Gary Martin ignored the package of offseason instructions from his track coach, neglecting the program that his mother hung on the fridge in the kitchen of their Warminster home all summer.
It was an elaborate training regimen, Paul Streleckis said, that he gave each runner at the end of Archbishop Wood’s track season. And Martin, who ran for the team as a freshman after first trying soccer and baseball, hardly skimmed it.
It didn’t take long to see Martin’s talent that season, but he really only was running so he could be with his friends. So surely he was not going to spend the first summer of high school following a pamphlet.
“He was just like, ‘I’m not doing that,’” said his mother, Heather. “We went down the shore, and we said, ‘This is perfect. Go run on the boardwalk.’ He said, ‘I’m not doing that.’”
The goal — at least in the summer of 2019 — never was to inch toward history as one of the country’s all-time fastest high schoolers. But that’s where Martin finds himself this week heading into the Penn Relays, where the Archbishop Wood senior could become just the 14th U.S. high schooler to break a four-minute mile.
Almost everything Martin does — from the hours of sleep he gets to the food he eats to the toaster he brings on road trips — is centered on running. The athlete who once refused to run on the boardwalk now goes for “easy runs” of six or eight miles. Running, Martin said, “became a part of my daily life.” And the results have been historic.
He holds the high school state record in the mile, has yet to lose a race this season to a high schooler, and fell just 95 hundredths of a second short earlier this month of besting that magical four-minute mark. He won two indoor national titles in March and has won four PIAA titles.
Martin will head this fall to the University of Virginia, leaving Pennsylvania as one of the most distinguished high school runners in state history.
And none of this was even a thought three years ago when that pamphlet was stuck to the fridge. A career that one day could reach the Olympics started almost by accident.
“It was definitely an accident,” Martin said. “Which is funny to say, but it was.”
Martin was always fast — his mother said he probably still holds some kindergarten records at his CYO program — but running was not always his passion.
He planned to play soccer at Wood and spent the summer before his freshman year with the team before deciding against it. Martin switched to baseball, trained with the team in the fall and winter, but changed his mind a week before tryouts in the spring.
He told his parents he instead wanted to run track, which was holding tryouts the same day as baseball.
“I think high school is a lot about trying to figure yourself out,” Martin said. “And as I played those sports for a couple months each, I realized that they weren’t for me. It felt like a family, and I didn’t quite find that with other sports the way I did with track. I clicked with the track team, and it made me feel like I found my group in high school.”
There was something noticeably different, Streleckis said, about the lanky freshman who came out for the team that spring. And it wasn’t just because Martin ran with moppy hair and dark frame glasses.
“I had someone tell me I should wear a swimming cap. I had someone tell me I should get rid of the glasses,” Martin said. “But it worked for me. I had someone else tell me that it makes me a little less threatening going to line, which is good because maybe I can catch people off guard. It’s part of who I am.”
No, the part about Martin that struck Streleckis immediately was that the runner wasn’t afraid.
“You have kids who are always pacing themselves, which basically means you’re avoiding that pain area,” Streleckis said. “He’s never been a pacer. He’s always attacked the front. He’s never one to sit back and follow.”
Martin does not have a personal coach or trainer as he runs on his own around his neighborhood or on the Pennypack Trail in Montgomery County. Wood, like most Archdiocesan schools, does not have an on-campus track. The team practices in the parking lot — even in the winter — and tries to figure out when tracks at nearby public schools are not in use.
Yet his form is nearly perfect and his strides look almost effortless, even when he’s blazing around the track. The sport seemed to come natural to him.
“If you ask most runners or coaches, it comes to your benefit when you come to the sport late,” Martin said. “Especially if you have some natural talent. Mentally, since you’re so new to the sport, you’re kind of hungrier and haven’t spent yourself a lot yet and feel like you have a lot of room for growth.”
He raced his first mile as a sophomore and shaved 16 seconds off his time in just four weeks. That’s when Martin’s mother said she saw “a switch flip.” Martin no longer was the kid who ignored that pamphlet.
“That was when I realized, ‘Hey, I’m doing this without really putting any training in. If I train over the summer, I can have a lot of success,’” Martin said.
Martin attends Wood on a full academic scholarship as a Neumann scholar. He takes Advanced Placement courses, is a National Merit scholar, and plans to study psychology at Virginia. The 18-year-old is sharp in the classroom, and he applies that same dedication to running.
