Everyone is so concerned with putting on good track meets to entertain the fans, but what do the athletes want? Maybe we have needs too! There are details big and small that the participants take note of when attending a race that could determine whether or not they come back in the future. And perhaps with more implication, what spreads to the fellow athlete friends!
Ever since I started directing a meet of my own (this article is just a shameless plug for the HOKA One One Long Island Mile) my perspective has shifted a bit when tending to the needs of others. I take notice of things that I previously overlooked and also theorize the cost-benefit analysis of each expense. Bells and whistles are nice but we can’t lose sight of the most important thing that athletes want, to feel like a bunch of princesses. And if we run fast and make some money as well, then that’s also great.
In no order of importance, here are some things that make a track meet great to attend as a competitor:
Most contracted athletes have a budget allotting them a chunk of money to pay for travel expenses. We buy flights and a hotel room and then we submit an invoice to be reimbursed by our shoe sponsor. However, these aren’t limitless and I would say most athletes consciously do their best to save and negotiate expenses, otherwise you’ll be paying for it later. Obviously the most ideal situation is a meet that takes care of everything so you don’t have to tap into the travel budget at all. And any help is appreciated and goes a long way. If you don’t have a big contract, this becomes everything in choosing races.
Some meets with a smaller budget will use host families. I have stayed with some amazing people (s/o to the Derbyshire family down at Sir Walter!) and I’ve returned to the meet in large part because I love staying at their respective homes so much. Last year at Falmouth, the NJ*NY boys were hosted by former famed Boston Bruin bruiser, Jay Miller, who dropped us off at the road race with his boat and he conveniently owned a bar where the after party was held. He wasn’t originally going to come to the race and then we told him we would go 1-2-3-4 if he did. By some miracle, we nailed the quadfecta box.
Travel and Logistics
This goes hand in hand with the expenses, but where the meet is being held is a huge part of convenience. If I live in New York and can drive to your meet within a few hours, then that saves me time and money. Is your meet on the other side of the country in some remote Oregon “city” during the peak of allergy season? I regret not buying a timeshare there in 2010.
Going somewhere new and unique is a huge intrigue. I ran the Great Edinburgh XC race this year and it was an honor to wear the Team USA uniform again but part of me also wanted to go to Scotland and explore a new country. It ended up being a great time and something I’d like to do annually. If I can combine life experience with my job, then I will do my best to take advantage of this bizarre work situation.
Having someone pick you up at the airport, especially in a country where you don’t speak the language will make life easier. Being stranded in an airport for a couple hours with no address because the meet director never sent you any information…not great! Sad!
Fans and Exposure
Professional athletes, even in track and field, can have some pretty big egos and want to be made to feel special. This is where fan engagement comes in. It makes my head so inflated to cross the finish line and spend 30 minutes signing autographs and taking pictures. The race becomes more exciting and can really get the adrenaline pumping when fans are screaming for you to kiss their babies. What makes a better Instagram pic than running through a tunnel of high school kids SnapChatting? A totally different scene than Roger Bannister’s tunnel of fans.
Athletes want to be seen. Both for their self-esteem and for their sponsors who are paying them to be seen in their gear. Having media at the meet is a big part of this since it creates a platform to display the company logo. The visibility also adds to the prestige of the meet and therefore your being there means something.
A meet being on TV is the best-case scenario for achieving these goals. Next would be a free stream online (thank you RunnerSpace), and then last, but better than nothing, a paid stream. Parents want to watch their little babies run, and making the race accessible is a nice bonus.
Hate to think like this, but at the end of the day, I am going to meets to pay the bills (and to max out my Roth IRA). Getting an appearance fee is the greatest thing in the world. No matter what, I get paid? Imagine that! It’s amazing what free money can do to make you have positive connotations with a specific meet. Per diem and free meals also means more money in my pocket.
The cash prize is then something that every pro will glance at before the race starts, but try not to think about. It can also greatly influence how a race plays out. If the whole purse is only going to a couple people, then you’ll see a safer strategy employed by most in the field. Whereas, if a race pays eight deep, like at the Long Island Mile, then people are more willing to take chances because they will likely still get some paper if it doesn’t work out. And finally, something that many fans are unaware of is how lucrative time bonuses in contracts can be. That means fast races can pay very well, even if the fans don’t realize it. Therefore, a capable rabbit that the athletes know and trust can be a worthy expenditure.
How fast we get that money is also a factor. Waiting for drug test results to come back is an understandable delay on payment. Eight months and three invoices later is not. A meet that settles the bill at the after party is a dream come true.
This depends on the time of year. But singing karaoke at Coogan’s and then The Dead Poet makes for a great night.
If you are anything like me, then you are normally hiding in the stall about 20 minutes out from the gun. You can hear the echoes from the call room as the officials continually warn the field that it’s now actually their last chance to assemble. Meanwhile you’re in a quarter-life existential crisis wondering if three consecutive years of maxing out your Roth IRA is enough to retire on. But then you remember that fun fact your high school coach told you one time when you were nervous before the county meet back in 2006: There are 1.3 billion people in China who don’t give a shit about how you do in this race. Now I’ll do you one better! Even if you’re one of America’s brightest stars performing on the biggest of stages, track fans still won’t care!
