Brewer making a name for himself on Mississippi’s ultramarathon circuit

Published 11:00 am Saturday, December 16, 2023

A few years ago, Matthew Brewer was bitten by the running bug. He grinded through some local weekend 5K and 10K races, even won a couple, but soon came to the realization that those were not for him.

“I had run a few 10Ks and I thought, ‘This isn’t enough,” Brewer said.

Soon, Brewer ran a half-marathon. Then a marathon. It still wasn’t enough, so he went even farther and finally found what he was looking for in the world of ultramarathons and trail races.

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Over the past year, the Warren Central High School senior has competed in seven of the grueling events. On Dec. 2 he took another step forward by winning the Loup Garou Trail Run, a 40-mile race through the woods and swamps of Chico State Park in Ville Platte, Louisiana.

Brewer bested a field of 34 runners with a time of 6 hours, 32 minutes and 31 seconds. His time was 58 minutes ahead of the runner-up.

The way he has taken to the sport and his early success has Brewer thinking big about how far he can take it.

“That was the point where I knew the training has paid off and I can do this. I’m good at this,” he said.

BLAZING A TRAIL
Brewer stumbled upon trail running and ultramarathons during a training session in the Vicksburg National Military Park in May. While Brewer was on the park’s tour road, he saw Peter Kazery making his way up a hill along the side.

Kazery, a 31-year-old who lives in Clinton, is an accomplished runner in Mississippi who has won the Run Thru History 10K a record six times. The two struck up a conversation, and by the end Brewer was following Kazery’s grueling training plan rather than his own.

“I planned to run nine miles and we ended up doing 17 1/2,” Brewer laughed.

Before long, Brewer joined Kazery’s running group and followed them down an even longer road into ultramarathons and trail runs.

Unlike traditional 26.2-mile marathons on road courses, ultramarathons (often called “ultras” for short) and trail runs take competitors on longer courses through rugged terrain. Some follow a loop that runners navigate for a set period of time, while others go from Point A to Point B.

The races vary in length. Brewer’s seven events in 2023 have included runs as short as 14 kilometers (8.7 miles) and as long as 64 (40 miles).

Brewer said covering such long distances is both mentally and physically exhausting.

“The boredom gets bad sometimes. You’re just like, ‘Give me a snake to get my heart rate up,” he said with a laugh. “I’ve done a few 90-mile weeks, which is 23 to 27 hours of training a week.”

Brewer’s chosen sport also offers a contradiction. The running itself provides welcome solitude, but the ultra community is a small, tight-knit group that is very friendly. Since many events span several days, runners often camp at race sites and get to know each other.

“You definitely live with your thoughts, especially on training runs where you don’t see anyone for five or six hours. You’ve got a lot of time to think about things,” he said. “I can’t sit on a deer stand. It’s the funniest thing. The solitude you get is a bonus. But then you get to meet people.”

STEP CAREFULLY
Stepping off road can occasionally mean stepping into danger, as Brewer found out during a training run in Breckenridge, Colorado.

A family vacation to the Rocky Mountains provided an opportunity to train with ultramarathoning legend Ben Hearon, who knows Kazery and agreed to go on a run with Brewer.

While atop one of the peaks, however, a thunderstorm blew up, and it soon turned into a brief but blinding snowstorm at more than 13,000 feet above sea level.

“I’m in a T-shirt and thankfully in his pack he has four raincoats. I just started putting those on,” Brewer said with a laugh. “The storm passed after about 35 minutes and we went to the top of the mountain.”

Bad weather on the trail is only one hidden danger of trail running. Snakes, animals, holes and getting lost are all risk.

“You always have to watch your feet,” Brewer said. “You see something in the trail and ask yourself, ‘Stick or snake? Stick or snake?’”

While races often have assistance available along the course if it’s needed, runners are on their own during training so a bit of basic survival knowledge, situational awareness and preparation go a long way.

Brewer said he packs a running vest that includes navigational aids like a GPS watch and compass; extra water and food; a flashlight or head lamp; and a whistle to blow for help in case he gets injured. Even a broken ankle can be a fatal disaster if the runner is far away from help.

