people compete? Where are the locations?
The Asia Trail Master series is a points-based competition now in its fourth year. There are approximately 35 races held in 16 countries. Each race allows runners to earn points for finishing the race as well as their performance in the race, so 1st place gets the most amount of points, then 2nd and so on down to the last runner, for male and female. Only the longer races earn points, usually ultra distance, although there are a couple of shorter distance races on offer too. You can enter as many races as like but in end it is your top 5 results that count towards your overall score. The best score at the end of the year wins the title of Asia Trail Master.
I completed 6 races last year, in 5 different countries and won 5 of these events. The distances I ran ranged from 65 km up to 100 km. They were all trail events, passing through incredible scenery such as dense jungles, rocky volcanoes, rice terraces, waterfalls, small villages and working farms, all of them spectacular. Each year the number of participants grows, and it is possible to see a couple of thousand people at one event. This means the competitiveness is increasing dramatically, especially as Asia Trail Master becomes more well-known. It’s been great to attend several events in the series where I see the same faces at each race, and each country has warmly opened their arms and absorbed me into their running community.
You’re a vegan – Do you believe it makes you a better runner?
I did have doubts when I first thought about becoming vegan. Between 2007 and 2014 I made a slow transition to being vegetarian, gradually cutting out various meat products until I realised I wasn’t eating any meat at all. While traveling in 2015, I researched podcasts covering running as a vegetarian. I quickly discovered that there was a huge community of vegan runners, many of them ultra marathoners.
There were vegan athletes performing at the top of their game (for example, Scott Jurek, Rich Roll, Brendan Brazier), and their diet choices weren’t holding them back. I looked into veganism more and more, and it didn’t take me long before I realised that I didn’t want to eat eggs and dairy products any more, mostly due to ethical reasons. I always thought I needed to eat dairy for protein and calcium, but I soon learned that this wasn’t the case. On the day I returned from my holiday I switched to a 100% plant-based diet, and I haven’t looked back.
I started eating vegan and I returned to running after my hiatus at exactly the same time, so it’s impossible to know what sort of impact my diet has had on my running. But I do know that I was never hungry, I could recover well between workouts and had no difficulties finding fuel for my long runs. That first ultra I completed (where I won my first race) was my best performance yet, and it was fuelled entirely on plants.
During long runs or races I typically start out eating gels and dates, plus fresh fruit at aid stations. As the race progresses my desire for sweet foods diminishes, and I switch over to more starchy foods. These include bread (Vegemite sandwiches are a favourite), dry biscuits, boiled potatoes, and energy bars. Often there will be vegan food available at aid stations, such as noodles, soup and sticky rice, which go down a treat. The heat and humidity can play havoc with my stomach, so I have to make sure I have small, frequent bites to keep the nausea at bay. All round I believe I am healthier eating a plant-based diet, which I’m sure has a positive influence on my running.
What are your racing plans for the future?
I have signed up for a few Asia Trail Master races this year already, all of them different to last year’s. My main aim is to explore new locations and to have fun, and if I happen to perform well then that’s an added bonus. I don’t have any destination races in mind, but I know there are countries I would love to run in, such as Hong Kong, Japan, and pretty much anywhere in Europe. I’m not setting out to break any records or to try to achieve a certain number of wins; I’m just doing what makes me happy and I hope I get to do it for many years to come.