Q&A: Baldwin High alum Matt Noonan discusses 2001 Rim Rock victory

By Jimmy Gillispie

In 2002, Matt Noonan graduated from Baldwin High School (Kansas) as one of the most decorated cross country athletes in the area.

He was a three-time state champion in cross country as a member of the Class 4A Bulldogs. Noonan’s lone loss was a narrow runner-up finish as a freshman.

Noonan went on to the University of Missouri on a running scholarship, and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. He now lives in the KC area.

Matt Noonan takes a selfie while on vacation in 2019.

On Sept. 15, 2001, Noonan ran at Rim Rock for the final time as a high school athlete. It was a very memorable race for several reasons – one of which was winning the race for the first time. He won by 28 seconds in a time of 16:03.

Noonan talked about those in the first-ever Q&A for the KCpreps.blog site. Here is the dialogue from that Q&A session. 

What do you remember about that day?

“Rim Rock was the first meet we had after 9/11. It was truncated down to about 19 teams from the normal 70 or 80, so there was no out-of-state teams – just teams from Kansas and Missouri, if I remember right.”

Do you have a bittersweet memory of the day because of the events that happened earlier in the week?

“It was extremely heavy. I remember for myself and everyone involved, it was extremely surreal. There was the debate of should we do it? There was some talk of we don’t want a terrorist act to change our way of life, but the emotional weight of it played a toll of the attendance, but also the mod and atmosphere of the entire event. I just remember it being very somber.”

What was the biggest thing that stands out about the meet?

“It was the biggest race of my high school career, I’d say. Adam Perkins was there, and I ended up putting a good strong move on him toward the end near Billy Mills and gapped him by 20 seconds maybe. It was a big confidence boost for me that I had that kind of speed or strength to finish strong.”

What was your strategy going into the race and how did the race begin?

“Almost from the get-go, it thinned out to Christian (Smith), Adam (Perkins) and myself. We clipped off just over 5 minutes for the first mile, which for me was very fast. My PR at the time was 15:44, I think. It’s an easy first mile, so I wanted to get out strong. I presumed Adam and Christian were going to be the two people to beat, and Christian had a 1:51 PR in the half (mile) and Adam’s PR in the mile and everything under the 5K was better than mine. I knew the finish was about 600 meters of gradual downhill, so you’re not going to out kick someone there if you’re not the fastest. My plan was to hammer every turn or a sharp uphill, really surge those. It’s a very discouraging way to run a race when it’s just you and a few people, so I would do that a lot in races I felt like I needed to kind of win the mental game. It was a strength of mine, because I was not a rhythm runner, which is what I think made me a good steeplechaser later in college. I could get out of rhythm fine and still clip along at my top pace, as opposed to having to find that stride.”

How did the race play out after that first mile?

“Coming out of the first covered bridge near John Lawson hill, we hammered it and Adam stayed with me, but we dropped Christian a little bit. From there on out, it was basically him and I. We went down the gravel road and through the second covered bridge, and that was just Adam and I as we had maybe 20 yards on Christian. We went down through the narrows and out into the lowlands on the back side of the course. I kept clipping it off as fast as I could at maybe 5:15 pace for the second mile. When we were coming up to Bills Mills ascent, it’s a very sharp inside turn but if you hold to the outside, it’s a little bit farther but it’s a little less steep. Having run the course a lot, and believing that was the best place to start the kick, I just surged hard up the outside edge. It levels out a bit and then keeps going up, and I just kept the hammer down and by the time we got to the top I could hear coach (Mike Spielman) and my dad yelling that I put a gap on Adam and to keep going. Halfway down the Jim Ryun skyline, I finally checked my shoulder and didn’t see him. I felt elated and kept putting the hammer down all the way to the finish.”

Were you happy with your time?

“It was somewhere in the low 16s, and I was really happy with that. Wamego isn’t an easy course, but it’s much easier than Rim Rock. I had run that 15:40-something at Wamego, and to run with 15 seconds or so of that at Rim Rock I felt was a really good effort.”

Any advice for the runners this weekend?

“It’s a very challenging course no matter how they run it, and you’re going to have to come up some steep hills. Know yourself and know how much hills take out of you or don’t. If you’re a good hill runner, use your hill-running strengths to gap people, and then hold those gaps as you get into the flatter parts. It’s not for the faint of heart, especially if they still finish after going up Billy Mills, because you go up this incredible hill at a part of the race that is going to be your hardest part of the race normally and you have about 600 meters to go once you hit the top that hill. It’s not like you hit the hill and then cross the finish line, you still have more than a bell lap left.”

“Another thing, there are parts of the race where you’re almost have no spectators, and for most people that’s some of the hardest times to dig deep and keep your pace and morale up. Know those parts are coming, so have a mental plan for how to handle those, because when you get to the top of Bills Mills, it’s a wall and gauntlet of people cheering. You can really use that energy to carry yourself through.”

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