The Top Marathons Ignored Him. Then He Set a Record That Changed His Life.
When Nathan Martin took the starting line of the Marathon Project, a one-time, elite-only race in Chandler, Arizona, in December 2020, he had no intention of breaking records. The 33-year-old Michigan native worked as substitute teacher and high school track coach to support himself, and in his spare time, he was trying to build a professional running career. Despite years of marathon training and notching competitive times at several races, marquee events ignored him. His main goal at Chandler: Get the attention of marathon race directors.
Then Martin crossed the line in 2 hours, 11 minutes, and 5 seconds to finish ninth among a stacked field and lop three minutes off his PR. That put him on every race director’s radar. But he also—without realizing it at the time—became the fastest ever U.S.-born Black marathoner, besting Herm Atkins’s 1979 time of 2:11:52. That got everyone’s attention.
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Martin didn’t exactly come out of nowhere. He had been a star at Spring Arbor University, setting NAIA records in the 5K, his primary discipline, as well as the marathon, which he competed in at the urging of his coach, Dante Ottolini. It was Ottolini who advised Martin to remain close after graduation so the two could continue training together. Martin saw steady progress in the ensuing years. He nabbed a 23rd place finish at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials and 10th place (2:14:35) at the 2017 California International Marathon. And then he bested his time by exactly one second at the same event the following year.
In 2020, things heated up even more: He won that year’s Naples Half Marathon and with his record-breaking Marathon Project finish, Martin vaulted into the world of elite runners.
Three years later, Martin still holds the title he earned in Arizona. In fact, he recently pushed the record 20 seconds faster with a fourth-place 2:10:45 result at the 2023 Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, Minnesota, in June—the fifth-fastest marathon run by an American so far this year.
“In all honesty, I really wasn’t shocked,” Martin tells Men’s Journal. “I knew as long as I had an opportunity and got a good chance that a personal record was very possible.”
We talked to Martin about how he knocked 20 seconds off his marathon time, how his training has evolved over the years, and what challenge he’s eyeing next.
Men’s Journal: How did your approach to training change after the Marathon Project?
Nathan Martin: My time with my college coach [Dante Ottolini, the head coach of cross-country and track and field at Spring Arbor University] came to an end with how far he could get me with his training. It came to the point where I felt I needed a new coach, a different perspective. So I connected with James McKirdy four or five months ago and started getting training from him and figuring out different approaches.
Initially, it was really rough. You’d think, “You’re just running. How is it that different?” But when you get into the question of how do you make somebody as fast as they can be, there are a lot of different avenues.
How did you and McKirdy approach this race differently than previous ones?
My old coach was very focused on time. He wanted me to have high volume and to have intense workouts, but it was more important that I was hitting the times I needed to hit.
With McKirdy, we focused on bulkier workouts where we weren’t glued to a pace. Instead, we wanted to be completely managing the workload. So it was, “Let’s try our hardest to get 100-mile weeks in,” whereas my old coach was like, “Your body doesn’t respond the best with these intense paces, so instead of 100 we’re going to shoot for 80 or worst case, 75.”
I also started looking at nutrition and sleep to figure out different ways to improve outside of the running I was doing.
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Did setting the record at the Marathon Project change things for you?
It completely changed so much. First and foremost, just the record itself. I wasn’t even aware that I broke a record [at first]. Afterward, on my Instagram, so many people were saying, “That’s so amazing, congratulations.” I’m a guy who’s like, “Great, I won a race. Great, I broke a record.” I kind of think about it for a few days and then go about my business. But it meant so much [to other people], I realized I really have to think about this. It affects me and how I project myself. I can use this accomplishment to reach more people and do good with it.
This is another opportunity to reach out to people and help them see their potential and what they can accomplish. It’s an African-American record, so being able to reach out to Black athletes and Black runners and get them to see what they’re capable of is really big.
Why did you choose to enter Grandma’s Marathon?
