Deep Roots

by David O'Brian
Binghamton Sports Information Office

After just one year at Binghamton, Jeff Martinez of the track and cross country teams has followed up an historic high school career with a stellar start to his college campaign. His family has remained an integral part of his success each step of the way.

In November 2002, Rocky and JoAnne Martinez sat down at dinner one night with their children Jeff and Traci. They did so completely unaware of the conversation to follow. Back then, Jeff was in the sixth grade and during elementary school, he had played several youth sports such as baseball, basketball, soccer and even golf. He had run in a few half-mile fun runs but had never raced much further than a mile. So when Jeff told his parents at dinner that he wanted to run in a 5K race, Rocky and JoAnne didn't know what to think.

Fast forward to a Tuesday afternoon in May 2010. It is a scene which no one at that dinner table could ever have envisioned. Jeff Martinez is now a freshman at Binghamton University. He has just finished a pair of interviews with local TV stations and is preparing for an interval workout at Binghamton's East Gym Track. Both reporters featured Martinez a year earlier when he won the New York State 3,200 championship as a senior at nearby Johnson City High School. On this day, however, the two reporters interviewed him because he was recently named the Most Outstanding Rookie at the America East Outdoor Track Championships. Simply put, they know Martinez well.

As Martinez stretches out, a local high school team is finishing up its own practice at the East Gym Track. Many of the runners look over in his direction, knowing full well who he is.

"Wow, that's Jeff Martinez tying his shoes," one of the kids says.

Much has transpired for Martinez since that conversation with his parents back in 2002. He became one of the best high school runners ever to come out of the local area. He is now developing into one of the most promising distance runners in Binghamton University history. Through it all, the family that was initially dumbfounded by their son's decision to run his first 5K has been vital to all of his accomplishments.


Growing up in nearby Johnson City, Martinez lived in a neighborhood where the houses were close together and many of the families met for a variety of reasons. It was through another family that he first heard of a 5K race.

“It has to go back to one of our family friends," Martinez said." A group of families and us always used to meet for a bunch of haircuts. I’m not sure why we did but it was a family thing because we all had the same person who cut our hair. One of the guys there was an avid runner. He had done a bunch of 5Ks and for some reason that kind of intrigued me.”

As for Rocky and JoAnne, however, they were at a loss for words when Jeff told them his wish.

"I thought that he wouldn't make it," Rocky said. "I mean that was THREE miles! He had only run half a mile before that. Now he is telling us he wanted to run a 5K in three weeks and it's going to be in the middle of winter."

"Running was all new to me,'" JoAnne said. "I told him if he wanted to try it, go ahead but we wondered how he even came up with this idea."

If the manner in which Martinez found out about a 5K was unusual, so too were his initial training methods.

“My training for that first race consisted of a game called Manhunt," he said. "My friends and I would get a game going on. I lived in an area where houses were close so I ran through backyards with people trying to get me.”

That first 5K was the 2002 YMCA New Year's Eve Resolution Run in the Binghamton area. For Martinez, however, his debut didn't go quite like he planned.

“It was a lot longer than I thought," he said. "I crossed the finish line and thought 'That stunk!' Initially after the race, I did not want to do another one but after a while, I realized I kind of liked it and wanted to try again.”

"Jeff had a look on his face during that race that he wasn't going to stop," Rocky recalls. "We told him it was okay if he had to walk but he was determined to run the whole thing."

Family Ties

For the next three years, Martinez ran between 10-12 5Ks per year. He won his age group regularly. In addition, he ran modified track at Johnson City Middle School up through the eighth grade. As Martinez become more involved in running, his parents became equally as supportive.

Rocky, who works for IBM and is the current president of the Johnson City School Board, became a quick study in the sport of running. He has become both a mentor and a confidante to his son.

"My dad has been a hero in every aspect," Martinez said. "He went from someone who knew nothing about running when I told him I wanted to run the 5K to now possibly knowing more than I do. He has read a lot about running.

"Growing up, I played football and basketball but never got interested in track," Rocky said. "I did track only because my high school coaches wanted me to stay in shape. All of the sudden, I had a son whose main focus was running, which I knew very little about. I went out and looking up topics such as training techniques, form, pulse rates and oxygen intakes. I had to teach myself what it takes to be a runner."

Whenever Martinez got nervous before a race, he knew just who to turn to for support.

"I used to make myself so nervous going into races that I would make myself sick," he said. "My dad would tell me about an hour before a race to come for a walk with him. We would talk about different things, such as the weather or school or anything to help me to calm down.”

