When you meet Matt Sims, the first word that comes to mind to describe him is “cool”. He’s a tall, lanky, buzz cut guy with an easy smile. When you ask him a question, he gives it his full attention and when he talks with you, you feel he cares about you and what you have to say. His love for his community and for trail running is also evident. Sims pioneered trail racing in Chattanooga, an area that now boasts the country’s best trail series. Sims created three memorable events out of his love for the sport and his community.
“I started trail running around 1998 in Prentice Cooper Wildlife Management Area to get prepared for a 50k and I was astonished at how accessible and under-utilized the trails were. I rarely saw a soul. I’ve always enjoyed introducing people to things I enjoy, and if I feel like running or climbing or whatever can change and enrich my life, then it seems it could do the same for someone who needs it potentially as much, or more, than I do. So I decided to put on a race to showcase the trails, and I started with the River Gorge Race (see the March RootsRated article on the event) since it was smaller and more contained. The StumpJump came later that year once I learned the basics of being a race director.”
Now 13-years old, StumpJump has become a premier trail running Chattanooga event. Depending on the year, the StumpJump can sometimes be the 3rd or 4th largest 50k in the country. The race hosts upwards of 800 runners (600 for the 50k, 300 for the 11 mile), and draws a huge crowd with families, outdoor vendors, community volunteers, and certainly local, out-of-state, and foreign runners... quite something for an event that takes place on 27 miles of single track trail.
For Sims, who is essentially a grassroots kind of person, its growth is a mixed blessing. He turned over the race directing after a few years, but he still runs it on occasion and comes out to welcome runners at the start and helps them celebrate as they cross the finish line. In response to the event’s growth and success, Sims says, “I think it’s awesome. I love the fact that hundreds of people now do these races. I am certainly not one that endorses all the fanfare, but the participation level is great. For many people the lure of great swag and helicopters taking photos is as strong as running the event itself and it certainly makes for a memorable experience.”
In 2010, Sims wrote a training guide for people trying to transition to the 50k. Like the StumpJump, the guide has become a classic. The impetus for the piece came from Sims' awareness that for the first few years of the race, the participants were mostly well-known, mostly Southern, out of towners. “The “how to train” article came out of the desire to ramp up the local participation to make the path easier and more understandable. We all need a road map on certain aspects of life, whether we are aware of it or not. This was just an attempt to make it digestible and accessible,” says Sims.
To follow up the StumpJump, Sims is working on the Upchuck 50k , which grew out of a desire for simplicity and exploration. The event began as a fun run in 2007 and quickly became a must-attend event. A school bus full of runners are driven to the start where they make their way from one end of the Cumberland Trail to the other end, with only four road crossings and one official aid station along the way. The race is remote and incredibly beautiful. White blazes guide the runners, and hamburgers and beer await them at the end. Its a race about friends and community set on beautiful, challenging and diverse trails and celebrating the grassroots simplicity and exploration of ultrarunning.
If Sims has his way, the UpChuck 50k will never grow beyond one bus load of people. When asked about what draws him to trail running, he says, “You need very little to actually participate in the sport. But the complicated aspect of it is also great: nutrition, training to avoid injury, acquiring speed or endurance, etc. I think like most sports, the more you know, the more complex it becomes and the love for the sport grows with the complexity. I love the social aspect of racing and competition and the solitude of training. But what I love most is exploration, seeing what’s around the next corner, getting away from the safety of home and seeing how far I can go. Running allows me to do this differently than any other medium. With hiking you can’t explore enough, quickly enough, and biking involves tools and dependency on gear and equipment.”