One mile at a time: Long-distance run will raise money for SCC students in need

Matt Kirby is now running about 40 miles a week in preparation for the 72-mile Georgia Death Race March 31. Donated photo Matt Kirby is now running about 40 miles a week in preparation for the 72-mile Georgia Death Race March 31. Donated photo

The first time Matt Kirby attempted the 72-mile Georgia Death Race, he almost didn’t finish. 

“I had a friend who was at the last aid station,” Kirby recalled. “She had probably pulled out every little carrot that she could to get me out of that aid station and moving again. I think I would have probably quit if it weren’t for my friend being there and pushing me so hard.”

He didn’t quit, though. He kept moving, pushing through the “soul-sucking” final 9 miles, dodging basketball-sized boulders and culverts as he ran in the dark, finally crossing the finish line after 28,000 feet of elevation change and 23.5 hours of running. 


Running for a cause

That was last year. And in 2018, Kirby will appear at the starting line once again. 

“My time wasn’t what I wanted it to be, so me signing up again — it was more about redemption,” he said. 

Redemption for himself, and also for others. This year, Kirby’s running the race to raise money for the Southwestern Community College Student Emergency Fund, which helps students meet unforeseen financial emergencies that could cause them to drop out of school. Last year, the fund disbursed $4,000 — Kirby is hoping to raise $5,000 through his race. 

“If they didn’t have this fund, they (the students) might have to drop out, and that’s them not achieving their goal,” Kirby said. “I think the beauty of a community college is it’s all about community.”

Kirby is well acquainted with that mission, having worked with SCC for six years as college liaison for the Jackson County Early College, helping early college students with the transition from high school to higher ed. 

“The mission of SCC is to change a life, and working with the early college students I see that there’s a value in education,” Kirby said. “Really, getting an education can set you on a different path.”

In that way, running and education are in a sense analogous. Each new success builds on the ones that came before it, creating a new horizon of possibility. 

Five years ago, for instance, Kirby wouldn’t have even considered attempting something like the Georgia Death Race. While he’s been a runner in some capacity or another most of his life, it’s only been in the past several years that he’s started to get really serious about the sport — to the point that over the past three years it’s felt like he’s almost always training for some race or another. 

“When my son was born, I’d just got out of grad school, and I sort of focused on being in grad school and had not been in shape,” he said. “A lot of it has to do with a general fitness level, but it sort of morphed into doing crazy things like running long distances.”

And that’s how, in 2017, Kirby found himself crossing the finish line of the Georgia Death Race after nearly 24 hours of constant motion. While most people would consider the mere completion of such an endeavor to be success, Kirby was disappointed. He’d been hoping for a faster finish, and this year, he’ll try again. 

“My running mileage was good, but I think the hardest part for me was just how exhausted my mind was,” he said. “It wasn’t so much physical exhaustion. It was just mentally, I was just tired.”

He’s got a goal in mind for the finish line this year, though he wasn’t willing to say exactly what that goal is for fear of psyching himself out of achieving it. 

“I will be happy if I finish in 20 hours,” Kirby said. “I have another idea of what I would like to do, but I’d like to keep it close to my chest.”


Getting to the finish line

While Kirby is certainly competitive with himself, always looking to increase his levels of fitness and endurance, he reminds himself that finishing is an admirable goal in and of itself, and that’s the lesson he wants his 6-year-old son to learn as he watches his dad train.

“A fitness level, challenging myself, these are kind of normal answers,” he said, “and there’s another side of me that wants to model a stick-to-itiveness for my son. My son sees me training for these races and sees me finishing them, so I’m hoping I’m imparting this idea of sometimes things are hard, sometimes things are miserable, but you keep going and you just get to the finish line.”

Kirby also is working to get others to that finish line. Last January, he founded the Plott Balsam Runners, a group of runners in and around Jackson County that gets together for weekly Sunday afternoon runs. Since the group began, its membership has grown to about 40 people, with about half of those what Kirby considers to be active members. 

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“It just sort of happened,” Kirby said of the group. “And it was great. I had a plan and I had a vision, but to see it come through was kind of amazing.”

Runners of all different ability levels make up the group — ultra runners and mid-distance joggers, road runners and trail pounders. This year, the group is organizing its first race, a half marathon scheduled for Dec. 1 in Panthertown Valley, near Cashiers. 

And that’s just one of two running groups that Kirby launched in 2017. The second group, the Sole Destroyers, is an after-school running club for SCC students. 

“We don’t have sports at our school unfortunately. We’re working on that, but these are all active kids that tend to like to run or play other sports like ultimate, so we started this up to fill that void,” he said. 

For Kirby, doing without running would certainly create a void. As the March 31 race draws closer, he’s doing everything he can to fit in as many miles as he can in preparation for the grueling run. His average has been 40 miles a week — lower than what one might expect given the length of the race, but in training Kirby goes for quality of miles over quantity. He looks for sharp uphills accompanied by severe downhills, with strength training thrown in to further work those muscles. 

“Having a family and a full-time job makes that about as many miles as I can squeeze in, but I try to make them quality miles,” he said. 

Forty miles is a lot of miles, as is 72 miles or 50K or any of the other formidable distances Kirby has found himself covering. And while he enjoys the challenge, he’s quick to say that being the fastest or the strongest or the toughest runner isn’t the most important goal. 

“It’s not about that,” he said. “You’re outside — that’s what matters.”


Join the Plott Balsam Runners

This group of runners centered in Jackson County meets weekly for group runs at various trails around the region. The runners typically meet at 1 p.m. and carpool to the trail, arriving back to the meeting place by 5 p.m. The group is open to runners of all ability levels, with more information online at


Donate to the cause

Support Matt Kirby in his fundraising run to help Southwestern Community College students facing financial emergencies by donating at Contact Kathy Posey for assistance at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or 828.339.4227.

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