Marathon Man

July 21, 2021 —Though he didn’t get serious about running until his mid-30s, Neil Martin ’99 has a huge marathon resume. He’s run a dozen official marathons, including Boston, New York, and Chicago, along with a few 50-mile trail runs, and one 100-mile trail run.

When racing was shut down by the pandemic, the Newton, Massachusetts-based Martin didn’t stop. He did dozens of 26.2-mile training runs, the equivalent of 57 marathons in a row. That’s one every weekend.

The streak began in April 2020. Martin, who is clinical director of radiation oncology and co-director of the Prostate Cancer Center at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center, had spent 2019 recovering from a running injury, then ramping up his training to 110 miles a week. He was aiming for the Boston Marathon in April 2020. “And then the pandemic hit,” he says. “I felt like I was at my peak fitness, and I didn’t know what to do with that.”

Neil Martin '99 runs in the Boston Marathon.
Neil Martin competes in the Boston Marathon.

Running was a stress reliever at an incredibly stressful time. “All of a sudden we had to figure out how to keep seeing patients and keep the staff safe.” In mid-March 2020, “we decided to get everyone out of the clinic that we could, except for a few nurses and technicians.” While most parts of the hospital shut down, “our patients had to have treatment,” he says.

“In the early days it was really emotionally fraught,” he admits. “We were making decisions in a vacuum with little guidance. Those were some of the most sleepless nights I had.”

And so began the streak. The first April weekend Martin took on the Boston course a bit slower than he wanted, so he decided to aim faster for the next weekend. He’d run with a friend or two, and soon running 26.2 miles on an early Saturday morning felt normal.

He also got faster, with runs typically in the 2 hour and 45 minutes to 3-hour range. On his birthday he ran 43 miles, and he did a few 31-mile trail runs.

Summer was hot and muggy – not Martin’s favorite running weather – but he kept the streak going. In April 2021, he ran a ‘real’ marathon in New Hampshire, recording a personal best of 2:36:31 and placing 7th overall. He ran a few more 26.2-mile outings on his own, got to 57, and decided to halt the streak.

Martin wasn’t particularly interested in running growing up in Denver. He hiked, biked and rocked climb as a kid, then did his first marathon with little training while studying abroad in New Zealand as an undergraduate.

Neil Martin '99 poses after getting his completion metal after the 2017 50 mile Endurance Challenge in San Francisco.
Martin poses with his completion metal after the 2017 Endurance Challenge 50 mile race in San Francisco.

Neil and his wife, Jenn (Larimer) Martin ’99, met earlier in their campus days at Grinnell College. Both were chemistry majors. After graduation, Neil joined AmeriCorps for a year and lived in Denver with his dad, then went to medical school at University of Pennsylvania. He signed up for the Philadelphia Marathon and didn’t know much about training. “I got to mile 20 in that race and felt like I would die.” Still, he stumbled in at a very respectable 3:17.

In 2014 he started running his 6.5-mile commute to work with a German colleague. That’s when he fell in love with running and the local run community, which led to his marathon career being born. “That state of really concentrating and pushing and working at something is really appealing to me,” explains Martin. “There are periods where you are sort of in flow and it feels effortless, and there are long periods where it’s hard, and you’re telling your body to keep going.”

Though the streak’s ended, Martin’s training with a coach for October’s Boston Marathon. “For the year of marathons, I didn’t take rest days; I didn’t do speed work; I didn’t go to the track.” Now he’s added structure in order to get faster. “I’d like to go under 2:30:00,” he says.

“There aren’t a lot of times that I can focus and concentrate on one thing for three hours,” Martin adds. “So like many things in my life, I stumbled onto something that really struck a chord for me.”

— by Anne Stein ’84

For your information:

Martin is part of a Grinnell Alumni Runners club. The club, which has 36 members, is open to all alums.

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