The Times West Virginian

WVU Sports

May 29, 2014

HERTZEL COLUMN- WVU runner prepares for final hurdle

MORGANTOWN — For just a moment, Sarah Martinelli was at a loss for words.

The question had seemed so obvious to a couch potato such as myself, someone whose total exercise consists of 10 or so journeys from that couch to the fridge per day.

So, given the chance to be sitting and talking with a petite, national-class athlete, it seemed only natural to inquire about her event and why she opted to move in that direction.

After all, it does seem somewhat exerting to compete by running 3,000 meters – the equivalent of two miles – while also jumping over hurdles, one of them involving clearing a pit of water that could only be more daunting if they were to fill it with alligators.

This inquiring mind wanted to know, quite simply, why ... why would anyone do this?

We anticipated a rather stock answer, for surely someone had inquired about this before, but instead we were greeted with a pregnant pause, a giggle not unlike that expected to come from the mouths of early teens, long thought and then ...

“I ... I ... I don’t know.”

This, it seemed, was going nowhere, especially when Martinelli added, “It’s pretty fun.”

Obviously, there had to be more than that and, as she relaxed into her answer, it turned out to be quite an interesting tale.

“It’s different from just running, obviously. I started it because Sean saw more potential for me to make it to nationals in this event because it’s kind of a newer event for women and just becoming more popular,” she said.

Sean is Sean Cleary, the veteran West Virginia University women’s track and field coach who has over the years turned out distance stars — most of them from right here in Morgantown, which is Martinelli’s home as a product of University High, or from Canada — the way Ford turns out cars.

He’s pretty good at it, for this week Martinelli goes to an NCAA preliminary meet in Jacksonville, Florida, ranked No. 18 in the 3,000-meter steeplechase. Finishing in the top 12 of this field will send her to the NCAA Finals.

But again we go back to asking the question of how this all began, about how just running 3,000 meters wasn’t even enough. How it had to include hurdles, making it maybe the most grueling event in track and field.

“My dad was a distance runner at Carnegie-Mellon for a few years,” she said, trying to explain how she got into distance running in the first place. “He grew up loving it, so he always was encouraging us to try running distances. He told us that’s where our talents were going to be because that’s where we were genetically, but it took a while to love the distances.”

She didn’t wait for me to ask why it took a while.

“It’s hard,” she said, avoiding the question.

To run distances, it takes a great deal of discipline. There is a great deal of pain, both the injury type from the constant pounding the feet, the ankles, the legs and knees take, but also mental pain pushing toward bigger goals.

With that, it came slowly.

“Even the majority of my career in high school it was sort of like, ‘Eh, this is OK,’” she said. “But one year it was inspiring. We had a good group of girls, and it was exciting.”

See, distance running is a lonely game, one in which you constantly live within yourself and battle yourself, but finding it in a competitive team setting made it different, and Martinelli blossomed as she headed to WVU to join Cleary’s team.

He brought her along for three-plus years, studying her as he does all his athletes, until about 18 months ago he had this stroke of genius, coming up with the idea that the best route for her to become a national-scale runner was through the 3,000-meter steeplechase.

It was an event she had never tried. It was an event she hadn’t thought about.

So how did he sell her on it?

“I’ve got all these mathematical equations. We sit them down and talk. ... If this is what you can run a mile, this is what you can run a 5K in if you can handle the hurdles. I show them the mile time won’t get them to the nationals; the 5K will,” he said.

“When they see that — and they are very accurate — when they see they actually have a shot to be in Eugene, Oregon, in the fall, they are willing to give it a shot.”

But giving it a shot is hard.

For example, Martinelli and the distance runners estimate they run up to 70 miles a week, not less than 50. They run almost every day.

You can do the figuring. Seventy miles a week is 3,640 miles a year. That’s like running to LA and halfway back home again. As long as she’s been running it’s fair to assume she has more miles on her legs than on her car.

And even then that isn’t enough, because she has to practice the hurdles and water jump, and the facilities to do that are not here on campus.

“I almost like cleared the hurdle cleanly for the water jump, which you don’t want to do,” she said. “You want to push off of it so you get over the water. But I fell coming out, which was kind of embarrassing ... but you can’t think about it being embarrassing. You have to get up and keep going.”

Of course, you’re hoping no one saw it, but that is not very realistic.

“They’re always looking,” she said, laughing at the thought. “It’s funny because the steeplechase is more like a spectacle because everyone watches the water jump and crowds around it.”

The thing is, that last water hurdle comes when you are completely zapped of energy, and this past Big 12 meet it was worse than anything, combining 100-degree heat with a ridiculously fast pace set by a competitor from Baylor, which just wore Martinelli down.

It didn’t allow her to even enjoy what she enjoys most in the 3,000-meter steeplechase.

“What I like best is the last hurdle,” she said. “You get past that and you give all you’ve got the last 150 meters.”

This week she will be making that jump over the last hurdle for what is, perhaps, the final time of her WVU career. As a senior, the only way she can extend her career is to qualify for the nationals.

“It’s bittersweet. I loved these five years at WVU,” she said. “Running is a lifestyle. It’s not like my sport ends. You can go out for a run whenever you want. You can enter races. It doesn’t really end.”

She could even move on to, say, the marathon?

“Oh, I don’t know about marathons,” she said. “I can’t see myself doing that.”

Not now, but Cleary probably has a chart somewhere to show her that she could make the Olympics as a marathoner.

Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.

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