Georgia Tech Ph.D. Student Attempts to Qualify for US Olympic Marathon Team
Feb 29, 2020 — Atlanta, GA
Matt McDonald considered quitting running when he came to Georgia Tech in 2015. He wasn’t sure he’d be able to handle the stress of being a graduate student and racing at an Elite level. But that didn't last very long.
“I got sucked back into running pretty quickly,” McDonald told Runner’s World magazine. “I tried to just do it casually, but then I got sick of myself running poorly. I missed being fit.”
McDonald was an Ivy League champion in the 10,000 at Princeton University. While working on his Ph.D. in chemical engineering at Georgia Tech, McDonald started running with the Atlanta Track Club. Not only was he able to keep up his intense academic schedule, but he also started setting new personal records.
In November, McDonald finished the Chicago Marathon in 2:11:10, the fifth-fastest American finisher in the Elite race.
“Before the race, my coach told me, ‘You have nothing to lose here, Matt,’” McDonald said. “The plan was to go out with the group going 65-minute half marathon pace, then see if I could hang on. Around mile 20, we hit a headwind and the pace dropped, and I had to decide whether to stay with the group or move up.
He made that move.
“And I’m so glad I did,” he said.
He’s been able to juggle school and the rigorous training necessary to make it to this Olympic-qualifying pace.
His schedule begins with a 12-mile run at 6:15 a.m. every weekday. Afterward, he heads to Georgia Tech’s campus for meetings, running computer lab simulations, and studying the enzymatic synthesis of antibiotic drugs.
On days of doubled-up training sessions, he might start a lab experiment around 4 p.m., change into his running gear for a 6-mile run, and make it back in time to finish the experiment in the early evening.
“I tried to plan lab days for days that I didn’t have a hard workout, because I’m on my legs all day in the lab,” he said.
This year the Olympic trials are being held in Atlanta, and the timing couldn’t be better for McDonald, who has been training on the course. He says it’s a tough route with hills and 180-degree turns that will favor nimble runners.
Going into the race, he is the ninth-fastest runner in the field — a contender for one of three spots on the Olympic team.
Seeing where he stacks up, McDonald says his goals are shifting from just placing in the top of the pack.
“Originally I was aiming for the top 10,” he said. “But if I’m aiming for top 10, I might as well aim for top three.”