When Gary Martin first agreed to do an interview with The Oval, I was excited. As a Pennsylvanian, I’ve been an outside observer to Martin’s feats for the past couple years, and watching someone represent the Keystone State on the national stage has been a privilege. Moreover, getting to chat with Martin and share his story through our platform was a huge opportunity.
Then came the “oh, crap” moment.
Martin’s appearance as a gangly, bespectacled teenager belies his prodigious talents. He gained fame for soloing his races on Pennsylvania soil, mostly eschewing expertly manufactured and paced races where he could run faster. This culminated in his first sub-four mile, a 3:57.98 effort at the Philadelphia Catholic League Championships. Sounds all good, right?
With those exploits comes a certain amount of media attention, and people far more experienced and capable than me have told Gary’s story. Chris Chavez brought him on for an engaging Citius Mag podcast session, reliving the Archbishop Wood star’s breakout race and what came next for Martin. Dave Devine of DyeStat penned a great longform piece detailing Martin’s origins and quick rise within the sport. Heck, he even got a shoutout on Kyle Merber’s The Lap Count.
What angle could I bring to the table that track and field’s most prominent voices hadn’t already? I pondered, and then maybe slightly panicked, and then pondered some more. The realization I came to wasn’t groundbreaking; this interview with Gary won’t provide some intense personal revelation or the secret sauce to his becoming the 5th fastest high schooler ever.
Rather, it’s the product of sitting down for half an hour with a high school senior and discussing (and sometimes mixing) two topics he’s familiar with and passionate about: Philadelphia sports and running.
Though Gary might be faster than all but the world’s top milers, he’s still torn up about the end of the Sixers’ season, and more important, he’s a reminder that even the fastest of phenoms are human, with their unique passions that make them happy.
Edited for clarity.
Joe Cullen: How busy and surreal has the past month felt for you? You were a big name in the running world before breaking 4, but with breaking 4 and becoming the cult sensation you are, it brings a new stratosphere of attention.
Gary Martin: It’s super cool. Like you said, I think I’d already broken into it, in terms of national attention from nationals and running four-flat. I was already there a little bit, obviously it’s more now with the sub-four. I really got more attention, it’s been like a big increase outside of running. Outside of running news, local media and even national media [have given attention] because people recognize the significance of sub-four… It's definitely been overwhelming and it's been a lot to manage, but I’m incredibly lucky to be in this position and I’m going to take it all in.”
JC: You previously mentioned that sub-four is universally known, whereas if someone runs 1:48 in the 800 most people won’t recognize the significance. Do you think there's an equivalent of sub-four in any other sport, any stat that people hear and recognize that it’s a landmark achievement?
GM: It’s tough, because in other sports, the statistics are relative to who you're playing so you can average 30 points per game in high school and it's not the same as averaging 30 points per game in the NBA. Even averaging 30 points per game in one high school league won't be the same as averaging 30 in another, so it's really hard to compare. If you're looking for the closest comparison, it’d be making an NBA team.
JC: Because roster sizes are the same each year.
GM: Yeah, it’s very static and obviously you're not allowed to anymore, but there's a select few people who went straight to the NBA out of high school. That’s a big deal, so it’s a similar comparison [to running sub-four in high school] because I'd have to imagine the numbers are relatively similar to the amount of people who have gone from high school to the NBA.
JC: You mentioned the people going straight to the NBA and sadly, that doesn't happen anymore. But with your high school class being really good with Rheinhardt Harrison, Colin Sahlman, and yourself obviously, do you feel like that would be like LeBron’s  draft class?
GM: Melo, D-Wade LeBron, obviously Darko Miličić didn’t work out, but it was a very top heavy class.
JC: I feel like that’s an apt comparison with your class having three sub-four guys.
GM: That's fun to think about. I never really thought of it that way, but looking at it, it could be. Because it's not just the three guys who broke four, but there are a ton of really great distance guys, and in the 800 we've seen Cade Flatt and Will Sumner. The talent in high school is just on another level right now, and I think it's going to be fun to see how it translates. There are guys who could make some noise on a national, even international stage, sooner rather than later, in the next few years in college and maybe the 2024 Olympic Trials–we'll see what happens.
