After blacking out with 4 miles to go in his first marathon, Matt Llano didn't think he would make it.
"I thought I was going to pass out on the course," the 26-year-old Broadneck graduate said. "It was unlike anything I've ever experienced in a race before."
Llano did finish, placing 24th in the Chicago Marathon last Sunday with a time of 2 hours, 17 minutes, 43 seconds. It was an impressive debut marathon for the Annapolis native — and still not even the bravest thing he had accomplished in the past year.
In December, after a long personal struggle with his sexuality, Llano came out as gay.
"It was obviously really emotional," he said. "It was a difficult thing to do."
Llano always has been certain of one thing: He wanted to run. After graduating from Broadneck in 2006 following an All-Metro senior season in cross country, he attended Richmond, where he was an All-American in the sport. He currently races for Northern Arizona Elite, a professional distance-running team based in Flagstaff, Ariz.
In January, Llano finished fifth in the USA Half Marathon Championships with a time of 1:01:47, among the 20 fastest all time by a U.S. runner. Before his marathon debut in Chicago, Llano set a goal of finishing in under 2 hours, 10 minutes, which would have been among the best-ever American debuts in a marathon. Ryan Hall holds the American record for a debut with a time of 2:08:24.
"Running under 2 hours and 10 minutes is no easy feat, but based on what I ran in the half-marathon, we thought it was something I was capable of," Llano said, "and I still think it's something I'm capable of."
That's partly because Llano was on pace to meet his goal halfway through the Chicago Marathon. Then things "just started to unravel," he said. His hips started to bother him, and over the race's final few miles, he started to black out. It wasn't because Llano was out of shape, he feels — he had no soreness after the 26.2 miles. Instead, prerace nutrition might have cost him.
"We really weren't that far off," said Ben Rosario, Llano's head coach with Northern Arizona Elite. "He made it to 20 miles on pace [for 2:10]. It's just a matter of getting a little stronger, and getting more miles under his belt, and getting long, grinding workouts under his belt. We were close; he just hit that wall that everybody talks about, and next time he won't hit it."
Preparation won't be a problem. Northern Arizona Elite meets for 7:30 a.m. practices, where members run and drill. Then Llano moves on to the gym for strength straining or core exercises. In the afternoon, more running.
"He truly believes that he can be the best," Rosario said of Llano. "Matt does every single thing that it takes to be the very best he can be. He does all the little things: he sleeps right, he eats right, and he doesn't leave any stone unturned, which separates him from other runners."
It wasn't until he was in college that Llano realized he was different in another way. In a YouTube video released last month, Llano detailed his growing awareness of his sexual orientation as he became an adult.
"You feel alone," he says in the video. "You feel like you're the only one who's going through this when, in reality, there are so many other people in your same exact situation. I felt like there was something different, but I didn't really know what it was really until I was probably 19."
Llano compared the challenge of coming out to his family and friends to that of training for a race. He didn't tell anyone about his sexuality until his 21st birthday, when he broke the news to his aunt. Llano was comforted by her response: "And?"
It took another four years before he came out on his blog. He didn't know of any openly gay professional runners, but he thought it was time for one.
"We all know there are gay athletes in all sports, but only a few have come out," Rosario said. "The fact that he's willing to come out tells me that he's one of those athletes who doesn't care what other people think. He's out here to do what he wants to do, and he's going to do anything it takes to get there, and I think the best athletes typically have those traits."
Llano concedes that after coming out, the reaction to his announcement wasn't entirely positive. But mostly, he said, "the support has been phenomenal, better than anything I expected."
Now he can focus, again, on running. He plans to rest, recover, then run another marathon in the spring or summer. The U.S. Olympic marathon trials are in February 2016, and his goal is to qualify for Rio 2016.
"Once I was able to [come out], I felt this huge relief," he said. "In running, there's this really exhausting workout regimen that I put myself through on a daily basis, and it all culminates with one race, and once that race is done, it's a relief."