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North Harrison cross country coach Tim Martin, right, leads the team toward the course after stretching. Photo by Brian Smith

Tim Martin: Storied running past, passing on to North Harrison harriers

Native American coaching Cougars to soaring levels

August 06, 2014 | 10:52 AM

Tim Martin describes the current North Harrison cross country program as a well-oiled machine.

That machine runs at blazing speeds, turning out impressive seasons year after year.

Not only has the high school program benefited, but recent Cougar harrier alums Tyler Byrne and Johnnie Guy have gone on to impressive college careers. Each have earned All-American honors while, this past season, Guy won the NCAA Division II National title with the University of Southern Indiana.

Heads often turn come October when the North Harrison boys' cross country team embark on its postseason trek. It has been, without a doubt, the hottest program in Southern Indiana. Since 2009, the Cougars have won four sectional and regional titles. In 2010 and 2011, North Harrison went to one of the toughest semi-states, Brown County, and came away with the top podium spot.

Recent success can be pointed to the coach behind the training and workouts.

Martin arrived at North Harrison in 2006, beginning as an assistant coach before taking over in 2011. He admits there isn't a secret to running an elite program at a small school. Those notes he's shared with other area coaches.

"There is no secret," Martin said, who teaches eight-grade science at North Harrison Middle School. "The secret to high school cross country is the kids have to trust you. They have to buy into whatever you are doing. That is what I believe I do really good. I tell them everything: why they do it, purpose, and what's going to happen if they follow this program. Once they believe in you, they'll do anything."

It may be Martin's personal background that drives North Harrison runners not only on the training grounds, but also in life.

Martin, a Native American, grew up on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona and hit trails at a young age. It turned into an accomplished competitive career that he has turned to coaching.

"My whole life is built around running," Martin said.

Navajo Reservation

"It's a tradition to run to stay fit," Martin said. "It's called you run for health and for wealth."

The concept behind the tradition is, if a person is healthy and strong, it makes your mind strong which, in turn, will make you a successful person in life.

"The tradition is you get up and run when the sun comes up," Martin said. "Our dad brought us up traditionally because we grew up on the reservation. As far as I can remember, we always ran in the morning."

Martin's earliest memory is waking at 5 a.m. to begin running when the sun rose, at 5:30. He was 6 years old. A ritual, they ran toward the east.

"The east is where the sun comes up, and the sun's rays are supposed to give you more energy and power," Martin said. "The sun's rays also represent the people before us, the holy ones. If you get up and run, you'll get their blessings. If you sleep in, you don't get stronger because you don't get those blessings."

Martin has three brothers. The oldest, Donavan, is active military, a high-ranking official in Colorado Springs, Colo. His younger brother, Shaun, is the athletic director and cross country coach at Diné College, a public university chartered by the Navajo Nation. Shaun has excelled in ultra marathons (races of 30 miles or more) professionally, showing up in articles in running magazines, and has coached multiple state champion teams and individuals at Chinle (Ariz.) High School before moving to the college ranks. He also garnered National Teacher of the Year honors two years ago.

Sandwiched between Donavan and Shaun are Tim and his twin, Theo, the fastest among the Martin troop. Behind the push to be the best was their father, Allen Martin.

"It all came from my dad's teachings," Tim said. "Everyday, living in my home, success was stressed to us. He was a pretty driven guy. He drilled it in our heads, and it stuck."

Martin's racing career

Because Tim and Theo were running at a young age, when competitions began, they dominated.

"When I first started running competitions, in sixth grade, I naturally stepped up there after running who knows how many miles per day and kicked everybody's butt," Martin said.

Winning snowballed. There was a successful high school career. Theo was a three-time cross country champion; Tim nabbed the honor once. It so happened their senior year they tied for the title. Thirty seconds ahead of the third-place finisher, the dynamic duo put a cap on their prep cross country career by going out on top, together.

"Growing up with a bunch of brothers, we competed with each other," Martin said. "We always wanted to out-do each other. It was fighting for survival in the house. It makes you competitive."

Martin often shares his high school experience with his North Harrison runners. Times he listed are so fast, it's hard to believe the stories aren't tall tales.

Tim and Theo ran sub-15 minutes in the 5k while the No. 3 and 4 runners were 15:20 to 15:30 runners. The fifth? He would come in under 16 minutes as well. For comparison, the 2013 Indiana state champ, Terre Haute South's Jackson Bertoli, ran a 15:32.

"In high school, I was lucky to have a college coach for a high school coach that knew his stuff," Martin said. "He got a hold of a bunch of us and, by our senior year, we were ranked No. 2 in the United States. I tell these guys how good we were, and they can't believe it."

All four years at Page High School, the Martins won state in their division (similar to classifying sports in Indiana; cross country is one sport that isn't) as a team.

