Laying The Foundation: My First NCAA Cross Country Season

By Gary Martin

December 21, 2022

CITIUS MAG has officially brought on a new youngest member of the editorial team! The man who is the subject of the highest-liked post in our Instagram’s history: 3:57 high school miler turned University of Virginia freshman, Gary Martin, will now be a regular contributor. The conversations started last year when we had the opportunity to spend some time with him at New Balance Nationals. He’ll be producing written and video content to share the ins and outs of his NCAA journey.

Enjoy Gary’s first piece as he reflects on his inaugural cross country season as Hoo..

On June 19th of 2022, I wrapped up my high school track career in front of the home crowd at Franklin Field during New Balance Outdoor Nationals. After fighting some serious track hack and without a cooldown, I walked my way over to Kyle, Chris, and Mac, and sat down to be interviewed one last time as a high schooler. After discussing my race, NCAA running, and Wawa, I remarked that I hoped to be back on the pod soon, to which Chris responded, “We’ll give you your own pod soon.” Well, six months later, and a lot has changed. One of the coolest changes is that I have officially joined Citius Mag as a contributor (this is a toss-up for “coolest change” along with the Phillies making the World Series!) I’m super excited to have this opportunity and I look forward to giving everyone a look into my life on and off the track. Prepare for lots of talk about food, music, sports (go Sixers!), and most importantly, miles.

If you’re looking at my first college cross country season on paper, it probably seems a bit underwhelming. Nothing terrible, nothing great, just a bit meh. Hell, if you’d told me over the summer that I would finish my season 163rd out of 252 at Nationals, I would admittedly have been disappointed. But yet, I can’t help but have a pretty positive view of my season.

When I finished my high school career and began looking forward to college, I didn’t know what to expect in terms of specifics, but there was one thing I knew: it wasn’t going to be easy. Both on and off the course, there would be ups and downs. But that was what I was most excited about for college.

If I’m being honest, I felt like it had been a while since I had been truly challenged in high school track. I don’t mean in races, but I mean on a day-to-day basis. The last time I felt like I made a massive jump in my level of training and commitment was my sophomore year, when I finally gave up on my CYO basketball career, stopped drinking soda, and started listening to Coach Paul when he told me to “run on my own.”

It’s funny looking back at it, but those were all big decisions at the time! There were obviously a lot of steps in between, but I’d like to think that shift in mindset is what laid the foundation for the sub-fours and national titles that would come later on.

But I’m not sure I would have become so committed to the sport that year if not for the people around me. I fell in love with the team aspect of cross country and the friendships it brought, as well as the idea of “shared suffering” through workouts – one of Coach Paul’s favorite sayings. That shared suffering brought us success, with our team securing a District title!

My freshman year of cross country at Virginia reminds me a lot of my sophomore year of high school. Facing a new challenge meant I needed an even higher level of commitment.

I ran upwards of 70 miles a week for most of the season, when I had never consistently run more than 40-50 miles a week in high school. The workouts were longer and faster, the strength training was more rigorous, and the toughest addition of all – to combat my lack of flexibility – I did yoga every week!

And that’s not even getting into the usual challenges that come with being a college student, and having to live and sleep in a dorm. There were days that sucked. There were days that I got my ass kicked. And there were days when I just wanted to go home. But I reminded myself that it’s the adversity that makes you better.

It took a lot of strength to walk away from rec basketball and to actually run on weekends in my sophomore year of high school, but it paid off! And confronting these new challenges in college certainly paid off for me as well.

I found myself in the best shape of my life as the season went on, crushing tempo and threshold workouts that I wouldn’t have even been able to touch in high school. For the first time since that sophomore year cross country season, I was running with other guys for workouts and enjoying every minute of it. There’s no better feeling than barreling through a workout and realizing that there are 15+ guys on your team right there with you. I felt healthy and stronger than ever.

The training was pretty linear and straightforward; I stayed consistent and could feel myself getting fitter and fitter every week. Races, however, were a different story. I quickly learned how different college cross country was from high school racing. Our first meet was on September 23rd in Boston. Going into that race, I told myself I had one goal: stay with the pack the whole race and finish with the group, which is usually a pretty good recipe for success. I was hoping to run close to 24:10 for 8k, but I was more worried about where I finished than the time I clocked.

I got myself into my typical zone, pre-race: I put on my AirPods, played some Kendrick, Baby Keem, and Tyler, and felt unstoppable. It was the same as my pre-race routine in high school but it managed to feel a little different this time. In my senior year of high school, I was confident that I was the best runner in the field going into races. I didn’t have to hype myself up to think that, either. The results had proved it. But this was different, I was the new kid with everything to prove.

