My Local Hero

Photo: Justin Britton

from The Official Blog of Kyle Merber

As a young runner starting out in the sport, I found inspiration in the best. The likes of Alan Webb, Craig Mottram, Nick Willis, and of course, Steve Prefontaine. But I didn’t know those guys, and I never had the opportunity to watch them race in-person. They were demigods, running unfathomable times that weren’t relatable; so fast that I couldn’t wrap my 14-year old head around it. I craved a role model that was a bit more tangible, so I looked to the front of the pack that I was in.

The best of Long Island and New York were my targets. At this point in Internet history, AIM was the prime mode of communication. And I utilized it to bother every accomplished local runner whose screen name I could get my hands on. It’d start off with an introduction, maybe a congratulations on a recent performance, and then a barrage of questions about how to get faster. And this is how I met Brendan Martin or, as I first knew him, MiddieLax28.

Brendan remembers this interaction, as I clearly left an impression, ‘You provided a picture of yourself racing, so I knew what you looked like.’ He was happy to chat and provide some insight. Partially because he wanted to help, but the bigger reason being that he was in what he refers to as a maxed out nerdy phase of running. And this was another chance to obsess over it.

As a sophomore, I ran 17:38 for 5k to qualify for my first state meet and immediately attached to the locally established Brendan. One year older than me in school and considerably faster, he had been to states previously and let me know that I had a fun weekend to look forward to with the other athletes on a long bus ride and plenty of downtime to talk running. That trip solidified our friendship.

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2007 Dual Meet between Hills West and Smithtown West

Due to the lack of licenses, our parents began driving us to meet each other for runs on the weekends. My mom was elated I would have some company while navigating the roads and trails of suburbia. And so the tradition started for the next couple years: race each other on Saturday and run together on Sunday. During our 10 mile long runs, we would countdown the distance as we went and how much longer until we could feast on IHOP, ‘8 miles to pancakes…7 miles to pancakes…’

Though we traded off victories over one another, our strengths and weaknesses became apparent. Brendan was a brilliant distance runner. He eased through the course of a 10-mile long run effortlessly, and though I struggled on that end, I would have the superior kick in close races. We were developing into our respective niches.

The College Years

2009 Ivy League Champs

Graduating with personal bests of 2:04/4:21/9:22/15:09, Brendan took off to nearby Columbia University. The summer before his freshman year, he found it difficult to train and find motivation while leaving behind old teammates. ‘When I was in high school, I couldn’t even picture a career beyond that, because high school track was all that ever mattered.’ Suddenly thrust into a new environment, he recalls a rough cross-country season, both as an individual and as a team. But a return to the comfort of home for winter break reinvigorated his enthusiasm and he returned knowing, ‘I want to be good…really good, and I want to do it with my teammates.’

While not lacking drive, but sometimes being depressingly realistic, Brendan had obtainable goals early on. Citing himself as, ‘smart enough,’ he realized the odds of winning an Olympic gold medal were slim, but he wanted one thing, ‘to know how close I could come.’ Today that balance remains. And while a coach could possibly fault him for not shooting for the stars, this mentality has produced admirable consistency.

During my senior year of high school, I was looking at schools a bit further from home, but in her regular Long Island motherly way, I was encouraged by my Mom to visit at least one Ivy League school. My brother was a non-runner in a fraternity at Dartmouth, so she cunningly suggested I take advantage of the coach’s offer and spend a weekend with Brendan in the city. Going in, I had no intentions of ever committing to Columbia. My heart was set elsewhere.

Having a friend to help make my introduction to the team, I was immediately welcomed. Though I tried my best to not fall in love with the school, it was inevitable. And so the rivalry was over, and a year later we’d become teammates.

From day one, we worked incredibly well together. He would push me on the strength stuff, and I’d push him on the speed. But perhaps more valuable than having a body to run next to is having a training partner who can provide valuable insight and perspective to the process. As the miles poured on together we would bounce ideas off one another our strides would fall into tune and create a collective consciousness. The conversations were dialectical and constructive, but most importantly, overwhelmingly positive–The greatest asset in a training partner. We had a built-in support system.