JoAnne, who is a typist for a law firm, took on a different but equally important role.

"My mom became the workhorse behind everything I did," Martinez said. "She drove me to practices and meets, brought the snacks and did so much behind the scenes."

In addition, JoAnne was the parent who made sure Jeff and Traci stayed on top of their school work at all times.

"There were times growing up where I wanted to do things with my friends but I was told I had to do my school work first," Martinez said. "I was mad at the time but looking back, I know it was the right thing."

Behind all of the work and discipline, however, was an unconditional support that strengthened Martinez.

"It didn't matter if I had a great race or a bad one," he said. "They showed me they were proud of me no matter what. They didn't push me in a way that was bad."

An equal part of that unconditional support for Jeff has been Traci, who is two years younger. As the only two children in the family, Jeff and Traci were close from an early age. Although Jeff is now living on campus, that bond remains tight.

“Traci is probably my best friend with all of the time we have spent together," he said. "She has been there for me in more than just running events. She has been there for me if I needed to tell her secrets or if I just needed to talk to someone."

"They really love each other a lot," Rocky said. "They really don't have to be around each other all the time but they need to know how each other is doing. Traci is Jeff's biggest fan whenever he races."

High School

When Martinez was a freshman in high school, he joined the varsity track and cross country programs. He had met Johnson City head coach Pete Tylenda the previous year at a modified track meet and was excited to move up to a higher level of competition.

"I really looked up to the varsity team when I was still running modified track," he said. "It seemed like a lot of hard work but I liked the challenge."

Tylenda didn't know Martinez but was quickly impressed with his demeanor both on and off the track.

"Jeff was very coachable and polite," he said. "A lot of boys are flakes but Jeff wasn't like that. He listened and did what he was told to do. Many of the boys will ignore warm-ups and stretching and things of that nature. Jeff always took it seriously. He always tried to get better and listened to what others told him."

"Coach Tylenda is one of the biggest reasons I am the runner I am today," Martinez said. "He taught me the importance of peaking at the right time and that winning all the meets, especially the early ones, doesn't really mean all that much. He also taught me that you have to want to be good, that someone won't just be there to give you the secret formula. You have to want it."

It didn't take long for Tylenda to realize the importance of Jeff's family in his life.

"Jeff has a very supportive family," he said. "They have followed us around all over the place. I remember when Jeff was a freshman at the state meet in cross country, his father was in China (on business) but the rest of the family was here. Jeff gets done racing and he called his dad in China right away to let him know how he did."

In his first two years of high school, Martinez was Johnson City's top runner and advanced to the state cross country meet each year. When he wasn't training with his team during the school year, he was training with his father over the summer.

"Jeff would go out with his dad during the summer," Tylenda said. "His dad would actually ride a bike and pace Jeff because frankly, there weren't any boys who were good enough to run with Jeff."

In the summer before his junior year, however, Martinez joined the Relentless Run Track Club. Founded by current Binghamton runner Chris Gaube, it was geared towards helping local high school runners who wanted to stay in shape for their upcoming cross country seasons. Gaube starred at Vestal High School and was finding just as much success at Binghamton.

"In the spring of my sophomore year, Chris came up to me at a meet and was passing out flyers about his club," Martinez was. "Being a part of the club helped me get into better shape that summer. Putting me at a base mileage over the summer made a huge turnaround in my junior season.”

During that summer, Martinez made an immediate impression on Gaube. He had little idea that the two would be teammates at Binghamton just a few years later.

"It was pretty evident from the get-go that Jeff was a special talent," he said. "One thing I will always remember, however, was how respectful he was and how humble he was. It is seldom that you find talented athletes as humble and diplomatic as him."

Martinez made the New York State Federation Cross Country Meet as a junior. He ran a time of 9:29 in the 3,200 during the track season. Like Gaube, Martinez also hoped to make the transition to a Division I program after high school. When he talked to college programs, however, Martinez didn't get the feedback he had hoped.

“I thought I was faster than I actually was," he said. "My junior year time of 9:29 wasn’t stellar. It was a solid time but to the college programs, it wasn’t outstanding. One of the coaches told me my times weren’t fast enough to run Division I. Looking back, however, I almost feel like I should go back and thank him because that lit a fire under me to really work harder.”

In his senior year of cross country, Martinez placed 12th overall at the Footlocker Northeast Regional Championships. He was named second-team all-state but was still not regarded as one of the best runners in the state. That would change in a big way during the 2009 track season.

