Matt Hensley and His Group of Professional Amateurs
Words by Emma Kertesz
Photos by Nicole Bush
On any given Monday or Thursday morning around 7:30am at the Manhattan Middle School track in Boulder, Colorado, you’ll find a group of about 18 runners gathered around Matt Hensley. The warm up is complete, shoes are changed, and the runners await Matt’s instructions. A few last minute strides are done and they’re off. During the workout, Matt is a jack of all trades. He’ll go from pacing the men, to instructing a group of women on where to begin their strides, to jumping in to pace another women’s group through a quick 800 rep. All while checking in on athletes and asking, “What was that?” in reference to their last split.
In accordance with Matt’s philosophy that “everyone’s intention is to help each other,” he gives the go ahead for some of the women who are doing strides to pace the women who are finishing off their workout with a fast mile. A couple women station themselves at each 100 meter mark, and as the ladies completing their fast mile come through, they’re led by a different group of women doing strides every 100 meters. A mix of cheers from teammates, coupled with the smooth “swoosh” of a runner gone by, close your eyes and you may mistake your location for an Olympic track final. The energy is palpable.
The group cools down and then just about every single runner is off to their full time job. There’s educators, tech industry employees, an accountant, full-time moms, a photographer, a trainer, a nurse... Boulder Underground prides themselves on the idea that they’re all more than just runners, and a diverse group of runners at that.
But most of these athletes aren’t necessarily trying to “make it” in professional running: land a big contract and get paid to train, because they’ve already made it in another area of their lives: their careers. But with that said, each runner takes training seriously, and is still striving towards their goals; whether it’s to qualify for the Boston Marathon, the Olympic Trials, or to break into the top 50 of the U.S. women marathoners of all time.
It’s a group made up of “professional amateurs,” runners right in between a high profile professional athlete and a runner who goes out a few times a week to get some miles in. I’d define “professional amateur” as someone who trains seriously enough that they’ll make it to a 7:00 am practice twice a week and 7:30 am on a Saturday morning before work or other commitments to train to bank an OTQ or BQ. They’re doing it for the love of the sport.
A few notable athletes on Boulder Underground are a part of Tracksmith’s amateur program: Shannon Kinney, Akis Medrano, Tansey Lystad, and Evan Schwartz; they embody this idea. There isn’t this inherent pressure to “make it” because they’ve already arrived; working hard alongside like minded people to be the best versions of themselves. This is what makes this group special and encapsulates the culture Matt has cultivated in Boulder Underground. There’s no time barrier to entry to become a member of Boulder Underground. Instead, an understanding that the training is process oriented and that the value system in this group is, according to Matt, “not determined by the end result, but about the process of a person becoming a better person and athlete.”
I was intrigued to join Boulder Underground after a phone conversation with Matt. It was after watching Bria Wetsch cross the Marathon Project finish line in 2:29:50. Recently, I asked Matt about how it felt to watch Bria cross the finish line that day in Chandler, Arizona. “I wasn’t nervous. She had already run a 2:29 marathon in my eyes. She flipped the script and wrote her own story,” he said.
Matt’s philosophy isn’t about smashing workouts, but more of “creating a family atmosphere” where support for each other and striving towards goals go hand in hand. His philosophy of intention with how he treats his athletes extends to workouts. There’s nothing fancy about what Boulder Underground is doing workout wise. Instead, each workout serves a specific purpose; most of which I think of as a slow burn. Controlled reps with the possibility of a slight uptick in pace and an occasional last rep that he’ll let us rip.
Matt has had years to refine his coaching and running philosophies. In high school, his older brothers won Florida state team titles on the track and a state title in 4x800. Watching his brothers win state titles, as he was getting lapped on the track as a 7th grader, stoked a fire for Matt. He wanted to be a part of the success and invested beyond his own training. Matt began “recruiting” basketball and soccer players to join the cross country team so they could build on an already strong foundation of athletes to try to win a state title.
He found success and continued his collegiate running career at the University of Florida. There, he was a scoring member of the Gator’s cross country team. While finding his own success at UF, Matt coached a friend to a personal best in the marathon and knew he wanted to continue coaching.
When Matt moved to Boulder in 2012, his connections were still rooted in Florida. He was coaching remotely and an athlete of his went from a 3:30 marathoner to a 2:50 marathoner after a couple years of consistent training and coaching. His passion for coaching grew. As he was continuing to train in Boulder to reach his own goals, he realized he could start a group to fill a need in Boulder. A group that, “wasn’t too elite, but could help people reach their goals.”
In 2017, Boulder Underground was founded. “We were pretty much all living in friend’s basements, so ‘underground’ just felt right. A lot of groups incorporate ‘mountains’ or ‘altitude’ in their group names, but ‘Boulder Underground’ just fits for us,” Matt said.
Right on the cusp of an Olympic Trials Qualifying time of 2:19:51, he continues to chip away under the tutelage of Steve Jones, known affectionately as, “Jonesy.” He trains alongside Ian Butler; another Tracksmith Amateur, and a 2:09:45 marathoner. His motivation isn’t just stemming from trying to make it to the Trials, but also from his father; Robert Hensley, a 2:16:25 marathoner.
When I asked Matt about his own running goals, relative to his family’s storied athletic careers, he said, “It would be really nice to catch my Dad, that’s my long term goal. Mostly for bragging rights.”
Training for his own goals, while working at Roll Recovery where he was recently promoted to VP of Operations, coaching a sizable group of 24 athletes in Boulder with numerous remote athletes, my question is simply, “How?”
When it comes down to brass tacks for “how,” Matt utilizes Training Peaks to send schedules, and has an excellent relationship with his Roll Recovery team, who have his best interests in mind and are conducive to his goals and theirs as a company. Matt also understands that not every athlete he works with wants “just” a schedule emailed to them. But some actually do. He’s struck a balance between that, although his enthusiasm for his athletes does not change despite the difference in goals.
“I work with a guy named Stephen, whose goal has always been to qualify for Boston. I actually got the call that he did it while I was at a Mexican restaurant, and I was so excited I just immediately said, ‘margs for everybody, on me!’ It was just so exciting for him to finally attain his goal. Whether someone is training to hit an OTQ or to finish their first half marathon, it’s the same level of fire for me,” said Matt.
Matt’s ability to create this culture on Boulder Underground stem from his inspiration from his parents, Jonesy, and Lee Troop. “Their guidance is invaluable. My favorite quote is, ‘When one person teaches, two learn.’” He continues to be a student of the sport, constantly reading and learning from his athletes.
The energy on Boulder Underground is uplifting in more than one way. The emotional support system Matt has created and the way he structures workouts can best be described as melodic.
Whether you’re training for a Boston Qualifier or knocking on the door of a sub 2:30 marathon, “I think athletes perform best when they’re helping each other.” So for this group of Boulder based professional amateurs, they’re right where they need to be.
This feature originally appeared in METER magazine.
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