"Theo was the king of cross country," Martin said. "I was a better track guy, so I would beat him in the 800, 1,600 and 3,200. That rivalry pushed us to be that much better."

Following high school, Theo and Tim went on to Northern Arizona University on scholarship. The success continued.

Their sophomore year on, they made appearances at NCAA Nationals.

"Junior year we got second, NCAA runner-up," Martin said. "We had four All-Americans on our team, including me and Theo. My senior year we were ranked No. 1 going in, but there were injuries; my brother needed surgery, and our No. 3 guy passed out cold at the meet."

They finished 12th as a team but, for Tim's college career, he was a two-time All-American in cross country.

"There was a lot of pressure when they say you should win the whole thing," Martin recalled. "We pushed hard the whole season."

At NAU, the Martins — Shaun eventually competed there as well — ran for head coach Ron Mann. After retiring from NAU, Mann took over the coaching job at the University of Louisville, eventually recruiting Tyler Byrne.

One of the greatest accomplishments was earning degrees. Theo earned his a year before Tim, becoming the first on his father's side of the family to achieve that goal. Theo recently completed his doctorate. On Tim's mother's (Lisa) side, her father was a family physician.

Post-college and move to Indiana

The year following the success at NAU, Tim moved to Colorado to train for marathons. Injuries and lack of financial stability saw him jump to a job offer a year later to teach in his hometown.

There, he met his wife, the former Anne Haskell, a North Harrison graduate.

"She graduated from college and wanted to move away to experience something else," Tim said. "She happened to move to my hometown and was down the hall from me teaching. We got married a year after we started dating."

Tim returned to running at a high level again. After three years of teaching and getting married, the couple moved to Flagstaff, Ariz., to take a shot at the Olympic Trials.

"I ended up making it really easily, so I decided I'd run professionally," Martin said. "I then had a really bad injury, moved (to Indiana) and stopped running professionally. That was eight years ago."

It took Martin some time to adjust to the Hoosier state.

"It's awesome out here family-wise. The weather is hard to get used to," he said. "When I first moved here, I ran for a couple weeks, and I couldn't do it. It was so bad on my body, I quit for about a year. There are no trails except the one loop at the school."

Then, Tim began running with a group and started to take Tyler Byrne, at the time a rising star at North Harrison, under his wing.

Martin recently turned 40 and is aiming to compete in the Masters series.

"I trained this past year really hard to run Pittsburgh Marathon," he said. "With one month before Pittsburgh, I pulled my hamstring. It locked up, and I couldn't run for two or three weeks. It killed my training because I was looking at debuting a (two-hour, 20-minute) time to get on the marathon masters scene."

The injury hasn't derailed Martin, who said he'll still aim to get on the series.

Building NH's XC program

When Martin was hired as an assistant coach to help Jerry Love, his knowledge impressed the now retired coach.

"They didn't have the knowledge of what a successful team needed to work: the workouts, the strengthening," Martin said. "Jerry basically told me to train those guys and he'll focus on the administrative part and the motivational part of coaching."

Steadily, the North Harrison cross country program improved.

"These guys are so trained I probably don't have to show up on a day-to-day basis," Martin said. "They know to do what they need to do. It's a fine-oiled machine now. We have seniors and juniors that teach the freshmen."

Winning and lowering times, in Martin's view, has a lot to do with the athletes.

"The kids are so used to the system," he said. "When the freshmen jump in, they fit right in because they see the older kids are successful. The freshmen improve way faster than when I first came in. It used to take newer kids two, three years to get down to 18 (minutes). Now, I guarantee these freshmen will run 18 flat, high 17s this year because the way it works now. It's crazy."

"Driven" can easily describe the core of NH runners. If Martin gave them a week to get in 100 miles of work, he said they would do it. He wouldn't do that, but he recalls a few years ago asking his team to wake at 3 a.m. for a marathon workout. Each kid showed up.

"They all love it," Martin said. "They may be tired or hurting after a practice, but they love it. They love each other."

The training is simple. They don't run really high mileage, but they build up in the summer. When the fall season begins in August, Martin said they run the same miles as other schools.

Martin believes his group may compete in workouts better. Recovery is key within the program.

"Kids want to hammer, hammer, hammer, but I make sure every other day they just jog," Martin said. "In order to get the workout I want tomorrow, they better run a 7:20 pace today because I want that good 5:30 pace tomorrow. There is no secret. I've given all those other coaches everything I do. They say they do it, but it seems we peak at the right time."

Meets before the postseason don't mean much to the Cougars.

"What matters is when we get to sectional, we make it to regional, when we make it to regional, we make it to semi-state, we make it to semi-state, we make it to state, then we have fun," Martin said. "I live on a meet-to-meet basis. Don't let other meets get in the way of a state championship."