JC: Going back, I know you mentioned the national media you’ve received, you certainly haven’t been living the life of an average high school senior. Your average high school senior isn’t on a Zoom call for a running publication at 4 PM on a Tuesday afternoon. With this newfound attention, has it taken away from your high school experience or has it been mostly positive?
GM: It's been positive. I think I'd be lying if I said, maybe, it wasn't taking away from it a little bit. If you're going to dedicate yourself to anything–academics, a sport, a craft–you're going to have to make some sacrifices…
I haven't had as much free time this school year and I’m skipping my school’s senior week next week to go to Brooks PR and New Balance Nationals. It's a little disappointing, but when you really put things into perspective I think I'm just extremely lucky to be doing what I love at such a high level and have this many opportunities. It's a sacrifice I'm willing to make and it's kind of something you have to expect when you go into a sport like this.
JC: One of the big opportunities [you still got to enjoy] was going to prom after Penn Relays. As a big Philly guy how did it feel to be able to win in front of the home crowd?
GM: It was absolutely amazing. Some of the local publications picked it up and they knew what I was doing. It was a big deal that I was going to try to break four minutes at Penn Relays. Obviously, I didn't break four minutes, but just to have the support of the crowd and hear my name…
It's Franklin Field. It's an atmosphere that's hard to describe unless you actually experience it… To have that support around me meant a lot.
JC: Continuing on the Philly running questions, the Philadelphia area has a proud tradition. Within the past 10 years, there have been a lot of really good milers emerging from Philly, whether that be Casey Comber, Josh Hoey, or Nick Dahl.
How does it feel to kind of continue the legacy of really good mid-distance guys coming from the Philly scene?
GM: It’s super cool. I love to represent Philly, but I’m from 45 minutes outside of Philly. But it’s awesome just to represent Philly and I see people out on the trails all the time who say hi to me and recognize me. I’ve run with Philly Runner Track Club guys a few times, and like you said, the area itself has produced a lot of top middle distance guys so it’s cool to be a part of that.
JC: With it having been a wild two months for you, it's probably been nice to have the distraction of being a newfound sub-four miler to distract from how bad the Sixers’ season ended.
GM: It's definitely been nice because I was less focused on the Sixers and more focused on running the mile. It gave me an excuse not to pay attention to the last series of the season and everything that was going on. Obviously I'm still keeping in touch and listening to my Sixers podcast every week and I’m trying to figure out what they're going to do this offseason.
JC: You mention trying to figure out what the 76ers will do. If you were given Daryl Morey’s job, what decisions would you make?
GM: The first thing I’d do–I’ve said this before–but I’d definitely fire Doc Rivers, just because even if he’s not all of the issues…
JC: The Paul Reed stuff was just…
GM: Exactly. Paul Reed looked good in the postseason but couldn’t stay out of foul trouble, and if Doc would have actually played him during the regular season, he probably would have more experience and would have known how to better manage it and stayed in games longer… The way he treats the media and he doesn’t have accountability or [many] leadership qualities, so I don't think he's the best guy to lead the team,
I think they've got to re-sign Harden because I don't think they're going to get much better from free agency, so I think the best bet is to take the chance that hopefully HArden looks better next year from the hamstring [injury]. Re-sign him and then obviously Tobias Harris’ contract will be off the books and next year they’ll have some flexibility. And hold onto Tyrese Maxey.
JC: So obviously you’re a big Sixers guy, but when it comes to the rest of the Philadelphia sports, would you be able to power rank the big four teams [76ers, Eagles, Phillies, and Flyers]?
GM: This is an easy one for me. The Sixers are number one by far. I’m very much on Sixers Twitter, I listen to Sixers podcasts, I used to have a Sixers fan page. Then, number two is the Eagles. Football's easier to follow because there's one game every week; it's easy to sit down and watch the games. I'm not as able to name every player as I am with the Sixers but I'm pretty up to date and what's going on.
The Phillies are number three. If they were better, they would probably be higher. But they've been so bad, in my lifetime as a serious phillies sports fan, the past eight or so years it's just been a lot of struggles. This year I thought I'd be more invested, but they haven't been too good, so I still follow them. I’m not like some baseball fans who are super invested in the farm system, but I play baseball simulation games all the time, though it’s a ton of numbers and statistics I’m interested in.