Maybe some will care today. But a few years from now? They will have moved on. And a few years beyond that? No one will remember your name or any of your accomplishments. Apparently our sport does a very poor job of passing the lore down from one generation to the next (unless you came up with a few catchy quotes about poor racing strategies.) In running, it’s all about what have you done for me lately and we seemingly have a stronger obsession with the potential of an athlete’s greatness than celebrating the accomplishments once they are actualized.
In my opinion, the bar to qualify oneself as a track nerd is too low. Just because you know who Frank Shorter and Bill Rodgers are isn’t impressive. That’s like thinking you’re a hockey historian because you know how to properly pronounce Patrick Roy’s name. I have been having some fun as of late with my teammate, Ford Palmer, because he has no knowledge of anything that happened in track and field prior to 2014. We have been watching some classic race videos together and it’s been enjoyable to blow his mind. Maybe I can blow yours too?
Here are 5 incredible runners and performances that have gone unknown to most millennial track fans:
Joe Falcon wins the 1990 Oslo Dream Mile in 3:49.31
Falcon was one of these incredible athletes who unfortunately, due to some injuries and bad luck (like falling in the ’92 trials), never made an Olympic team. But he is the 5th fastest American miler on the all-time list thanks to an incredible performance in Norway. Peter Elliot of Great Britain had run 1:42 that season, Abdi Bile of Somalia was a world champion and had run 3:30/3:49 and it had been a while since an American was beating the premier milers in the world.
For some perspective, gold medalist, Matt Centrowitz Jr. has not eclipsed this mark yet. And I am also pretty sure he could not match Falcon’s supposed bench press of 290 lbs.
Watch this race! The coverage is extremely well done and leaves something to be longed for on modern broadcasts. Shout-out to Al Michaels on the call.
Rick Wohlhuter’s Whole Career
I wasn’t entirely sure how to pronounce Rick’s last name because people talk about him so little that I’ve never actually heard it said out loud. Rick looked a lot like Prefontaine, but was much less vocal and that’s why we aren’t saying Pre looked like Wohlhuter.
Rick qualified for the ’72 games in Munich, but really excelled in Montreal where he ran six races in seven days to grab bronze in the 800m and then took 6th in the 1500m. He set the world record for the 880y run in 1:44.1 and the 1000m in 2:13.9. That 1000m record is still the American record and is the longest standing current U.S. outdoor record according to a non-fact checked Wikipedia page. I guess Rick didn’t stay in the sport after retiring, and maybe that’s why he’s so rarely spoken of today.
Watch the ’76 Olympic 800m and be completely baffled by the two-turn stagger which I couldn’t find a video documenting that ever happening in any other games.
Jack Fultz takes the 1976 Boston Marathon
How does a 2:20 marathon make this list? Well, Jack Fultz won the Boston Marathon that day despite temperatures north of 100 degrees. Since 1976, it has taken at least a 2:14 to win Boston, but that year over 40% of the field didn’t finish. Ask someone to name the Americans who have won the oldest annual marathon in the world and you’ll get Meb, Bill Rodgers, Alberto Salazar and the more knowledgeable will remember Amby Burfoot’s victory. But it was Jack Fultz who was the toughest guy in the race that would go down as being known as “The Run for the Hoses.”
Without knowing this for sure, I’d imagine he’s among last winners, if not the last winner, to cross the finish line in his college singlet, as he was 27 years old and finishing his degree at Georgetown following a stint in the US Coast Guard. Today he is a sports psychologist and coach of the Ivy League team that heads to the Izumo Ekiden each October to compete against Japan’s finest collegiate athletes. He was surprisingly not that mad at me for averaging 5:02 pace for 6K in 2013, but he sent me a lot of emails about returning the uniform – which I eventually did.
Julie Ann Brown’s Range
Ask your friends to name a female athlete who has run two-flat for 800m and also posted a 2:26 marathon. I bet they can’t and I don’t blame them because I wouldn’t have been able to either until I did some research after realizing this article would be potential Tumblr rant-material if I didn’t include at least one woman. (Lisa Rainsberger winning Boston and Chicago twice was also on my list, but figured one Boston victory was enough.)
Julie Ann Brown competed for UCLA and then Cal State University, Northridge and she had collegiate national titles in the 800, 1500, 3k and XC. She would go on to be the first American woman to win the IAAF World XC championships in 1975. And some young guns may not realize this, but the Olympic Marathon wasn’t contested on the female side of things until 1984. Brown was the 2nd place finisher at the U.S. trials behind eventual Olympic champ, Joan Benoit Samuelson. If you’re really new to the sport, then it may shock you to know the women didn’t have an Olympic steeplechase until 2008.