McKirdy and I just wanted to make sure I got in a marathon where I’d be able to test my skills and really showcase my fitness. New York was a pretty big letdown [Martin finished the 2022 New York Marathon with a time of 2:25:27]. Getting in another marathon gives me a shot to fight for big things at the Olympic Trials, and it gives me a chance to say to different companies that might want to sponsor me, “These are the kinds of things I’m accomplishing.” Ultimately, it’s just really good training to come off one marathon and go into another. [Grandma’s] usually has a quality field and a course where you can fight for a PR.
Was setting a new PR your goal for Grandma’s going into the race?
I wanted to be top 10 and I wanted to hit my PR. But I thought, “If I hit it, I hit it, and if not, I’ll move on.” My training was kind of up and down leading into this race, and there were some workouts where I thought, “How in the world am I going to run a marathon?”
But then I’d have other workouts where I was absolutely crushing, and I thought I was 2:10 or faster. At Grandma’s, I wanted to give myself a chance to get a PR, but not force it.
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What did you eat for dinner the night before and breakfast the morning of?
I did a traditional pasta dinner: spaghetti, tomato sauce, and meatballs. I’ve become a really big fan of fruit smoothies, usually Bolthouse or Naked, so I’ll take those as often as I can get them—definitely the night before races. I wake up and I feel better. Morning of, I keep it very light. I have some oatmeal and a banana and then, if I remember—and I did not remember this time—I take UCAN. Other than that? Gatorade and water.
How did you fuel while on the course?
I’ve tried a lot of different products in various marathons. There was a stretch where I was taking a lot of Maurten, but the liquid stuff made me feel bloated and the gel was unbelievably hard to get down. For this marathon, I used GU. I think it has 35 milligrams of caffeine in it. I took seven throughout the course.
How did the race unfold?
I started off in a group of 15. Our first mile wasn’t anything crazy, 4:58 maybe—a little quick but not faster than what I can hold on an amazing day with a group. Then they started taking off, and I decided to let them go. If I catch you, I catch you, but I’m definitely not going to die with you.
Then it was me and Alex Monroe, an awesome guy I was able to connect with on race weekend. He was leading the way and I was sticking with him, trying to take the lead when I could to help draft. But the majority of that first 10K was him pushing and me drafting. He eventually dropped off, and I wish he could’ve held on. He was my roommate for the race and a really awesome guy. I just wanted him to do well.
Right around mile 14 or 15, I started feeling tired. I tried to block it out and keep pushing through. Around 15 or 16, I started seeing other racers. I thought, “You know what? Skip my pace, skip my goals, let’s just try to catch those people.”
I kept pushing to catch the groups and I made a lot of ground, but I didn’t catch them until seven or eight miles to go. It was a four- or five-mile chase.
At that point, I didn’t have a lot left. But I was catching up to the people who were falling back. I’d get to them and race with them for a little bit, catch my energy, and think maybe if I saw more people I could catch them. I’d get up to the groups, and they were going way slower than I thought they were. I’d go right around them.
I ended up seeing one more person before the finish. I was like, “Oh my goodness, I have to try to catch this guy.”
There’s this almost hairpin turn, you go straight up and then curve back downward toward the eventual lead-in to the finish. When that happened, he was either tired or whatever, but I instantly closed a huge chunk of that gap going around the turn. I’d done the half marathon there the previous year and I knew we were close to the finish, so I started kicking.
Three or four seconds after I passed him, I’m like, “Wait a minute, where’s the finish?” I had misjudged how far it was, but I couldn’t stop pushing because it’d be awful if he passed me. I just kept going. It was pretty rough, but I was able to hold on and finish.
You previously called the 2020 Marathon Project the best race you’ve ever run. With this finish, do you still feel the same way?
It’s hard to say. Both races were very similar in how they played out. I didn’t feel I could go with the pace of the leaders. I had a little help from the people I was pacing off of. I did a huge chunk of it by myself, and at the end, I tried to catch as many people as I could. I guess we’ll give it to Grandma’s because it produced a faster time.
