The Malta Independent 21 February 2019, Thursday

The up-and-coming Gozitan pride - an exclusive interview with local athlete Matthew Xuereb

Raymond Scicluna Saturday, 2 February 2019, 10:00 Last update: about 19 days ago

The spotlight today is on 33-year-old Matthew Xuereb, native of Nadur but resident of Xewkija, a long-distance athlete with increasingly impressive performances. What started as testing the waters four years ago, has now become part of his lifestyle. In fact, he already competed in 135 races both on the track and the road topping the finish list. He has of very recently managed 2 remarkable PB's in the Mdina Spinola in 1.00.51 just 52 seconds away from entering the Hall of Fame of this local oldest race. An encouraging 35.26min for MAAA Qawra League Race 10k mid January.
Matthew is married to Guza, has recently become Dad of Giulia and is a Senior Lecturer at MCAST (Gozo Campus). Graduated in 2008, BA (Hons) Geography with Psychology as a secondary concentration. He obtained his Post Graduate Certificate in Education in 2009 from the University of Malta. He pursueed his studies with the University of Sheffield (UK) where he completed his Masters in Educational Studies: Learning, Teaching and Research and graduated in 2013.

 

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1.  Matthew, you are quite new to the local running community yet the incredible number of races which you participated in, make you an icon with your competitors. Please do enlighten us with your initial personal bests to the current ones. Competing so much in a season means that your training schedule allows you to recover at best and the performances can only vouch all this. Apart from consolidating what was achieved last season, what are your targets for this season? You have now set the standards high. 

First of all, it is an honour to feature in one of your highly interesting articles and am truly greatful for your consideration.

I do participate in many races and that is a fact. In essence, many of my running acquaintances joke with me about this and indicate that I should be awarded for such a feat. Others believe that if I race less, I would deliver more. Striking a balance is essential. I believe that racing frequently is important as in doing so, you go to the starting line full of confidence and this surely plays a good part in the end result. Racing frequently helps me keep motivated, contained and focused. Performances do not seem to have reached the plateau stage yet, so this formula seems to be working since progress has been steady along the past years. I believe that we are all different and it does not mean that the same recipe applies for all. I do my races in accordance with my coach Mario Pisani who kindly enough schedules my traning regime around these races. I seem to recover quite fast by nature as well and this together with proper nutrition and frequent massages helps me to recover as fast as possible to show up on the start line for the next race.

My first race was on the 31st of March 2015 just four weeks after starting training solo. The race was Pembroke 5K and I managed a 23'26''. It was a nice baptism of fire, the route was a rather tasking one which included serveral hills and inclination. I was literally so scared on the starting line looking like a beginner with the racing bib attached to my rainjacket which I ran in on a sunny day! I remember myself being so impressed by the elite runners doing their warm up and the initial strides a few meters from the start line. I did not know what to expect. By the time I crossed the finish line at the end of the race, I was already asking people when the next race was. I was hooked!

The first 10K race I participated in was Mosta 10K on the 31st of May 2015. I still lacked the endurace to participate in a 10K race but managed to finish in 44'36''. I managed a 1:31:57 in my first Half Marathon (Malta HM) on the 28th of February 2016.

After several years of hard training and commitment, I managed to lower my times considerably. They may not be the most amazing times for some athletes but when you manage to achieve something through hard work and determination, no one can take that away form you. My personal bests stand at 16'46'' (5K), 35'26'' (10K) and 1:21:50 (HM). In accordance with my coach, we have set new targets, quite demanding to say the least, but I am a very determined person and will do my best to succeed in this regard. The recent fantastic result of 1:00:51 achieved in the Mdina to Spinola Race 2018 which is very close to the legendary sub 1 hour mark milestone fills me with encouragment to work hard for a sub 35' 10K, a well under sub 1:20 HM and to better my already decent 5K time.

 

2. Matthew, as mentioned above, you competed in over a hundred races mostly in Malta, few units in your homeland Gozo and a couple abroad. The question comes automatically: what are your instant feelings competing in Malta, Gozo and abroad? Do you notice any difference? You have become a seasoned track athlete too and gathered the right experience. What difference do you find racing on a track rather than on the road? It is common knowledge that track is more mentally demanding but the statistics which really hold water are those obtained on the track. An athlete qualifies for worldwide races according to track stats save for the Half and the Marathon rather than the PB's obtained on the road. What are your views in this regard and was it difficult to get used to the track?