Horace Ashenfelter Takes Olympic Gold
Unfortunately it’s really tough for us to keep track of the Olympic heroes that came pre-Internet and live television because libraries are big and the Dewey Decimal System is confusing. But before the Kenyan domination of the steeplechase, we had a gold medalist in the event out of Pennsylvania. Horace set the “world record” in 8:45 for the event in Helsinki. And I know what you USSR fans are going to say, “blah blah blah, Vladimir Kazantsev would have won if he didn’t injure a tendon in the water pit with 700m to go!” But guess what? Part of the steeplechase is landing without getting hurt.
Horace is apparently still kicking it in New Jersey at 94 years old and according to NJ*NY TC assistant coach, Tommy Nohilly, his cousin recently got a beer with the ’52 Olympic Champion not too long ago. My dream is now to one-day meet an unassuming old man at a bar and shrug off his claim to be an Olympic gold medalist because I think I know a lot about track only to eventually Google his name and realize I am ignorant, just like all of you.
Oh, and when he won that medal, he was also an active FBI agent.
I hopped on the phone with my friend and former teammate, Kyle Merber, to chat about his upcoming appearance in the Wanamaker Mile. I figured I’d write up a tidy little page-long narrative about how good he feels, and how he hopes to win.
What instead transpired was a sprawling half-hour conversation about training philosophy, the future and what makes someone a New Yorker (that last part was cut short because Kyle had to go eat sushi.) Here are some key excerpts from the transcript.
Paul Snyder: You grew up on Long Island. You went to Columbia. You now live in Hastings on Hudson, after a few years in Clinton, NJ. Besides your nine-month stint in Austin, TX, during your fifth year at UT, you’ve spent your entire life within about a 60-minute drive of the Armory. Is anyone in the field this year for the Wannamaker Mile that is as New York as you?
Kyle Merber: Johnny [Gregorek] would be the only person in the field who could rival me in terms of New Yorkness. His grandparents are from Brooklyn and his dad’s from Long Island, but he roots for the Pats and Sox, so he’s disqualified. What ultimately makes me the most New York is the fact that I’ve traveled a ton and still think the rest of the world is worse than New York. Plus I have immigrant grandparents and some Jewish in me. It’s very important to have at least a little in you. I know latkes, ya know?
PS: Oh. I know. So with that in mind, how important is Millrose to you? You won the high school mile in 2008 and I’m pretty sure nobody’s won both the high school and pro miles there.
KM: Everyone comes to the Armory and says this “feels like home.” But like I said, this is actually my home, like, I did grow up racing here. The first couple of times I was in Wanamaker, I put a lot of pressure on myself; I thought about the fact that I won in high school and how cool it would be to do that again as a pro. But my history at Millrose is absolutely terrible. I think I’ve run 4:02, 4:05, and DNF’d as a rabbit. That’s my history. Especially indoors, in a race where there are so many good athletes, you can get stuck jostling, and I struggled with that as well as with the pressure I put on myself.
PS: I take it your approach this year will be different?
KM: Exactly. My plan is to come in with much lower expectations; just aiming to feel really good for the first 1200 meters and then close hard. I mean, eh, I’m just gonna treat it like a normal race and try to run decently.
PS: Let’s talk about the race a little more. The field lacks a clear favorite, but it’s really deep.
KM: Right. This is a real race, anyone can take, which I think is really good for the spectators. It’s not going to be Centrowitz just running away from everyone and the only intrigue being how fast he runs. And as much as we as pros all talk a big game and say “Yeah, I could beat this-or-that person,” when Nick Willis runs 3:51 the week before, it’s one thing to say it, and another to believe it. Instead this year, lots of guys in the field have run 7:45-7:49 at various 3,000 meter races and nobody’s shown their hand in the mile. Everyone seems to be in good shape but nobody seems unbeatable.
PS: So your training’s been going well? You and your NJ-NY teammates have shirked altitude in favor of training in Tallahassee, FL, this winter.
KM: Yeah it’s been great. I’m running about 90 miles per week in singles. I feel my legs are fresher when I have 24 hours to recover between runs. I’d rather do 85 minutes than 50 and 35. That always gets a big shock factor because the elite lifestyle is so conducive to doubling. I obviously have the time to do it.
PS: Do you feel like a lot of pros rely so heavily on doubles, almost out of boredom, or to create the illusion of having a busy day?
KM: Maybe, to an extent. You feel like you’re working harder with doubles. You’re always getting ready for a run, running, or showering or stretching after a run. Personally, I like being able to have a normal day after my run, and try to keep busy with non-training things so I don’t drive myself crazy. It’s a lot of work to put on the race on Long Island (the HOKA One One Long Island Mile) and I help out with marketing for a startup called ShoeKicker.com. Anyway. The real biggest difference with running in all singles for me, is that it’s a different stimulus — I did lots of doubles in college so this is a big change that my body has adapted to really well. At some point I’m sure that will change and I’ll have to revert back to doubles to keep my body on edge, even if I don’t feel better doing it. Constantly changing stimulus and playing with variables is key.
