Sportspeople can pivot too – the story of a rugby player turned ultra-distance runner

Matt Healy signals success at the Signal Hill finish as dusk falls following his 13 Peaks Challenge attempt. Photo: Wild Air Sports
Matt Healy signals success at the Signal Hill finish as dusk falls following his 13 Peaks Challenge attempt. Photo: Wild Air Sports

By Stephen Granger

Two years ago, a re-wired former South African provincial rugby player signalled his arrival on the ultra-trail scene with a convincing win in the 50km Bastille Day Trail Run. Last weekend, Matt Healy reminded the local trail running world of his ability in the longer format of the sport with a stunning 14 hr 12 min solo run in Cape Town’s popular 13 Peak Challenge.

The former Sharks academy rugby scrum-half recognised several years ago that his sporting future lay in distance running rather than rugby. The 26-year-old shed 15kg, moved to the Cape and began making waves in trail-running circles. Apart from his Bastille Day success, Healy excelled at the Addo Elephant Ultra-trail in the Eastern Cape, winning the Addo 76km race last year, before a record-breaking win at the Addo 100 miler in March.

Healy has looked up to South Africa ultra-distance runner Ryan Sandes as a role model in the sport and it was a matter of time before he took on the Sandes-designed 13 Peaks Challenge, which involves completing a 100km circuit, starting and finishing at Signal Hill and summiting thirteen iconic peaks within Table Mountain National Park along the way.

Ryan Sandes enjoying world class trails on Table Mountain. Sandes designed the 13 Peaks Challenge. Photo: Craig Kolesky / Red Bull Content

And in his second attempt at the testing circuit, Healy has given notice that he will be a force to be reckoned with on the long-distance trails on the African continent and abroad, posting only the second ever sub-15 hour time for the circuit and just over half an hour outside the record, held by Sandes, the one person not surprised at Healy’s success.

“I’m really, really impressed with Matt’s run,” said Sandes from Chamonix where he is preparing for next week’s Ultra-trail Mont Blanc 100 miler. “But to be honest, I expected him to run well. He’s very talented and it was cool to see how much time and effort he put into planning the 13 Peaks route.

Matt Healy approaching Suther Peak on the Hout Bay dunes. Photo: Wild Air Sports

“He really has done his homework and is super-professional in the way he goes about things. Matt’s got a really bright future. And I’m looking forward to when I can give him the ‘Impossible’ 13 Peaks badge (awarded to those completing 13 Peaks in under 14 hours), which I’m sure will be sooner rather than later.”

A combination of thorough preparation, perfect weather conditions and Healy’s natural talent and mental strength combined to spell success for Healy, who surpassed his target time by a considerable margin.

Matt Healy’s ground crew provide “running repairs” during his 13 Peaks Challenge attempt. Photo: Wild Air Sports

“It was a really good day. I think I surprised myself and I’m really chuffed at how it turned out,” said Healy shortly after tagging the beacon on Signal Hill at the end of his run. “I’d planned to run under 15 hours and everything went smoothly – I never had any issues.

“I rolled the dice and gambled with my energy levels. When I felt good, I went for it rather than holding back for potential difficult times ahead. When I hit tough sections, I took it them in small bites – just focusing on running five minutes at a time.

Matt Healy runs the gravel roads of the Silvermine Nature Reserve outside of Cape Town during his 13 Peaks Challenge attempt. Photo: Wild Air Sports

“There was so much support along the way with friends and family out to give me encouragement,” Healy continued. “It was a great gathering of my community and that really lifted me.”

Might Healy secretly have been aiming at going sub-14 hours or at Sandes’ record? “Absolutely not. I never even dreamt of going sub-14 hours, let along for Ryan’s record (13hr41min). This was just my second attempt after I ran 15:32 last October.

“Ryan was incredibly helpful then – he gave me a lot of advice on how to plan and run it,” Healy added. “I learnt a lot and this time I did most of the preparation on my own.  There were many things to consider.

The end is in sight – back on Tafelberg Road after the descent from Devils Peak.

“I realised that I could save substantial time by choosing routes carefully (for example, Healy used the India Venster ascent of Table Mountain rather than Platteklip Gorge).  Then my decision to swap to road shoes for the road section between Suther and Chapman’s Peaks really made a difference. And it was important to choose my starting time (04h30) to avoid running on frozen boardwalks on the top of Table Mountain.

“I figured I could knock off 33 minutes from my first time and run faster than 15 hours through better preparation. So, since my win at Addo in March, I’ve worked week on week with my coach (the Run Project’s James Montgomery) with specific training to tackle the 13 Peaks.

Swapping to flats for the Chapmans’s Peak road section of the 13 Peaks Challenge attempt. Photo: Wild Air Sports

“I had a few tough sections, but managed to push through. I struggled up to Noordhoek Peak but then made up time on the out and back section to Muizenberg Peak.  That section is much more runnable, which suits my strengths.  Much of 13 Peaks is on technical single-track, which is well outside my comfort zone!

“Climbing Constantiaberg was also a struggle and I was probably at my worst at Constantia Nek. Ryan had previously told me that your legs will feel like you’ve run 100km by the time you reach the Nek and he was right. But this time I arranged for a mate to run with me from the Nek up to Klaasenskop and that really helped.”

But there were rewards aplenty for Healy along some of the finest trails the sport has to offer. “Although I love to run in the dark, the sunrise from Grootkop on the Back Table was very special,” Healy admitted. “It was a perfect morning and I was entirely alone as the sun rose. And the sunset when I was descending from Devil’s Peak with Armand (du Plessis – an experience Cape Town ultra-runner) was another special moment.

Runner-up Daniel Claasen (righ) congratulates Matt Healy on his win in the 2019 Bastille Day 50km trail run in Franschoek, South Africa. Photo: Stephen Granger

What would it take to knock off another 33 minutes and break Sandes’ record? “It would take at least 24 months for me to even get my mind around that!” Healy confessed. “To improve that much on today’s run, when everything went perfectly, is hard to imagine. To run that time over this course is just incredible. Ryan is next level.”

Healy’s future in the sport looks bright. He has a qualification in marketing and management and that is reflected in his professional approach.  He has limited himself to no more than three target races in any one year. “Ultra-trail Cape Town 100km at the end of the year will be my last one after Addo and the 13 Peaks,” concluded Healy.  “And it is my dream to one day race some of the top 100 mile races overseas, like Ultra-trail Mont Blanc and the Western States 100.”

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