During his senior year, I was unfortunately injured and the team fell short of NCAAs by a single place. Brendan left college without ever competing at a national championship, but with personal bests of 4:18/8:15/14:09/29:43. He was without a doubt a very solid runner that any coach would be more than excited to have on their roster. But there was still untapped potential, and Brendan ‘knew [he] was good at the long runs, and enjoyed being out there for a long time, so [he] started to realize that it was time to move up.’

Immediately after the 2011 regional meet his senior year, Columbia head coach Willy Wood started preparing Brendan to race a half-marathon. Although beat up, and a bit removed from true strength work, there were 3 weeks until the Grandma’s Marathon [which also hosts a half]. Qualifying for the 2012 Olympic Trials Marathon would require a sub-65 minute half-marathon, but with fitness already in the tank, and no immediate prospects of joining a post-collegiate training group, he took the risk. Wood expressed a level of relief about having the prospect of coaching Brendan for his true calling, ‘I was finally able to devise a training schedule that didn’t require the speed work necessary for the track. Everyone in our program knew that Brendan would really excel on even greater a level once the race distance was lengthened.’ He was right. Although he came up short of the qualifying standard, his 65:32 finish was a quick glimpse of his greater potential. And ultimately it was enough to get the attention of the Hanson-Brooks Distance project.

The Becoming of a Marathoner

When Brendan first told me he was moving to Michigan, I was thrilled for him. One of the biggest roadblocks for many American distance runners is having the time and resources to pursue racing after their collegiate careers. While he ambiguously identified himself as a professional runner, it wasn’t about making it a career. Always the realist, Brendan noted that ‘in college I realized I was no where near the most talented, and it’d take a special person to make money doing this, but I love it and that’s enough.’ The lifestyle suited Brendan for a while, as he clipped off 115+ mile weeks, running twice on most days and working at the running store selling shoes. A large training block led him to a 2:22 in Boston in 2012, which was good enough for 13th overall and the 3rd American in an 85 degrees scorcher.

Two years later, while working as an office manager at teammate Clint Verran’s physical therapy clinic, he started looking outward. Training came to a sudden halt when a femoral stress fracture ruined all hopes for another successful Boston campaign. ‘I was 25 and started having more interests outside of just running, and so I wasn’t THAT upset. My identity wasn’t lost the way it would’ve been in college. There was no question of ‘Who am I?’ and ‘Why am I alive?’’ It was that equilibrium to life that encouraged his move back home to New York. While recovering from injury, he was knocking out pre-requisites before enrolling as a PT student.

Running was on the backburner, and once healthy enough to jog, he did it just because it was a familiar routine. But a bunch of easy runs added up to something much bigger. While distracted by the excitement of school and the comfort of his old room, fitness was slowly dropping into his legs. He looked at a calendar and committed 8 weeks to a build up before the California International Marathon. It went well. After going out conservatively, he closed hard to run 2:16 and subsequently knocked out the 2016 Olympic trials marathon standard.

That race pulled Brendan back in, but he would do it again on his terms. Friend and mentor, Corey Kubatzky began coaching him over phone and through email. They became acquainted during his time in Michigan, and like all good coach-athlete relationships, there was complete faith in each other. The CIM marathon served as a reminder and a stimulus. “I am good at this and can do it for at least one more year. I owe it to myself to run until the trials.” And that’s when Brendan’s story really begins to inspire me.

During this time, I am living in Clinton, NJ in what could be best described as a track fraternity. I am in quarters with six other professional runners who have the same mission as myself each day when we wake up. Every run is done in a pack, and each interval of a workout is split up between us to block the wind and handle the responsibility. Things couldn’t be set up more favorably for me to run fast. I have every advantage at my disposal, whether it is doctors, strength-training coaches, physiotherapists, masseuses, or anyone else who could possibly help. I don’t work outside of training. When I wake up in the morning, the only thing I have to accomplish it to find a way to get better at running. It is easy to feel a level of guilt when Brendan and I talk and I hear about how busy his life is.