PS: Do you think a lot of runners don’t change up their training enough? It’s so easy to stick with what’s worked, because you have anecdotal proof that it’s the right option for you.
KM: Well something that happens a lot is — Dathan [Ritzenhein] is a good example; he was training with Brad Hudson for years. Then switched to Salazar and suddenly set the world on fire. It wasn’t the change in coach, it was the sudden small change in stimulus that allowed the years of work to manifest and to sink in. It’s easy to abandon ship for a new coach if you’re feeling stagnant but sometimes all it takes is just mixing things up within your current system.
PS: So how do you know when a change is necessary?
KM: I couldn’t write a textbook on it. You just need to feel it out. People are shocked at how slow we’ll [Kyle and his NJ-NY teammates] run our average runs. We rarely average under 7-minute miles on recovery days, and sometimes we are even north of eight minutes, because we work out pretty hard every other day. This is the fourth year I’ve been in this system. It took a year or two to adjust to it. Now I’m benefitting. But in a year or two more, maybe I’ll need to make another change, fewer workouts, more hammering on “easy” days. I work with Coach Gag[liano] to figure it all out and I’ll be coached by him as long as he’s willing to coach me, though!
PS: Touching on that, something maybe one or two readers will find interesting is your take on muscular tension and how big a role it places in racing well.
KM: Muscular tension is huge and I learned about it from Steve Magness. Basically you see guys ripping tons of all-out strides the day before a race. Well sometimes I’ll go out and do one stride, then I’ll realize I feel perfect here and there before cutting it short. Or if you feel too springy, you can do a longer slower stride, then if you’re not springy, you might need some hard hills, or squats, to get that tension back. It’s about zoning in, listening to your body and finding the right amount of pop to be efficient and feel good.
PS: Speaking of listening to your body, you’ve been healthy for a bit now. What do you attribute it to?
KM: You have to obviously listen to your body with aches and pains, but often times you can just run it through it. You have to learn to guess accurately what needs rest and what doesn’t. 95% of the time I’m good at guessing. That 5% that I’m wrong is when injuries occur. The difference between those with longevity and those who lack it, is this. If you’re always throwing yourself against the wall you’ll break. Guys like Nick Willis take a day off each week and he’s still racing fast into his 30s. That’s what I want for myself. My goal is to run really fast but it’s also to run really fast for a really long time.
PS: Okay, potentially departing here: are you taking indoor more seriously this year than in years past?
KM: I take indoors as seriously as I am healthy and I’m healthy this year. Plus I had a good fall and winter block, so I’m trying to race more regularly. The more I do it, the better I deal with nerves. I don’t wanna pretend that I’m a tough guy who doesn’t get nervous; I used to vomit before every race due to nerves but it’s gotten better recently.
PS: What are the plans after Millrose? Does the outcome there inform that decision?
KM: Regardless of how Wanamaker goes, I want to race one or two more times this season before taking a couple of weeks down — but not entirely off. Then I’ll start gearing up for outdoor. I don’t like taking time completely off so I just do some jogging instead. My legs remained hardened and seasoned… training legs, ya know? I feel way less awful starting up again.
PS: Speaking of, what do you foresee on the docket for outdoors this year?
KM: I wanna run a 5,000 at Stanford. I think I can go in the 13:20 range. Plus, opening the season going up in distance should help direct my training toward strength in the early phases. Running the 800m early on always makes me wanna rush into speed work. Instead, at the end of outdoors when I usually always end up running six straight miles and 1,500 meter races. This year I wanna do an 800 when I’m sharp and not bogged down with mileage, instead of as an opening race when I’m slow. I really think if I time it right, I’ll have a 1:45 in me if I’ve been turning over and I’m not at max volume.
PS: Is your 5,000m PR still from your Columbia days?
KM: Exactly. It’s that 14:02 I ran as a sophomore. Honestly despite not racing the 5,000 at all right now, I think of myself as a 1,500/5,000 guy, and I could see myself doing the 5K at USAs in a couple of years.
PS: Last question, that requires us to double back a decent bit: Why Tallahassee? Why not go to altitude?
KM: I’ve tried altitude because it’s been so hyped up .When I went, I felt absolutely terrible for the five weeks I was there. I slept poorly and I have a notoriously weak bladder, which was a terrible combo, constantly waking up and being unable to fall back asleep. Recovery was tough. Additionally I thrive on feeling good. Mentally and confidence wise — if I know something is supposed to be fast and hard, I want to hit the paces, but slowing down at altitude… that messed with me.
Plus I prefer warm weather in the winter to snow. Warm weather versus altitude? I choose warm weather. It’s easier to stay healthy. You’re more loose. You can get to trails and you wanna do stretching and drills outside instead of going home and feeling like you need a three-hour shower. I understand why some people like Flagstaff but I don’t think it’s necessary for everyone, and to pretend that that’s the only way to train is, I think, short-sighted. Plus Diablo Burger is very overrated.
