Advertorial: Multiple marathon man Ray Matthews shares his journey and advice after running 75 marathons in 75 days at the age of 75
“The difference between failure and success often lies between our own two ears.”
We’ve probably all read similarly inspirational mottos defining our lives, on leisure centre walls or on Facebook feeds or Pinterest boards, and scoffed a little.
Not many of us know people who’ve actually lived a life that justifies such words, but when they’re the tenet of someone such as Ray Matthews, we should take notice. Matthews, who lives in Maltby near Rotherham with wife Maureen, is a physical phenomenon. He might not look it, at around 5ft 5ins tall and 10 stones, but he has accomplished feats of endurance that defy belief and description.
For his latest challenge a year ago, the Yorkshireman decided to give himself a birthday treat; 75 marathons in 75 days, while he hit the age of 75. He pledged to raise money for a project for nearby Newman School for disabled children, and once he realised that it would coincidentally cost £75,000, the 75 in 75 became a marketer’s dream.
The 75 marathons mainly concentrated around the Yorkshire and Midlands area, particularly Rotherham, with routes devised with the help of running groups in Solihull, Birmingham (with his grandson Adam), Worksop, Sheffield, Barnsley and more. Starting on July 2 – two days after his birthday – the runs were completed with an average of six hours per day, finishing on September 2.
“It was tough at times, but I enjoyed every single marathon of the 75,” Matthews said. “Society says that I shouldn’t do what I’m doing but people have got to get rid of that stigma of what’s normal and what’s natural.”
“The difference between failure and success often lies between our own two ears”
For runs 50 and 51 of the 75 in 75, Matthews decided to travel across the channel to St Quentin, Rotherham’s twin town. He arrived at 2am, but was still up at 9am for the next stage.
“They held a civic reception for me and it was marvellous,” he said. “I set off from the park and got about a quarter of a mile in, turned around, and there were members of their running club joining me as far as the eye could see. I felt like the Pied Piper!”
At times Matthews also ran with children from Newman School, his grandson Adam, and many other well wishers. “The runs lasted longer as they went on as more people grew to know what I was doing,” he explained. “People were stopping me for a chat or a selfie!”
Such was the level of interest in Matthews’ adventures that he brought in an agent, Sean Wallage of MW Entertainments, who has helped greatly with promotion and fundraising. Despite their efforts the mega-marathon challenge remains an unofficial world record; Guinness’ strict criteria, including the provision of needing two independent referees per day, made it logistically impossible.
Instead, Matthews relied on GPS measurements to forward his claims, which actually showed that he ran around 2100 miles in total in the end, rather than the 1965 miles necessary for 75 marathons.
The pain of running was a small factor in his achievements; the bigger picture was what it would give to children in nearby Newman School. His accomplishments have paid for a specially modified trike, a soft rubber play floor, and the brilliant woodland path for the surrounding wildlife – enough for the Rotherham Advertiser to call for a knighthood for their hero. The playground was officially opened in December 2017.
Matthews said: “The fundraising was much harder than the running. Then I got a phone call from a Rotary club, and one man had access to big construction companies. We managed to bring two big companies together to build it.
“It’s a quarter of a mile long and for me it’s the best path in the world, an amazing thing.
“When we finally opened it up, after all the red tape, it was a dream, an amazing morning. I’ve put some bird boxes up, ropes across trees for squirrels, and the next task is to put cameras up so that the children can watch what’s going on from inside the school – nesting and egg laying.
“The kids are now part of Team Ray. If they like you they don’t mess about and tell you how they feel. It’s all so rewarding – I don’t need anything else in life. Disney have found out. They want me to take part in one of their events and I’ve said yes, but with the condition that the kids can be brought over.
“There’ll need to be fundraising to bring parents over and special transport, so logistically it will be a nightmare – but how good could it be?”
Matthews, who has been sponsored by fitness companies including Premier Global NASM, now has his eyes on new endeavours. As well as supporting the children from Newman School, the heroic father of two and grandfather of three is also supporting an initiative to tackle childhood obesity, and is an ambassador for Age UK.
Matthews on boxing
Matthews puts his fitness down to a number of factors at an early age. School was two miles away and he returned home for dinner before going back for afternoon lessons, so that was eight miles of distance he had to cover by foot without even trying.
But the real background to his ability was not created on the road, but in the ring. Matthews has always been a boxing fan, and was even sent messages after his endurance feats by Barry McGuigan and a namesake from the US – multi-weight world champion and Olympic gold medallist Sugar Ray Leonard.
That was a fantastic recognition of both his achievements and a love of pugilism that started at the age of 10, when a six-stone Matthews decided to take up boxing as the antidote to bullying over his ginger hair.
“Boxing fed me with what I needed for the rest of my life,” he said. “It gave me the ability to self motivate myself. I know when I need to make things happen. I know what’s going on in my life, and I can deal with it. This is a massive attribute for anyone on their own for hundreds of hours a week.
