The Daily Tar Heel

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Monday February 6th

Outside Ambitions Curb Matsen's Running Habits

"Life is a big adventure," she said to herself. "I just hope my surgeon doesn't find out."

After she strapped on her shoes, she ran like she was writing the closing lines of her running memoirs.

"There was something about running on that morning," Matsen said. "I'd look into people's houses, and I'd think about people brewing coffee or fixing breakfast for their kids."

That morning was the first time that Matsen had run in more than four years. In that moment, Matsen realized that she had made an irreversible choice in 1997. She would never recapture the original passion for running again, arthritis or no.

While competing at UNC from 1994- 96, Matsen earned All-America honors in her first year.

Running had been one of her passions; but on the same tier, as a Morehead scholar, academics were a high priority.

Now, no longer a runner, Matsen is a medical student at Johns Hopkins Medical School, and she is getting ready to look for a residency.

"The running era of my life has been closed," Matsen said. "Now I'm focused on medical research and med school rather than running."

After finishing at UNC, Matsen stopped running to focus on her other passion -- academics.

Even while she was still a Tar Heel, Matsen's dedication to academics was so intense that she once skipped out on a cross country team trip to Busch Gardens to study in the library.

However, her athletic successes weren't second rate either. Matsen finished 16th in the NCAA championship race in '94.

Because of her tall and thin stature, Matsen developed an animal to symbolize her style of running.

"She was very tall and covered ground with drama," said Joan Nesbit, former UNC runner and Matsen's coach during her tenure as a Tar Heel. "The Blue Heron was like her totem animal, to us and to her."

When she finished 16th in NCAAs, 1,000 yards from the finish line was a signpost reading "Heron's attack."

Matsen was part of the '94 team that led the Tar Heels to their first ACC Championship.

But for Matsen it wasn't about championships or competitions. What really mattered were successes.

"One could always tell she was a different kind of runner," UNC track and field coach Dennis Craddock said. "She was different in that she wasn't so caught up in running to be called a fanatic."

And upon reaching the upper echelon of both academics and athletics, Matsen had to choose between the two.

She once said to Nesbit that the investment in running wouldn't pay off as well as her focus on academics.

But, in retrospect, Matsen was simply following her passions.

"It's something that running did teach me," Matsen said. "When I am passionate about something, then I can't be stopped. It's kind of a feeling I've looked for ever since."

The only thing that could curb her runner habits was her other ambition.

"There's so many things to experience in my life," Matsen said. "Yeah, I can't run anymore, but it was a big adventure when I was doing it."

Matsen had no qualms about ending her running career, especially due to severe arthritis in both her knees.

She still volunteers as a hiking trail guide, taking people up Mt. McKinley in Alaska. But after that painful mid-September morning, her arthritis has kept her from opening her book on running again.

"I feel so fortunate to have that chapter in my life," Matsen said. "Now, that there are other things in my life, I still think to myself and say, 'Hey, that was special.'"

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