Wasn’t originally going to even race this, but heard it was basically going to be a time trial and I have been itching the last few years because being outside the top 3 Americans makes it’s tough to get into the top meets. Plan was to get out and ride the train and did exactly that, but as you can see with the splits, the 2nd 200 was rolling. I was sitting on my teammate, Johnny Gregorek, and we both let Cheserek and our teammate, Ford Palmer, go a bit. Felt completely comfortable doing this because I knew we were on pace the first lap and this was a surge that couldn’t be sustained. As it slowed down going into 800 we reattached and things actually felt pretty pedestrian for the next quarter mile.
With 400 to go I saw the clock and knew I was going to PR (previous best was 3:54.5), but now it was a question as to how much. I considered going around Johnny and Ford to get on Ed’s shoulder, but for whatever reason hesitated and didn’t. This would be my biggest regret of the race because with 200 to go Ed took off and I didn’t see the move and had a delayed response. With just over 100m to go I swung wide and was in full chase. After moving too early at Wanamaker I was nervous to go early and die, but instead I made the opposite mistake and left too much in the tank. I ran the final turn in lane two but was eating up ground and thought it would be enough. I saw the clock and couldn’t believe what I saw. I came on Ed, but when he felt me, he had one more gear. There’s a reason he’s the king (fun fact learned on our run together the following day: King is actually his middle name). Upon finishing, it took me a while to digest what happened. With my teammates going 3:53 and 3:54 behind me, our coach was yipping, crying and cursing. Was an awesome day, and really validates what I thought all winter long–I am in the best shape of my life.
Next week is nationals. The altitude should make things interesting, but hoping my fitness will triumph for a solid race and give me a chance with 100 to go.
Last spring I suffered a sacral stress reaction, but since have been very healthy and I’d attribute the good indoor season to exactly that. Below is a peek into training.
I am a big advocate for singles. This year I am way more open to taking down weeks, which has been working miracles in terms of keeping the legs fresh. I know everyone always says that they’re not doing speed work indoors like that’s some sort of badge of honor. My log has my fastest 400 at 53.0 in this buildup, and a 200 in 24.3.
I don’t think this makes the race more impressive or anything, but goes to show just how valuable strength training is. The pace on my average tempo run this year has dropped 8+ seconds and we have upped the distance too. Our strength intervals are all averaging a couple seconds faster/lap and we again, have upped the distance. We don’t go crazy pace wise on long runs because we generally workout 3x a week, but as in past years, 2 hours has become a pretty standard length.
Here are some key workouts that got me excited, not just because of the pace, but the way that they felt:
12/6: 10 miles @ 5:06
1/11: 6 miles @ 446
1/13: 4 x 600 @ 127 + 800 @ 155 + 2 x 400 @ 56
1/15: 20 miles in 2:08
1/17: 12 x 1k @ 248
1/20: 3 x 1200 @ 311,308,305 + 600 @ 132 + 2 x 400 @ 55
2/1: AM- 3 miles @ 452 + 2 miles @ 446 – PM: 6 x 200 @ 26 (closed in 24.3)
As a young runner starting out in the sport, I found inspiration in the best. The likes of Alan Webb, Craig Mottram, Nick Willis, and of course, Steve Prefontaine. But I didn’t know those guys, and I never had the opportunity to watch them race in-person. They were demigods, running unfathomable times that weren’t relatable; so fast that I couldn’t wrap my 14-year old head around it. I craved a role model that was a bit more tangible, so I looked to the front of the pack that I was in.
The best of Long Island and New York were my targets. At this point in Internet history, AIM was the prime mode of communication. And I utilized it to bother every accomplished local runner whose screen name I could get my hands on. It’d start off with an introduction, maybe a congratulations on a recent performance, and then a barrage of questions about how to get faster. And this is how I met Brendan Martin or, as I first knew him, MiddieLax28.
Brendan remembers this interaction, as I clearly left an impression, ‘You provided a picture of yourself racing, so I knew what you looked like.’ He was happy to chat and provide some insight. Partially because he wanted to help, but the bigger reason being that he was in what he refers to as a maxed out nerdy phase of running. And this was another chance to obsess over it.
As a sophomore, I ran 17:38 for 5k to qualify for my first state meet and immediately attached to the locally established Brendan. One year older than me in school and considerably faster, he had been to states previously and let me know that I had a fun weekend to look forward to with the other athletes on a long bus ride and plenty of downtime to talk running. That trip solidified our friendship.
Due to the lack of licenses, our parents began driving us to meet each other for runs on the weekends. My mom was elated I would have some company while navigating the roads and trails of suburbia. And so the tradition started for the next couple years: race each other on Saturday and run together on Sunday. During our 10 mile long runs, we would countdown the distance as we went and how much longer until we could feast on IHOP, ‘8 miles to pancakes…7 miles to pancakes…’
Though we traded off victories over one another, our strengths and weaknesses became apparent. Brendan was a brilliant distance runner. He eased through the course of a 10-mile long run effortlessly, and though I struggled on that end, I would have the superior kick in close races. We were developing into our respective niches.
