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Nathan Martin is ready to race at the New York City Marathon, and Black runners are amped

Martin, currently the fastest American-born Black marathoner, will be competing at the front of the pack in the elite open division Sunday.
Photo Illustration: Nathan Martin
Nathan Martin ran his first New York City Marathon last year — it was also his first World Marathon Major. Justine Goode / NBC News; Instagam

At first, Nathan Martin didn’t realize the scope of what he’d achieved when he crossed the finish line at the Marathon Project in Chandler, Arizona, two years ago. He just knew that running the 26.2 miles in 2:11:05 represented a personal best at a time when races were still being canceled and postponed because of the pandemic. 

But soon enough his phone started blowing up. Friends, fellow athletes and Black running enthusiasts had news for him: Martin was now the fastest American-born Black marathoner, breaking Herm Atkins’ 2:11:52 record that had stood since 1979.

“Yeah, the energy in the Black community is beyond insane,” Martin, who lives in Jackson, Michigan, said with a smile in a video interview in October. Even at smaller races, he notes the enthusiasm Black runners and fans have for his presence, thanks to his record. 

After winning a recent road race by a large margin, Martin was standing at the awards area, when he saw members of We Run 313, a Detroit-area Black running group, “and they were screaming like crazy,” he said. “I thought I did OK, but it was just awesome. Just that energy — you definitely can tell there’s something special, especially when other Black runners achieve something.”

It’s cause for celebration. 

This weekend, Martin, 33, will line up on the Staten Island side of the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge with some of the most competitive runners in the world. When the gun goes off, he and 50,000 others will race around all five boroughs in the New York City Marathon.

He will be competing at the front of the pack in the elite open division alongside defending champion Evans Chebet of Kenya, the North American record holder Cam Levins of Canada, and Mosinet Geremew of Ethiopia, who has this year’s fastest marathon time of those running New York on Sunday. (Kelvin Kiptum, who broke the world marathon record in Chicago last month, with 2:00:35, is not on the roster for Sunday’s race.) 

Martin said the New York City Marathon, an annual day of pride for New Yorkers, is unique. 

“New York is very scenic,” he said. “There’s a lot of energy to it. Just the energy the crowd brings, and the atmosphere and all that kind of stuff is just awesome.”

Martin has been preparing for New York’s course with tempo runs, practicing at or near race pace, on a hilly seven-mile loop with elevation gains. “It’s just good training in general but definitely to prep for New York,” he said. He ran his first New York City Marathon last year — it was also his first World Marathon Major. He said he underestimated the terrain, complete with five bridges and plenty of hills.

“I was really ambitious, and I said, ‘I’m feeling good, so I’m just going to kind of go for it,’” he recalled. “So when a couple of guys surged and took off, I’m like, ‘You know what? I’m going to go with these guys, I’m feeling good. I’m going to just try to force a good day.’ And I felt good until I didn’t. So I’m just learning from that and learning that I need to be patient. I need to respect the hills.” 

And yet, he managed to come in eighth overall last year. For this Sunday’s race, Martin said his focused training has him feeling cautiously optimistic. 

“I don’t want to jinx myself and say I’ll come in with, like, a PR [personal record] or something, but I’m feeling really good,” he said. “And you know, it wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility to get a PR in New York. So if that opportunity presents itself, I’ll definitely try and take it.”

Martin’s time — and his personal best — dropped even further, to 2:10:45 in June at Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, Minnesota, making him one of the fastest marathoners in the country. 

His success with running started after a tumultuous gym-class physical fitness test in sixth grade when he got his “butt kicked.” Soon enough, Martin’s class time began to improve enough for others to encourage him to join his middle school’s cross country team. He did, and then ran his way through school, winding up at Spring Arbor University in Michigan, where in 2013 he set the marathon record at the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics national championship by three minutes. It was his first marathon. 

“I was like, ‘How in the world did I get myself in this situation?’” But with his coach’s encouragement, the wins did not stop there. “I trusted him and went for it.” Thirty-six hours after his record-breaking marathon, he won the NAIA national championship in the 10K. 

And now, in addition to breaking records and marathoning across the country, Martin is working as a high school running coach in Michigan. And while his student-athletes respect his achievements, they also keep him humble with critiques on his Instagram posts. He keeps it all in stride, though. The goal is to help them foster a love of movement. 

“Once you start coaching kids, you connect with them enough, it’s like they don’t really think about the kinds of achievements you have,” he said. “It’s really about just kind of showing them a way to move forward and think about running.”