During his training and when he is competing in marathons, Nathan Martin doesn’t pay attention to the people staring, pointing and mumbling things under their breath.
His mind is focused on crossing the yellow tape and earning a spot on the podium.
However, others are certainly paying attention to his rise in the sport.
Martin, who grew up with six sisters, says he is no different from anyone else. Yes, his skin tone is dark, which is not that unusual in marathon running, as runners from African nations have dominated the sport for years.
What is unusual is that Martin is competing at the highest level as a Black man born and raised in the United States.
“No,” Martin told USA TODAY Sports when asked if he was aware of how he is perceived. “I don’t really think about it. The biggest thing is whether or not I was putting forth good effort. But it wasn’t a sense of thinking, ‘Wow, I am the only Black guy out here?' "
He does say that people have asked him after races if he was Kenyan or inquire about where he was from.
Where he is from is Three Rivers, Michigan, and the 31-year-old’s next challenge is Sunday’s New York City Marathon, as the race returns after being canceled in 2020 because of the pandemic.
Gary Corbitt, a historian at National Black Marathoners Association, said that while Martin's success is important, there needs to be more done to attract young Black Americans to take up distance running and attend training camps where they can get support and develop skills.
“It has been an uptick in terms of both Black men and women running marathons,” said Corbitt, whose father, Theodore, was the first Black Olympian to represent the United States in the marathon when he competed at the 1952 Games in Helsinki. “It would be very significant for some breakthrough and finish in the top five or top 10. The hope is that Nathan would be the catalyst for the whole running industry to target college athletes with potential.”
Martin’s potential didn’t surface until middle school, when he turned his hobbies for baseball and riding bikes with his friends into running thanks to agym class.
In that class, students would run just over a mile and a third every Monday.
“When I first started off, I was pretty bad,” Martin said. “I remember getting like 20th or 30th or something like that. But in the years that followed I started becoming first or second in the gym class. And some people are like, ‘Hey, you know what? You should go and run cross-country.’ ”
After high school, Martin went to Spring Arbor University. Before going to the private NAIA school, Martin had never attempted running any race over 5,000 meters.
“He just needed a lot of help and support,” said Dante Ottolini, who was Martin’s coach at Spring Arbor and currently coaches him. “I knew that he didn’t have what a true miler needed. So, I encouraged him to go longer.”
There was one small issue with that request. The 5,000 meters was fine, but Martin wanted nothing to do with the 10,000 meters.
So Ottolini made a deal with Martin, agreeing to fly him to the prestigious Mt. SAC Relays in Walnut, California, to compete in the 5K, if he committed to doubling in the 10,000 and marathon at nationals in his senior campaign in 2013.
Martin agreed and proceeded to head out to California to race against professional and other college runners. He ended up setting a school record of 13:52 in the 5K.
A few months later, he won both events at nationals, while setting an NAIA record in the marathon.
“I knew he had potential, but when he did that, I knew we had something special,” Ottolini said. “It was the perfect set to see what he could do in big meets given the size of our school and budget compared to Division I.”
When Martin isn’t training his body for long-distance running or coaching the next generation of runners as a cross-country coach at Jackson High School in Jackson, Michigan, he spends his time at another side gig: a substitute teacher.
“I definitely try to get into the classroom as often as I can. Always a great experience,” he said.
Then, Martin pauses.
"It's always great being able to connect with them, and just kind of seeing what the future is for them.”
While he doesn’t teach as often as he would like because of his running schedule and to avoid burnout, Martin’s immediate goal is to set a personal record in New York, where the marathon conditions are much tougher than when he set his personal record of 2:11:05 in December at the Marathon Project in Chandler, Arizona, where he finished ninth.
That time was the fastest ever by any Black male marathon runner born in the United States, breaking a 41-year-old record, Herm Atkins’ mark of 2:11:52, set in 1979.
“There have been African Americans that have done well in the marathons and their times have been in 2:15, 2:16, 2:17 range,” Corbitt said. “It has been spotty but that’s not going to get you on the podium. Nathan is poised to be competitive and take this to another level.”
For now, the next stop in his progression to elite status is cracking the 2:09 barrier and later making the Olympic team.
“It's the most immediate goal," he said. "If I could get to New York and I could figure out a way to a PR. I think that's my first step in what I'm trying to do. It would show that I am in way better fitness than I was a year ago."
Martin’s advice to Black runners: keep fighting through the hardships, which he has had to do after losing both parents to cancer in the last several years.
“I think the biggest thing is to stay consistent, especially youth who are going to get pulled in all kinds of directions,” Martin adds, “whether it’s from peers to other adults getting in their head. If you want to make it to the path of becoming a marathoner, you stick to it and trust the people that are trying to get you to that.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NYC Marathon 2021: US-born Black runner Nathan Martin wants history