CARR: Martinez Chasing Success at NCAA Outdoor Championships
By A.J. CARR
Midway through the 3,000-meter steeplechase at an NCAA qualifying meet last week, John Martinez was mired in a physical and mental meltdown.
His legs felt leaded, his lungs were stinging, and his mind was clouded with dark doubts.
“I felt awful,’’ said Martinez, who was lodged in eighth place and needing to finish sixth to qualify for the national championship meet. He thought: “‘I’m not gonna make it. It’s been a good career. It’s over.’”
But somehow, in the nick of time, the redoubtable NC State senior cleared his head and dug into a reserve of speed and endurance. He passed one runner, then two, finally grinded to a fifth-place finish and spot in this week’s NCAA Championships at Eugene, Ore.
After garnering All-America honors in the 2008 steeplechase, then missing last year’s event because of an achilles injury, Martinez hopes to run the race of his life Friday. But first he has has to pass another qualifying test on Wednesday.
His goal in the challenging run-hurdle-and-splash event is to break 8 minutes, 35 seconds, an ambitious pace, yet attainable provided his legs, lungs and mental toughness click in concert. The steeplechase is grueling, not for every man, but it’s Martinez’ main event.
After this week’s performance -- his last in a distinguished Wolfpack career -- Martinez plans to pursue another long-time goal and become a police officer, preferably one who patrols the streets of Raleigh.
It’s safe to assume violators of the law will have a hard time out-running the New York native, whose life was significantly shaped by role-model policemen who coached his youth athletic teams.
After a few seasons of basketball and baseball in Stony Point, Martinez -- now a sinewy 5-9 and 130 pounds -- concluded he was too small for those two sports. So he tried track, liked running, and never looked back.
During his All-America prep career at North Rockland High, he competed in a meet at State and later received a letter from Coach Rollie Geiger. After checking out NC State’s track and cross country tradition on the websites, he decided to run with the Pack.
That decision paid off for State and for Martinez, who struggled academically his first two years, then became an honor roll student who graduated this spring with a degree in Spanish Literature.
Athletically, like many previous State runners, he flourished under Geiger, whose men’s and women’s teams have won more than 30 conference titles in cross country and Track & Field since the mid 1980s.
“[John’s] been very consistent, the high scorer at several ACC championships,’’ said Geiger, who cites Martinez’ God-given talent, commitment to running and unshakable competitive spirit as keys to his success.
In four seasons of cross country, indoor and outdoor track, Martinez captured 12 All-ACC awards, but never won an individual conference title. Often he was the runner-up runner, finishing second multiple times by less than a second and to different opponents.
“It was really frustrating,’’ lamented Martinez, reflecting on the tenuous line that can separate No. 1 and No. 2. Maddening as that was, however, he never lost his drive and hunger for victory.
“He’s a fighter,’’ Geiger said. “New Yorkers are fighters and he’s a New York kid.”
His body is decorated with an NY tattoo. His 2005 Mustang convertible bears a New York license plate. And his girl friend of six years, Kara McKenna, a rising NC State senior, is from Suffern, N.Y.
“I hate to give up my New York license plate,’’ Martinez said, smiling.
Martinez has an amiable manner, pleasant countenance, smiles easily and and talks freely.
Thanks in large part to his mother (Reina), father (Juan) and step-father (Harry LeFevre), Martinez averted the the temptations and trouble that lurked in his neighborhood. Deciding to run on the track instead of running with the crowd also made a difference.
In that environment, there were drugs and violence. Martinez remembers fights in elementary school, stabbings in high school. One of his friends wound up jail. He got in a few scuffles, but “nothing major,” he said.
“My parents did a good job and the people I hung out with didn’t run track,’’ Martinez said. “Running was one of the best decisions I ever made. It [also] gave me the opportunity to come to State, make friends, go to a lot of places.”
Now he wants to settle in Raleigh. In some respects, he’s gone Southern and even listens to Country music -- at the nudging of his girl friend. He likes to cook as well and is an avid fan of the Food Channel.
While retaining those off-track interests, Martinez plans to enroll in the 26-week Police Academy in October. Though cognizant of the high risk and dangers of that occupation, he seems undaunted, saying law enforcement is a job that has interested him since his teenage years.
“I had a lot of positive influence [from policemen],” said Martinez. “I like to interact with people and I like to help people. I’m not afraid. I’m willing to sacrifice for it.”
But before wearing an officer’s badge and pursuing perpetrators, Martinez wants to finish a stellar NC State career with one more All-America run in this week’s steeplechase.