Paul Streleckis Had Never Coached a Sub-5:00 Miler. Then Gary Martin Entered His Life.

By Jonathan Gault
June 17, 2022

As coach of the Archbishop Wood High School track & field team, Paul Streleckis has had a front-row seat to one of the most exciting series of the spring: the Gary Martin Show. Martin’s feats this season include Pennsylvania state titles at 800 and 1600 meters, a state record in the 3200 meters (8:41.57), and a pair of 3:57 miles, highlighted by a 3:57.98 solo effort at the Philadelphia Catholic League Championships on May 14 — the first time since Jim Ryun in 1965 that a high school boy had broken 4:00 in an unrabbitted, high school-only race.

But one element of the Gary Martin Show remained hidden for much of the year: his coach, the 65-year-old Streleckis, was battling prostate cancer. The diagnosis came in March. Streleckis was told he would need to have his prostate removed.

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“If I wanted to continue to coach, most of the time, they want coaches who are alive,” Streleckis said.

Streleckis scheduled the surgery for June 9 and made the decision not to tell his athletes; the diagnosis and looming surgery was already weighing on him and he did not want his athletes to share that stress. Making things worse: a large kidney stone near Streleckis’ urethtra that required treatment and the insertion of an uncomfortable stent.

“It was just a dull, constant pain for a month,” Streleckis said. “It just starts to sap your energy.”

Streleckis did not allow the diagnosis to interfere with his coaching duties. He waited until after the state meet to tell Martin (the rest of the team found out this week) and was still at practice until the day before the surgery. Since the operation, Streleckis has been resting at home, under instructions not to lift anything heavier than a gallon of milk — difficult for a self-described “cut-your-own-grass guy.” He’s filled his days reading Ryun’s book, The Courage to Run and binging Netflix but he will be in the stands on Sunday afternoon at Franklin Field in Philadelphia when Martin runs his final race as a high schooler, the mile at the New Balance Nationals Outdoor.

“I will be there, definitely,” Streleckis said. “I’m really looking forward to that.”

Pushing the Limits

2022 has been a historic year for high school milers, with five boys joining the sub-4:00 club this year — a club that numbered just five athletes, total, as recently as 2015. A glance at the home states of the five newest members is a reminder that running talent can — and does — spring up anywhere: Pennsylvania, California, Florida, Missouri, South Dakota.

The training environments of those athletes run the gamut. The national leader, Colin Sahlman (3:56.24 pb) at Newbury Park High School in California, trains in an environment more similar to an elite college team than a typical high school squad. Rheinhardt Harrison (3:59.33 pb) of Nease High School outside of Jacksonville, has been coached from afar by Tom “Tinman” Schwartz since his sophomore year.

Father Paul O’Donnell, Martin, & Streleckis

And then there’s Paul Streleckis, who had never coached a sub-5:00 miler — let alone sub-4:00 — until Gary Martin came around. A collegiate miler at Drexel (4:21 pb), Streleckis is Philadelphia through-and-through and has the accent to match. He spent the bulk of his professional life running a chain of video stores in South Jersey until the industry collapsed in the late 2000s, but his passion has long been coaching, something he got involved with two decades ago when his daughter Tina Marie took up the sport. He started as a Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) coach, building the cross country program in Northeast Philadelphia (which he continues to work with to this day), before moving on to a girls’ high school, Little Flower, and eventually Archbishop Wood, where he began coaching in 2017.

Streleckis has always been realistic about what he does and doesn’t know when it comes to coaching, which is why he spends so much time reading. He read all the staple running books — Born to RunRunning with the Buffaloes — long ago, then moved on to other subjects, such as the Navy SEALs and mental toughness. Streleckis also watched his CYO athletes closely in cross country races and noticed a pattern.

“You always hear from kids, coaches, even parents: you have to pace yourself in a longer race,” Streleckis said. “And I totally agree, if you don’t pace yourself in a marathon, you’re not going to finish. You’re going to have a real problem. But most kids when they say they’re going to pace themselves, they’re going to avoid coming anywhere near discomfort. They’re just going to stay away from it.”

