Paul Streleckis had never coached an under-5:00 Miler. Then Gary Martin came into her life.

By Jonathan Gault
June 17, 2022

As the coach of the Archbishop Wood High School track team, Paul Streleckis had a front-row seat to one of spring’s most exciting series: the Gary Martin Show. Martin’s accomplishments this season include the Pennsylvania State titles at 800 and 1,600 meters, a state record in the 3,200 meters (8:41.57) and a pair of 3:57 miles, highlighted by a 3:57.98 solo effort at the Philadelphia Catholic League Championships. May 14 — the first time since jim ryun in 1965 that a high school student had broken 4:00 in a race without rabbit, reserved for high school students.

But one element of The Gary Martin Show remained hidden for much of the year: its trainer, Streleckis, 65, was battling prostate cancer. The diagnosis fell in March. Streleckis was told he would need his prostate removed.

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“If I wanted to keep coaching, most of the time they want live coaches,” Streleckis said.

Streleckis scheduled the surgery for June 9 and made the decision not to tell his athletes. the diagnosis and impending surgery were already weighing on him and he didn’t want his athletes to share that stress. Even worse: a large kidney stone near Streleckis’ urethra that required treatment and the insertion of an uncomfortable stent.

“It was just a constant dull ache for a month,” Streleckis said. “It just starts to sap your energy.”

Streleckis didn’t let the diagnosis interfere with his coaching duties. He waited until after the state meeting to tell Martin (the rest of the team found out this week) and was still in training until the day before the operation. Since the surgery, Streleckis has been resting at home, instructed not to lift anything heavier than a gallon of milk – tough for a “guy cutting his grass”. He filled his days reading Ryun’s book, The courage to run and binging Netflix but he will be in the stands Sunday afternoon at Franklin Field in Philadelphia when Martin runs his final race as a high school student, the mile at the New Balance Nationals Outdoor.

“I’ll be there, definitely,” Streleckis said. “I can not wait to be there.”

Push the limits

2022 has been a landmark year for high school milers, with five boys joining the under 4:00 club this year – a club that had just five athletes, in total, as recently as 2015. on the home states of the five newest members is a reminder that running talent can – and does – pop up anywhere: Pennsylvania, California, Florida, Missouri, South Dakota.

The training environments for these athletes run the gamut. The National Chief, Colin Sahlman (3:56.24 bp) at Newbury Park High School in California, trains in an environment more similar to an elite college team than a typical high school team. Rheinhardt Harrison (3:59.33 bp) from Nease High School outside of Jacksonville, was dragged away by Tom “Tinman” Schwartz since his second year.

Father Paul O’Donnell, Martin and Streleckis

And then there’s Paul Streleckis, who had never coached a sub-5:00 miler – let alone sub-4:00 – until Gary Martin arrives. A collegiate miler at Drexel (4:21 bp), Streleckis is Philadelphia through and through and has the accent to match. He spent most of his working life running a chain of video stores in South Jersey until the industry collapsed in the late 2000s, but his passion has long been coaching, a something he got involved in two decades ago when his daughter Tina Marie took up the sport. He started as a Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) coach, building the cross-country program in Northeast Philadelphia (which he continues to work with to this day), before moving on to a high school for girls, Little Flower, and finally Archbishop Wood, where he started coaching in 2017.

Streleckis has always been realistic about what he does and doesn’t know when it comes to training, which is why he spends so much time reading. He read all the basic racing books – born to run, Run with the buffaloes — a long time ago, then moved on to other topics, such as Navy SEALs and mental toughness. Streleckis has also watched his CYO athletes closely in cross-country races and noticed a trend.

“You always hear from kids, from coaches, even from parents: you have to pace yourself in a longer race, Streleckis said. “And I totally agree, if you don’t pace yourself in a marathon, you’re not going to finish. You’re going to have a real problem. But most kids, when they say they’re going to calm down, they’ll avoid going near the discomfort, they’ll just stay away from it.

So after Streleckis saw Gary Martin lead the first mile of the 2019 Pennsylvania cross-country meet before disappearing in 50th place, part of him was excited; at the very least, he knew Martin was willing to hurt to pursue big goals. After the race, Streleckis didn’t lecture him on being too tough. He just told Martin that he needed to train more to be able to keep up with this pace.