JC: Is it the one–I forgot the name of it–but it has a really big Reddit community?
GM: Out of the Park Baseball. That’s actually my favorite game, I was just playing it earlier today because it’s so accurate, and there’s so much statistics and analytics. If there were that much data for basketball, I’d probably be playing [a basketball simulation] every day.
JC: Then I’m assuming to finish off the rankings, Flyers at the bottom?
GM: Yeah, I don't follow the Flyers too much. They're definitely four and then maybe the Union a little bit. I’ve gone to Union games in the past.
JC: I agree with your Philly sports takes and rankings. Anyways, given that you are a big statistics fan and how passionate you are about sports and especially the Philly sports scene, have you thought about working in the sports industry?
GM: When I was younger my dream was always to be the general manager of a sports team. A lot of kids dream of being in the league themselves, but I was always more realistic and knew I wasn’t going to be a pro basketball player. I saw myself managing the numbers more as I've gotten more into running, though I think it's become more realistic that I could get into coaching which I would really love to do.
Coaching is less numbers and analytics than managing itself… I know there definitely are some [numbers] I'd be interested in, as I get more into college and probably take statistics classes and try to apply them to running.
JC: There's some nuance there too. In professional sports and especially football and baseball there's like a clear division between the front office and the coaches, but in running, especially the college scene, coaches are the ones both offering the scholarships and actually coaching them.
GM: It’s cool. Certain coaches have different ways of approaching it. It’s the same way in other sports like basketball; it’s certain coaches and certain general managers who are very old school and some who are very analytical and use sabermetrics. With college coaching, I think there’s a lot of guys who lean into more of a new school analytics in terms of recruiting or coaching, and then there are some coaches who are old school.
JC: That's very interesting too because going back a million years to my recruiting process [editor’s note: as a decidedly much worse recruit than Gary], it felt like a very inexact science. There were some coaches who didn't even ask what kind of mileage I was doing. Hopefully it’s gotten better, but that leaves a lot of room in running for a guy like you who’s statistically-minded to provide a more progressive approach when it comes to analytics and running.
GM: I think there are a lot of coaches who are already very analytically heavy in terms of recruiting. But there are a lot of different numbers, as you said with mileage and progression and workouts. You can use analytics to make a prediction on who’s going to make a big jump in college and it’s hard, because obviously with any other sport, you need to be able to balance analytics with work ethic and injury history and just the personality. But there’s definitely a place for statistics as well.
JC: Bridging the statistical revolution in other sports with running, obviously the Superspike and Dragonfly revolutions have led to large improvements in times over the past couple years. Does it remind you of the three point revolution in basketball, in that they’ve both been controversial but also fundamentally changed their sports?
GM: I think so, and it's interesting because I see the similarities and there are some differences. The three point revolution changed the way basketball was played, the way coaches strategize the way, and the certain type of player they look for in the NBA. With shoes, its technology benefits anyone who can get their hands on the shoes pretty much.
It'd be foolish not to acknowledge that there are benefits to the shoes and that they're making people run faster but some people pretend like this is the first time we've seen technological advancements ever. When you look back in history, the sport’s always been changing–the quality of the track, the quality of spikes–because there's always been jumps in technological advancement.
JC: Another meta question: If you could make any rule or scheduling change in the NBA, what would it be?
GM: I’ve seen a lot of people call for this. I don't think it will ever happen because the NBA’s long season makes far too much money, they never want to actually shorten. I think shortening the season would lead to higher quality of play, because you'll see less guys having to rest. Guys will also be healthier for the playoffs and regular season games will matter more, like in the NFL every game matters.
I’m not saying make the NBA 17 games, make it maybe like 50 to 60 and you’ll see games will matter more. Fans will be more invested, players will be more invested, and I think it’ll make for an overall higher quality league. But like I said, it’ll never happen because there’s too much money lost.
JC: For sure, especially when you see the games in February and March that feel like slogs because players are tired or load-managing.
GM: I was just thinking about how that's an interesting comparison to running because running is very flexible. All the top athletes aren’t running a race every week, they're managing their racing schedule and they're only racing when it really matters. That's a luxury that other sports don't have and maybe running could use a more of a league format and it'd be better for the sport. The way it is now at least, I think it helps benefit athletes’ performance overall.
