Matt Sparks

on . Posted in TCSD Conversation

I enjoyed some laughs recently while talking with the TCSD’s repair guru, Matt Sparks.  Your Tri Club experience is not complete until you have seen Matt make one of his unique appearances at a Tri Club meeting.  Until you get the chance to witness that in person, I hope you will enjoy our conversation below.



Craig: You are originally from a small town in England, where did your travels take you prior to coming to the USA?


Matt: Yes I grew up in the tiny village of Luppitt whose first notable history was when the Romans arrived at the nearby town in 55AD. There is also a fire beacon on the hill that was part of a string of such beacons used to signal London of the arrival of the Spanish Armada in 1588.  The roads are a few inches wider than a car's mirrors and the hedges up to 20ft tall, and it's nearly always wet. I didn't live somewhere with sidewalks or street lights or even more than a few houses until I was 19 when in 1989 I went to university in Manchester. I lived a few doors down from David Beckham's Mum, [no, really]. Living in a big city was a massive culture shock to me, but I'd travelled all over northern Europe during family holidays. My parents put the travel bug in me and my siblings. I finished my Bachelors' degree in Design and Technology in the Yorkshire town of Sheffield.  In 1994 I went to teach Design and Technology at the Doha College, an international high school in the State of Qatar. In 1998 I quit teaching and went to earn some money working for a Texan oil company that operates out of Dubai.  They sent us all over the Middle East.

By the time I moved to San Diego in March 2000, I’d visited 34 countries and lived in 3 countries.  So I’m qualified to tell you that San Diego is indeed one of the finest cities…in the world.

Craig: What was your athletic background before triathlon?

Matt: My siblings and I have always been outdoorsy.  At 13, we all completed the unassisted 35 mile Ten Tors hike on Dartmoor, (notorious for its very harsh terrain where the Royal Marines train). I love hiking and mountaineering and qualified as a Mountain Leader in college.  However, in high school sports I was rubbish at everything that involved a ball. The other kids would bowl or bat straight at me, knowing the result.  And rugby was just brutal. But I discovered that I could run 6 mile cross country and be competitive.  In three consecutive years I won at the county level, came third at regionals and last at nationals. This was an interesting and humbling experience because I ran each of the nine races the same. At county, I'd end up near the back after 500 yards and then would just run past everyone by the end. At regionals I'd be at the back again and run past nearly everybody, but there would be a few people who I never saw until the podium. At nationals, I gave it everything I had of course, end up at the back after 20 seconds and ran pretty much alone until the finish line where everyone had already left for breakfast.  What I learned was that while I was fast enough, there were plenty of people who were just much more talented, fitter, stronger and faster than me. And therefore it was taking part and doing my best that was important. You can always participate, and every champion loses the gold in the end.

I've always had a bike as far back as I can remember and I rode most days in one form or another until I started working life. By the time I was 17 I was riding my bike to school every day, through the rolling 20-25% hills of Devon. Then my brother and I both bought our first mountain bikes at the same time and rode them constantly. We got really good. We learned to wheelie. We learned to ride next to each other, each of us with a hand on the other bike’s handle bars. We would ride straight at each other, butt wheels, endo and touch helmets. And we learned to ride through the ploughed field with our eyes closed. We were just bored teenagers.  At university a few years later this translated into being part of the No#1 student mountain bike team in the Britain. Races were great fun and we'd do the XC, the downhill, the hill climb and the observed trials all on the same bike, steel frames, no suspension and loads of fluorescent yellow.

I raced in the Middle East and won the Qatar National Duathlon on my MTB with skinny slicks. I did the run with my MTB shoes on. But most of my toes turned black. The Prize was a VCR and a massive medal. But it was nowhere near as competitive as a TCSD duathlon! Once in San Diego, I raced the Big Bear Am Cup mountain bike series for several years and placed 5th in the Grand Prix once. I was so thrilled because Olympian and world champion Jimena Florit gave out the prizes. I had a bit of a crush on her back then. Years later she joined TCSD we laughed about that.