A Race for the Ages

During the first two years of high school, Martinez was unsure of his finishing kick in races. He had missed out on qualifying for the New York State Federation Cross Country Meet by .09 seconds as a sophomore. Having read up on running, Rocky decided to try and help Jeff improve his finishing touch.

"He had little confidence in his kick," Rocky said. "He just didn't believe at all that he could speed up without running out of gas."

“My dad actually took me in a hallway at school one day," Martinez said. "He'd drop his arm and said he wanted me to sprint from where I was standing to where he was. He told me to focus on sprinter form, keep my knees up and run like a true sprinter."

Rocky's advice paid off in a big way. Throughout his senior year of high school, Martinez's finishing kick became the most vaunted part of his performance. He routinely passed dozens of runners in the final part of big cross country meets and won the outdoor track conference and sectional titles in the 3,200 with a devastating final lap. His signature moment, however, came in his final high school race at the New York State Championships on June 12, 2009. It was a race that would go down as one of the most significant performances in the history of the meet.

Martinez entered the state meet with a ton of momentum, having knocked nearly 20 seconds off his top time in the previous two meets. Just six days earlier, he won the Section 4 title in a time of 9:07. He had a realistic chance of breaking the nine-minute barrier, something no other local high school runner had ever done.

During Martinez's three-week rampage heading into the state meet, however, his grandmother, Sandi, became ill and passed away. Like his parents, Sandi also played a pivotal role in his life.

"She was one of the nicest human beings I have ever met," he said. "She came to a lot of my meets and when she wasn’t there, she was one of the first people I’d talk to afterwards. She always seemed the happiest of anyone after my meets."

"They were very close," JoAnne said. "Jeff was her first grandchild and he always went over to visit her. He never left her house without her feeding him. They were like buddies."

Instead of succumbing to grief, however, Martinez became more inspired to dedicate his season to his grandmother.

“It made me more focused," he said. "(Sandi) had not been feeling well for a while and I told myself that I was going to dedicate the season to her. I wanted her to stay with me and see me though the end of the season but she passed the week before Sectionals."

"I went to the funeral and knew how tough it was for Jeff and his family," Tylenda said. "But to his credit, he didn't let it ruin him. He did a great job of running through it, especially at the state meet."

With two laps remaining in the eight-lap state championship race, Martinez found himself in a group of three other runners, closing in on Chris Stogsdill of Marcellus High School, who had led the race from the start. With 300 meters to go, the group caught up to Stogsdill. With 200 meters to go, Martinez unleashed his finishing kick and ended with a time of 8:57, nearly three seconds ahead of the second-place finisher.

Suddenly, the runner who was told that his times were not quite good enough to compete at the Division I level was the state champion. The next day, his victory was the lead story in the sports section of the Press & Sun Bulletin.

“The last lap is something I have replayed in my head a thousand times over again," Martinez said. "With 200 meters to go, I realized I could win this. I crossed the line, threw my arms up in the air and knew I had finally done it."

It didn't take long, however, for Martinez to remember the person to whom he dedicated the season to.

"I thought of my grandmother almost right after I crossed the finish line," he said. "Having my whole family come up to support me was great but I know she would have wanted to be there too."

Becoming a Bearcat

Long before Martinez decided to come to Binghamton, his family had become supporters of Binghamton Athletics. They started attending basketball games nearly a decade ago and were aware of the successes of other programs on campus. Three years ago, they purchased season tickets to men's and women's basketball games and brought Jeff and Traci with them. This past year, the Martinez family had seats in the second row of the Events Center for all home games.

"We started coming to basketball games back when they played in the West Gym," Rocky said. "Everyone knows how big athletic programs are at Penn State and Notre Dame but they don't understand how much Binghamton has grown until they come out here, especially with the facilities such as the Events Center. We also heard how successful teams such as men's soccer and baseball were."

"I wasn't too enthusiastic about coming at first because I was never into following college sports," JoAnne said. "I never even read the sports page. But once I started coming out, I really enjoyed it."

Even though they had strong ties to Binghamton, Rocky and JoAnne encouraged Jeff to make the right decision for him when it came time to decide where he wanted to go to college.

"We wanted him to make the best decision for him," JoAnne said. "We weren't intentionally trying to keep him close to home. We even looked at some schools down in North Carolina. The important thing was for Jeff to find the best fit for him."

In the end, Martinez chose to come to Binghamton. The combination of staying close to his family, an up-and-coming distance running program and the academic reputation made for the perfect fit his parents hoped he'd find.

