How Matthew Marquardt juggles med school and elite Ironman performance, all while raising cancer awareness
Matthew Marquardt made his pro Ironman debut in Texas this past Saturday, and he nearly won. With a blistering 2:43:09 marathon in the third and final leg of the race, he ate up a nearly three-minute deficit to finish within 21 seconds of winner Rudy von Berg in one of the best triathlon finishes you’ll ever see.
As he ran, fans on the side of the course excitedly gave him updates on his position relative to course leader — down three minutes, then two and a half, then two, and so on. Those fans were puzzled when Marquardt ran by and asked them, “But how far back is sixth?”
With a top five finish, Marquardt would automatically qualify for a spot at the 2023 Ironman World Championships in Nice, France. And even as he charged toward a potential top step of the podium, the mission on his mind never changed: Qualify, compete at World Championships, and spread a message of hope on the sport’s biggest stage.
“Not to sell myself short, but my goal was qualifying for Nice,” Marquardt laughs. “I really want to do something different and make a difference and use triathlon to have an impact on the lives of others. Really from the beginning of my career as an age grouper, I’ve wanted to get to a point where I can have a platform where I can raise awareness for cancer and help cancer fundraising.”
Marquardt, 25, is unlike any triathlete you know. He started focusing on triathlons in 2021 as a member of the Princeton swim team who was looking for another athletic outlet after his senior season was canceled due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Then he did well in a few races. Really well. He won the USA Triathlon National Championship for his age group, then took second at Ironman 70.3 World Championships. He realized he had the potential to go pro.
One issue: He had pro potential in medicine, too.
When Marquardt won his age group at Ironman World Championships in Kona last year, posting the fastest time among Age Group racers on Day 1 by nearly 15 minutes, he was already well over a year into medical school at Ohio State University. For most people, an intensive med school schedule is stressful by itself. To simply train for one Ironman, much less compete at an elite level at multiple races, would be unfathomable.
But Marquardt is wired a little bit differently. Strict schedules are his fuel. He calls triathlon his escape from med school, and vice versa.
Juggling two time-consuming pursuits isn’t easy. Training can consume between 20-30 hours a week, but on occasion he’ll skip workouts if school is particularly demanding — studying comes first. He has had to make a lot of sacrifices to balance the two (Weekends? Gone.) But he understood what he was doing when he decided to pursue competing at the highest levels of one of the most demanding sports in the world. He didn’t want to miss an opportunity to discover the boundaries of his athletic potential. More importantly, he realized he could combine his twin passions to make the world a better place.
“Being naive has been really valuable,” Marquardt says. “Just balancing everything and getting everything done has been really challenging. But I think there’s also value in not really knowing what you’re getting into and just taking it a day at a time. There are definitely periods when I wake up and I plan to do two workouts today for a total of three hours. How do I get those in? And how do I fit in everything else? It’s like a jigsaw puzzle every single day.”
Cancer has been a near constant in Marquardt’s life ever since a childhood friend was diagnosed with pediatric leukemia when he was young. His friend would suffer relapses, and a swimming mentor as well as two of his uncles would also struggle with the disease. In 2022, his grandmother was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer, and passed away shortly before he competed in Kona. He is on a surgical track at Ohio State, where he’s applying what he has learned about recovery as an athlete to research how best to improve patient recovery from difficult medical procedures like surgery or chemotherapy.
Marquardt stresses that he’s not pursuing triathlon as a way to rack up sponsors, and the paydays and free gear that come with. The name of Ohio State’s cancer research center “The James” is emblazoned prominently on his chest. In January 2021, he rode across the United States in 20 days and raised $15,515 for St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital. He’s also a regular at Pelotonia, a massive bike ride outside of Columbus, Ohio, that has raised nearly $262 million for innovative cancer research since 2009.
For Marquardt, triathlon is foremost a way to raise resources and awareness for something much greater than himself. That explains in part his incredible tenacity. It also explains why his mind may have seemed elsewhere when he was staring down a potential debut win in Texas. He knew he had a privileged opportunity, and he wasn’t going to jeopardize his chances. His goal is to impress in Nice in September. He’ll be racing with nothing to lose.
“I think that the pressure that I put on myself as a college athlete was counterproductive at times,” Marquardt says. “And so in triathlon, I’ve really tried to have a curious and naive mindset. I’m gonna put in the work, and I want to do my absolute best, but in terms of actual, super strong expectations or goals, I try and stay away from that.”
Marquardt is racing on a Trek Speed Concept because he wanted “top of the line” performance. He has achieved that, quickly establishing himself as a force to be reckoned with in a ruthless sport. He also values Trek’s own commitment to cancer research. The Trek 100, held every summer, has raised nearly $20 million for the MACC Fund, which supports research to fight childhood cancers and related blood disorders.
In a twisted way, Marquardt’s jam-packed schedule has worked to his advantage in competition. Being one of the few people on Earth who can turn full-time Ironman training into a side hustle imbues oneself with a lot of confidence. Marquardt will be fearless when he steps up to the starting line in Nice.
“If things go well, I become a doctor. If things go poorly, I become a doctor,” Marquardt says. “Yes, triathlon is a very painful sport, but at the end of the day, I have also seen what my family and friends have gone through. As they’re going through treatment, I know that whatever I’m feeling is just a drop in the bucket in comparison. And that pushes me to do more.”