When the gun went off, I packed up with our guys near the front and stayed strong for the first 2k, until I took a fall. Panicking a bit, I hopped back up and made up the gap quickly. I was with the group for a while but after 5k, I could feel I was losing some focus – every step felt a bit heavier than the last. I knew the last 3k would be tough going into the race, but knowing something and experiencing it are two different things. I was not prepared for the mental strength it takes to lock in and finish an 8k race strong. Fading hard, I finished in 24:30 for 17th place overall, and 9th(!!!!) place on our team, which is a testament to how strong our pack was this year.

I was definitely a bit disappointed in my result, but also super excited about how strong our pack was. Hungry to bounce back strong, I prepared myself for our next race three weeks later at home, the XC23 Panorama Farms Invitational.

In a season full of highs and lows, this was the one race where I felt that it all came together. With a fast first mile of 4:32, we found our pack a bit more spread out than we had been in Boston. It took some regrouping, but by 2k I was locked in with my teammates Derek and Rohann.

If you watched my high school races, you know that I had one strategy: go to the front and hold on for as long as possible. So when the three of us found our pack in the 30th range at 2k, it was definitely new to me. But I found strength in working together and moving up as a pack. There was a sense of accountability – I knew that they were hurting just as much as I was, and as much as I needed them, I felt that they needed me too. If I fell off, it was going to hurt them too because there would be one less guy there to hold the group together.

It was that same shared suffering that I reveled in early on in high school, and I was getting to experience it now at the highest level. As much as I love track, that’s a pretty special aspect of cross country that can’t be replicated on the oval.

Thanks to our pack running, we finished 2nd as a team and I had my best individual finish of the season, running 23:36 and placing 16th. This was also my only win of the year against my roommate Will, who finished half a second behind me. Much to my dismay, he took the other four races and won the inner-dorm battle, 4-1. Get ready for the highly publicized rematch next cross country season!

Coming off of that Panorama Farms race, I had all the confidence in the world. I mean I just shaved 54 seconds off my 8k PR so that meant I was due to run 22:42 next race, right? Nope! In our next race at the ACC Championship, things went pretty wrong. I got out a bit over my head, faded, and could never really regroup. I finished in a disappointing 24:04 on the same course I had run 23:36 two weeks prior.

Two weeks after ACCs was the Regional meet. Now I knew that things were not going to get easier from here. I was still trying to figure out running 8k. Now I had to go up to 10k!? To use a metaphor that will appeal to a very small audience, I was Shake Milton on the 2019-20 Sixers. I was just getting the hang of playing shooting guard in the NBA. Now it’s the playoffs and I have to play point guard!?

If you watched any of that 2020 first round matchup between the Sixers and the Celtics, you probably already know where I’m going with this., My Regionals race ended with a bit of a blow-up and a disappointing finish in 46th. Despite this, I felt some confidence walking away. If I could blow up in the last 3k and still run 30:48, I must be in good shape, right? That it was a great day for the rest of the Cavaliers also kept my spirits high. With 5 All-Region runners, the team took 2nd and secured a spot at Nationals!

Now we’re at that aforementioned Nationals race, where I placed 163rd. Going into this one, I wanted to take it out a bit more conservatively and work my way up. It worked for me at the Panorama Farms meet, so might as well try something similar here, right? Apparently, there’s a difference between getting out conservatively and working your way up and just flat-out not getting out. Technically, I worked my way up, moving slowly from 213th at 2k. But the plan was to move from 150th to 100th, not 213th to 163rd.

It was definitely a disappointing finish and it’s easy to look at that race and see nothing but negatives, yet I still feel like I learned and got better. My last 3k was so much stronger than it was at Regionals. I moved up 7 spots from 7k to 9k, which is a small win, but still a win!

With 600 to go, I pulled neck and neck with none other than Colin Sahlman. We both turned our heads and made eye contact. Despite being in a world of pain, I couldn’t help but smile to myself a bit. In a field of 252 runners, I found myself neck and neck with the guy who I finished my high school career battling with (battling might be a stretch since I’m 0-3 now after he dusted me here.) Six months ago we were rewriting the high school history books, and now we’re both in the back end of the pack at NCAA Nationals.

It was a reminder to me that every college freshman is going through the same challenges. We’re all figuring out the daily rhythm of college: the harder workload, the independence, racing the 10k, the horror of living in dorms. I didn’t always get the results I wanted in races, but I feel like I consistently got better. This season was a major step outside my comfort zone, but I embraced the discomfort and used it to make myself better.

I’m entering the indoor track season healthy, in a good state of mind, and hungry for fast times. Just like that 2019 cross country season that set me up for success as a high school runner, this season was about laying the foundation for what’s to come. It was about being pushed on a daily basis and using whatever was thrown at me to become a more resilient athlete and person.

When I think back on this cross country season, I won’t dwell on that 163rd place finish at Nationals or the splits that show me fading at the end of races. I’ll reminisce on the work that went into the season, the lessons I learned, and how much I grew along the way. I’ll look back on it as the season that laid the foundation for my college career and prepared me for the successes months, and even years, down the line.

Gary Martin

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