Marty Hehir left Washingonville for Syracuse University in order to help Coach Fox and the Orange create a championship contender. One of the more heralded recruits in his class, he went through the abrupt transition from Marty Hehir, star high school distance runner, to Marty Hehir, redshirted college freshman.
“I think it’s really important for high school seniors to understand how hard of a transition it is, going from being a top high school recruit to being just like the bottom of the totem pole,” Hehir said, adding that the decision to redshirt was a good move looking back, giving his body time to develop.
For Hehir, the fall of 2011, his first year at Syracuse, was rife with overcoming new physical and mental barriers. He said he struggled at times to keep up in workouts, even within the freshman group. The heavy training week-in and week-out, paired with the fact that being redshirted kept him from getting real race experience, caused Hehir to experience moments of self-doubt, wondering if he was cut out for college running.
At the conclusion of the 2011 NCAA cross country season, Hehir’s body finally and decisively caught up with his training.
Syracuse has a tradition called the Dumbbell Deuce, a 3200 meter time trial reserved for runners not competing during championship season, particularly freshmen. After roughly three months of college training, Hehir finally got a chance to turn on the burners. He won the time trial, setting a new PR of 8:58 after never dipping under 9 minutes in high school.
“That was all I needed to see to get right back on track,” Hehir said, no pun intended.
The 2012 indoor and outdoor track seasons reinforced the progress Hehir had made. He opened his season up with an 8:06.63 in the 3000 meter race at Boston University. Before the end of the outdoor season he would also get down to 4:06.22 in the mile and 14:01.60 in the 5000.
“I think that it’s just really important to grind through the darker times,” Hehir reflected, musing that the cliche that hard work pays off really is true.
A year after his victory in the Dumbbell Deuce, Hehir got his second big victory of college, this time in the Big East Cross Country Championships.
It’s a story out of a movie: Hehir, the redshirt freshman, had been Syracuse’s third man at the Wisconsin Invitational. He was by all means running well. But, as he readily admits, he was on no one’s list to take the conference individual title.
The scene: Van Cortlandt Park, arguably New York’s running mecca. In high school, Hehir had dipped under 13 minutes on the park’s famed 2.5 mile high school course, a course associated with names like Marty Liquori and Matt Centrowitz, Sr. Hehir said Van Cortlandt, which is just a short drive across the Hudson River from Washingtonville, was practically his home course.
In front of a home crowd, Hehir upset the field to take the victory in 24:37.2 on the 8000 meter course, just a quarter of a second ahead of Providence College’s Shane Quinn.
Hehir, along with everyone else, was stunned to have won. “It was nuts,” he said.
“It’s hard to even put into words because I didn’t even know what to think at the time,” Hehir said.
While Hehir did not know what to think, many spectators didn’t even realize he had won. Van Cortlandt’s college course ends on an 800 meter straightaway and only those who could see the last ten meters, when Hehir finally overtook the field, saw him cross the line. Of course, Coach Fox had seen Hehir with the front pack, so he knew that he had run well, but when he congratulated Hehir, it was news to him that his redshirt freshman had taken the team title.
After Hehir fought to the wire to take the individual title, Syracuse took the team title handily, finishing with a score of 37 to second-place Georgetown’s 67. The team title was a resounding conclusion to the Orange’s final year in the Big East. They were moving to the ACC after that year. Hehir called the triple threat of individual title, team title, and final Big East title as good as it gets.
“It’s kind of hard to put into words how it actually felt but it was just really satisfying, and just fun,” Hehir said. “Fun is the main word. That’s kind of why I do it.”
While championship season kicked off with a bang, it fizzled away with the team’s fourth straight finish in the middle of the pack at the NCAA Men’s Cross Country Championships. From 2009 to 2012, the Orange finished 14th twice and then 15th twice at Nationals. Two years into college, it was not apparent that Syracuse was any closer to the goal that brought Hehir there in the first place.
Commenting on the team’s evolution, Hehir called the 2012 year a turning point for the team. Up until that point, everyone on the team wanted to work hard, but they were not all-in, so to speak.
After their fourth not so memorable conclusion to the season, “everyone just got on board with being 100 percent in,” Hehir said. They heeded Coach Fox’s advice to live like pros, to train and live with the intention of winning. Hehir said this culture change happened naturally and its impact had an immediate impact.
“The seriousness paid off,” Hehir said. “The training didn’t drastically change,” but all of the sudden everyone was working just a little harder in workouts. Rather than dropping back in workouts, guys would push themselves to stay with the pack they were in. This devotion to incremental improvement lead to a 10th place finish at Nationals when Hehir was a redshirt sophomore. Even so, the Orange were not satisfied.
