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The Surprising Saga of Steeplechaser Kimber Mattox
By Steve Ritchie
June 23, 2015

Kimber Mattox

EUGENE - At first glance the running resume of Kimber Mattox looks fairly typical for an elite-level track athlete.

Mattox was a high school state cross country champion for Bend High School. She was the runner-up in the steeplechase at the Division 3 nationals for Willamette University. She is a three-time qualifier for the U.S. Outdoor Championships - and will toe the line at Hayward Field on Thursday evening in the steeplechase semifinals.

But Mattox's athletic journey has been curious in many ways.

In high school Mattox focused on soccer and basketball, but found time to mix in a little cross country her freshman and sophomore years.

" I ran probably just a few (cross country) meets each season, including the conference meet each year and a couple others," Mattox said. "I never missed soccer games, so I would only go to meets that didn't interfere with soccer."

In 2004, her sophomore season, Mattox played midfield for Bend in a playoff game on a Friday, logging 90 minutes of playing time. The next day she competed in the state cross country meet for the first time in a race loaded with state champions and future Division 1 runners, including Claire Michel, Casey Masterson and Annaliese Chapa. The pace was fast from the start, and Mattox pulled away from her competition mid-race for a convincing 29-second win in 18:19.

"I don't really know how I pulled off the win, I think I was lucky that somehow it was just a good day for me . . . maybe the adrenaline from the (soccer playoff match) the night before carried over. And like most anyone who played sports as a kid remembers, we were so used to playing multiple games in a weekend or even in a day that it was just sort of what you did.

"I was lucky to have really supportive and flexible coaches and teammates, so most of my fitness came from soccer practice and games, but my cross country coach and my dad would do little workouts with me 1-2 times a week in the morning or after soccer practice. I worked hard in the summers to build fitness, primarily focused on getting ready for soccer."

Kimber Mattox

If you guessed that Mattox was so pumped from winning state championship in cross country she dropped soccer to focus on running, you would be wrong. In fact, it was just the opposite; Mattox stayed with soccer and never ran another cross country race in high school.

Even more surprising is that she never ran a single track race in high school, choosing instead to be on a competitive culinary team that competed for - and won - championships in the spring.

"I considered that to be my spring sport," Mattox said.

Mattox went to Cornell for her first year of college, but transferred to Willamette for her sophomore year. She started out playing soccer at Willamette, but decided to give track a go, too, since college seemed like a time to try new things.

"I met with one of the coaches at Willamette, and said, 'I don't know if I can contribute to the team, but I would like to try.' From there I grew into the sport a little more."

At Willamette, Mattox ran everything from the 800 to the 5000, but had the most success in steeplechase, setting the school record of 10:23.34 in 2011 and placing second in the national championship meet that year.

"I had a great experience at Willamette," Mattox said. "Matt McGuirk and the other coaches there had a really positive influence on me . . . the great thing about it was there was no pressure, no expectations for me. It was an opportunity to compete and get better every season. I learned so many life lessons that have really helped shape me."

Kimber Mattox - Warrior Dash World Championships

After earning her bachelor's degree in exercise science, Mattox still had one year of collegiate eligibility left. She decided to enter a graduate program at the University of Oregon, and compete in track for the Ducks. Though she was injured through the fall and winter, Mattox was able to run outdoors in the spring. She placed second in the Pac-12 championships and qualified for the NCAA championships, where she placed ninth in the steeplechase. Her best time of 10:06.58 at Oregon ranks fourth on the all-time UO list.

Following her one season at Oregon, Mattox became a volunteer assistant coach with the Ducks. With her master's degree in hand, she also began teaching Human Physiology courses at UO, and is now enjoying a busy schedule of teaching college courses, helping to coach some of the top collegiate distance runners in the country, and continuing her running career.

Also in the past year, Mattox found two new types of competition to try - Warrior Dash and mountain running - and won 2014 world championships in both disciplines.

Warrior Dash is a distance race with a variety of challenging obstacles to maneuver through. Like her state cross country race a decade ago, Mattox had immediate success, winning the race and a $30,000 first place prize.

 "A friend encouraged me to try the Warrior Dash races just for fun. We really had no idea what to expect when we got to the race and I was completely intimidated when we jogged the course the day before. But, luckily for me, the races involved a lot of hilly running and obstacles that were challenging but not too technical.

"There were some incredible women out there who are really strong and skilled athletes. There were also some talented runners who were chasing me down. Maybe my multi-sport background came in handy, but I think a race like that comes down to who things are clicking for that day."

In Mattox's first trail race, the Xterra Trail Nationals, she placed second. With that limited experience, she entered the Xterra Trail Run World Championships in Hawaii. Despite falling and sliding off the steep trail at one point in the race, Mattox claimed the victory.

"I again didn't know quite what to expect," Mattox said. "During the race, I tried to go out conservative and just worked my way up. There were some incredibly hilly climbs, and I spent a lot of time on my butt falling down hills. But I kept reminding myself I was in Hawaii and that no matter how hard or painful it was, there was no place I'd rather be. This race and the Warrior Dash World Championship were definitely the hardest races I've ever done."

Mattox runs for Team Run Eugene, and is coached by 2008 Olympian Ian Dobson. Her training partners include former NCAA steeplechase champion and 2012 Olympian Bridget Franek, former UO All-American Alexi Pappas, 2:38 marathoner Brett Ely, and 4:15 1500 runner Jordyn Smith.

"Training has been going really. I have great training partners and a great coach so it makes training fun. You've got people who can push you and I can in turn push them."

Kimber Mattox - Warrior Dash World Championships

Dobson, who has coached Mattox since August 2013, is impressed by how she finds the right balance in all her activities.

"I'm most impressed by how she's able to make a number of strong interests and ambitions work well together," Dobson said. "I think she's able to do that by bringing a pretty high level of intensity to whatever she's doing at the moment; for example, when she shows up to the track for a workout, she's 100% there, and isn't talking about the class she has to teach in an hour.  Likewise, when she shows up to class, I'm sure none of the students know that she was just working out ."

Dobson said that Mattox, who has a steeple PR of 9:51.29, is ready to run faster on the track.

"I think Kimber has a very good chance of making the final at nationals.  She's a great racer and she's fit and healthy.  The finals are going to be pretty hot and I think that will be good for her.  I'm expecting her to put herself right in the middle of the field and focus on beating as many people as she can . . . I think right now she's capable of running substantially faster than she has before."

Mattox agrees with her coach.

"To make it to the (steeplechase) final, I'll probably have to run in the low 9:40s. I'm going to put myself in it and if I feel good on that day, I know I can compete with those girls."

Regardless of what happens in her race(s) at nationals, Mattox is looking at a busy summer of competition. She will continue racing on the track - "if it makes sense" - but is also pointing toward the US Mountain Running Championships in Bend on July 25.


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