The College Years
Graduating with personal bests of 2:04/4:21/9:22/15:09, Brendan took off to nearby Columbia University. The summer before his freshman year, he found it difficult to train and find motivation while leaving behind old teammates. ‘When I was in high school, I couldn’t even picture a career beyond that, because high school track was all that ever mattered.’ Suddenly thrust into a new environment, he recalls a rough cross-country season, both as an individual and as a team. But a return to the comfort of home for winter break reinvigorated his enthusiasm and he returned knowing, ‘I want to be good…really good, and I want to do it with my teammates.’
While not lacking drive, but sometimes being depressingly realistic, Brendan had obtainable goals early on. Citing himself as, ‘smart enough,’ he realized the odds of winning an Olympic gold medal were slim, but he wanted one thing, ‘to know how close I could come.’ Today that balance remains. And while a coach could possibly fault him for not shooting for the stars, this mentality has produced admirable consistency.
During my senior year of high school, I was looking at schools a bit further from home, but in her regular Long Island motherly way, I was encouraged by my Mom to visit at least one Ivy League school. My brother was a non-runner in a fraternity at Dartmouth, so she cunningly suggested I take advantage of the coach’s offer and spend a weekend with Brendan in the city. Going in, I had no intentions of ever committing to Columbia. My heart was set elsewhere.
Having a friend to help make my introduction to the team, I was immediately welcomed. Though I tried my best to not fall in love with the school, it was inevitable. And so the rivalry was over, and a year later we’d become teammates.
From day one, we worked incredibly well together. He would push me on the strength stuff, and I’d push him on the speed. But perhaps more valuable than having a body to run next to is having a training partner who can provide valuable insight and perspective to the process. As the miles poured on together we would bounce ideas off one another our strides would fall into tune and create a collective consciousness. The conversations were dialectical and constructive, but most importantly, overwhelmingly positive–The greatest asset in a training partner. We had a built-in support system.
During his senior year, I was unfortunately injured and the team fell short of NCAAs by a single place. Brendan left college without ever competing at a national championship, but with personal bests of 4:18/8:15/14:09/29:43. He was without a doubt a very solid runner that any coach would be more than excited to have on their roster. But there was still untapped potential, and Brendan ‘knew [he] was good at the long runs, and enjoyed being out there for a long time, so [he] started to realize that it was time to move up.’
Immediately after the 2011 regional meet his senior year, Columbia head coach Willy Wood started preparing Brendan to race a half-marathon. Although beat up, and a bit removed from true strength work, there were 3 weeks until the Grandma’s Marathon [which also hosts a half]. Qualifying for the 2012 Olympic Trials Marathon would require a sub-65 minute half-marathon, but with fitness already in the tank, and no immediate prospects of joining a post-collegiate training group, he took the risk. Wood expressed a level of relief about having the prospect of coaching Brendan for his true calling, ‘I was finally able to devise a training schedule that didn’t require the speed work necessary for the track. Everyone in our program knew that Brendan would really excel on even greater a level once the race distance was lengthened.’ He was right. Although he came up short of the qualifying standard, his 65:32 finish was a quick glimpse of his greater potential. And ultimately it was enough to get the attention of the Hanson-Brooks Distance project.
The Becoming of a Marathoner
When Brendan first told me he was moving to Michigan, I was thrilled for him. One of the biggest roadblocks for many American distance runners is having the time and resources to pursue racing after their collegiate careers. While he ambiguously identified himself as a professional runner, it wasn’t about making it a career. Always the realist, Brendan noted that ‘in college I realized I was no where near the most talented, and it’d take a special person to make money doing this, but I love it and that’s enough.’ The lifestyle suited Brendan for a while, as he clipped off 115+ mile weeks, running twice on most days and working at the running store selling shoes. A large training block led him to a 2:22 in Boston in 2012, which was good enough for 13th overall and the 3rd American in an 85 degrees scorcher.
Two years later, while working as an office manager at teammate Clint Verran’s physical therapy clinic, he started looking outward. Training came to a sudden halt when a femoral stress fracture ruined all hopes for another successful Boston campaign. ‘I was 25 and started having more interests outside of just running, and so I wasn’t THAT upset. My identity wasn’t lost the way it would’ve been in college. There was no question of ‘Who am I?’ and ‘Why am I alive?’’ It was that equilibrium to life that encouraged his move back home to New York. While recovering from injury, he was knocking out pre-requisites before enrolling as a PT student.
Running was on the backburner, and once healthy enough to jog, he did it just because it was a familiar routine. But a bunch of easy runs added up to something much bigger. While distracted by the excitement of school and the comfort of his old room, fitness was slowly dropping into his legs. He looked at a calendar and committed 8 weeks to a build up before the California International Marathon. It went well. After going out conservatively, he closed hard to run 2:16 and subsequently knocked out the 2016 Olympic trials marathon standard.