So after Streleckis saw Gary Martin lead the first mile of the 2019 Pennsylvania cross country state meet before fading to 50th place, part of him was excited; at the very least, he knew Martin was willing to hurt in order to chase big goals. After the race, Streleckis didn’t lecture him about going out too hard. He just told Martin he needed to train more in order to be able to hold that pace.

Two years on, Streleckis now knows Martin has been “touched by God” with running talent. But he believes Martin’s fearlessness has played a key role in his success this year. It’s something that’s evident every time Martin races, from his decision to chase a solo sub-4:00 at his conference meet to pushing the pace against a field of pros and post-collegiates at the HOKA Festival of Miles in St. Louis.

“If they can embrace the unpleasantness of it rather than being fearful of it, humans and athletes just have this tremendous potential inside to go well beyond what you think you can do,” Streleckis said.

Finding the right pace

When Martin ran 4:22 for the mile indoors as a sophomore in March 2020, Streleckis knew that he was dealing with a potential monster talent. So at the start of Martin’s junior year, he reached out to Shannon Grady, a local physiologist and running consultant, who has worked with college programs such as Tennessee, Villanova, and Monmouth. Grady had Martin run 800-meter repeats while monitoring his heart rate and lactate levels. Using that data, Grady was able to create a physiological profile, a number she calls a “bioenergetic power score,” as well as suggested paces for interval workouts.

Streleckis readily admits he doesn’t understand all of the data Grady presented him with, and he doesn’t feel such testing is necessary for the average runner (Martin is the only one on his team who has done it). But he says that Martin’s visits to Grady — he’s made three or four, total — have helped keep him on the right track and affirm that what they’re doing is working.

“I kind of knew it going into the first time we did it that we had not touched a whole lot of pure speed, and that’s what the tests kind of indicated, that that energy system was lacking,” Streleckis said. “And then when we added the speed, his times improved and the next time we tested, he was much better in that area.”

Going from coaching 5:30 milers to coaching a 3:57 miler requires a mental adjustment. Streleckis will sometimes refer to Grady’s suggested interval paces, in part to guide his workouts and in part to reassure himself that, yes, Martin really is that fast.

“I had to always remind myself how good Gary is,” Streleckis said. “…You’re looking at some of the stuff like, can someone really do this? And we’d go out and do it and he’d say, ‘Yeah it wasn’t that bad. I felt good, I liked it.'”

That, in turn, has created trust between coach and athlete. It’s not uncommon for an athlete in Martin’s position to seek out a private coach who has more experience working with elite athletes. But as long as Streleckis’ training was working for him, Martin thought, why change it?

“Successful training comes in different forms for everyone,” Martin said when he was the guest on the Track Talk podcast after his first sub-4 minute mile. “So if what you’re doing is working, you should probably stick with it…I started to realize that, Hey, I’m getting better. There’s no need to go out and get my own coach.”

One Final Race

Things are looking up for Paul Streleckis. He’s leaving Archbishop Wood this summer to take a new job at Nazareth Academy, an all-girls’ school that will cut around 90 minutes off the commute from his Northeast Philadelphia home. His surgery was a success, though Streleckis is still waiting on the pathological report from his doctor on June 24 to confirm that the lymph nodes around his now-removed prostate are cancer-free. But the cancer-related anxiety that followed him like a shadow over the past three months has mostly vanished.

Streleckis also faced a certain degree of “don’t-screw-it-up” pressure this spring — the kind that comes when you’re entrusted with the training of one of the country’s top distance prospects.

“His parents, they joke with me before races, they say you’re more nervous than Gary is,” Streleckis said. “I try not to pass that on to him…He’s a 17, 18-year-old kid this season. So if something goes wrong, you can’t blame him. I would be the guy to point to.”

But those nerves are gone now too. Streleckis didn’t screw it up. When he watches Martin for the final time this year on Sunday afternoon at Franklin Field, he won’t be worried about the result. Not anymore.

“Gary got me off the hook when he ran 3:57.98,” Streleckis said. “There’s not much pressure left after that, for either he or I. I think he could still do better, but if he doesn’t, does it really matter for his legacy?”

More: *Gary’s final high school mile is at 12:05 pm eastern Sunday, and you can watch here.
*Gary Martin Podcast: Gary Martin Opens Up on Sub-4, His Training, Newbury Park, and Being Called the “Nerd Runner”

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