“I have had company for one workout the last 1.5 years,” Brendan says it with no sound of animosity or regret in his voice. It’s simply a fact and his situation. There is however a couple friends who live nearby that will join up for the occasional easy run. But when you are running 120-130 miles a week, that company only covers so much ground.

In addition to commuting to Stony Brook University for class to finish his Doctor of Physical Therapy, Brendan works part-time at Smithtown Running Company selling shoes to people who have no idea the caliber of runner that is helping them. And somehow, between the miles, school and work, he finds time to coach a local high school cross-country team. He is truly doing it all, the running Renaissance man.

He acknowledges that it is tough to do it alone, but is quick to note that there are positives. “I have a hard time overtraining. In college, I would force myself to stay with you on a workout no matter how terrible I felt that day.” That’s not the case anymore. Now, “if I feel terrible, then I don’t need to justify getting dropped. I am alone, in the woods, without a GPS watch. I don’t need to know what pace I am going.”

The Olympic Trials

In February of 2016, Brendan got his chance to run at the race he had circled on his calendar many years ago, the US Olympic Marathon Trials. Though he was dealing with a migrating lower leg injury that made the final weeks of preparation difficult, the focus was on the years of consistency leading into the race. “Everyone on the line probably has something that’s hurting them.” That level-headedness has always been his greatest weapon.

Going in the goal was to finish among the top 30. But as the forecast heated up, so did Brendan’s ambition. His injured calf would handle the slower pace more comfortably and people would dig their own graves by not adjusting gameplans to the weather. “My strength is being a smart racer, and I am confident that I race smart because I have done it before. It plays into itself.” Brendan knew the heat would increase his chances.

It was 2.2 miles into the marathon when Brendan first looked back and saw that there were maybe 5 people behind him. He was shocked, but self-assured that such wouldn’t be the case for long. Though at 10-miles he looked up while running alongside former Hanson-Brooks teammates, Drew Polley and Ethan Shaw and saw a horde of people still ahead. That’s when a moment of doubt crossed his mind and he prayed, “I hope I made the right decision.”

With just a few miles left, Brendan heard someone from the crowd call out that he was in 60th place. At the point there were 10 people being picked up each mile, and they were seemingly standing still. “As we were rolling on guys, I just thought, IT’S WORKING!” And he was right. Brendan Martin crossed the finish line that day in 2:20:41, which was good enough for a 20th place finish in the country. His half marathon time was 70:20, an even split.

The Next Step

Normally after a great race, it’s natural to look at the calendar and pick another date to circle. You bask in the glory of your achievement for a few days before wondering what more you can do. After the Olympic Trials, Brendan had no immediate desire to go for another run for a while. “I owe it to myself, as I am limping around, to take a very serious break and catch up on the rest of my life. There are other things I need to do. I am going to play volleyball, go camping, hang out with my super hot girlfriend and figure out my next move, in time.”

Brendan has scraped up the money to fly himself to races (thanks to help from the Brooks ID program and NYAC) and he has squeezed in plenty of 8-mile runs between a 60-minute class break. It’s not easy for him to pull himself out of bed on a cold morning when already completely exhausted to go do a workout alone. And it’s not easy after getting home from work and school that day to go out again into the dark and run more.

“On those days, it’s more like I am doing it out of duty or obligation to myself. I refused to have it be a goal of mine for so long, to qualify, and then not have the motivation leading in to make sure I do a good job once I finally lined up there. I owed it to me to force myself to do it.”

It all paid off. For the guy who once had a hard time finding motivation after leaving behind his high school teammates, he did his best when he was doing it for no one but himself. It wasn’t to impress anyone or because someone was making him do it.

“To 19-year old Brendan, he would be so thrilled if he know he would one day run in the OT marathon and find out he’d placed so high. And to 43-year old Brendan, who has three kids, and doesn’t have time to go running without a baby stroller—I owed it to those guys to try really hard now.”

Brendan Martin never thought he was going to win an Olympic gold medal. But ever since high school he just wanted to know how close he could get. And he got 20th at the 2016 Olympic Trials-close.

Check out Kyle’s HOKA Store; any purchase supports his journey!

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