Matt Wilkinson’s bounding gait has been a staple of MIAC distance running since he started competing for the Carls in 2017. Wilkinson amassed impressive records along with memorable stories during his time in the Maize and Blue: a 2nd place finish at cross country nationals, a one-shoed All-American performance, a 4:08 in the mile, a few hospital visits and the formation of an Aussie punk band, to name a few. The records and tales Wilkinson leaves in his wake will mark the program for years, but his story is far from over.
“I only started running in 8th grade because all my friends were doing it… Well, also the girl I was interested in was on the team,” began Wilkinson. Wilkinson grew up in Minnetonka, Minnesota, just west of Minneapolis. In 2015, he was your average 13-year-old, anxious about the transition to high school. “My mom was mad at me for playing too many video games, and she said I wouldn’t have any friends if that’s all I did. She told me I either had to stay in the marching band or try out for the cross country team… I really sucked at alto sax so I went with running.”
In retrospect, choosing running turned out to be the right choice; it wasn’t long before Wilkinson discovered his aptitude and excelled in the Minnesota Lakes, one of the most competitive high school conferences in the country. By his senior year, Wilkinson set an impressive 15:31 5k personal record (amounting to roughly three 5-minute miles), yet it wasn’t enough to make him a standout. “A lot of guys run times like that and go to big D1 schools, and nothing really becomes of them. They end up at the back of the pack, the coach doesn’t really care about them, and they get burned out,” Wilkinson said.
When his college decision rolled around, Wilkinson was split between the University of Minnesota and Carleton. But when it came down to it, academics, individual attention and a quick end to the stressful decision process won out: “Carleton is a good school, and I just wanted to know where I was going to end up, so I applied Early Decision,” Wilkninson said.
Head Track and Field Coach Dave Ricks also played a big role: “When Dave talks to you, he cares a lot about you,” said Wilkinson. “He’s like a goofy grandpa. It’s so unpredictable what he’ll care about, a lot of times it has nothing to with running, more just your life. From the first day, he was a huge fan of me and that means a lot, sometimes that’s all you need.”
Wilkinson has had a myriad of impressive races, but his self-proclaimed breakout race came in Boston at the 2019 Division III Indoor Championships.
Wilkinson seeded near the bottom of the field in the biggest race of his life: “I was as nervous as I’ve ever been before a race. I was so nervous, and there were so many people that I was tweaking out. I actually thought about dropping out before it started. I was a wreck.” He, of course, didn’t drop out, and proceeded to run a searing race. With only one shoe.
“About 600 meters in, I remember my shoe starting to bother me. In the middle of the race, it was all I could think about. Near the end, when I was about to kick [sprint towards the finish line] it annoyed me so much I just dropped it off. I completely destroyed my foot, but I was still able to cook.” Wilkinson closed the final 200 meters of the 5,000 meter race in 27 seconds (a 3:36 mile pace), the fastest of his heap and enough for 6th place and a spot on the All-American team.
Wilkinson has now had two indoor track championships canceled (in 2020, he was named the D3 indoor track athlete of the year without a championship race). Yet despite the frustration, Wilkinson is still able to find a silver lining in the pandemic, which has opened up a few extra seasons of eligibility.
Since the pandemic began, Wilkinson has applied to a handful of grad schools to pursue a Master’s degree in Public Health and to compete at the Division I level: University of Washington, Minnesota, North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Michigan are all on the list.
Wilkinson’s ultimate running goal lies in Eugene, Oregon at the hallowed Hayward Field, where the United States Olympic Trials are hosted. “My main goal is to run steeplechase at the Olympic Trials one day,” he said. Wilkinson’s current steeplechase record is about 25 seconds off the qualifying standard, but improvements since he last hit that benchmark place the goal well within reach. “A lot of guys have the potential to do it, but the commitment isn’t there. For me, running is a really important part of my life. It’s really my only healthy habit.
Although I don’t ever want to stop running, the Olympic Trials would be the dream cap on my competitive career.”