As many of you know, Martha Merz is moving to Connecticut with her family at the end of July. Rather than attempt to list all of Martha’s accomplishments in the three years that it’s been my pleasure to work with her at NOVA, I’m going to focus on the race that defines Martha in my mind, her American Record in the 10,000 meters.
Martha came to the track one night in the fall of 2007 and told me that she had just turned 45 and was excited to be competing in a new age group. After I watched her run a workout that would have been incredibly impressive for a runner half her age, I said to her that I would be shocked if there were another runner over 45 anywhere in the United States who could even come close to hanging with her. In her typical humble way, Martha scoffed at my statement. To test my hypothesis, the next day I found the list of American records for 45 and over and I discovered that the record for 10,000 meters was 38:11, and had been standing for 17 years. Martha had run a 10 mile race a few weeks earlier where she went through 10k enroute in well under 38 minutes. Martha and I agreed that she would attempt to break the record. Because it’s very difficult to find track meets that are open to post-collegiate athletes where the 10,000 meters is contested, we targeted Penn Relays the following April, the biggest and most competitive track meet of them all. Penn Relays does not normally accept masters runners, but because of Martha’s sterling credentials and her excellent chance of breaking such a venerable record, as well as some lawyerly persuasion from me, she was invited to participate in a field comprised of elite collegiate and professional athletes. Martha’s training over the next few months was superb, and the only question in my mind was whether she would break the record by more than 2 minutes. A month before the race, Martha was in such superb shape that I told anyone who would listen that unless Martha made a wrong turn on the track, she would run under 36 minutes.
But as luck would have it, less than 3 weeks before the meet, Martha injured her hamstring, and the damage was so severe that she could not run a step for 2 weeks. Two days before the race, Martha met me at the track for her first run since her injury, and after she ran gingerly but relatively pain-free for two 800 meter repeats, we both decided that she should give it a go. A 100 percent fit Martha would have destroyed the old record, and while we both knew that the layoff and her still tender hamstring would affect her, we were cautiously optimistic that a less than 100 percent fit Martha could break the record, if not by much.
Martha was extremely nervous before the race, both because of the pressure of competing on the biggest stage in our sport, and because she knew that she was not fully prepared for the rigors of a track 10,000, which is a grueling endeavor even under optimal conditions. It didn’t make Martha feel any better when a few minutes before the race, as she was putting on her bib number, a fellow competitor who was the same age as Martha’s daughter expressed disbelief that Martha was running. Despite it all, Martha put on her game face and toed the line. Through the first 4 miles, Martha looked reasonably comfortable running 91 second laps, which put her ahead of record pace, but with only a slim margin for error. But with nine laps to go the layoff and sore hamstring started to take their toll, and Martha slowed to 93s, and then to 94s. With 3 laps to go, Martha was behind record pace and seemed to be completely out of gas. There’s an old saying in the coaching game that when the lemmings go over the cliff they don’t come back, and from the look in Martha’s eyes with 1200 meters to go she appeared to be way over the cliff. But with about 1000 meters to go, Martha somehow managed to pull herself out of the abyss, and she ran the last 800 in 3:01 to finish in 38:08, three seconds under the record. Martha was absolutely spent, but when we confirmed that she had indeed broken a 17 year old record on one good leg after a two week break in training, we were both absolutely elated. And Martha was particularly pleased to discover that she beat the college kid who dissed her!
Gang, I’ve been around this sport at the highest levels for almost 30 years, and I can tell you without reservation that Martha’s performance that night was the most determined I’ve ever seen. There’s no question that Martha has been blessed with extraordinary talent, but her last 1200 at Penn had nothing to do with talent, and everything to do with desire and toughness. No coach can teach the force of will and refusal to fail that Martha displayed that night. I, for one, am going to miss having her at practice every week. But there are more great performances in Martha’s future, and I’m already looking forward to working with her when she turns 50 and has a whole new set of records to break!