I’d be lining up to ask Gary Martin to prom if he didn’t already go.
You may remember a couple of weeks ago that after running a solo 4:01 at the Penn Relays on a windy day, he danced the night away before returning the next day to run on his high school team’s 4×400. The running gods can be cruel at times, but they can also be benevolent. This weekend at the Philadelphia Catholic League Championships, Gary lined up with a plan and ran 3:57.98 — the fastest mile ever run in a high school-only race — he won by 20 seconds. (Remember: 20 seconds back from a 3:57 is a 4:17… that’s hardly a slouch of a high school mile time!)
The reason Gary Martin has quickly developed into a sort of cult hero is because he is just like all of us, just way faster. BACK IN MY DAY, we didn’t have rabbits and we were never invited to race against professionals. High school running meant running for your high school under the guidance of whichever teacher got hired as the coach. In the winter, we’d run laps in the hallway or around the plowed parking lot. And when we got hurt our trainer had one solution: ice. Gary’s parents weren’t pro runners, his school doesn’t even have a track and he’s quoting Prefontaine for inspiration. ONE OF US.
I’m not trying to subtly throw shade at the many other accomplished athletes who have run similarly fast, albeit with the help of more available advantages. At the end of the day, the clock doesn’t care how you get there. Being a novice and performing like a veteran is one of the main reasons we hold stellar prep performances in such high regard, although this criteria is far from perfect. That’s just as true for a 17-year-old who broke four in a rabbited, pro-laden field as it is for Gary. But it feels like Gary is in the middle of an extremely normal high school experience while doing all this, and that makes him more relatable to 99% of us.
Do you know why you shouldn’t dismiss the long-term potential of those who might fall into that second camp? Will Sumner’s parents were fast — but you don’t run 45.78 to set the Georgia state record like he did this weekend because your parents can talk track at the dinner table. Natalie Cook’s mom was a professional runner and she just ran 9:48.25 for 3200m, narrowly missing the national record. But she only runs 20 miles per week. Do you know whose family was deeply ingrained in the sport and had every advantage possible when just a tween? Jakob Ingebrigtsen. I think he’s panned out okay.
Remember when the sport was still new and exciting? At least for me, math class was for scribbling potential splits and counting mileage and the library was for checking Dyestat. Before bed each night I would do a bunch of push-ups because I wanted to get better, but I didn’t know how. I could barely sleep before any non-dual meet race – I was just that excited to get out there and see what I could do. Watching Gary makes me nostalgic for that same time in my life.
And now, I’m a bitter old man. I take to my keyboard each week to relive the glory days or complain about how things could be done better. But then a kid like Gary comes along and says, “Alright, I’m going to show you how great I am — I’m going to win it the hard way!” It’s similar to how you might feel jealous when your friend gets to read your favorite for the first time — except the book is Once A Runner, and your friend is every single runner who’s currently in high school, who hasn’t seen somebody do it Gary’s way before.
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