“I’ve enjoyed it because I’ve been able to control what I do. I would have loved to have done some of these things earlier – who knows what I’d have been able to achieve? But nobody ran hundreds of miles in those days.
“Boxing provides you with massive discipline. People often tell me that they get to a certain point and they’re done. Most people probably stop at the same points to tie shoelaces or go to the toilet behind a tree; but there are ways of learning to get beyond those points by mentally controlling yourself and not listening to your body telling you to stop.”
Matthews’ tips for marathon success
The fields surrounding Matthews’ home are worn thin in strips, where he and other runners have cut a swathe in all weather. Various routes go through streams and villages, and a couple of miles away lies the splendid Roche Abbey, a Cistercian monastery dating back to the 12th Century.
Clearly the views are wonderful – but views don’t get you running 75 marathons, or even one.
Matthews said: “You have got to be passionate about it: don’t do it because you think it should be done, or because your mates are doing it. That passion and desire gives you a head start.
“Then it depends on your level of fitness, knowing what you’re capable of doing, and whether you need nutritional advice. Everyone’s different.
“You can work backwards to find out what you need, because you need at least 14 weeks to prepare for a marathon even if you run already. You need to be up to up to 22 miles three weeks before that.
“You can split things up as well; if I know I’ve got to run 30 miles in a day I’ll often do 15 in the morning and plan 15 later on, because I know that once I’m out there I might extend that to 18 or 20. Most people don’t have the time to do it like this, but because I’m retired I can.
“Look at running clubs in the area and what they offer; not everyone at these clubs are fantastic runners and they all started once, so they’re usually very helpful. There are usually several different groups within the clubs, like couch to 5km and parkruns. These are great because you can run against other people, but also yourself. I don’t really consider myself an athlete and I’ve never won a race.”
Matthews’ tips for running
Matthews had previously completed a 36-hour, 150-mile run at the age of 71, a 100km run across the sand dunes of the Sahara, and numerous other exploits demanding resolve and stamina.
He has a number of running techniques, married to knowledge of his own body, that may surprise people:
“I don’t stretch and my strides are very small, to conserve energy. Also, my hamstrings are like piano wires and when I’m running I guess I’m constantly in pain, but I know what it is and I know that nothing’s going to happen,” he said.
“When I was doing the big events, I was always aware of any niggles, but the key was to deal with them before they became a real problem. If you trip, try to roll; don’t just stop, because injuries are more likely when you stop violently. Look at Mo Farah; he went over (in the Olympic Games) and rolled and was almost back on his feet again. That would have taken little out of him.”
He added: “I have a route that is 37 miles long end to end where you don’t cross a main road. Fell running is a great way to boost strength because you’re having to work on your reactions and keep your ankles correcting themselves on the uneven ground.
“In that way, you don’t get injuries when you’re on the road, while those who have only run on roads don’t have as much strength. This disruptive training is how you get to be at your fittest.”
Matthews’ tips for nutrition
One might expect that an ultra-endurance runner has to look after their diet carefully, but that doesn’t really seem to apply in Matthews’ case.
“The 150-mile event was built around Rowbotham’s Round Rotherham. I decided to run 50 miles prior to it, arrive and run the 50-mile ‘event’, and then run another 50 after the event had finished,” he said.
“Prior to the event I had people meeting me with food and drink because I ran through the night to arrive at the ‘start line’ at 6am. Then during the event there were checkpoints for food and drink, and then the last 50 I was on my own again.
“I had five ‘pit stops’, and the one at 120 miles was two whacking big lamb chops with mint sauce and new potatoes. That was awesome. I came down into the village and could smell them.
“I gulped one down and it was heaven. I knew I’d need fat because it’s very difficult, even with modern technology, to get the amount of calories that you need to service the energy lost.
“I can lose up to a stone running over 100 miles so then I was in need of fat on my bones. I ran for the next seven miles with a lamb bone in my mouth sucking on it, it was fantastic.
“I make sure I have a cooked meal of meat and veg every day, and that’s always worked for me. When I’m running long distances you need to be nibbling all the time, and nuts and raisins are exceptionally good.
“But I also believe that your body needs what it normally has, and all I know is that it has dealt with what I’ve chucked in it for 76 years. So, I can eat a five-course dinner while I’m out running, and not suffer with cramp. I must be getting what I need into my system.
“The 75 marathons were slightly different. I had a scientist on board who worked out I needed 6000 calories a day through a balanced mix of protein and carbs.
“My breakfast was 2000 calories, in four Weetabix mixed with a concentrated mix of full-fat cream. By the time that was down me I went out feeling bloated, but it lasted.
“Every day I had at least four bread and blackcurrant jam sandwiches, and this got quite a lot of mentions on Facebook. That was my magic formula.”