"What attracted me to the university the most was the fact that it was close to home because my family is very important to me and I knew from being local that the cross country team was going to be good," he said. "The academic (reputation) also had an affect on my decision. I knew that the Watson School was developed and had excellent resources. It also offered two of the types of engineering disciplines I was interested in--mechanical and industrial and systems science engineering."

If Tylenda was the ideal coach at Johnson City High School, Martinez found a similar mentor at Binghamton in Annette Acuff. The head cross country and assistant track coach since 2000, she started having an impact on Jeff from the moment he arrived on campus.

“She has been one of the biggest helpers I have had as far as adjusting to college running," he said. "I told her what I did in high school and she knew that I wasn’t a high-mileage runner. She adjusted my training and allowed me to ease into the higher mileage. I feel like that has helped me a lot. She is very approachable and very careful with keeping us healthy.”

"We knew Jeff was a 'diamond in the rough' so to speak," Acuff said. "He was not running a lot of miles during high school but mechanically, he looked great. He was very mature in his interactions with us during the recruiting process, and he fit in well with the Binghamton academic profile. With him being from the area and knowing a lot of the guys on the team, we knew he would fit in well."

Thanks to years of impressive recruiting, Acuff had transformed the Binghamton men's cross country team from a struggling program to a top team in the America East Conference. When Martinez arrived as a freshman, the Bearcats were set on winning their first-ever conference title. Gaube was in his second year as a team captain and Erik van Ingen was one of the favorites to win the America East individual title. Other veterans such as Casey Quaglia, Adam Quinn, Andrew Ugolino and Craig Coon formed the nucleus of squad that was as close off the course as it was talented on it.

"They were great when I first came on campus," Martinez said. "They reached out to our freshman class, showed us how to succeed and helped us all to get along well."

Martinez had long looked up to Gaube, having returned to his running club each summer since 2007. Being teammates with van Ingen, however, had just as much of an impact on him. During the 2009 cross country season, van Ingen did in fact win the America East title and later became the first Binghamton runner to advance to the NCAA Division I Championships.

“Erik has been a pure leader by example for me," Martinez said. "I looked at how hard he trained and how much success he has had from working that hard. It makes me say to myself that I want to be at that level. Looking at Erik training, I see how much he is locked in. That is one thing I am trying to do. I am trying to copy that in my training.”

A Banner Year

Martinez was among the top four runners on the cross country team heading into the 2009 America East Championships. A battle was expected between Binghamton and three-time defending champion New Hampshire for the team championship. While Martinez had won many individual honors during his high school career, contributing to a team title was something he had never had the opportunity to do.

"Early in the season, I did not think I was going to be much of a contributor because Binghamton had such a strong team," he said. "I surprised myself and I was a little more nervous than usual heading into the conference meet because I was an actual scorer and would play a role in whether we won the title or not."

In the end, Martinez placed 10th overall at the conference meet. He was the top freshman at the meet and became the first Binghamton men's rookie ever to earn all-conference honors. With van Ingen, Gaube and Quaglia also placing in the top 10, Binghamton dethroned New Hampshire by an impressive 30-point margin.

"Winning as a team meant just as much to me as winning the state title the year before," he said. "To work together and achieve your goals is a great feeling."

Joining Rocky and JoAnne at the conference meet was Martinez's grandfather, Stan. In the year since losing his wife, he traveled with the family to all of Jeff's college meets. Martinez and his grandfather had always been close but since Sandi's death, that bond has grown stronger.

"Without a doubt we have become closer," Jeff said. "It has been great to see him travel to places such as Vermont and Boston with my parents to see me run. Whenever people have asked him how he has been doing, he immediately talks about traveling to see me run. It makes me so happy to see how much he enjoys coming to see me."

Success continued to follow Jeff during the indoor and outdoor track seasons and Rocky, JoAnne and Stan were on hand to witness his triumphs. At the America East Indoor Championships, he finished second in the 5,000. He then captured the 10,000 title at the America East Outdoor Championships, placed second in the 5,000 and was named the meet's Most Outstanding Men's Rookie. In both meets, Binghamton was the team runner up and Martinez played a big role each time.

"The distance group was instrumental in our success as a track team this year and Jeff was a big part of that," head track & field coach Mike Thompson said. "His victory in the 10k and runner-up finish in the 5k helped motivate the entire team towards its first ever top-two outdoor conference finish."

After just one season at Binghamton, Martinez has already set three program records. He broke the 3,000 indoor mark and followed up by taking down the 5,000 and 10,000 outdoor records.

"What impresses me more than Jeff's times and places is his competitive spirit, tenacity, and ability to both train and handle pressure," van Ingen said. "Based off of my experiences at his age, I am most impressed about Jeff's level head (both) in training and competition."