JC: Do you think there’s a way for a central governing body to set a more standardized schedule in running without totally robbing athletes of their autonomy in setting their racing schedule?
GM: It’s tough, because part of the beauty of track is the flexibility and the individuality, that every athlete can train on their own schedule. If you don't want to race for a year and you just want to train, you can. At the same time, I think in terms of athletes getting more attention and the sport more recognition, it’ll lead to more money, better opportunities for athletes, and more athletes being able to go pro.
I think the best way to do that is having some form of central governing body. I don’t know what the exact answer is, but it’s something I’m excited to see in the future.
JC: Moving on to some lighter questions, what’s your favorite place to get a cheesesteak?
GM: That’s tough. I’ve gone to quite a few with my parents down in Philly: Jim’s, Pat’s, Dalessandro’s. I mix them up sometimes, I’ve gotten a few different ones. I’m pretty sure Pat’s is the one I normally go to.
JC: Why hasn’t Wawa done an NIL deal with you? I feel like they’re missing a slam dunk with it. On Chris Chavez’s podcast, you were talking about how you got the quesadilla after going sub-four. I feel like they could even rip off Dunkin' Donuts’ catchphrase—Gary Martin runs on Wawa.
GM: Hey I’m not disagreeing, and if Wawa wants to do an NIL deal, they should reach out to me. I’d definitely be down. Someone went out and got the Gary Martin quesadilla and put it on Twitter, so I was honored that someone actually listened to my food advice.
JC: Online, I saw a picture of you wearing a Burger King crown. I know you’ve said you’re a healthy eater, but if you had to rank Burger King, Wendy’s, and McDonald’s, how would you rank them?
GM: I feel like a fraud just because it wasn't my crown. Someone else had gotten it and I had stolen it. So I haven’t eaten at any of them in I think four years. I used to eat them a good bit, so I’d probably go Wendy’s, McDonald’s, then Burger King. I always liked Burger King’s fries so I’d put them up there. Wendy’s was always good–they had good burgers and I liked their baked potatoes.
JC: It’s tough to hear your Burger King slander, but to each his own.
GM: I’m sorry.
JC: Anyways, you’ve mentioned in your interviews before that you used to play basketball and still play some recreationally. If you could compare your playing style to any Sixer–past or present–who would it be and why?
GM: This comparison has not aged well, but three or four years ago I would always compare myself to Ben Simmons. I feel like I can’t do it anymore, but the play style is somewhat similar. I was never a great shooter. In terms of myself compared to my CYO competitors, I’m probably a better shooter than Ben Simmons compared to the NBA. It's funny because this comparison is not as well, but three or four years ago I would always compare myself to Ben simmons.
But I was always the tall, slashing ball-handler who can defend a bit and was best in transition. I like to get out and run, draw some fouls, and get to the free throw line even though [I’m] probably not the best free throw shooter.
JC: Ben Simmons or Carson Wentz?
GM: I like Ben Simmons more. I don't know if that's gonna be a popular answer, but I was never I was never a huge Carson Wentz fan. I'm still not a huge Ben Simmons fan but Ben Simmons gave me some good moments, and I still have some sympathy for him. I think he was in a very much mismanaged situation and might not be in the best place right now either. So I'm hoping he gets the help he needs and hopefully gets better people around him.
JC: Joel Embiid or Allen Iverson?
GM: I feel like I'm a product of my era so I’m inclined to say Embiid because I never saw AI and Joel Embiid has given me the most hope out of anyone–except maybe Nick Foles–in Philadelphia sports. He’s been a joy to watch him live and go to games. He’s been the heart of Philly sports fans for this generation.
JC: Gritty or the Phanatic?
GM: Gotta go to Phanatic. It’s the classic choice; he’s been around for a while and I remember going to games when I was a little kid. Somehow from when I was little I’m still on a birthday list, where I get a happy birthday card from the Phanatic.
JC: I really appreciate you taking the time to chat with me today. I know it’s been a crazy time for you with running and graduation, but it’s always fun to talk about track and Philly sports.
GM: I appreciate you having me on; it’s always fun to talk with another Philly guy.