My First NCAA Track Race

By Gary Martin

January 24, 2023

In my first blog post for CITIUS MAG, I talked about my transition to college running and cross country and the challenges that came with it. Although the results on the course were underwhelming at times, I was able to walk away from the season with a positive view and feel great about where I was at. I was healthy, in the best shape of my life, and ready to return to the track.

After a long season of 8ks and 10ks, I was so excited to finally make that return to the track last weekend. Despite coming off a season of great training, the excitement to race was also met with nerves – I really had no idea how it would go.

The transition from cross country to track is always one of the biggest unknowns for a distance runner. Cross country fitness is so different from track fitness, and you never know how your season on the grass is going to translate to the oval.

On one hand, many runners have never been in better aerobic shape in their lives. If you can run some crazy fast tempos and higher mileage than ever, that strength has to help with the mile, right?

On the other hand, many athletes suffer from the commonly cited “haven’t started speed work yet” syndrome. It’s become a bit of a joke among runners, but there is some truth to it. It takes time to get the body used to under 60-second laps again when you’ve been doing lots of tempos and fartleks.

Because of this adjustment, I was pretty unsure of what to expect for my first track race. I had some good track workouts the past few weeks that suggested my fitness was in a good spot, but the uncertainty still loomed in my mind. After finding out I was going to be running the 1200m leg of a DMR to open up, I began to float some possible times in my mind.

The excitement of testing out my new college fitness led to some pretty lofty thoughts. I started doing some research on fast 1200m times and kept coming back to Cole Hocker and Jason Gomez splitting 2:49 for Oregon and Iowa State in 2021. I even thought to myself at times “who knows, I think I could run 2:50.”

I’ve been asked before how I’ve dealt with pressure throughout my career, but the truth is I don’t think I’ve ever felt too much external pressure because I put more pressure on myself than anyone else ever could. Besides, I tend to stay quiet about my ambitions and goals because I never want to overpromise and underdeliver. But that doesn’t mean those huge goals don’t exist in my mind.

With all the excitement and ambition in the build up to a race, I tend to be a pretty aggressive goal-setter. In the past, my indoor goals especially have been a bit aggressive for where I was at in the season. In my senior year of high school, I convinced myself I was ready to break 4:00 for the mile in my first mile of the season at the Millrose Games. I ran 4:03 outdoors last year, so another season of cross country training under my belt must mean that I could break 4:00 now, right? Wrong, Past Gary! After hurting for 4 minutes and 5 seconds, I was hit with a painful reminder that track fitness is in fact a different beast than cross country fitness.

With my previous indoor season in the back of my head as a reminder that things may not click instantly, I settled on a bit more realistic goal. I was hoping to run around 2:52 or 2:53, but the main goal was just to shake off the rust and get back on the oval. A fast time would be a nice bonus though!

Thankfully, I found out I’d have some big-time competition in the 1200: my teammates Conor and Yasin would be joining me for some classic inter-squad competition. Knowing that the same guys I practice with every day would be the two people I’m racing against definitely added a level of comfort to my first track race. Since we’re running fast together in workouts every week, I felt confident I could stay with them in the race.

Despite my belief that I could run a fast time and the added boost of having my teammates in the race, some doubt began to creep into my mind a couple of days before the race. Not knowing where my fitness was brought me a lot of excitement, but it also came with nerves.

When we arrived at Virginia Tech the day before to do our pre-meet, I really began to feel some of the pre-race nerves. I ran a couple of 200s at 28-29s to get used to the pace I’d have to run. I felt completely fine running one 200 at a time at that pace, but I began to wonder whether I could put it all together for 6 laps.

As we warmed up for the race the next day, there were certainly some butterflies in my stomach. I think most runners know how quickly your thoughts can shift before a race. One second you’re thinking that you’re going to set a national record, and the next second you’re preparing for what you’re going to tell your coach if you drop out of the race. Even if you’re fully confident and prepared, your mind still loves to play tricks on you.

My oscillating confidence persisted as we finished up our warm-up routine, did our strides, and headed to the line. But as I stood there waiting for the starter to raise his gun, the butterflies began to dissipate. I was so excited to be back on the track after a long cross country season, and it was finally go-time. Any questions were about to be answered.

The gun went off and my racing instincts took over – the only thing I was thinking of now was sticking with Yasin and Conor. A huge difference being in college is not having to lead the race, which means I’m able to work with others. I realized how big of a difference this made in cross country, and I got a taste of how much it helps now in track.

Sitting in the back of the pack, my only focus was sticking with my teammates and making sure I didn’t fall off. All I had to do now was follow suit. I wouldn’t have to push the pace from the front. After sitting in the back of the pack and coming through 800 meters in about 1:54-55, I was pleasantly surprised by how I felt. There were now only two laps to go, and although I was getting tired, I felt pretty good about my chances of holding pace for the last 400m.

Finally, with 150m to go, we all started to make the final push. I didn’t quite have enough left in the legs to stick with Conor and Yasin, who both finished with crazy impressive times of 2:52, but I finished close behind with a 2:53.27.

Everything considered, it was a pretty awesome result all around and one that leaves me pretty excited for what’s to come. There’s a pretty wide range of possible outcomes when you’re first making that transition from cross country to track, and to land on the upper end of them is a pretty good feeling.

Even more exciting is to see the results all around the team. Between Conor and Yasin running 2:52, and some really strong performances across the rest of the legs, we were able to walk away with three DMR squads running times of 9:37, 9:42, and 9:42.

And on a more personal level, I might not know what I can run in a mile, or a 3k, or an 800m right now, but I do have my first-ever college track time to my name. I’d like to think that the rust has been busted both physically and mentally, and I’m super excited to build off of this first race and keep getting stronger.

I’ll be back in action again this weekend at Penn State, running an 800m on Friday and another DMR leg on Saturday. I feel really strong coming off of this last performance, and I’m super confident in my fitness right now; maybe even overly confident!

But if there’s one thing I learned, that confidence will eventually be balanced out by the same pre-race nerves and doubt as usual. Although it may not be as much of an unknown as bridging the gap between cross country and track, there’s still an unknown before every race. Every race could be the race of your life, or could wind up being a moment you just want to forget.

You do everything in your power to control the outcome of a race through training, sleep, nutrition, recovery, and race strategy, but sometimes weird things can happen in races; both good and bad! It’s why the duality of being both overly cocky and excessively doubtful exists in the mind of a runner. And yet, that all goes out the window when the gun goes off. After weeks of thinking about the race for hours on end, you run for a few minutes, and the unknown is given an answer, good or bad.

And then you repeat the process. All over again. All that thinking and worrying just to run for a few minutes. To borrow a corny quote that we’ve all seen at least once on a high school track coach’s shirt: “Running is a mental sport, and we’re all insane.”

Gary Martin

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