Gary Martin hadn’t been running for all that long, but with his performances getting better and his times getting lower, he set his sights on one of the more durable records in the annals of Pennsylvania high school track — the mile run.
“Going into the season, I had looked at it and I thought it was going to be doable,” the Archbishop Wood junior said of the record for the distance of 4 minutes, 5.74 seconds set by Wissahickon’s Ken Lowry in 1982. “That’s kind of what I’ve been training for all season. It was a big goal of mine.”
Martin’s opportunity came last Friday at the annual John Hay Distance Festival at West Chester Henderson High School where, after a bumpy start, he achieved his goal, establishing a state record with a time of 4:03.53 in besting the field of the area’s best high school milers.
It was an epic race, with the top four finishers crossing the line with times that ranked first, third, fifth and eighth on Pennsylvania’s all-time list for the mile. But Martin, who was coming off PIAA championships in the 1,600 and 3,200 meters the weekend before, wore the biggest smile.
“It was pretty awesome because the race developed a little slow for me and I was able to work my way up,” he said Wednesday. “I was obviously just a little nervous because I knew I was going to have a chance at getting it and I was able to close well. It was just pretty exciting to see the time when I crossed the line.”
It’s been a quick climb for the 17-year-old Warminster resident. He had been a soccer player when he entered Archbishop Wood and switched to baseball, playing fall and winter ball as a freshman before deciding at the last second to join friends who were going out for the track team.
However, when he ran cross-country for the first time as a sophomore, he discovered that running was a lot more than just being fast.
“I didn’t take cross-country that seriously,” Martin said. “I was still playing baseball and soccer in local rec leagues and stuff over the summer and I didn’t run a ton. So then going into the season, it was kind of a wake-up call when I got into races. I think I threw up in my first four races.
“But I was always pretty aggressive. I led pretty much every race I ran freshman year for at least some point. But in the state championship my sophomore year, I was in first place for the first half-mile and I finished 50th. My coach pointed out to me that all the guys that finished ahead of me were actually running over the summer, putting in the miles. That’s where I really started.”
Wood coach Paul Streleckis knows his young pupil got the message. Martin worked hard to build up his endurance, and won a medal at the 2020 Pennsylvania Track and Field Coaches Association meet in the mile.
“His real epiphany came there,” Streleckis said. “He was an unknown up to that point, and then all of a sudden as a sophomore had one of the top times in the country indoors. I think the attention he got there, he really got passionate about the sport and started doing all the work necessary to get where he is. Now he does everything possible to be good.
“He wants to race the best in the country, so he’s fearless. He’s like a [Steve] Prefontaine, he just attacks the front of the race and dares everybody to try to keep up with him. Fortunately in the last month or so, he’s developed a pretty nice kick, which he was lacking a little bit a month ago. He’s up for any challenge.”
Martin said much of his reason for his passion for track is “the community of runners,” not only his teammates but the runners he meets from different schools where everyone competes hard but supports each other in the end. He credits consistency for his rapid improvement.
“I don’t try to do too much,” he said. “I listen to my body. I do a lot of little things in recovery, just rolling and stretching, and I put a lot of time and effort into that just so I can stay healthy. I can be consistent and work hard day in and day out, feel my best.”
Of course, now that Martin has found success on the track, college coaches have found him. Streleckis said he has received correspondence from more than 100 colleges from all NCAA divisions. Now that in-person recruiting has resumed, Martin and his parents took their first official visit last Sunday to Villanova.
“I’ve been kind of champing at the bit just to get out and see schools and meet coaches,” he said. “So it’s going to be a fun summer. I’m trying to narrow it down a little bit, but there’s still a lot on my list, so I haven’t made too much progress.”
Martin’s last competition of the season will take place July 2 at the Brooks Invitational in Seattle. One thing for sure is, he won’t be thinking too much about the 39-year-old state mile record he just broke, saying he ran the next day “to get the emotions off and get back to work.”
“It’s been an awesome season,” he said. “I knew I had it in me and it was great just to finally get my chance and run a race like that. It’s been exciting, but it’s back to work. I’ve got one more race this track season and then cross-country season and just continue building off of it.”