Every race has its own story be it in Malta, Gozo or abroad. I take all races seriously and from the total of 135 races I participated in, I always gave my all in each and every race and did all of them so as to say 'race mode'. Having said this, racing abroad is always special as it is kind of an exciting journey which starts at the airport. I have raced three times in Italy, once in the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland and the Czech Republic. Racing abroad at times comes with an added amount of pressure as one would like to fair well but this excitement helps the individual perform at best most of the time. A particular race was the one I did on our honeymoon (yes you heard well). It was a cross-country 5K race in Prague (Šárecký Kros) which I got to know about from a friend of my brother David who is also a runner. Racing on the honeymoon was a gutsy thing to do but I had my wife's blessing and it turned out to be a positive experience as I placed 3rd overall. 

Having several road races under my belt, I was encouraged by my friend Charlton Debono to start participating in track races. Again, setting my foot on the Athletics Track in Marsa at first was a bit like swimming in undiscovered waters. I did not even know my way around the track facilities. After a first take at 3000m race which went quite well to my surprise, I decided to participate in the 10,000m race which given my lack of experience proved to be a really bad decision. Being still a rookie, I set out very fast and at 3K to go, I mentally and physically shut down and crossed over from the track rubber to the grass. The moment my feet touched the grass it was constant regret. I might not have finished that race but it sure was a learning experience. Two years later in June 2018 after collecting several appearances and decent results on the track I managed a podium in the MAAA National Championships (3rd Overall) sharing the podium with Charlton Debono and Andrew Grech which remains one of the proud moments of my running career.

Nowadays, I enjoy racing on the track as much as I do on the road (if not more). Getting used to it was not easy. In Gozo, we do not get to practice on such a surface as personally speaking, the majority of my track sessions are done on a dirt surface at the Horse Track. In addition, whilst racing at the track you have another element which is spectators who are constantly watching you as you go around the oval. This might be a bit intimidating at first. I worked hard to break this mental barrier and kept telling myself that if I can ace my track sessions at the horse track which contains a bit of elevation, alone and on harder surface racing in much better physical conditions should be easier.

The plan for 2019 is that right after the Malta Half Marathon at the end of February, my main focus will be to prepare adequately for the 1500m and the 5000m distances since I will be participating in these events representing the Malta Employees Sports Association (MESA) at the 22nd European Company Sports Games (Salzburg) in June 2019.

 

3. Unlike Maltese, Gozitans have more difficulty travelling which is not easy at all, even though Gozitans are hard workers and achievers and get used to it by time. You work at MCAST Gozo so at least you don't need to do this on daily basis but for races it's still quite a headache. Surely given your myriads of races in Malta, it was not a hurdle. What are the most obvious inconveniences which you encounter travelling to Malta for races and how are you dealing with them?

Indeed, as you have rightfully highlighted, the travelling issue is truly a challenge for many Gozitans including my wife who works as a teacher in Malta. The time spent travelling is such a waste of time and for those people who have to train this is frustrating. Personally speaking, working in Gozo is a blessing as travelling to Malta on a daily basis would surely take its toll in the long term.

As Gozitans we always take note of the weather forecast a couple of days beforehand as there is always a risk of the ferry not operating in case of excessive wind. To be honest, I believe that this never happened but there were instances in which I decided to anticipate my arrival in Malta to play safe and stay in my family appartment in Msida from the night before the race. On all occasions, whilst crossing over from Gozo for all races we plan in advance as whilst standing in the ferry queue there is no gurantee that you will board. Therefore, on many occasions we tend to arrive early and are the first ones to arrive at the race venue which to be honest does not bother me as it gives me ample time to settle down and warm up properly. 

 

4. Matthew, it is clear that you started running post your tertiary studies and not before or during. Through experience, many long-distance athletes are either former track athletes or become running enthusiasts who embark on competing when they are more mature and have their life and status quite settled. You befit to the last group and yet your achievements and performances are well known. You impress many of us and local athletics can only benefit through this. Competition is always highly welcome. We are aware that lest one reaches a plateau quickly, there are many factors which need to be addressed. Smart and consistent training, strict healthy diet, adequate rest, good knowledge about athletics, the right motivation, eagerness to perform and to improve, etc... In your opinion what were the most significant factors of such positive outcome and transformation?

Exactly, I started running well after I completed my studies. Additionally, I was never into sports as such and just played football amongst friends and attended a gym on and off throughout the years. Although I owe most of my past successes especially those of an educational nature to my beloved parents, they never encouraged me to take up a sport. Thinking about it, my other three brothers all formed part of the Nadur Youngsters Football Nursery and were quite decent players as opposed to myself. During my years at University, I ate mostly unhealthy food and at one point weighed 82kg as opposed to the 61kg I presently weigh and I am also an ex-smoker. Therefore, I went through a huge transformation to be where I am today.  