But  then in 2003, in Keystone Colorado, I had a close scrape with death, which led me to triathlon. I was in the terrain park on a raised obstacle when I let my front wheel roll off the 12 inch wide plank I was on, 6 feet above the ground. My back wheel stayed up and I went most of the way upside down and landed on my head. My neck made an awful crunch, and my Giro helmet broke into 9 pieces. I saw stars. Today I can't believe I wasn't taken to ER, but I ended up riding again that day and finished my work in the mountains. But I was really hurt and later found out that I'd displaced some vertebrae in my neck. I feared giving myself another jolt so I decided to find something safer than mountain biking and stumbled across triathlon.

Craig: How did you get involved in the TCSD?

Matt: My very first TSCD event was a desert camp in 2003 I think. I won the Hill climb challenge and met Jim and Dee Dee Mc Cann for the first time. But it was a few years later that I actually joined and met Jim and Dee Dee again for the Monday Shores swim. I'd never swum in the ocean before, and I got really cold, scared and exhausted. I purchased a wetsuit the next day. It made all the difference because I knew I wouldn't drown if I stopped swimming. DeeDee and another girl Julia, stayed with me the whole time even though I was hardly moving. It's that nurturing of the beginner at which TCSD is really great. I was hooked. I bought the Total Immersion book and it transformed my understanding of swimming.

Craig: What was your first triathlon and what was that experience like?

Matt: My first ever triathlon was the Camp Pendleton Olympic in 2004. It went wrong. Or rather my bottom went wrong. I saw a lot of Portapottys that day. And I remember seeing Brian Long a lot that day too. The anatomy of my race hasn't changed too much. Finish the swim in the bottom 3rd, chase down lots of people on the bike and then run fast enough to pass lots more people only to have to stop for an emergency poo, and then run down anyone that passed during the Spanky break. I end up apologizing if I pass the same person more than twice.

Craig: I know you completed Ironman Arizona in 2006. What was that experience like for you?

Matt: It was like no other, Craig. I finished and set some records, probably. People who've known me will know what's coming next, and it's not for the squeamish! I had never run more than 6 miles competitively, and from and limping through the Ralphs Half Ironman (also known as the California 70.3), I knew that I'd have to alter my gait. My training partner and compatriot Tony Stonehouse and I hired a coach to teach us Chi Running. We worked on form and conditioning and in 6 months turned me from a bad heel striker to a mid foot grasshopper. Mike Plumb completed our race training, with us putting in about 16 hours training a week by the end. I also did lot's of work on my swim hiring several coaches from the Triclub to help me. The Triclub's network, people and support was easily the largest helping factor in my preparation for IM.  A few weeks before the race I got a really bad flu virus and a load of bacterial infections, too. My taper went vertical and training came to a premature end. Then to add insult to injury, I gave myself food poisoning the weekend before the race by eating some chicken that should have been re cooked. I had diarrhea for 3 days......

So Race day: I felt ok, but knew my last few weeks couldn't help me. I did have my best ever swim bar none. And I was going well on the bike until 3/4 through when I felt some gurgling in my tummy. I knew by T2 what was happening and took a half hour transition with the first potty break. I started the run and knew that it was going to be a long day.  I managed the first 5 miles relatively well, I kept my form and gait. But by mile ten I was stopping at every Portapotty and taking 5 minutes to "vent"  I was just making so much gas my abdomen was visibly blowing out either side of my race belt. I soldiered on to mile 16 when I think it is safe to say that I was done. I was hypo hydrated and in trouble, but quitting was not an option. I was drinking lots, but it was just coming back out at the other end 5 minute later. I formulated a plan to finish. I would walk the mile to the next Portapotty, where I would sit down and rest, eat and drink something and get electrolytes. I'd wait for the "results" in the potty and then walk the next mile. I finished, in 15:55 with NINETEEN Portapotty stops.  Arizona is a great spectator's course and my wife, Marie, was there all day and at every opportunity.  We ran the last half mile together. Grasping the never to be repeated opportunity, she lunged at the line beating me by inches. It made for a hysterical set of photos, but we kept the one where I was still in front !!!!

Craig: What would you say has been your best sporting performance in your career?

Matt: My two roommates and I made a first ascent rock climb of a 900ft cliff in the Emirates, We got to name it and it went in the guide book. That was cool.

Craig: What was your professional background like before MHS-Works?