“Every year, we were thinking podium,” Hehir said. “That was always the original goal.”
By the time that Hehir arrived back on campus for his redshirt junior season, the team was locked in on their goal.
“It was fun showing up to practice on a workout day and just knowing everyone wanted to be there, which was huge,” Hehir said. “Again, it’s all part of the team culture that slowly started to emerge.”
Hehir (center) and the Orange battles it out with some of the ACC’s best. (Courtesy of Marty Hehir)
Just as with Hehir’s individual title two years earlier, more fun correlated to faster performances. Hehir’s third cross country season saw the team place first in every meet leading into nationals except for the season opener. Add Hehir’s individual title at the ACC Cross Country Championships to boot and it was looking like Syracuse’s year – and it almost was.
At Nationals, the top four teams podium. Syracuse finished in fifth in a less-than-stellar performance. In a race that featured Ed Cheserek and Eric Jenkins of Oregon and a Colorado team that would win by putting its entire top five in the top forty, Syracuse just had a single runner in the top thirty. They missed their goal yet again but they were another step closer.
The next cross country season would be Hehir’s last season in a Syracuse jersey. He did not redshirt for track so the fall of 2015 marked his final season of college eligibility.
Syracuse came out rolling for Hehir’s final season. Justyn Knight, at this point a sophomore, had place either first or second in every single meet leading up to nationals. The team won big meets in Boston and Wisconsin and took home another ACC title before dominating the Northeast Region Cross Country Championships.
What happened at nationals that season was more of a culmination of the gradual progress Syracuse had made during Hehir’s time.
At the 2015 NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships, Syracuse placed three runners in the top ten, scoring 82 points to beat out second-place Syracuse’s 91. Hehir had come to Syracuse in part to see if he could help Coach Fox build a dynasty. In his last race, he got confirmation that he had done just that.
Hehir went to Syracuse and did what he said he was going to do. By the time he left Syracuse, the team had become a perennial contender and an east coast powerhouse in a sport often dominated by teams west of the Mississippi.
Hehir’s track career featured some other major turning points in program history.
Hehir had a great career in the longer distances, getting down to 13:35.70 in the 5000 and 28:27 in the 10000. His career featured and indoor and outdoor ACC individual title as well. But The most compelling story from his collegiate track career, though, is his progression in the mile.
While Hehir does not believe in specialists, saying, “A good runner is just someone who is good at running,” he still got just three shots at the mile during college. He ran a 4:06.22 during his freshman year and then did not run another mile until junior year. During junior year, at Boston University, Hehir ran 4:00.04, just barely missing the famed sub-4, a barrier that no runner at Syracuse had yet broken.
The next year, Hehir’s final track season, he knew he would get just one final shot at the mile. Coming off the team’s fifth place finish at cross country nationals, workouts leading into their first track meet at Penn State where going very well. Coach Fox decided to have Hehir and Knight go for sub-4 right off the bat.
At the meet, Knight was instructed to stay on Hehir’s hip the whole way, which is exactly what happened as they clocked three laps right on pace.
“Literally, when we got to a lap to go, of course I was already seizing up and he looked great,” Hehir said, “So Fox says, ‘Justyn, go around him!’ and he finally went around me,” running 3:59.51 as Hehir came in at 3:59.81, the first official sub-4 minute miles for Syracuse, with many more to follow.
Hehir called this another big turning point for the program, proving that an already established cross country program could also hold its own in track.
Hehir’s collegiate years were marked by steady progress and some remarkable team and individual experiences. Behind this growth were some brutal workouts. The team would never have an opportunity to mentally prepare for a workout because Coach Fox would not announce it until practice began.
The workout that gave Hehir the hardest time was called the in-and-out 800’s, which was a tempo with alternating fast and slow 800’s on a brutal section of the team’s cross country course. Hehir remembers that the faster 800’s were 2:30 and the slower ones were 3:00.
Freshmen are usually expected to run six miles of alternating 800’s. Hehir made it to five as a freshman before he got yanked out of the workout. But, as he reflects on his remarkable college career, this workout has remained in Hehir’s arsenal as he grew from an uncertain freshman to a team leader with professional prospects.
Hehir still uses the In-and-Out 800’s while training for marathons. “It’s pretty much just the workout that works for anyone and anything,” he said.
Hehir’s journey from college standout to professional marathoner will be the subject of Part III of Marty Hehir’s running life.
Read part 1 Follow Marty on Trackster Watch Videos