All the factors you have mentioned are essential and as we gain experience we become more efficient runners. For instance, during my early running days, I used to depend on other runners to keep the pace. However, with proper guidance, consistency and perseverance improvement can be registered. In my opinion, in running there are no short cuts and at the end of the day running will give back to you what you give it. Needless to say, certain social events are difficult to attend, and if I do, I have to leave significantly early during the night as most of the time such events happen during weekends the night before a race. It becomes more of a lifestyle which one has to adopt and together with this transformation even the acquaintances and the persons you surround yourself with change as well.

In the past few months I have been doing 90% of my traning alone. I liaise with coach Mario Pisani continually over the phone however, it is very difficult to train with the team as crossing over to Malta for training purposes is close to impossible due to other family commitments. This comes with the negative aspects as cold morning solo training can become inceasingly difficult but on the other hand it builds up the character of the individual and builds up the resilience needed in particular moments during a race.

 

5. Matthew, your status has of very recently changed drastically from single; living with your parents to married and living with your wife Guza and finally father of Giulia. How can you relate running to all this? Such changes demand responsibilities which am sure you shoulder with great responsibility but what about training whilst coping with your work and the rest of the family? To be frank, all these changes triggered better performances, how come?

As a matter of fact, I was unsure of how to juggle such important responsibilities, work and sport commitments. However, I believe that if one has the determination and the eagerness to succeed, everything is possible. Needless to say, my family, especially my wife is very supportive as she knows how much running means to me. Most of the time she also accompanies me at the races as well. I believe that without her support, I would never have achieved the recent running related results.  

On a personal note, I find that doing my training close to my residence to minimise commuting time as much as possible is effective. Most of the time, whenever I have a speed session, I leave to the horse track from my residence which is exactly 2km away. In this way, when I get to the horse track most of my warm up is ready and am already geared up to start with the drills and carry out the session. The cool down is done on the way back home. In addition, when I have double sessions or cross-training (spin bike) on my running schedule, the morning session which is done early in the morning before work is done at home on the treadmill. In this way, I spend more time at home so that I am present to give a helping hand with family matters if need be. At home, I have a small room dedicated completely to running. Here I have a treadmill, a spin bike which was a gift from my wife, many running photos, race bibs, running trophies and medals. I call it 'The Running Room'. The other session is done right after work, mostly late afternoon.

I plan all my training with Mario Pisani in advance. This helps me to be efficient in order to cope with all these responsibilities in the best of ways.

 

6. Matthew, there is a different side of you too. You are proactive, and kind hearted with those in need. Together with Nadur Local Council, you are giving a massive helping hand in organizing and promoting the Nadur 8k which this year has reached its fourth edition. This race is becoming popular and attracts the Maltese and the tourists who happen to be in Gozo or Malta. Race profits are donated to Puttinu Cares. A commendable move indeed. Apart from this, it shows that you are still very attached to your native Nadur and the respective Local Council has shown his mutual respect by allowing you to taste international races in Italy: a half marathon and a 10k. Describe your experiences there and the eagerness and sense of belonging to keep giving much to Nadur.

Nadur 8K is a dream come true. I am the founder of this race together with the present Nadur Mayor, Edward Said. I remember speaking to the mayor about the possibility of organising a race in aid of Charity. He immediately rose to the occasion, set up a meeting and formed a team that works hard in order to be able to organise this race. As you know, organising a race, is a highly time consuming task but through hard work and the assistance of other volunteers we managed to increase the participants year after year and new sponsors have helped us to reach new heights. In this respect, Nadur Garmin 8K has now established itself in the yearly MAAA racing calendar and on the agenda of several local and foreign athletes. Dedicating this time in aid of Puttinu Cares is my pleasure. I see it as giving back something to the community and running. As indeed, running has given me a lot of satisfaction and made me a much better person.

The race has now reached its fourth edition and the Local Council has awarded me with a precious memento recognising me for my efforts in this regard. In addition, throughout the years, the Local Council has assisted me to participate in a Half Marathon held in Baveno (Italy) and a 10K Race held in Cicciano (Naples - Italy). These two localities are twinned with Nadur. The attachment to Nadur is there, in fact, I always tease my wife (native of Xewkija) that we should be living in Nadur in a couple of years. The experiences in these two races were very positive. The contacts and the people I got to know whilst I was there are dear to me. They welcomed me fully in their communities and treated me like a VIP. The President of the running club from Cicciano, Luigi Montanino registered me with their Club - Cicciano Marathon so that whenever I race in Italy, I would have the option to represent their club. In addition a number of athletes from this club took part in the third edition of Nadur 8k in 2017. 

