SALT LAKE CITY — On Oct. 18, 2020, the trail and ultrarunning community lost one of its own. On April 10, 2021, runners took to the red rock trails surrounding Zion National Park to race upward of 100 miles in his memory.
Matt Gunn who KSL.com connected with in 2015 for an article on his Ultra Adventures race series, died by suicide after what those closest to him describe as some very deep sadness. That sadness, however, was long overshadowed by what he brought to those he came in contact with — and it was the legacy and impact that Gunn left that caused hundreds of people to take to the trails for the recent Zion Ultras event that he created.
One runner was Gunn's longtime friend Corry Reese, who met Gunn in 2011 not long before the first Zion 100 event.
"I met Matt back in 2011," Reese recalled in an email. "I had just run my first 100-mile race, and heard that someone was considering putting together a 100-miler in Southern Utah. I reached out to Matt because I was interested in the idea, and wanted to see if he needed help with the planning stages. The first time we met, Matt talked about these wild, big-picture ideas. He had this vision of creating a running community, not just a race. He had a deep love of the outdoors, and he wanted to give others the opportunity to explore the trails he had come to love. He told me that he wanted to put together the Zion 100, and eventually put together 100 mile races near Bryce Canyon, Antelope Canyon, and Monument Valley. At the time, it sounded overly ambitious. He hadn't even put on one race. And yet, as the years went on, he was able to create everything he talked about during our first meeting. He created races in incredible places, and he created a unique community of runners who fell in love with the trails just like Matt had."
Reese wasn't the only one who wanted to be a part of Matt Gunn's vision, nor the only one who saw it as a bit lofty. In fact, his younger brother Ben Gunn stepped in early on to help organize many of the first events and offered his chiropractic services to runners. Ben Gunn said the first year of the event didn't go as planned, but people were forgiving because of the kind of man his brother was.
"Honestly, the inaugural Zion race was pretty disastrous," Ben Gunn said. "Runners got lost and off course for miles, aid stations ran out of food and water, and our family and volunteers were running on over 24 hours straight without sleep. There were some runners that were pretty disappointed, but we were all surprised how the majority were forgiving and still happy they had been a part of it ... Looking back, it was probably too much too quick — especially because he was still a full-time teacher at this time with four young kids — but he felt determined to share the beauty of these regions with everyone he possibly could."
Over the next few years, Matt Gunn was able to do what he sought out to do, which according to those closest to him wasn't just to create a race series.
"Matt wanted to save the world," Ben Gunn said. "Most of his life, he cared little about making money and more about creating experiences and making memories. … His ultimate goal for these races wasn't to get rich but to help and give to others. He really was the ultimate humanitarian. He cared for others deeply and would literally give the shirt off his back to make others' lives better."
Each of Matt Gunn's events followed a zero-waste model, where all the garbage collected was recycled or repurposed even down to the composting toilets he fashioned out of 10-gallon buckets, a toilet seat, and some sawdust enclosed in a one-man tent. Matt sourced local help as well, hiring members of the Navajo Nation and other indigenous groups from the areas, to make by hand the awards and prepare much of the food that was served at his events.
Longtime friend and business partner Salem Stanley described Matt Gunn as "the most resourceful person I had ever met."
"Matt was able to do incredibly hard things with an attitude of 'we'll just figure it out!'" Stanley recalled. "He had an incredible work ethic, vision and an unbelievable ability to problem solve, which is what helped make his dreams become a reality."
And while Matt's vision was coming to life, there was something friends and family say was conflicting about his chosen life path: he didn't like attention. In fact, Stanley confirmed that Matt Gunn was not what people would classify as a classic race director.
"Matt did not like the spotlight and wasn't really suited to be a race director," Stanley said. "If you went to any of his events, you knew he was a man of very few words. I just know that he would have been so mad at us for the attention that was brought to him during this year's event."
Running for Matt
The event this year was somber for many; and going into it, the race series organizers knew that it was important to pay tribute to their friend who had left this earth too soon. Event organizers created shirts with Matt Gunn's face printed on them, signs were placed on the course in memory of him, and apparel was sold to raise money for his four children he left behind.
Even with all that was said and done for him that day, it was the memory of Matt that kept many runners going.
Cory Reese set out to run the 100-mile course but was unable to finish even though he had completed the course several times before. He had the following to say about his experience this year without his longtime friend.
"I've looked forward to seeing Matt at the Zion 100 each year …" Cory wrote in a Facebook post. "I wanted to run the race because I have fallen in love with the Zion 100 over the years. I love the scenery, and the challenge of pushing myself. But I also hoped to feel some connection with Matt out on those trails, and I think I did."
And then there's Ben Gunn, who set out to run the 50K without his older brother there to cheer him on. Even so, he said that he felt like Matt was there with him.
"I had to walk the last 5 miles of the race," Ben Gunn recalled. "Usually I'm the type that wants to finish strong, but this time was different. My body was hurting and was screaming at me to stop. I wasn't enjoying the course or the beauty around me because I was focused on myself and all my aches and pains. I was losing track of the reality of what I was trying to accomplish and not allowing myself to cherish the moment. I had to step back and slow down so I could take in the majesty of where I was and what I was doing. That's when I felt Matt the strongest. That's when I cried the most. That's when I felt peace in my heart that I was trying to find since the day he died.
"I felt it would be a healing day for me, and it was. I had felt peace I hadn't felt since his passing while running the course he created. I knew he would be there with me, and I truly feel like he was. He really earned the hashtag given him a long time ago: #mattgunnwantstomakeyoucry."
The original race series was acquired a few years ago by Stanley who is over Vacation Races. Stanley says that while some things had to change to keep the series growing, that he wants to stay true to what he believes is a core value both he and Matt Gunn shared.
"Running, no matter the distance, brings something to everyone," Stanley said. "Everyone starts a race feeling optimistic and determined, but at some point, things start to get hard, and you have a voice in your head that tells you to stop. When that happens, you have to succumb or fight through it. Matt knew that fight well and wanted to give people the opportunity to have the experience to dig deep."
And while the fight is over for Matt Gunn, hundreds — perhaps even thousands — of runners will continue to have the chance to dig a little deeper and fight to the finish line of the races he created.