Marathon Training

Nathan Martin: My Best Race and How I Achieved It

Martin used modest mileage and impressive lactate-threshold workouts to run the fastest marathon ever for a U.S.-born African American, 2:11:05.

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Sara Hall lined up for The Marathon Project race last Dec. 20 hoping to set a new America record. Nathan Martin simply wanted to prove himself. As it turned out, he was the one who got a record, though a little-recognized one.

Martin finished in 2:11:05 a big personal improvement over his previous best of 2:14:33. This also made him the fastest-ever U.S. born African American marathoner. He surpassed Herm Atkins’s 41-year-old mark, 2:11:52, set in September, 1979.

It’s no surprise, then, that Martin calls the December marathon the Best Race he has ever run. “It’s number one, not so much because of my time, but because it’s the first to show my true marathon potential,” says the 31-year-old from Jackson, Michigan, where he works as a substitute teacher and high school coach.

Martin graduated from Spring Arbor University in 2013, winning the NAIA 10,000 (29:57) and marathon (2:19:18) his senior year. He has six sisters, and both his parents died from cancer-related illnesses.

In 2016, he placed 23rd in the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, but he fell back to 69th last February (2:21:06) in the Atlanta Marathon Trials after hitting the halfway point in 1:05:50. Martin’s coach, Dante Ottolini, believes he may have overtrained his runner, especially after Martin busted an unplanned, late-race 4:21 mile in the Naples Half Marathon in mid-January.

Ottolini had coached Martin in college, and picked up the reins again starting in early 2019. That year Martin finished second in the Bobby Crim 10-mile in 46:56, a 2- minute improvement on his previous Crims, and second again in the USATF 20-K championships in New Haven, CT, several weeks later.

Nathan Martin after having finished his race at The Marathon Project.
Photo: Luke Webster

Nathan Martin’s marathon buildup:

Martin didn’t learn that he had been accepted into The Marathon Project until early October, giving him only 10 weeks to get ready. He and Ottolini settled on a modest-mileage buildup 75 to 90 miles a week with an emphasis on quality. Before his final peaking phase, Martin did relatively fast track sessions like 25 x 400, the first 15 at 10K race pace, and the last 10 at 5K race pace. He took short recoveries between 400s, starting with 60 seconds, and finishing with 45 seconds.

Several big peaking workouts:

In his last month of training, Martin did two big marathon-specific runs that he credits with building his confidence. First: He ran 5 x 3-miles at 4:55 pace with a one-mile 6-minute-pace “float” between the 3-mile segments. Second: He ran 2 x 10K at 4:55 pace with a 7-minute mile between the 10Ks. “These are common fatigue-resistance sessions for a lot of elite marathoners,” he notes. “For me, they showed that I was marathon ready without a big mileage base.”

Dante Ottolini’s coaching philosophy:

Ottolini says his coaching philosophy is based on what he has learned from studying Jack Daniels, Coe and Martin, Joe Vigil, and Renato Canova. When he began working with Martin again in 2019, he concentrated on lactate-threshold workouts. “His threshold markers hadn’t moved much, and I felt confident they could be improved with targeted training,” Ottolini says. He adds: “Nate is the most resilient person I know when it comes to overcoming struggles, and he can race!”

Martin’s two-week taper:

Martin used a two-week taper. The first week he ran about 65 miles, and the second week about 30 (not counting race day). He did a last speed session early in race week: 2 x 2K at lactate-threshold pace, and 4 x 400 at 5K to 10K pace. “I feel more alert and ‘poppy’ when I do some speed going into a race,” he notes.

A key race moment and how Martin reacted:

Martin hit the Wall early in The Marathon Project, feeling a wave of fatigue sweep over him at 17 miles. He wondered if he had badly misjudged his pace 1:05:12, 18th place, at the halfway point and briefly thought he might not be able to go the distance. “I told myself to take it one mile at a time, and to find a way,” he says. He achieved this by focusing on the runner just ahead, and closing the gap between them. This helped him maintain pace and move up to a 9th place finish.

Martin’s advice for running your own Best Race:

In answering this one, Martin drills down to the deepest, most basic level: self confidence. “It all starts with belief,” he says. “The more you believe in yourself, the less trouble you’ll have with the inevitable obstacles along the way.”

Action ranks a close second. “Belief without action is just wishful thinking,” Martin notes.

Lastly, lean on others. All the others you can find. Martin credits his success to all the friends and allies who have supported him along the way. “When you’re trying to achieve something big that you’ve never done before, you’ll need more than just yourself to get it done.”

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