“He’s a coach’s dream,” Streleckis said. “In your mind, you have all these things that can make someone successful, but not everyone is willing to do everything. Some will do hard workouts but not sleep. Some will do the recovery work but not the hard workouts. To have someone trust you and do all the hard work and to enjoy himself through the process. ... The only scary part is that I only have a month, month and a half, left of him.”
Martin uses an app in the grocery store to scan each item, inspecting the nutritional value before tossing it into the cart. He trains on his own three times a week, studies the habits of elite runners, and is constantly stretching his body. He enjoys cooking his own meals and hasn’t drank a soda in three years. Everything is about running.
“It’s definitely a lifestyle,” Heather Martin said. “It’s funny now that we’re in the running community, they’re all like that. All the really good ones are like that. We thought it was funny that when we go away for when he goes to national meets and stuff, if we’re driving, we have to bring a toaster and his waffles because he likes to eat a certain thing for breakfast. I thought that was hysterical and very strange, and then we’re talking to other parents and they’re like, ‘No, we do the same exact thing.’ We’ve learned a lot over the past four years.”
Martin has always been ambitious — “He’ll come out with numbers, and his coach will be like, ‘That’s aggressive,’” Heather Martin said — but running a four-minute mile was not his idea.
“I remember sitting in class in sophomore year when I first started having success in the mile, and I think I had run 4:30 at that point, and thought maybe by the end of my senior year, I can run 4:15 or 4:10,” Martin said. “One of my friends joked that I was breaking four, and it was kind of like, ‘Yeah. OK. Whatever. I’m not going to do that.’”
Two years later, that idea no longer seems lofty. Martin finished his race earlier this month in 4:00.95, coming ever so close to joining the elite group of four-minute high school milers. And it was even more impressive how Martin did it as he ran the last lap practically alone and reached the finish line nearly 10 seconds ahead of the second-place runner.
The challenge of running a four-minute mile becomes even harder without an opponent who is pushing you down the stretch. Martin tries to run each of his first three laps in 60 seconds before speeding up in the final lap with an aim of 57 seconds. Finding that next gear becomes a bit easier when you’re also trying to hold on to first place.
Martin should have that competition on Friday as the 16-runner field at the Penn Relays includes elite high schoolers from across the U.S. and Jamaica.
It doesn’t matter where Martin runs his four-minute mile — it would count just the same if they held a meet in Wood’s parking lot — but it would be special if he did it Friday.
“Franklin Field is one of the most historic venues in track and field, and it’s in our backyard,” Martin said. “To be able to do it there would be really special.”
Recording a four-minute mile would be a perfect way to finish Martin’s high school career, and it could be a precursor of what lies ahead.
He was recruited by major college programs and settled on Virginia partly because its coach has a record of preparing runners for the Olympics. Martin’s times are strong enough already that it’s not farfetched to imagine him improving enough to eventually make an Olympic team.
“The pool of people who make it to the Olympics is a very, very, very small pool of people,” Streleckis said. “But he has the enthusiasm and the attitude for it, and he’s showing that ability now if he continues to progress. He’s the 17th fastest high school miler of all-time, even without breaking the four-minute mile. That certainly puts you in that pool of people, you would think. But you have to stay healthy and stay interested, and a lot of things have to go right. You have to be blessed.”
Martin — begrudgingly, his mother said — joined the cross-country team in the fall of his sophomore year, teaming up with Streleckis after he blew off that training pamphlet. The friends he met on the track team pushed him to join, so Martin figured he would run. Like track, fun with friends yielded impressive results in cross-country.
He won first place at districts, advanced to the state championship, and was in first place after the first mile.
But Martin ran out of steam, fell behind, and finished in 50th place. The difference, Streleckis told Martin, between finishing in first place and falling to 50th was the pamphlet on his fridge he ignored. He followed the plan the next summer and won the state title. Reaching the front of the pack required hard work and dedication.
Martin found the sport by accident, but there has been nothing accidental about the success that has him nearing history.
“It all happened very quickly, so it’s been really cool and exciting and I’m still just taking it all in and enjoying it,” Martin said. “It would mean a lot. To join that kind of club would be incredible and give me a lot of excitement for what’s to come moving forward.”