 

7. Matthew it goes without saying that you are a perfectionist, insatiable, high achiever, eager to improve and perform better. During the past 4 years you kept improving gradually but you kept looking for the right coach and club even though it must be said that Charlton Debono, Fabio Spiteri and Mario Pisani, the latter being the present coach, all rubbed off on you. Even as a club you moved from Athletix AC to Zurrieq Wolves. You pursued and opted for those persons and clubs which you deemed fit might enable you to reach the next level. How was the transition process from one coach to the next and the club?

Indeed, I am truly a perfectionist and I take running seriously. I have all my running data organised with dates of participation in each race, achieved time, position and also additional comments. If I put my mind up to something, I make sure to do it to the best of my abilities and dedicate myself fully in an attempt to do so. It is how I am, in essence, doing something for the sake of doing it is not my style. I have the same attitude at work.

As you have rightly highlighted, along the way, I have teamed up with different persons who in one way or another contributed to my development as a decent local long-distance runner. After a few months of running solo, Charlton Debono a long-time acquaintance and nowadays friend also native of Nadur, helped me out with some running sessions as I used to join him at the horse track and on other occasions for runs around the highly elevated roads in Gozo. Before such valuable guidance, I had no idea what running was all about and mostly tried things out by trial and error. Here, I started to take an intrinsic interest in the sport and through endless running related discussions with Charlton and other runners and professionals and also personal research, I started achieving good results steadily. 

During this time, Charlton started winning races and doing very well running very fast times and as it made more sense to let Charlton focus on his running career, I joined Team Fabio under the guidance of Fabio Spiteri. At the time, several Gozitan athletes and triathletes were also under his guidance, therefore, for the first time ever, I was running in a group as we met for track sessions and even Zone 1 long runs especially towards the end of the week. From the group, I was the newbie, therefore, I had a lot to learn from all these Gozitan athletes as I observed, assimilated and asked a myriad of questions in the process. Under the guidance of Fabio, I learnt a lot and progressed steadily. Fabio is the type of person who shares his knowledge with everyone and that is a quality which needs to be appreciated as not everyone is ready to do so. In addition, he is a very altruistic person and is always ready to help others in need. These are qualities which I tried to take with me which in turn would make me a better person.

Then I transferred with my current coach and supportive friend Mario Pisani. Mario is a very reserved character with a heart of gold. He is a walking running encylocpedia and his presence is indispensable.The shift from Fabio to Pisani was very smooth and amicable. As I developed the love for track races, I was looking for somoene who would be more present at the track to mentor me accordingly. Under the guidance of Pisani, I developed more as an athlete, improved my running form and running efficiency and matured as an athlete. I started achieving respectable times as well.

Another important move was the one from Athletix AC to Zurrieq Wolves. Here again, the transition was quite smooth and I still consider the Gozo club athletes and committee members as friends. In fact, my brother David still runs for the club in Gozo. I had an open offer for consideration by Frank Bartolo, a hard working Zurrieq Wolves athlete which turned out to be suitable for me with attractive schemes to encourage the athlete to delve deeper to try to achieve the running targets. This was in effect what I needed, in order to try my best to make it to the next level. Here, I joined Neil Brimmer, a seasoned track runner and a great family of long-distance athletes who welcomed me with a great deal of excitement and positive vibes. The plan is to do my best to also win as a team.

 

8. Matthew few people may know that this fantastic experience which you are relishing could have been better if you were not involved in that terrible and unfortunate accident which side lined you for a good couple of years prior to start competing. Your determination, persistence and resilience are above average cause otherwise we are not here telling your successful story post such a nightmare. What really happened in Xlendi and how painful was it being kept at bay for a couple of years but making a successful, strong comeback thereafter?

I had originally planned to start running competitively back in 2011. I remember that I had purchased a very bulky running watch at the time and started jogging / running and also cycling.I was enjoying it, I wanted to lose weight and I was determined. During this period, I used to reside in Malta as it made it easier to commute to work since I worked at MCAST Main Campus in Paola. Most of the time, I spent my weekends in Gozo to be close to my family.

However, an unfortunate accident literally a few weeks later put me off track for a couple of years.I will never forget that night. It was a bit before midnight on a Friday at the beginning of March 2011. I was making my way to a Carnival party at La Grotta, a popular dicoteque in Gozo, when I was run over by a careless driver. It all happened really fast in a split of a second. I recall being in a huge shock and ended up with a fractured tibia and fibula which was quite serious. I had to be operated with a metal plate insertion which I had removed with another intervention after two years. It was painful and the rehabilitiation process was a long one. It put me completley on hold and I was very depressed. As I speak about it today, my eyes still fill up with tears each time. It was a huge mental blow, however, I learnt a lot from it. I apprecaited the love of my parents who took great care of me at the time. Nowadays, when I look at the visible marks this accident has left on my leg, I turn the frustration into fuel to acheive my running targets.

After a couple of months using the crutches, there was a huge difference between the muscle mass of the left leg and that of the right leg. Therefore, I took up swimming and did a lot of gym work in an attempt to get back to normality as fast as possible. At the time, I was unsure if I could ever run properly again. However, with perseverance and a great deal of determination, I made the return to running exactly four years later in 2015.

I still have that running watch and it still works just fine. Although, nowadays I use a different watch, I will never sell that running watch as it does have a very inspirational story to tell.

 

9. Matthew, you have been teaching at MCAST since 2009. MCAST (a vocational college) that caters for a wide spectrum of students and offers a wide range of courses across different levels. You give your input by lecturing at different levels including those students aspiring to become Child Carers or Educators focusing on the early years and learning support educators. However, your main role is that of a Sudent Support Services Coordinator and Career Guidance which you have held for the past four academic years. How many Gozitan students are embarking on Physical Education as their future profession and how fulfilling it is for you seeing such influx of prospective students who can only enhance the physical activity in Gozo being: walking, running, gym goers, trail walking/running, any other sports?

As you have righfully highlighted, I teach students aged 16+ who are going through a particular and delicate time in their lives. I take great pride in what I do and try my best to be available in order to support students attending the college accordingly. Many students at MCAST Gozo College follow my running ventures and always ask for feedback regarding the race on a Monday morning. I love being an inspiration to these youths and always encourage various individuals to take up a sport.

MCAST (Paola) on the other hand, is giving its fair contribution to the educational aspect related to sports as it is already offering several courses across different levels related to sports, personal training and nutrition even at a degree level. In additon, as from April 2019 it will be launching a Master of Science in Exercise and Sport Science.

As regards to the situation in Gozo, running is nowadays gaining its fair share of popularity where as opposed to a couple of years ago seeing people running in the fairly traffic free roads in Gozo is a common occurance. In addition, Gozo is also paradise for trail runners as the options are various.

A rather interesitng phenomenon is the large amount of young children who are taking up the sport from such an early age and it is a pleasure to see them enjoying it. This might be the result of the well organised academies of Athletix AC and Tri Gozo who focus on running and triathlon respectively. Such entitites are giving a great contribution to the Gozitan community in general as nowadays young children have other options. When I was their age, the situation in Gozo was that either you were good at football or else you would have to sit down and watch others play.

 

10. The recent past has shown some formidable Gozitan athletes namely Charlton Debono, Stefan Azzopardi, Charles Xuereb, Daniel Pace and you. A decade ago, the only flag bearer was evergreen Frank Muscat who still competes. Gozo has now attracted so many running enthusiasts which I can vouch first hand in the Nadur 8k and the Gozo Half Marathon. What do you think was the turning point for such enthusiasm towards running?

You are right, Gozo has indeed produced a number of fine runners. All the runners you have mentioned started running competitivley before I did and at one point or another during my running journey, I ran or tranied with each one of them and discussed running issues in detail. I learnt a lot from them.

In fact, the first peson I used to see running around the streets of Gozo was Daniel Pace. When I used to see him, I always said that I wanted to be like him one day. This was before I eventually took up the sport. As up to a couple of years ago seeing someone running in Gozo was truly a rare occurance. Charles on the other hand, was my teamate when I trained with Fabio. You could not have chosen a better adjective to describe Frank Muscat, a dear friend who knows his way around running and also my English teacher when I was younger. His stats are indeed incredible as he runs so well at age 64. 

As you evidenced in Nadur 8K and the Gozo Half Marathon events, a lot of Gozitans are taking up the sport and this is indeed a very positive aspect for the Gozitan community in general. This might have been the result of the top results even at a national level achieved by the two top runners in Gozo and Malta being Charlton Debono and Stefan Azzopardi, two highly talented runners who were kind enough to share most of their knowledge through endless conversations with me along the years. They are indeed an inspiration. 

Matthew, it was an honour for me, asking some personal questions and am confident that the readers concur with me that you have nurtured an indisputable passion for running and competitiveness which distinguishes you from many others. Keep up the good work.

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