Born to Run
Jenny Martin, Women's Cross Country MVP, sprints to the Heps
By Matt O'Keefe
Special to the Gazette
If there is a natural environment for competition, cross country is it. For most of the five-kilometer race, the runners are alone on the course, going through woods and across fields, up and down hills, stepping in water, mud, and even snow.
Harvard senior Jenny Martin says there's no sport like cross country. "It's like being free and competing at the same time," she says. "Like being able to get your aggressions out." The more Martin talks, the more intense she becomes. "It's not for the weak-minded. There's a big intimidation factor involved."
A three-time cross country All-Stater from Newton North High School in Newton, Mass., Martin is leading a talented Harvard squad that this year has a chance to unseat reigning conference champion Dartmouth. Academically, she is a psychology concentrator, and ultimately she hopes to work in the area of urban public school reform. And she has been playing the violin since the age of 7, with stints in the Greater Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra and pit orchestras for various Harvard theatrical productions. But it is difficult to get Martin to talk about these things in the middle of cross country season.
"This year we have five or six runners really close in talent level," she says. "On any given day, one of them could put together a great run."
In cross country, five is the magic number, and that is why Martin is hopeful. A team starts with anywhere from seven to fifteen runners, but only the top five count in the standings. The scoring is simple: the placings of the top runners are added together and the team with the lowest score wins. Dartmouth won last year's Heptagonal meet (the championship meet for the Ivies, plus Army and Navy) with its top two runners placing one and two, but Harvard finished a strong second because all five of its runners placed in the top 20. This year's Heps are Nov. 1, and Martin figures to be a key in the rematch.
"Jenny was our Most Valuable Performer last season," says women's cross country coach Frank Haggerty. "And her value comes not so much during the meets but during practices. She's someone who brings a strong work ethic to the team."
Martin may have inherited this work ethic from her father, Peter, who was her cross country and track coach, not to mention her calculus teacher, at Newton North. Peter Martin founded the women's cross country and track programs at the high school 24 years ago and his team is currently gunning for their third consecutive state championship. In 1989 he was named both Massachusetts cross country Coach of the Year and Teacher of the Year. He approached the task of coaching and teaching his daughter without trepidation.
"Even though I was her coach," Peter Martin says, "we enjoyed each other's company a lot. We were able to compartmentalize our relationship."
He says that in addition to being an outstanding runner, Jenny was also "a wonderful soccer player and a great tennis player. But she might have been the best at golf." He ought to know, having been a frequent opponent in the latter two sports.
Peter Martin is quick to point that while his daughter is competitive, "she is cooperatively competitive."
"It takes two people to make a great a race," he says.
Jenny Martin and her Harvard teammates will have to cooperate to stay competitive with Dartmouth at the upcoming Heps. In terms of intimidation, the Dartmouth team is state of the art.
Chock full of All-Americans, including a pair of 23-year-old fifth-year seniors, they look tough standing around the starting line. And once the staring gun is fired. . .
"You'll see a handful of Dartmouth girls out in front," Martin says. "Our goal is to get a few of our girls into a few of theirs and disrupt their pack right from the beginning. The key is not necessarily to outrun them but to outrace them. Also in the woods area, it is important to spurt ahead and go around the corner -- they'll think you're gone, and they'll be demoralized."
As the race evolves, different strategies come into play. Haggerty talks about "the gap between one and five" -- the amount of time separating a team's first runner from its fifth -- and how that gap should be no more than 25 seconds. The idea is that the fastest runners stay with the slower runners and push them to make them faster and more confident. This ensures a strong team finish.
"Cross country is the ultimate team sport," Martin says, "in that personal success is subordinate to team success, and this is true in workouts and in races."
The Harvard squad practices every day for two hours. One hour is spent running various drills, but the other is spent simply talking -- sometimes discussing strategy but more often just building camaraderie and team morale. Martin calls it "socializing while stretching." It may sound innocuous, but it may also be the place where the race is won.
Copyright 1998 President and Fellows of Harvard College