Matt: I've always had three arenas in my life, making things, bicycles and flying. Sometimes all three at the same time and I've ended up teaching them all too.  As a child I took everything apart. My parents, both architects, were building our house and I got into everything all the time and must have been a huge pain. But by the time I was 10 I was putting things back together again and coming up with new custom built toys. I aced every workshop class and ended up teaching Design and Technology in high school. Critical thinking, the design process and construction all come naturally to me.  I came to San Diego to go to flight school and later flew the corporate plane for a commercial real estate developer. I worked on the construction sites when I wasn't flying and ended up training another pilot who turned out to be my cheap replacement. But soon enough I was building my own construction company so everything worked out I suppose.

Craig: How did MHS-Works come to be and what services do you offer?

Matt: These days MHS-Works is a full service remodeling company offering kitchen and bathroom renovations, whole house remodels and we're about to start offering additions and new construction.  We still do the handyman stuff.  I've built a team of people who share my vision of high standards and I have a great mentor, a retiring custom home builder.  We're looking forward to ever more challenging projects.  MHS-Works was always in the cards, it was natural progression of me doing what I was good at. But it was TCSD president, Jim McCann, who encouraged me and talked me into setting up on my own.  Jim told me to send out emails to the news group offering some of my services as a handyman. I'm still grateful to the people who believed in me and gave me work then; Carol Stoyla, Emilio De Soto and Dr. Jon Halperin. And, of course, Jim and DeeDee McCann - I built out the storage for the week before Jim passed away.

Craig: Running your own company means that you have very limited time to train.  What are some of your favorite workouts?

Matt: I never know where I'm going to be at the end of the day when the job is done, not when the clock hits 5 or 6. So I tend to go to the workout nearest my end of day location. That means Mike Plumb or Jim Vance's Tuesday track workout, the San Elijo or Penasquitos mountain bike ride on Wednesdays, the La Jolla Cove or Moonlight Bay swims on Fridays.  I also do the Tuesday and Thursday 0630 Swami's ride around Carlsbad. That is the epitome of short duration intensity. I'm always on my bike on Saturday mornings, Either on Darrell's Epic Del Mar ride, Swami's or on my mountain bike.

Craig: What are your favorite benefits of membership in the TCSD?

Matt: Oh, that's so easy. It's the people, of course. Nearly everyone I know in San Diego is in one way or another related to TCSD.  And when I was single, TCSD was my family.  All the races are great too, and they're put on by great people....I do admit that back when I was single, I lived off leftovers from camp outs, pot lucks and race food.  I've won my fair share of great prizes at the raffles, too. It's just a great club and I'm proud to be part of it.

Craig: Who is your hero and why do you feel this way?

Matt: My cycling hero is Miguel Indurain, just because he was winning the Tour De France when I started watching it. And Bob Roll...say no more!  But in Triathlon, it's not the big time pros, it's the people who I've known as friends who've pushed themselves to the point of being the best they can be. People like Leslie Paterson, Jim Vance and my good friend, Phil Krebs. They are humble people with regular jobs and a regular life, who just work with such dedication and drive that they perform as world class athletes. But really my hero is my wife, Marie, who puts up with and supports me. She's a trooper, too. Marie had never been camping before she joined TSCD and I didn't own a tent, but she showed up at a camp out all glam and dressed up after shopping in Hollywood and then slept under the stars with me. However, she did buy me a tent that Christmas.

Craig: What are your future goals in triathlon?

Matt: I certainly have unfinished business with Ironman. It would be nice to have a finishing time under 11 hours which is what I was aiming for last time. But I've put other life goals ahead for the moment. And as a small business owner with a family I've learned to aggressively prioritize everything I do in order to get the greatest effect out of any given period of my attention.  So that translates into short concentrated workouts. I've been meaning to do some Xterra races, but ultimately I love the TCSD Duathlon and Aquathlons. They provide me with all the racing I need. And they are every bit as good and as well organized as the best of the rest.

Craig: Matt, thanks for sharing your story.  I really appreciate all the high quality work you have done for me at my home, but I especially value your friendship.  I’m certain you will have some excellent race results in the future over and above the “results” you leave in the Portapotty!

Craig Zelent is a USA Triathlon Level 1 Certified Coach.  Craig can be reached at 760-214-0055 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .