Rediscovering My Confidence Racing On The Track Again

By Gary Martin

April 25, 2023

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about collegiate running so far, it’s that the transition comes with bumps in the road.

I learned that during my cross-country season, which was full of ups and downs. But still, as I moved onto the track, I was hoping for a bit more of a sense of familiarity. I was coming down from 8K and 10K and moving back to distances that didn’t feel so foreign to me. But despite being better acquainted with the middle distances, I was still faced with the challenges that come with adapting to the higher level of competition in collegiate racing.

In high school, I could get away with flooring it from the gun, putting a gap on my opponents, and dying a little bit at the end but still holding on for a comfortable win. Sure, I was consistently running fast in high school, but I wasn’t always racing. And when I did have to race – to be frank –I wasn’t exactly the best at it! I look back at performances such as my Brooks 800m and my Hoka FOM Mile and realize how inexperienced I was as a racer.

I knew how to run fast in big races, but I didn’t know how to win.

As I moved into bigger college races, I knew I would have to learn how to compete and race to win. Every single race would have guys who were older, stronger, or faster than me, and I wouldn’t just be able to outrun them. I’d have to get smarter, and that can only come from the experience of racing.

After my intrasquad relay battle at Virginia Tech, I followed up with an open 800m at Penn State. It was a brutal reminder of how physical indoor races are. I didn’t get off the line great and ended up in the back of the pack at the start of the race. From there, I panicked a bit. Like a deer in headlights, I didn’t know where to move. Instead of settling in or committing to a move, I jostled back and forth in lane two and never actually made up ground. I finished the race in 1:50.01. The time itself wasn’t terrible, but I was disappointed. I never got myself into a spot where I could compete. After the race, I realized that if I was going to win races, the first step was to be confident in myself.

Thankfully, I had the chance to bounce back the next day with a 1200m leg of the DMR. This time, I felt like I belonged and didn’t doubt myself going into it. I took it wire to wire and started my team off with a lead after running 2:53. It wasn’t a crazy performance, but it was a good bounceback that reinforced the importance of confidence to me.

My next race was two weeks later, and just a bit bigger than a DMR leg at Penn State: the Valentine Invite Mile at BU. I had this date marked on my calendar from the start of the season because I knew it was going to be my chance to run a shiny new PR in the mile. I also knew that I was going to have to go head-to-head with some elite competition. I wouldn’t sit in the back of the pack like in the 800m, but I also wouldn’t be able to lead it wire-to-wire as I did in the DMR. I needed to run confidently, but also not run dumb!

I was excited to run on the “fastest indoor track in the world,” but nervous about whether that title would hold up for me. With all the fast times that have been run there and the competition I would be facing, there was definitely a bit of pressure to perform. Our coaches reminded us that the track wasn’t magic and that we still had to run the times ourselves, but as the race got closer, it did start to feel like there was a bit of magic in the air.

As fans packed the stands and the fast heat of the mile began, you could feel the energy pick up. By the time the first heat crossed the half-mile in 1:55, it felt like the place was going to erupt. After watching from the infield as [Amos] Bartelsmeyer and [Anass] Essayi headlined the first heat with 3:50 miles, any nerves I had felt were quickly dissipating. I hadn’t even run yet but it already felt like I was a part of something big.

When I’m walking to the line before a mile, it’s typically hard for me to feel excited about the eight laps of pain that I’m about to subject myself to. But something about seeing 21 people before me break four minutes in the mile and the jubilation that came with it made this race feel different. For me, the “magic” of the BU track wasn’t in the 200m loop itself, but in the environment that was created by talented athletes giving it their all and the energy brought by those in attendance.

When the gun went off, it was clear a few laps in that it was going to be a fast race. I didn’t get out to the best start but I stayed calm, worked my way up, and stayed confident that I was ready to move when I needed to. With 400 to go, I had already made my move and worked my way into the lead. With 200 to go, my teammate Conor [Murphy] made his move around me, and I found out that I went a bit too early when I couldn’t match it. Even though I faded a bit, I still finished tied for fourth in my heat with Wes [Porter] – and we both ran new PRs of 3:56.83. I had done what I had set out to do and ran my race confidently, without being overeager.

After our heat, I got to stay on the infield and watch as Nate [Mountain] and James [Donahue] joined me, Conor, and Wes to make it 5-for-5 Cavaliers under four minutes in the mile on the day. Having the opportunity to share that moment with my teammates was one of the best memories of my running career thus far and truly hard to describe. It’s special enough to have one guy on your team go under four minutes, but for us to put five guys under four in the span of 15 minutes was just an incredible feeling.

After a trip up to Arkansas for a fast DMR in which I split 1:48 on the 800 leg, I was feeling confident about my fitness and excited for ACCs. I knew this would be a different kind of racing though. I would have to run a prelim and then a final the next day. The goal of the prelim was to get through as “easily” as possible by securing one of the top two spots in my heat.

Before the race, I knew I was going to have to run more tactically than I’d ever run before. I’ve never exactly been good at being patient in races, so I knew this was going to be a learning experience! And when the second lap of the race was 34 seconds, I realized exactly how patient I was going to have to be. Thankfully, I got out in a good spot and was sitting in second, right on the shoulder of the leader. I felt confident and in control of my race for one of the first times since my college track career began.

