Gary Martin's beautiful 3:57.98 mile glows in the everlasting flame of the GOAT
On Saturday, Gary Martin of Archbishop Wood High School, found in the north Philadelphia suburbs, became the fourteenth U.S. high-school runner to break four minutes for the mile. He did it at his league championship meet, without the help of any designated or spontaneous pacesetters. His 3:57.98 gapped the second-place finisher’s time by 19.91 seconds.
Martin returned later in the meet to win the 800 meters in 1:51.29. In addition to holding the fastest U.S. mile/1,600-meter time of the 2022 high-school season, Martin is ranked sixth in the country in the 800m with a 1:49.68 best—his only attempt at two laps this spring before Saturday.
Rather than a time well under four minutes coming as a surprise, it was practically inevitable given both the season Martin has produced, his steadfast imperviousness to stagnation, and his attitude, all of which are of course intertwined. One area man even predicted Martin would break 3:59 with such confidence that he offered to bet his 1985 Yugo on the outcome.
Martin also led from the gun at the Penn Relays, yet negative-split the race, as he had done in his other sub-four near-miss this season. On Saturday, he ran the second half of the race about a second slower than the first after a relatively aggressive second lap. Regardless, this is a kid who has become precociously adept at riding the edge of his capabilities without steering the whole show into an anaerobic ditch.
You can watch a video of Martin’s 4:00.95 at the Explorers Invitational, along with an interview, here. Keep in mind that Martin’s best 800-meter and mile times coming into last spring were 2:02.44 and 4:22.16, both run indoors during his COVID-shortened sophomore year.
The Prefontaine Classic field on Memorial Day Weekend will include Colin Sahlman of Newbury Park, California, who ran 3:58.81 indoors this year. I think Martin’s future is in the 5,000 meters and the steeplechase, but I also believe he could run under 3:56 at Pre and beat Sahlman. [NOTE: The original version of this post incorrectly stated that Martin is entered in the Pre Classic, based on an incorrect interpretation of the world “also” in this story.] By all accounts, Martin is every bit as joyful and likable as he seems in the interview, but even were he a budding ogre, I’d be rooting for him to take down Sahlman anyway. No offense to anyone or anything, but those NP kids are just too freaking, fucking good. Everyone loves a winner, but no one loves too emphatic a winner for very long, even when they’re too young to fully lambaste in good conscience online. Besides, California itself is a gigantic sewer funneling huge amounts of wealthy waste in the direction of metropolitan Denver generally and Boulder specifically; that alone seems like a fair reason to call for thunderclouds to speckle some narrowly associated party’s perpetually sunny horizon.
Despite how comparatively routine sub-four miles have become at the prep level—as Robert Johnson explains in his Letsrun story, nine of the fourteen names on the all-time high-school sub-four-mile list have been added just since 2015—Martin became only the second kid to run under 4:00 in a high-school-only race without pacing help. He’s also the first to do it in his first sub-four, as Jim Ryun’s 3:58.3 at the 1965 Kansas State Championships came nearly a year after the 3:59.0 that made him the first high-schooler under a mark that no man, period, had cracked until ten years earlier. It was also only the first of four sub-fours Ryun would record as a senior, each faster than the one before and giving him five in all.
In addition to Ryun previously having the fastest sub-four in a high-school only race, he still has, I believe, the record (or at least the distinction) of the largest winning margin in a high-school sub-four. When Ryun ran his 3:58.3 in 1965, the second-place runner finished about 21.5 seconds behind him.
My favorite (inexact) quotes:
”In the early season we run about 15 miles a day…by the end, when we’re working more on sprints, it’s about 10, 12 miles or so.” (Ryun is inarguably the most prodigious miling talent in U.S. history. But the bigger lesson is how murderously he and his coach went about feeding and honing that talent.)
“The two boys who ran second and third really did help me.” (Watch the video and decide whether Ryun was being serious, humble, or both.)
“I thought at first (the track) might be a little bit too loose, but it was not. It was very fast.” (I’m not sure how many high-school runners today would even understand what Ryun meant by this.)
It’s a topic that’s been flogged into the troposphere by old-timers, but whenever someone does something as remarkable as Gary Martin just did, it’s impossible to not wonder what Jim Ryun would have run given the benefit of all-weather tracks alone, to say nothing of modern racing flats. Ryun’s high-school best of 3:55.2, a then-American record that included a stunning victory over Peter Snell, would have been flirting with 3:50.0 in standard 2022 conditions.
Listening to the interview of Ryun by the Wichita television reporter, it’s hard to not be not merely impressed but awestruck by the level of genuine humility he evinces, which doesn’t seem to comport at all with the kind of intensity required of any successful 800m/1,500m athlete, even allowing for the evolution of generation-specific cultural mores. But respect for the sport and one’s competitors (even if they’re no threat) and embracing the thrill of the unexpected creeping into a hard-baked race plan are timeless attributes that serve any distance runner well, and Gary Martin will be trundling not just his talent but those same essential traits with him to the University of Virginia this fall.