* Photo Credit: Jessie McCabe
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Looking back, it may have seemed odd. Maybe a little Zen.
That by sitting, cross legged, on the starting line just moments before the race that became a hallmark moment in his career, he would somehow save the energy he needed in those final meters to secure his place in a national championship race.
But that's what Abraham Avila-Martinez did at the Nike Cross Nationals South Regional on Nov. 23.
He sat down, crossed his legs. Found his center.
"To me, I felt like if I did strides or did anything else, I was going to waste energy I needed at the finish," the Austin San Juan Diego Catholic High School senior said recently. "So I sat down, got calm and relaxed. I thought about the race."
And, hey! He qualified! Mission accomplished.
Coincidentally enough, his thoughts and fears were actually realized, too, because Avila-Martinez faced a 20-meter gap heading into the final mile.
But it was during those final five minutes when the University of Texas signee found an extra gear, passing a fellow Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools (TAPPS) athlete en route to the finish in fourth-place, posting a time of 15:27.40 and punching his automatic ticket to NXN.
"In my head I was like, 'I'm barely going to make it ... or am I barely going to make it?'" Avila-Martinez said.
His success has also been representative of what these regional qualifiers have often produced on a macro-level: Athletes making huge strides, year-over-year.
Martinez improved 41 spots from 2018, when he crossed the line in 45th place--and over a minute slower in 16:45.44. In Indiana, Defiance's Mhalicki Bronson was third at NXR Midwest, 100 places better than his finish the year before. And in North Carolina, Mogantown's Athena Young was second at NXR Southeast, over 100-places better than her regional finish at Foot Locker South in 2018 when she was 128th.
Not every athlete qualifies for Nike Cross Nationals or Foot Locker Nationals. But it's often at these races where athletes go the extra mile; where they extract that last drop of energy, much like Avila-Martinez.
"I didn't really know if I was making the right move or not," Avila-Martinez said. "There were a lot of super good guys in front of me."
But he didn't hesitate. He told himself, I have nothing to lose. Prior to the fall season, his goals did not include a trip to NXN. He simply wanted to finish in the top 15.
"If I think back to my freshman year to now, I never saw myself making it to nationals," he said.
But a chance encounter at NXR South last year also spurred much of this improvement. While at the regional in 2018, he met Austin St. Stephen's coach Paul Carrozza, whose Born To Run Running Club worked with a band of runners from St. Stephen's and nearby schools, Austin LBJ among them.
The previous spring and as a sophomore, Avila-Martinez posted PRs of 4:31.89 in the 1,600m and 10:05.36 in the 3,200m. But following his performance at NXR South, he made the hard decision to start working with Carrozza and Born To Run.
Like many athletes before him -- and those currently managing this same situation -- he had to toggle between two programs and two coaches. To make everyone happy, he often doubled up in the morning with one school, then worked out in the evening with the other program.
"It was a rough start," he said.
But Avila-Martinez showed strength over that stretch, ultimately dropping his 3,200m time down to 9:17.83 with a sixth-place finish in the high school section at The Texas Relays -- which eventually prompted calls from the University of Texas and the University of Tulsa.
To finish out his junior season, he dropped his 1,600m best down to 4:20.04.
Avila-Martinez kept affirming himself with positivity over that span.
"Don't worry about what other people are saying," he said. "Just as long as you're getting the training and getting faster."
By the summer, once requirements to his high school were met, Avila-Martinez started to dig into the training at Born to Run. Carrozza's approach to training focused on daily drills on hills, weekly speed development -- Avila-Martinez said his favorite workouts are steady-state runs -- and adaption.
In 2018, the Austin-native didn't break 16 minutes at 5K once. But this fall, he's run no slower than 15:37.50 and now sports a PR of 15:11.90.
In the meantime, Avila-Martinez has picked up some major podiums, finishing second at the Southlake Carroll Invitational and second at the McNeil Invitational. He won his TAPPS State Cross Country Championship, and then signed with Texas -- in a whirlwind recruiting process that he originally didn't think was possible.
"At first, I thought I would go to a DII or a DIII school," he said. "But I remember getting a text and email from (Texas') Pete Watson and (Tulsa's) Taylor Gulley. For me, it was crazy. It was insane."
Avila-Martinez's latest success -- a qualification to Nike Cross Nationals -- only reinforced the decision he made last year.
And the first person he called after qualifying was Carrozza.
His parents, once major soccer fans, have now have taken running. When Avila-Martinez does a 12-mile run along Town Lake in Austin, he says they often join and do 10 themselves.
While one season is ending, the next is just beginning. And while Avila-Martinez aspirations are now different than when he started, he's OK with that. Anything is possible.
"I feel like I'm in the best shape of my life," he said. "I feel like I'm ready."
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