Two years later, Streleckis now knows Martin was “touched by God” with running talent. But he thinks Martin’s fearlessness has played a key role in his success this year. It’s something that’s evident every time Martin runs, from her decision to chase a solo under 4:00 in his conference meet to pick up the pace against a group of pros and post-grads at the HOKA Festival of Miles in St. Louis.

“If they can accept the inconvenience of it rather than fear it, humans and athletes just have this huge potential inside to go way beyond what you think you can do,” Streleckis said.

Find the right rhythm

When Martin ran 4:22 for the indoor mile as a sophomore in March 2020, Streleckis knew he was dealing with potential monster talent. So, at the start of Martin’s junior year, he reached out to Shannon Grady, a local physiologist and running consultant, who has worked with university programs such as Tennessee, Villanova and Monmouth. Grady had Martin run 800-meter reps while monitoring his heart rate and lactate levels. Using this data, Grady was able to create a physiological profile, a number she calls a “bioenergetic power score, as well as suggested paces for interval training.

Streleckis readily admits that he doesn’t understand all the data Grady has presented to him, and that he doesn’t think such tests are necessary for the average runner (Martin is the only one on his team who has done so). But he says Martin’s visits to Grady — he’s made three or four in total — have helped him stay on track and affirm that what they’re doing is working.

“I kind of knew that the first time we did it, we didn’t hit a lot of pure speed, and that’s what the tests kind of indicated, that that energy system was missing,” said said Streleckis. “And then when we added speed his times improved and the next time we tested he was much better at that.”

Going from a 5:30 mile workout to a 3:57 mile workout requires a mental adjustment. Streleckis sometimes refers to the interval rhythms suggested by Grady, partly to guide his workouts and partly to reassure himself that, yes, Martin really is that fast.

“I always had to remind myself how good Gary is,” Streleckis said. “…You look at certain things like, can anyone really do that? And we’d go out and do it and he’d be like, ‘Yeah, that wasn’t so bad. I felt good, I liked it.

This, in turn, created a relationship of trust between coach and athlete. It’s not uncommon for an athlete in Martin’s position to seek out a private trainer who has more experience working with elite athletes. But as long as Streleckis’ formation was working for him, Martin thought, why change it?

“Successful training comes in different forms for everyone,” Martin said when he was a guest on the Track Talk podcast after his first sub-4-minute mile. “So if what you’re doing is working, you should probably stick with it…I started to realize that, Hey, I’m better. There’s no need to go out and have my own trainer.”

One last race

Things are looking up for Paul Streleckis. He is leaving Archbishop Wood this summer to take a new job at Nazareth Academy, an all-girls school that will cut the commute from his northeast Philadelphia home by about 90 minutes. His surgery was a success, although Streleckis is still awaiting his doctor’s pathology report on June 24 to confirm that the lymph nodes around his now-removed prostate are cancer-free. But the cancer-related anxiety that has followed him like a shadow for the past three months has all but disappeared.

Streleckis has also faced a degree of pressure to “not screw it up” this spring — the kind that comes when you’re entrusted with training one of the nation’s top distance prospects.

“His parents, they joke with me before the races, they say you’re more nervous than Gary,” Streleckis said. “I try not to pass that on to him… He’s a 17, 18-year-old kid this season. So if something goes wrong, you can’t blame him. I’d be the guy to point.

But those nerves are gone now too. Streleckis doesn’t screw up. When he watches Martin for the last time this year on Sunday afternoon at Franklin Field, he won’t be worried about the outcome. Not anymore.

“Gary bailed me out when he ran 3:57.98,” Streleckis said. “There’s not a lot of pressure left after that, neither for him nor for me. I think he could still do better, but if he doesn’t, does it really matter for his legacy?”

More: * Gary’s High School Final Mile is at 12:05 p.m. Sunday Eastern, and you can watch here.
*Gary Martin Podcast: Gary Martin opens up on Sub-4, his training, Newbury Park and being called the “Nerd Runner”

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