Get to Know Matt Baxter!

1) Welcome to the team! You’re in New Zealand right now, seeing family and friends and building some base for the 2019 season. What’s the weather like and how’s the training there this time of year?

Firstly, thank you all for the warm welcome. I can’t wait to get back to Flagstaff and start training with my new teammates. Well, that isn’t entirely true. New Zealand weather is beautiful this time of the year. Maybe I will give Flag a bit of time to let that snow melt before I make my way back.

I am currently in my home town of New Plymouth where, during summer, we get a lot of sunshine with periods of rain to keep the place looking green. I never realized how much I missed the rain until I came back home. And the ocean. Don’t get me started on the ocean. With sunrise at 6am and sunset at 9pm, there is enough time in the day to get in a double before going to the beach for a swim after dinner. This place is quite literally paradise. I think I just convinced myself into another week here. Sorry Coach.

New Plymouth has an abundance of parks and trails that lace the city. Winding through dense bush and covered by century-old trees, it feels that the world is only as big as the next corner. I love it. Running is never a chore here. I have spent years running around these trails and their allure only grows as I get older.

I am happy to report that Flagstaff and New Plymouth do complement each other in their shared beauty. With mountains gracing both of their landscapes, looking up at the San Francisco peaks reminds me of my own Mt Taranaki. When I run the Arizona Trail from Aspen Corner, I could swear I am back in Pukekura Park. There is an undeniable comfort to that. Okay, I will come back to Flag soon.

2) You made the choice to stay in Flagstaff as you begin your professional career. What is it about the town that made you want to stay?

I have lived in Flagstaff for three years now and I have truly come to see it as a home away from home. Flagstaff has, much like a high school romance, captured a special place in my heart. I don’t quite go weak at the knees when I think of her, but I get pretty darn close.

This small mountain town has a supportive and outgoing community that has a shared love for running. I feel safe here in the sense that I can be who I want to be. I want to be a great runner and I know the Flagstaff community will support that. Being away from the place that I have always and will always call home, is difficult. Where I decided to base myself had to reflect a need for an environment that may not be the same as New Zealand, but where there are aspects that look, smell, sound, and taste the same. I believe that I have found that in Flagstaff. I hope that Flagstaff has too, found an ounce of familiarity within myself.

3) You had arguably one of the most successful careers in the history of Northern Arizona University–winning three National Team Titles and securing five first-team All American honors, including a runner-up finish at the 2017 NCAA Cross Country Championships. Has it sunk in yet that you will go down as a legend at NAU?

There have been incredible athletes and coaches that have passed through NAU and paved the way for all of us athletes that follow in their footsteps. I am happy that I left NAU while the program is in a great place. I believed that it was important to do my part in leaving NAU in a better place than it was when I first got there in 2016. I am confident, in reflection, that I did that in one way or another. That is not attributable to National Team Titles or runner-up finishes, but to being a good teammate and helping create a culture that valued every team member. Trophies sit on shelves for others to enjoy while a healthy team culture enables the production of quality athletes for years to come and contributes to the longevity of the program.

I see myself less so as a ‘legend’ and more so as being a part of a legendary team during a legendary time in the program’s history. I would not have had the success I did at NAU without a lot of legends around me. I am proud of my performances and the efforts that I gave during my time at NAU, but I am just as proud of my teammates. I enjoyed their successes as much as I did my own.
I am looking forward to cheering on NAU as they continue to strive for more National Team Titles in the future. Go Jacks!

4) You had an incredible team environment at NAU. Was a team culture something you were looking for at the professional level as well?

I was incredibly lucky to be a part of the NAU team when I was. These boys work hard, play hard, and care for one another as you would your own brother. I must say that such a culture was not spontaneously created out of thin air. It was worked on every day, at every practice, through every interaction with one another. Under such a system success wasn’t just achievable, it was inevitable.

After college I was looking for a team culture at the professional level. In what capacity that would exist, I did not know. Taking the step from college to professional running requires a conscious effort to surround yourself with people who are ‘on board’ with what you seek to achieve. I have big goals going into this next stage of my life and having a culture that not only supports success, but like a sheep in heat will breed it, is vital. After doing every necessary piece of research into HOKA NAZ Elite and through extensive conversations with Coach Ben, I knew that this would be a perfect transition for me.