Getting the athletes to additionally love the sport came recently when the high schoolers had a camp at Red River Gorge in Kentucky.

"It's a team-building thing," Martin said. "There is no teaching (at camp); it is about having fun. That's how you build team bonding. To have a good team, they have to get along. They die for each other. Every team I've had, they are so tight."

Top meets, athletes at NH

Team bonding proved to be the key to winning regional last year. Curtis Wetzel, on the last mile of a training run, stepped in a hole and broke his foot. Typically one of North Harrison's top two runners alongside fellow senior-to-be Daniel Fleace, Wetzel missed regional.

"Curtis didn't run, and we're left with someone that didn't normally have to score needing to score," Martin said. "He stepped up to the plate and ran like a champion. They won regional without Curtis. They all threw one down. It was the second greatest race I've coached other than winning the semi-state."

A broken foot didn't stop Wetzel from wanting to give it a go at semi-state. He ran because he felt like his team needed him for an opportunity to make it to state. However, the injury was too much for Wetzel, who failed to score. He is back this year, along with Fleace and others, for a promising 2014.

"Fleace is an amazing runner, a work horse," Martin said. "He's come a long way. If you'd ask me early on if he'd have a shot at top 10 in the state, I would have said, 'Heck, no.' Now, he looks like a top-10 contender because of the way he works, doing his stuff right. He's not the typical cross kid, but he is so strong."

Byrne is thought of as a racing God of sorts in the North Harrison area. He and Johnnie Guy have gone on to note-worthy careers at the college level. Byrne recently was an All-American at Louisville and moves to Northern Arizona this week to compete at Martin's alma mater. He has one year of eligibility remaining and will attend graduate school at NAU.

Guy became a fast-running sensation at North Harrison. He won an NCAA Division II title at USI this past season and has two years of eligibility remaining, along with his twin brother, Josh.

While in high school, Johnnie Guy's top state finishes were 12th in cross country and third in the 3,200 in track while Byrne was fifth in cross county and second in the 3,200.

The winner of those races was Indiana state-champ Futsum Zeinasellassie, who currently runs at NAU.

"The program is awesome," Martin said. "They are better than they have ever been; they just can't get that title. This year might be their year, with Tyler going there. I tried to get Tyler to go out there out of high school. He didn't want to move that far at that time. Out there, everything is trail, so it may have prevented his injuries."

Those runners, along with others who are competing at the college level, have satisfied Martin. But there are others.

"Even guys like Kyle Chesser, who is in the military, is bringing running to his troop," Martin said. "He asks me for workouts to share. Those guys make me proud."

The future of NH harriers

A fifth-place finish put the Cougars on the podium in 2009 in Terre Haute at the state cross country meet. Can they reach that ultimate goal of winning state?

"Podium is the ultimate goal," Martin said. "To win a state championship in the state of Indiana, you have to have a lot of luck with talent. With a school like ours, when we have 10 runners or less on a year-to-year basis, you have to have luck. We could get there and get podium, but, to actually win a state championship, you'd have to have something special."

Martin said in 2011, Guy's senior year, the team had a shot, but the race needed to fall into place perfectly. It didn't happen.

"There is a lot of talent in the school, but they are playing soccer, football or sitting on their butts somewhere," Martin said. "This group I have now is pretty good. They have a shot to do some great things as long as we stay healthy."

North Harrison has built an elementary and middle school program, hoping to give younger students a taste of running. With a family at home — the Martins have two young children — Tim isn't able to coach each level.

He wants that push for a good middle school program to help nudge the high school team to another level.

Tim and Anne, a teacher at Floyd Central High School, may not stay in the area for long. They are looking to move back to Arizona down the road.

"I'm crossing my fingers that one of my boys that I coached in the past comes back and takes the program over," Martin said. "I'd hate to see this program drop."

Byrne and Guy are already giving back.

"The thing I like is these guys are level headed," Martin said. "They come back and talk to the kids. Tyler comes and runs with the freshmen kids. He talks while he runs with them. He's willing to share. If Johnnie comes out here, he jumps in, too. It's like they are all on the same team still."

The reason for the move in the future is Martin's ultimate goal of giving back to the Native American people.

"It's always been a goal to work with Native American youth," Martin said. "The lifestyle there, socioeconomics are so low, most are single-house parents, I want to help improve it. I used to work running and fitness camps out there, and it is a passion to work with Native American kids, to motivate them to get to college and see there is something more out there than living next to your parents. Drinking and partying is not where the fun is at. Fun is being successful. That's the ultimate goal."

Having his children – Symond, 6, and Max, 3 – become more familiar with the Navajo culture is important as well.

"I really want my kids to go out there and experience the culture," Martin said. "I want them to be part of the Native American way of life and setting. They can see my parents and grandparents more. It'll be real important to the rest of their lives."

Twitter: @TCD_brian

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