With 800 to go, I took over the lead and began to slowly wind up the pace. I didn’t want to make a big move, but just wanted to drag the race out a bit. With 400 to go, the race was still crowded which made me a bit nervous, but I tried to remain calm and execute my plan. With 200m to go, I found myself in second and holding off the charge from multiple guys behind me. I knew I didn't need to win. I just needed to protect my position to survive and advance.

Thankfully, I did just that. Finishing second in my heat with a time of 4:06.04, I qualified for the final the next day. I was thrilled with how I executed my race plan and stayed calm throughout, but admittedly I was a bit disappointed with how tired my legs felt at the end of the race. The goal was to get through the prelim as relaxed as possible, which I felt I did mentally, but I was also a bit more physically taxed than I had hoped I would be. I knew I would have to get myself ready quickly, though, as we had the final the next morning.

After hitting some recovery and getting some sleep, I woke up to find that my legs didn’t magically feel brand new 12 hours later. In hindsight, I let this affect me a bit too much. I tried to tell myself not to worry about it, but I couldn’t stop it from hurting my confidence a bit. In high school, it was easier to tell myself that other guys were hurting just as much as I was – or more. But racing against guys who were older and have more experience caused some doubt to creep into my mind.

I’ve usually been good at silencing this doubt and getting myself ready to go for the race, but this was not one of those days. After getting out to a good start during the race, I could feel my legs starting to turn heavy about 800m in. I quickly went backward, fading from second place to 10th over the last half of the race. I finished dead last.

In the midst of a season where I had found my confidence and consistency on the track, I had lost it during the most important race of the season. It was frustrating, but also an important reminder of how important the mental side of the sport is. By losing my cool, it made it exponentially harder to push through the pain during the race.

ACCs was a disappointing end to the season, but I wasn’t going to let it take away from the otherwise great momentum I had built. I learned some important lessons about racing confidently, but also intelligently. And far from dejected, I was determined to bounce back outdoors.

After a three-week training block, it was time to get back on the track outdoors with a 1500 at the Raleigh Relays. Coming off of the worst race of my college career at ACCs, I had the typical pre-race nerves about how I’d feel opening up outdoors. What if I hit a wall at 800m again? What if I’m just not as fit as I thought I was?

Although I was nervous, I was also determined not to let myself repeat what happened at ACCs. Having three teammates in my race helped, and it made the plan pretty simple: just stick with them for the first three laps and then try to go at the end of the race.

When the gun went off, I got squished onto the rail for the first 200m and was swallowed up by the pack. I was farther back than I wanted to be, but I didn’t panic. I knew it was still early and that my best chance of making up the ground wasn’t with a big move, but instead by gradually working my way up. By the time we were 700m in, I had caught my teammates and was towards the front of the pack following the pacer. More importantly, I felt good and I knew it was going to be a good race for me. I just had to stay calm for another lap and then get ready to move.

When the pace quickened with 300m to go, I was able to match it and remained in a great spot in second, behind Conor. With 200m to go, I finally made my move and went to the front in order to hold off a charging runner in third. Conor passed me coming down the home stretch and took the win in 3:39, but I followed in second with a 3:40.

Finishing well in that kind of field was exactly the result I was looking for and showed me that I was ready to attack the outdoor season. My next race was three weeks later and was a bit of a change of pace from the mile/1500, as I dropped down the 800m.

I didn’t know what to expect from the race after my 800 indoors. I was just hoping to improve on my PR of 1:48.59 from high school. When I ran the 800 in high school, I never really figured out the strategy. The two times I broke 1:50, I put in a huge surge 400m in, only to be reeled in by my competitors at the end of the race. Sure, I had run fast, but I knew if I wanted to reach my full potential in the event I was going to have to be more patient.

When the gun went off, the first 200m was a bit of a shock to the system. I forgot how much of a sprint the start of an 800 feels like, but I was still able to get out well and position myself toward the front. I didn’t want to lead, but I did want to be able to move up and go when I was ready. 500m into the race, I started to work my way up but remained patient and didn’t quite make a decisive move yet. I followed Conor around the guys in front of us and put myself in second going into the last 200m. With 100m to go, I finally went and kicked down the home stretch. It was the latest I’ve ever kicked in a race and it paid off. I crossed the finish line in 1:47.74 and picked up my first-ever collegiate win.

I’ve had a few really good races in my collegiate career, but I think this might be the one I felt best about so far. It was the first time I was able to pair running confidently with patience and strategy. I’m still learning how to race in college and I’m continuing to get better as a competitor, but I felt like this was a big step forward.

It’s a long season, and I still have a lot more to learn before I can compete at a level I want to be at, but I’m really excited about the progress I’ve made thus far. I’m finding the confidence needed to match my fitness, and I’m learning how to run smart in big races. I’m feeling ready for whatever the rest of the season brings and excited for the challenges ahead!

Gary Martin

University of Virginia distance runner. Archbishop Wood alum. High school sub-4 miler. Sixers superfan.