In addition to his performances at the conference meets, a highlight of the 2009 season for Martinez came at the Wake Forest Outdoor Track Invitational on March 23. Many of his relatives live in North Carolina and JoAnne contacted all of them the week before the meet. In the end, Martinez had a whole extended family in the stands watching him win the 5,000.

"My mom had a whole e-mail list ready to send out the week of that meet," Martinez said. "She obviously did a great job because I was shocked at how many relatives were there. It was really neat."

The outdoor track season culminated with Martinez advancing to the NCAA East Regional Meet in Greensboro, North Carolina. The day before Martinez found out he made the meet, his mother was already prepared to spread the word via e-mail to the same group of relatives.

"It's gotten to the point where teammates are asking Jeff not if his family is coming to meets but when we will be there and how many people will be there," Rocky said.

By his own admission, Martinez was surprised by his freshman year success. Those people around him, however, had a good feeling about him when he chose to come to Binghamton.

"Having seen Jeff in high school, it doesn't surprise me how well he has done," Gaube said. "Even before he won the state meet, I knew we were getting a great runner."

"Jeff has just begun to scratch the surface of his potential as a distance runner," Thompson said. "I get the impression he is starting to figure out how good he is. He was a low-mileage runner in high school and will continue to improve as he increases his training volume and gains more competitive experience."

In terms of his demeanor away from the track, however, Martinez doesn't need much further improvement.

"After the track season ended, Jeff sent me an e-mail thanking me for everything we did this year to help him improve his strength," Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach Lori Gleason said. "Very few athletes ever do anything like that. It totally made my day."

"I have found Jeff to be conscientious of his academics, training and relationships on the team," Acuff said. "He thinks ahead and has good vision for himself and our program. He is patient with his development and is a very good listener. Most certainly, he is very coachable, but also takes a lot of initiative with his training and racing."

"I think Jeff is most unique in that he is as good of a kid as he is a runner," Gaube said. "No matter what he achieves, he never lets any of his success go to his head. He is the consummate sportsman. Though Jeff goes down as arguably the greatest prep runner ever in this area, young runners in the area should look up to him even more for the way he conducts himself. It is one thing to be a gifted athlete. It is another to be a first class person. Jeff is both."

Looking Ahead

Once the NCAA East Regional meet was done, Martinez turned his attention to the upcoming cross country season. With seven of the top eight runners from last year's squad returning, the Bearcats are gunning to repeat as conference champions and improve upon their eighth-place finish at the NCAA Northeast Regional Meet. The top 2-3 teams from that meet will advance to the NCAA Championships, which is the ultimate goal for Binghamton in 2010.

"After hearing stories about how bad the team used to be, I can see that we are heading into some uncharted waters as we try and go for our first ever trip to nationals as a team," Martinez said. "This direction is something that has never been attempted by the university but if the team works hard and puts in the work in, both the offseason and in-season, then I don't see why nationals cannot happen."

Martinez is also heading in the right direction in terms of his academics. In the fall, he was named to the America East Academic Honor Roll. He is majoring in mechanical engineering and while he does not know exactly what he wants to do for a career, he knows what his main purpose will be.

"I have quite a few ideas of what I want to do but I haven't narrowed it down yet," he said. "I have always liked to build things. No matter what I do, I want to be in a career in which I can build something or make something better."

Needless to say, Martinez has already started to do just that with the Binghamton track and cross country programs.

Writer's Note: I first saw Jeff Martinez run in June 2005, when my stepson and I were running in the Apalachin Fireman's Field Days 5K run. Jeff won his age group (14-under) by nearly two minutes and was fifth overall.

Back then, the men's Binghamton cross country team had never placed higher than sixth at the America East Championships and would sink to eighth place that fall as well as in the year afterwards. In addition, the Bearcats' men's track team had never finished higher than fourth at the conference indoor or outdoor championships.

I didn't meet Jeff at the Field Days 5K, but I remember hoping to myself that Binghamton would someday be able to recruit distance runners of his caliber. That wish, however, seemed remote back in in 2005.

The events that have unfolded this past year for the Binghamton distance program, with Jeff playing a pivotal role, have turned out to be far greater than I could have envisioned on that day five years ago.

Official Results of 2005 Apalachin Field Days 5K

For additional media clips, vidoes and photos click on the links below:

Photo Gallery of Jeff Martinez's freshman year at Binghamton

Videos of Jeff Martinez's top races

Website/press clips featuring Jeff Martinez
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