That race pulled Brendan back in, but he would do it again on his terms. Friend and mentor, Corey Kubatzky began coaching him over phone and through email. They became acquainted during his time in Michigan, and like all good coach-athlete relationships, there was complete faith in each other. The CIM marathon served as a reminder and a stimulus. “I am good at this and can do it for at least one more year. I owe it to myself to run until the trials.” And that’s when Brendan’s story really begins to inspire me.
During this time, I am living in Clinton, NJ in what could be best described as a track fraternity. I am in quarters with six other professional runners who have the same mission as myself each day when we wake up. Every run is done in a pack, and each interval of a workout is split up between us to block the wind and handle the responsibility. Things couldn’t be set up more favorably for me to run fast. I have every advantage at my disposal, whether it is doctors, strength-training coaches, physiotherapists, masseuses, or anyone else who could possibly help. I don’t work outside of training. When I wake up in the morning, the only thing I have to accomplish it to find a way to get better at running. It is easy to feel a level of guilt when Brendan and I talk and I hear about how busy his life is.
“I have had company for one workout the last 1.5 years,” Brendan says it with no sound of animosity or regret in his voice. It’s simply a fact and his situation. There is however a couple friends who live nearby that will join up for the occasional easy run. But when you are running 120-130 miles a week, that company only covers so much ground.
In addition to commuting to Stony Brook University for class to finish his Doctor of Physical Therapy, Brendan works part-time at Smithtown Running Company selling shoes to people who have no idea the caliber of runner that is helping them. And somehow, between the miles, school and work, he finds time to coach a local high school cross-country team. He is truly doing it all, the running Renaissance man.
He acknowledges that it is tough to do it alone, but is quick to note that there are positives. “I have a hard time overtraining. In college, I would force myself to stay with you on a workout no matter how terrible I felt that day.” That’s not the case anymore. Now, “if I feel terrible, then I don’t need to justify getting dropped. I am alone, in the woods, without a GPS watch. I don’t need to know what pace I am going.”
The Olympic Trials
In February of 2016, Brendan got his chance to run at the race he had circled on his calendar many years ago, the US Olympic Marathon Trials. Though he was dealing with a migrating lower leg injury that made the final weeks of preparation difficult, the focus was on the years of consistency leading into the race. “Everyone on the line probably has something that’s hurting them.” That level-headedness has always been his greatest weapon.
Going in the goal was to finish among the top 30. But as the forecast heated up, so did Brendan’s ambition. His injured calf would handle the slower pace more comfortably and people would dig their own graves by not adjusting gameplans to the weather. “My strength is being a smart racer, and I am confident that I race smart because I have done it before. It plays into itself.” Brendan knew the heat would increase his chances.
It was 2.2 miles into the marathon when Brendan first looked back and saw that there were maybe 5 people behind him. He was shocked, but self-assured that such wouldn’t be the case for long. Though at 10-miles he looked up while running alongside former Hanson-Brooks teammates, Drew Polley and Ethan Shaw and saw a horde of people still ahead. That’s when a moment of doubt crossed his mind and he prayed, “I hope I made the right decision.”
With just a few miles left, Brendan heard someone from the crowd call out that he was in 60th place. At the point there were 10 people being picked up each mile, and they were seemingly standing still. “As we were rolling on guys, I just thought, IT’S WORKING!” And he was right. Brendan Martin crossed the finish line that day in 2:20:41, which was good enough for a 20th place finish in the country. His half marathon time was 70:20, an even split.
The Next Step
Normally after a great race, it’s natural to look at the calendar and pick another date to circle. You bask in the glory of your achievement for a few days before wondering what more you can do. After the Olympic Trials, Brendan had no immediate desire to go for another run for a while. “I owe it to myself, as I am limping around, to take a very serious break and catch up on the rest of my life. There are other things I need to do. I am going to play volleyball, go camping, hang out with my super hot girlfriend and figure out my next move, in time.”
Brendan has scraped up the money to fly himself to races (thanks to help from the Brooks ID program and NYAC) and he has squeezed in plenty of 8-mile runs between a 60-minute class break. It’s not easy for him to pull himself out of bed on a cold morning when already completely exhausted to go do a workout alone. And it’s not easy after getting home from work and school that day to go out again into the dark and run more.
“On those days, it’s more like I am doing it out of duty or obligation to myself. I refused to have it be a goal of mine for so long, to qualify, and then not have the motivation leading in to make sure I do a good job once I finally lined up there. I owed it to me to force myself to do it.”
It all paid off. For the guy who once had a hard time finding motivation after leaving behind his high school teammates, he did his best when he was doing it for no one but himself. It wasn’t to impress anyone or because someone was making him do it.
“To 19-year old Brendan, he would be so thrilled if he know he would one day run in the OT marathon and find out he’d placed so high. And to 43-year old Brendan, who has three kids, and doesn’t have time to go running without a baby stroller—I owed it to those guys to try really hard now.”