5) With the World Cross Country Championships in March and the World Track and Field Championships in September, you have two chances to represent New Zealand at the very highest level. Are those two meets on your radar for 2019?

2019 is going to be a big year and such a year requires goals that align with its bigness. I have had World Cross Country as a goal of mine since I was in high school. Back then I couldn’t get close to the qualifying standards that were set in place. However, that is a different story now. I have the necessary qualifying time under my belt. It has been 8 years since I last wore a New Zealand singlet and I am excited about the possibility of breaking that drought at World Cross.

The World Track and Field Championships is one of those pinnacle meets that many a runner dreams of one day being able to qualify for. The time standards set forth are tough and the best in the world will all be fighting for a spot on the start line. I am excited to face the challenge that qualifying for these Championships requires. I know that my new HOKA NAZ Elite teammates share similar goals and that we will help push each other toward these time standards.

6) Coming out of college you already have some big PRs on the track (13:31 for 5,000 and 28:10 for 10,000). What are some of the things you’ll be able to do at the professional level that you believe will lead to even faster times in the future?

I am very grateful that I was able to build a strong base at NAU under the guidance of Coach Michael Smith. There were certain themes to everything we did. I came to understand his methods as revolving around three key principles. To be a successful athlete you need a healthy body, a healthy mind, and healthy relationships. When I look at how I can further improve myself as an athlete I will have those underlying principles in the back of my mind.

I have a huge amount of respect for all those college athletes, who, day-to-day juggle school work with their athletic commitments. Now that I am no longer in that boat, I can put more of an emphasis on recovery. This can be present through resting between hard sessions, taking the time to prepare food that will aid the recovery process, and doing certain types of active recovery where applicable.

Working closely with HYPO2 in their weight room is another area where I believe there are opportunities for improvements in performance. There are certain undeveloped parts of my body that I am looking forward to strengthening. When every second counts, minor imbalances and weaknesses can be the difference between hitting a time standard and watching the Championships from home.

7) Give us one thing that scares you about professional running?

The great thing about competing at college is that there is quality competition and there is still a light and fun aspect to the sport. If there were to be something that would scare me about making the transition to professional running it would be losing that boyish charm, so to speak. When a sport becomes a job, it seems that it would be easy to lose touch with the enjoyment that brought me here in the first place.

I will ensure that I work hard at keeping this next stage of my running career as light and as playful as it was when I was in college and even high school. I have dreamed of being in this position for a long time and I will be damned if I don’t enjoy myself.

8) Give us one thing you’re really excited about.

Being a professional athlete for a group with the platform that HOKA NAZ Elite has, comes with it a sense of responsibility to make a positive contribution to this sport. That is what excites me the most. Being able to touch hearts with each step and inspire the next generation coming through. Running is too often viewed as a selfish act, even though there is an abundance of opportunities for selfless deeds. I am excited about making my mark in this sport and being a positive ambassador for future athletes.

9) What’s one thing you want to work on in 2019?

There are a lot of things I can be doing to help prevent injuries and keep my body in good working order. Focusing on prehab and putting an adequate amount of time into this important aspect of my training is something I will be working on in 2019. This can help with making gains in my performance through aiding the longevity of my seasons and ultimately my career. I owe it to myself to put the time and effort into this and I owe it to everyone who continues to support me.

10) Finally- for all those Matt Baxter fans out there who’ve enjoyed following your career at NAU, what can they expect to see from you in terms of sharing your professional running journey with them?

As I mentioned earlier, one thing that concerns me about making this transition to professional running is losing the fun and playful aspect of our sport. For those who follow my journey into this new unknown, I will bring to the plate an entertaining side to our sport. I will speak, and I will write, with honesty, passion, and purpose. As I tell the stories of the present, I will also take the time to dabble into the past and give context to where this fire was first lit. It is only right that I pay homage to my past self who worked so hard to get to where I am today. Thankfully I love writing, so putting pen to paper is as second nature to me as putting one leg in front of the other.

I am looking forward to us embarking on this journey together. We have a shared passion for running which joins us more so than you may think. Let’s have fun and run fast. It would be a waste to do anything else.

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