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You still work as a track and cross-country coach for Jackson High School in Michigan. Do you get pressure to leave that job and commit to your own running?
That was part of why I changed things with my own coaching and how I’m approaching running. It was getting to the point where I couldn’t think rationally. I was like, “What am I supposed to be doing?” Mentally, 2022 was pretty bad. I felt like I was doing things the wrong way. I thought, “I need to step back, I need to reassess.” I have to do things because I feel like it’s the best move and works with my philosophy, not because it’s the best move for my PR, or the best move for my financial situation.
I definitely think I’m in a fantastic spot right now, and there’s still growing to do and choices to make.
What’s an experience you’ve had in your coaching career that made you feel like you were truly making a difference in a student’s life?
I think about that stuff all the time—whether or not what I’m doing is making an impact. We had an athlete who decided to come out for summer running in their sophomore year. When they started, they put forth good effort, but it wasn’t producing much. I didn’t know if they were going to finish summer running, let alone run cross-country, but sure enough they stuck it out.
They definitely didn’t have a lot of confidence in their abilities. When I asked what their goals were, it was a lot of: “I don’t know.” But slowly and surely they started giving a little bit more. I could tell they were giving effort, but it was more “I need to get through this,” rather than really racing and really fighting. It was like that up to the very last race. They didn’t bust out some crazy time, but I could tell they literally gave everything they had in that race, and it was unbelievable and amazing to see. It was one of those moments where I could tell this experience changed them.
Looking ahead, what are your running goals?
It’s coming up on an Olympic year, and I always want to give myself a chance to make the team. That’s what I want to fight for. I have to balance it with general life stuff, with coaching, and with race opportunities that pop up—races that might not be beneficial for trials but would be beneficial for me overall. That’s the biggest goal at the end: Can I give myself this potential final shot to make the team? Not to say that I couldn’t keep running and have a shot at the next Olympics. But this is probably the biggest moment for it.
Why are the Olympics so important for you?
It’s the Olympics. It’s the biggest stage. Really, it comes down to inspiring people. It really gets a lot of attention, and it’s the best way to showcase who I am and what I’m doing. I believe that I have a shot to get there. I want to strive for that and give myself a chance.
At the 2024 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in Orlando, a field of 250 athletes will be winnowed down to just 3 Olympic qualifiers. What do you think it’ll take for you to qualify?
Going off the last Olympic Trials in Atlanta, it was really eye-opening to see how many people showed up ready to push and execute on a very challenging course. I have zero doubt it’s going to be a similar situation in Florida.
It’s hard to answer. My coach believes I don’t need to make any more fitness jumps, I don’t need to do anything crazy, I just need to execute at the fitness I’m already at. I have very good confidence in what I’m able to accomplish, and I don’t have to be first. I just have to be in the top three. I’m confident I can race who I need to race.
But again, you never know.
What’s your next marathon?
My next race will be the New York City Marathon. I knew it was an option but I kind of had written it off. [But] thinking of my running goals, ultimately, it’s not necessarily getting to the Olympics even though it’s pretty close; it’s being able to reach out to people and be a representation of running and what you can accomplish with it, showing people that there are a lot of different paths to take to become great. New York is another opportunity to showcase that. It’s not ideal for the trials, but I talked to so many people about if I can make both these things work, and a lot of people reassured me that we can make it work even though New York is pretty close to the trials. We’ll push through and see how it goes.
I definitely want to approach [New York] from a different standpoint. There were a lot of different factors last year, the biggest one being the heat, and I didn’t do a good job respecting the field. I want to be able to race that last 10 miles, so weather, opponents, course, whatever it is, I have to set myself up to feel like I can truly do that because I know if I can race the last 10 miles of the race, I can race anybody in the field and set myself up for a really good race. I don’t want to say that I can hit a PR on the course, but training has been going well. I think I can have a really good showing. If nothing else, I can have a New York City PR.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.