Gary Martin started to dream last year about running one day in the Olympics but hesitated to share his aspirations, knowing how overly ambitious it might sound since the path he took to becoming an elite high-school runner was so unlikely.
He planned to play soccer at Archbishop Wood, then switched to baseball before finishing his freshman year on the track team. Everything — the state records, the national titles, and Saturday’s sub-four-minute mile — started almost by accident.
And the Olympics? Maybe that was a bit much.
“I didn’t want people to look at me and say ‘Who’s this kid saying he’s going to the Olympics? Who does this kid think he is?’ But where I’m at now, I’d like to think that it’s not crazy for me to say that it’s definitely a goal to go to the Olympics one day,” Martin said. “It’s definitely a dream, and I’d like to think it’s a realistic thought.”
Martin is still three weeks from graduating high school and the Olympics are years away, but races like Saturday make lofty goals feel tangible.
He won the mile at the Catholic League Championships in 3 minutes, 57.98 seconds, the sixth-fastest time ever by a high school runner and the fastest mile ever in a race exclusively made up of high schoolers.
Martin finished the race at Cardinal O’Hara 20 seconds ahead of second place, becoming the first Pennsylvania high schooler to run a four-minute mile despite not having a competitor to push him.
Martin came close twice in the last four weeks to breaking the sub four-minute barrier, a magical number in track circles. And now he’s the 14th high schooler to ever do it.
“It’s been a crazy path, and I never expected to be here,” Martin said. “It’s not like I went into high school thinking I would break four minutes in the mile. I didn’t even go into high school thinking I was going to run track. It’s been a quick journey but a crazy journey. What has me excited is that it feels like I’ve just begun. I’m just at the beginning of my track career and I feel like I have a lot more left to accomplish and I’m only getting started.”
Archbishop Wood, like most Archdiocesan schools, does not have an on-campus track, so the team practices in the parking lot or tries to find when tracks at nearby public schools are open. Martin does not have a private coach, instead leaning on Wood’s Paul Streleckis and his assistants. The formula has worked as Martin will take his Olympic dreams in the fall to the University of Virginia.
Streleckis gave his runners an offseason training packet after Martin’s freshman year but Martin ignored it. He joined the cross-country team the following fall and was leading the state championship after the first mile before finishing in 50th place. Streleckis told him that the difference between first and 50th was that packet he ignored. From then on, Martin devoted himself to track.
“The big message is to be willing to change, be open to new things, and follow your heart and do what feels right,” Martin said. “For me, I joined track. I loved the group of people I was around, and maybe it was hard at first and I wasn’t a great runner at first, but I stuck with it. Obviously, it ended up being the right choice for me. I think in a lot of cases, not just sports, but you need to find your group of people and what makes you happy and what feels right, that it will work out.”
Martin followed his training packet but also delved into the mental aspect of running. He’s drawn inspiration from books like How Bad Do You Want It? by Matt Fitzgerald, learning that legendary runner Steve Prefontaine wasn’t always perfect but found ways mentally to make it work.
Streleckis, who ran at Drexel, helped Martin set goals. The young runner’s experience in high-caliber races taught him how he needed to think in the days leading to a race.
“Part of the mental aspect has been taking a step back,” Martin said. “For a while, when you get a taste of that sub-four barrier and that’s all you want and all you’re thinking about, I think you have to take a step back and realize that there are other things that are important for the season. I thought I was going to get it, but I realized that it was more beneficial for me to take a step back and focus on training and enjoy the little things rather than stressing over whether I was going to break four every race.
“Saving the mental energy from stressing over it in the days leading up to it and allowing yourself to have more mental energy on race day, I could just focus all my energy on actually running the race and trying to break the barrier.”
Martin’s teammate Doug Sampson joked two years ago that Martin would one day break that four-minute barrier. It was such a small conversation that Martin isn’t even sure if Sampson remembers saying it. But it stuck with him. Maybe he could do it.
He texted Streleckis last Wednesday and asked his coach if it was crazy to think he could break it at the Catholic League Championships. The coach told him he could as long as he could mentally convince himself. Streleckis, Martin said, isn’t afraid to tell the runner when his goals are too ambitious, and he knows how to get him in the right mindset.
A rainstorm hit Cardinal O’Hara on Saturday afternoon but cleared out just before Martin’s race started. He was ready to chase his goal. And now his next one is in sight.
“It’s unreal,” Martin said of his path. “It’s been about raising the bar of my expectations. I hold myself to high standards and sometimes I think my own goals are crazy, but the goals have just been raised. Two years ago, my goals were maybe I can break 4:10, 4:05 by the end of senior year. Last year, it was ‘OK. I think I can break four.’ Now I’ve broken four and I think I’m starting to raise the bar again and I have some higher goals and expectations for myself. I think it’s healthy to set goals and you have to have big goals and realistic goals. Always keep things in perspective but always dream big.”