Brendan Martin never thought he was going to win an Olympic gold medal. But ever since high school he just wanted to know how close he could get. And he got 20th at the 2016 Olympic Trials-close.
Q: So, what exactly is Merber’s priority in a race like that mile?
Pre-race, his instructions were to go 3.50 pace. He takes it out right there, and no one goes with him. So he looks over his shoulder and then slows down in laps 2/3 until they regain contact. And then when he speeds up again in lap 4 … same story: no one goes with him. What’s a rabbit supposed to do with that kind of field?
I guess it looks like his #1 job is to pull whoever is running 2nd, and then his 2nd priority is to hit 3.50 pace through 1200. Or did he improvise? Genuinely curious here.
Note that I’m in no way criticizing the guy, because he sure seemed to have the legs to go ~2.53 through 1209.
A: Honestly, it is an extremely difficult position for a rabbit to be in, but I think I handled it as best as I possibly could. I spoke to Centrowitz earlier in the week and he told me to get out and run 56.0 but he’d rather me be faster than slower. So I went out with that intention, and assumed he’d be on me. For everyone else in the race, they make that same assumption. They’ve heard he requested 2:52 and so they expect him to take second duty and for it to be strung out and rolling. Centro was apparently feeling a bit sick and so when I realized he didn’t get out as hard as he planned and Garrett finds himself in the lead I have to slow down. But if I put the breaks on too hard that’ll be a disaster so I just immediately fall into 29.x and wait for them to attach. I tried on a couple occasions to press a bit, but a gap would open so I just kept that pace rolling until it was time to step off. I squeezed it down a bit the last 100 in hopes of winding them up (a move Willis preaches and taught me at Swarthmore). I felt great, and believe I did the right thing. The mistake a lot of people would probably make is to just run 2:52 like they were told, never look back and the field would jog a 3:00 and kick. After the race, the meet director and a lot of people whose opinion I really respect knew it was a tough situation to be put in, but that I did everything right and were happy with the job.
My plan to rabbit this race came a couple months ago as I was hurt in the beginning of the fall, but have been pleasantly surprised at how quickly my fitness has come along and was a bit disappointed I didn’t get in a fast race like at the other top US guys. But I wanted a low key indoor season without much excitement and that’s what I am getting. The perks of rabbiting is that afterwards everyone is really appreciative and it’s good karma. Obviously at this point, I am really good friends with the majority of the field despite being in constant competition with them. One day they’ll probably get me back, ideally by coming to the Long Island Mile.
Still had a full week of mileage and right after the race (about 7-8 minutes later) I did a quick workout of 2x1k (2:51-2:52) and then 400/300/200 (58-42-26) and got in a long cool down. Next weekend I am going to do a low key 3k in Staten Island and call it a season. Glad to have gone through the race-day routine today and walk away with confidence.
It’s January and I am in Tallahassee. It is 71 degrees out and the sun is starting to go down. Despite that, I think I might make myself another pot of coffee. After this morning’s 2-hour long run, we got brunch—which is where the majority of my money seems to go towards these days. When we got back to the house, I quickly hopped in the shower, and was excited for the eventual transfer to my bed for an afternoon snooze to take the edge off. But that’s when my phone starts buzzing. Results are coming in!
With the start of the indoor track season these past couple weeks, things have started to heat up real fast. It seems like you can’t use the Internet these days without it telling you just how fit some of the top runners across the country are. Now as a track and field fan, it’s fun to follow. Though meanwhile, I am trying to be excited about my own training! Granted, most of it has been long-slow paced intervals, but that’s what I had planned to do. But I will have to find a way to beat these guys!
As I sit back and watch other’s times drop behind the protection of my computer screen, that leaves me in a precarious situation. What do I do about this? But perhaps more importantly, how do I rationalize this to make me feel better about myself?
Now the easiest thing to say, which also happens to be the most aggressive [and meanest] thing is to wish that everyone else will burnout and that they’re peaking too early. Unfortunately, this isn’t true. That’s not to say it won’t happen to someone, especially with the excitement of an Olympic year, but I wouldn’t rely solely on this being the case for everyone. Athletes make breakthroughs, and NJ*NY isn’t the only team with a great coach who knows what they’re doing. There will be endless ups and downs between now and when it counts. But mentally prepping yourself in advance for those dramatic highs and lows will prepare you to better handle them when they do inevitably occur.
Maybe it’s a ‘problem’ in our sport, but the fact is that one day matters far more than any other. And whatever path is taken to ensure that you show up on that one day will be the right one. It’s just hard to know if you figured it all out until the race is finished.
We have 6-months until the Olympic Trials, and that’s a lot of time to go through the many phases of training. And that’s more or less the point I choose to focus on. Six months is a lot of time. I can’t control anyone else’s plan, but mine is on schedule. My high school coach used to always tell me to stop worrying about what other guys were running. If I would just keep my head down, and keep doing what I am supposed to do to get better, then the field will eventually narrow. And that’s still the plan—head down, get better.