This article originally appeared in the July 2021 issue of UltraRunning.
Panic had set in. It was the middle of the night at the inaugural Zion 100 and the only thing we could see by the light of our headlamps was a vast expanse of slickrock. I was running with a dozen other runners and we were all lost because the markings on this particular section of the course were sorely lacking. You’re not a true ultrarunner until you’ve been so lost that you feel it’s necessary to make a pact with your fellow runners that absolutely, under no circumstances, will anyone resort to cannibalism.
The race director, Matt Gunn, was a friend of mine. We met when he asked if I’d help him plan the first Zion 100. It was his first time directing a race and he wanted everything to go just right. He was distraught after hearing that so many runners got lost that year, and vowed to improve the course marking. The next year, Matt and I spent hours and hours tying reflective ribbons of pink and white onto clothes pins that could be clipped to trees along the trail to guide runners during the race.
Matt put on many more races over the years. During that time, I saw him make a personal connection with hundreds of runners. He had this unique ability to help everyone feel seen and important. As a race director, he created more than just races – he created a community of people who loved the outdoors and challenged themselves to push their limits.
The day I learned that Matt took his life this past October, I was shocked and deeply saddened. I didn’t know he was struggling and at the time, I happened to be facing some struggles myself. It was a reminder of the importance of treating others with kindness and patience, because you never know the inner battles someone might be fighting.
I always admired Matt’s ambition, humility and soft-spoken compassion. He once sent me a message that said, “You’re an inspiration to many to live life to the fullest, and I’m blessed to call you a friend.” I didn’t know how to say it back then, but this is exactly how I’ve always felt about him. I regret that I didn’t return the sentiment and wish I could rewind time to tell him face to face.
I always looked forward to seeing Matt out on the Zion trails each year, and I desperately missed his hug, energy and light at this year’s race. On top of Gooseberry Mesa, I ran past those pink and white ribbons clipped to trees and bushes along the trail. They were some of the same ribbons we made together years earlier.
Those ribbons felt so symbolic to me because they were a reminder of how Matt left his mark in the world. His kindness, compassion and empathy were an example – a path that others could follow – and it got me thinking about how each of us could do the same. Below are five ways that Matt made his mark, and things we can all implement into our daily lives:
- Help people feel seen. Make eye contact and give your undivided attention.
- Make happiness contagious. Sprinkle as much smiling, hugging, laughing and love as possible into each day.
- Encourage others to follow their dreams, even when those dreams are scary. Identify the things you feel passionate about and follow your dreams, too.
- Express gratitude. Beyond saying “thanks” to others, be more conscientious of life’s little gifts that sometimes get taken for granted.
- Go the extra mile. Put your heart into the things you do and exceed expectations.
Even though Matt wasn’t at the Zion 100 race this year, he left a legacy that could be felt throughout. I’m thankful for all the ways my life has been blessed by knowing Matt Gunn.
If you happen to be feeling lost in the dark right now, I hope life sends you some reflective ribbons you can follow to guide you back into the light. Help is available 24/7 through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255. The world needs your spark.