American distance runner Matt Llano spent his 21st birthday in Annapolis, Maryland, with his aunt. No other birthday present would compare to the honesty and openness that came along with telling his aunt that day that he is gay.
"The feeling of being able to be authentic with someone was really special," Llano said.
He had built up the courage during his final years at Richmond University to tell his parents. He was nervous, and they knew something was bothering him.
"They knew I had something on my mind that I wanted to talk about," Llano said. "They kept pressing me for it, and I kept resisting. Ultimately, words just fell kind of out."
An emotional release ensued. He shook. His voice trembled. He cried. His parents were proud. They were proud of who their son was, what he had accomplished and how he had lived his life leading up to that moment.
"They couldn't care less whether I loved a man or a woman," Llano said. "It gave me confidence going forward. In telling other people, if they have a negative reaction I just try and brush it off and realize they may not need to be in my life. The ones I can count on are my family. Having their love and support is the most important thing."
Llano dated another male student at Richmond for three and a half years, but never felt the need to go public about his relationship. Over time, fellow students began finding out and he eventually came out to his teammates.
"People were really positive," Llano said. "Most of them were like, 'OK, that doesn't really matter.' That's always nice to hear because you don't always expect it to go that way. Anyone who's struggled with the process will tell you that's what they want to hear."
An open perspective
Llano breaks down his decision to come out into two tiers: coming out and coming out publicly.
He grew up questioning who he was for the first 19 years of his life. There was pain and torment in trying to meet his own expectations and those of society. He didn't find his way to the other side of that pain until he was 26. He acknowledged who he was and stopped apologizing.
"Coming out was not just a way for me to acknowledge and embrace who I really am, but also to try and mend all of the fractures that my life had built up over time," Llano said. "It wasn't easy to do."
He decided to go public with his announcement with a blog post titled "It's Time" on his personal website. The moment he clicked "publish," a weight was lifted off his shoulders and he's been a different runner ever since.
"I owe a lot of my recent success to releasing this shame," Llano said. "I do think it was always something holding me back. As a person, I was never that confident because I had this conflict about who I was. That just carried straight across into my running."
People within and outside of the running community have reached out to Llano through Facebook, Twitter and email, voicing their support, sharing their own stories and confiding in Llano for inspiration.
"It's a very humbling experience to think I'm making a difference in these people's lives because ultimately I draw off of them for my own inspiration," Llano said. "They're the reason I try to be a voice and tell my story. It puts me at a loss for words."
Strong debut coming?
Training has been going well for Llano in his final days of preparation for the Bank of America Chicago Marathon on Sunday. According to his coach Ben Rosario, everything is geared to Llano running under 2 hours, 10 minutes. Llano stirred the pot within the running community when he said Ryan Hall's American marathon debut record of 2:08:24 is a goal, and the time is still on his radar.
"All along my main goal has been to run under 2:10," LLano said. "I would be ecstatic with running under 2:10. My reach goal is 2:08.24. At least for the way my mind functions, I like having different levels of goals with stuff that I think is really attainable and stuff that I would have to push myself hard to achieve."
Ethiopian Kenenisa Bekele and the lead pack of elite runners might chase a world record in Chicago , which could lead to a fast pace in front of Llano. If he finds himself on pace for 2:09 or starts to hit his splits faster than expected, Hall's record could fall.
Hall bought a house in Flagstaff, Arizona, and occasionally trains with the Northern Arizona Elite team, one of Llano's main sponsors. Llano is good friends with Hall, but the two have not spoken about a possible assault on his marathon debut record.
"He's been awesome for me to go to for advice as I go through this whole learning experience," Llano said. "I don't know all the answers, but I do think there's value in talking to someone like Ryan Hall, who has achieved so much in his career. I'm hoping he can get healthy and get on the starting line for 2016, and maybe he and I can race together for a spot on the Olympic team and be teammates in Rio."
Unlike Hall, Llano did not have great track credentials before moving up to marathon distance. Hall made the U.S. team for the 2005 World Championships in the 5,000-meter run after winning an NCAA championship for Stanford. Llano holds a personal best of 14:00 for 5,000 meters, but as the races get longer, his personal bests get better.
"My aerobic capacity really is my biggest strength. I'm really suited for long, grinding workouts where I can be out there by myself for 15 to 28 miles," Llano said. "Finally getting to the point where I'm ready to run fast in the marathon and handle that pace has been a long time coming."
Since his freshman and sophomore years in college, Llano knew he was a future marathoner. The realization that he was ready to finally make the move came this past January, when Llano finished fifth at the U.S. Half Marathon Championships in 61:47. He went on to represent the United States at the IAAF World Half Marathon Championships in March.
Upon completion of the 26.2 miles in Chicago, Llano will sit with Rosario and review the pros and cons of his performance before their next marathon, with all training geared toward the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Ready for Rio
Llano will be 27 when he lines up for the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in Los Angeles in February 2016. Defending Boston Marathon champion Meb Keflezighi will be 40, while 2013's fastest American marathoner, Dathan Ritzenhein, will be 33.
With Father Time creeping up on some of the biggest faces of American marathoning, Llano believes he could be on track for a breakthrough to the Olympics.
"If everything goes as well as we anticipate for Chicago, I see myself as a legitimate contender there," Llano said. "I truly believe that I have a chance of making that team and punching my ticket to Rio."
Four other athletes of the Northern Arizona Elite team are training for fall marathons. Only three men will represent the United States in Brazil. While some expect a competitive nature among the group, the relationship among the runners is cohesive.
"They understand that they're helping one another get to where they want to be," Rosario said. "Everyone takes turns hitting different splits and so it stays pretty controlled in practice for the most part."
Llano's story is not reaching as many people as Michael Sam's or Jason Collins' did. Distance running will not be on the same level as those billion-dollar leagues anytime soon, but as the first openly gay professional distance runner, Llano already feels his impact in a niche community.
"To be reaching a different community and knowing from my Facebook or email inbox that I'm making a difference in at least one person's life gives me a special meaning," Llano said.
Rosario believes that once Llano puts together a breakthrough performance on a big stage like Chicago, his story will make national headlines. Running 2:09 and/or being the fastest American on Sunday could bring the spotlight.
"This is a cutthroat sport, and so as soon as Matt runs a really fast marathon, I think you're going to see his story blow up," says Rosario.