“In the (Military) Park I don’t have to worry about it as much. If I walk in a straight line I’ll hit a park road and within a few minutes there will be somebody driving through,” Brewer said. “I flagged someone down once. I was dehydrated and asked them for water. He was a runner, too, and just said, ‘I’ve got you.’”

Brewer added that during longer training runs he’ll plan ahead to keep his energy up.

“You always have food because you have to replace the calories you burn,” he said. “Sometimes I’ll stash food in coolers along the way.”

Although ultramarathoning can be a risky sport, Brewer’s parents Allison and David Brewer encourage their son to stick with it.

“I said, ‘Hey, why not? Give it a shot and see what you can do.’ As a family we’ve been very supportive because there’s a lot of travel. It’s all your weekends,” Allison Brewer said. “It’s a great thing. I don’t have to worry about where my teenage kid is on a Friday night.”

That’s usually in bed, especially on a race weekend, Matthew joked.

“My friends will be like, ‘Let’s go out’ on Friday. And I have to tell them no, I have to be in bed by 7 p.m. because I’m running 30 miles tomorrow,” he laughed.

A RUNNING PRODIGY?
Most ultra enthusiasts discover the sport in their 20s or 30s, which makes Brewer something of a rarity — and perhaps a prodigy.

He was one of only three runners under 21 at the Loup Garou. At the Boneyard 20-miler in Brookhaven in May, he was the only one under 28 and won the overall title by more than an hour.

He was one of three teenagers in the 32-kilometer Delirium run in Anniston, Alabama, and placed fifth out of 71 runners.

His first event was the Kick Up the Dust 14K run in Clinton in April 2023. He finished fourth out of 32 runners and said it was when he decided to go all-in on ultra events.

“I said this is fun and I want to do longer distances. I found something I could do. I was hooked and wanted to do ultras,” he said.

At the Clear Creek Ultra in Crystal Springs in October, he was one of two runners under the age of 22 and finished second to Kazery. That, Brewer said, was when he began to appreciate the sport’s social aspect.

“It’s how many times can you go around this one-mile loop in 10 hours. I did 45 miles,” Brewer said. “That got me hooked, because everybody was super nice. We had to spend the night because the race was so long, so it gave me a chance to get to know everybody.”

Brewer has two events already on his calendar for 2024 — the Wild Azalea Trail Challenge in Alexandria, La. in January; and the Fondren Urban Ultra in Jackson in April.

The Fondren Urban Ultra is a 12-hour endurance race on a 3.1-mile (5-kilometer) loop through the Fondren neighborhood. The goal is to complete as many loops as possible. Brewer has a nice, round number in mind as a goal.

“If I run 100 kilometers in 12 hours it’ll set three state records for my age. I want to do that,” he said.

In fact, Brewer wants to do a lot more than that. He has his sights set on the challenging Pinhoti 100 next November, a 100-mile race through the mountains of Central Alabama.

“The guys I train with do that every year,” Brewer said.

Beyond that, he’d like to become skilled enough to take a stab at the Western States Ultra in California and the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc in France, considered two of the most difficult and prestigious trail running events in the world.

“I want to do the UTMB one day and race around the world in general,” Brewer said.

Given his age, his passion for the sport, and his goals, world championships and world records might not be too far on the horizon for Brewer.

“I like the fact that I’m 17 and see what I can do at my prime age. I just like running trails and being out in nature. My dream life would be to get paid to go around the world and run races,” Brewer said. “I want to be the youngest person to run a 200-mile race. The world record is 21, and I want to do it at 19.”

About Ernest Bowker

Ernest Bowker is The Vicksburg Post's sports editor. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post's sports staff since 1998, making him one of the longest-tenured reporters in the paper's 140-year history. The New Jersey native is a graduate of LSU. In his career, he has won more than 50 awards from the Mississippi Press Association and Associated Press for his coverage of local sports in Vicksburg.

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