Three Laws of Motion in Newton
Words by Amory Rowe
Photography by Adam Parshall
On April 19th, 2020 Neil Martin ran a marathon. It was the weekend the Boston Marathon was supposed to have taken place and attempting the 26.2-mile distance that day felt like the right thing to do in a world gone wrong. He ran with a friend, out and back on the marathon course, starting and ending at his home in Newton. The two finished in 3:07.
The next weekend, Neil was curious if he could go a little faster. He recruited a couple more friends and together they stepped onto the pre-dawn streets of Newton and clocked 26.2 miles in 2:51.
By the third weekend, the word was out that Neil was up for a Saturday morning marathon and he assembled a healthy crew that rolled out onto the Newton hills, four strong, before most of us had hit “brew” on our coffee machines. Without being fussy about fuel and pace, they kept the effort and the conversation steady and stopped the clock at 2:57.
Neil has run a marathon every weekend since. Forty-six and counting: through the inescapable humidity of the Boston summer and the icy New England winter; through an unrelenting schedule as a radiation oncologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital; through remote school and travel bans and masks; through a pandemic. Some were alone, but most were with friends. Almost all of them have started and finished from his home in Newton.
Even the most veteran runners have difficulty wrapping their heads around a streak of this nature: the audacity, magnitude and sheer insanity of it defy the laws of running physics. But Neil Martin isn’t an ordinary runner operating according to a standard training manual. In his world, the rules are different. They are the three Laws of Motion in Newton: momentum, acceleration and balance.
The first law of motion in Newton: an object in motion stays in motion unless acted upon by an outside force.
If you’re a father, a husband, a son, a doctor – and Vice Chair for Clinical Operations in the Department of Radiation Oncology at Dana Farber – and you’re logging 120 miles a week with a regular Saturday morning marathon, you better keep it simple: the gear, the data, the routine. Minimize the chance that an outside force will derail you. Keep rolling. Maintain momentum.
Though Neil confesses to owning dozens of pairs of shoes – his wife Jenn says his shoe collection is “pretty impressive” – on any given day he chooses from a small fleet of trusted options. He’s brand-omnivorous. He’ll run in Nike, New Balance, Saucony or Skechers, on Fresh Foam, Floatride or a pair of carbon plates. He ditched the foot pod years ago. Ditto the insoles that tracked his foot strike pattern. Now he heads out the door with a GPS watch and a heart rate monitor, having reduced the metrics that matter to the simple duo of distance and pulse.
Even his caffeine habit has been whittled down to the essentials. Not willing to be troubled by coffee pots, brews, beans and grinds, he simply takes a caffeine tablet before heading out the door. It’s an uncomplicated and near effortless caffeine delivery system that sustains his energy over the course of a demanding day.
Five days a week, with the predictability of a metronome, Neil runs to work and he runs home. He leaves in the early morning, often before the sun is up, runs six and a half miles inbound on Beacon Street to Longwood Medical Center, and returns home along the same route, under the cover of darkness. Day in and day out. The run commute constitutes more than half his weekly mileage.
On the weekends, when he logs the balance of his miles – often as many as 50 in a two-day stretch – he sticks to the same early start. And while these runs vary in tempo, terrain and company, he knows all week that he’ll be aiming to run a marathon on Saturday morning. That fact – and the planning that surrounds it – propels him through the end of the work week.
“I start thinking about my Saturday run Thursday night or Friday morning,” Neil explains. “Friday is a sprint at work. I stumble out of work on Friday evening and I’m mentally trying to bank energy for Saturday and this big effort. I’m wondering how I’m going to make it all work.”
That’s the key, he says: it all has to work. The marathon must fit into the space allotted with Neil aiming to return home before his eleven-year old daughter Daphne is even out of bed. And he has to marshal and parse his resources carefully. “I have to be thoughtful about not using up all my energy [during the marathon] because I want to be present for my family,” Neil says. The whole system has to function with the precision of a Swiss watch or it will cease to function at all. Central to the uninterrupted interface of those myriad cogs is the principle of momentum: just keep moving.
The second law of motion in Newton: the more force, the faster the acceleration.
The marathon is a measuring stick. Depending on the day, it might measure your speed, your strength, or your resolve. Given the demanding length of the event, it might just measure all three – and then some. And while every person who has run a marathon can tell you their thousand reasons “why,” the bottom line is: we all want to know how fast we are. Speed is an animating force. And over the course of these 46 weekly marathons, Neil is getting faster. He’s accelerating.
At the beginning of the streak, Neil stayed relatively time-agnostic. He was curious about how fast he might be able to cover certain sections of the Saturday morning run, but more often than not he was interested in cultivating a fun and rewarding experience.
In the spring, he and some mates ran a backyard marathon entirely on trails that criss-crossed ex-urban Boston. In the summer he ran 43 miles on his 43rd birthday, starting at 12:01am and rolling straight into the hospital five and half hours later. He followed that up in August with a post-hike marathon on a family camping trip in the White Mountains. Then in September Neil clocked a well-executed virtual Boston Marathon in 2:46, several minutes faster than any marathon in the streak to-date.
At that point his Saturday morning marathons grew up: they shed their meandering boyish figures and got down to the business of trimming time. Though it had been months since the pandemic had darkened all finish line clocks, it was clear that Neil and several of his training partners were sharpening their appetites – and their fitness – for some full send efforts. They were hungry for speed.
Since then Neil has tightened the screws on his Saturday marathons. He’s rabbited several friends to new 10k PRs; and he’s paced others through arduous endurance efforts, once in weather so closely resembling the 2018 Boston Marathon, they all had to consider the possibility of mid-run hypothermia.
Most recently he and Cambridge Sports Union (CSU) teammate Patrick Bugbee have committed to training for a marathon in earnest – the Cheap Marathon in New Hampshire on April 11th – and have been attempting exactly the type of workouts one would expect to find in a serious marathon build: a dozen miles at goal marathon pace or three five-mile intervals dropped in the middle of a 26.2-mile day. These are some of the meatiest efforts Neil has logged over the duration of the marathon streak.
Still, he’s flying in the face of running wisdom, heaping a speed workout and a long run into a single weekly herculean effort. “I’m a contrarian. I kind of like that I’m not doing what the books say. It’s a way to keep things interesting: to set small goals and achieve them,” Neil explains. “This whole thing is on my own terms. And I’ve gotten faster. It’s been great.”
The third law of motion in Newton: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.
Though the pandemic quieted the outside world – stemmed the tide of traffic and hushed city streets – it didn’t render mute that inner voice, the one that tells us to keep pushing, striving and improving. If anything, that internal critic became louder as the opportunities to exorcize it diminished.
Neil speaks thoughtfully about his commitment to the run, but he’s equally clear-eyed about the reward. He admits to feeling a nervous anticipation at the start of his Saturday marathons; and he describes himself as exhausted but calm once he’s finished. At that point, he says, “I can indulge myself a bit. There’s usually not a lot of time to indulge, not a lot of time to relax and to not be doing something.” But in the aftermath of a marathon, Neil explains, “Relaxation becomes acceptable.”
It must be a sign of the times – or at least a sign of the times in the world of talented, driven personalities – that in order to justify a single afternoon of freedom from the press of daily life, one must complete as monumental a task as a marathon every week. But we are all our own accountants when performing the arithmetic of balancing our physical and emotional checkbooks.
Neil has found what works, what fits and what balances for him. The run, for Neil, is a valuable currency that he can spend transactionally to locomote from Point A to Point B, or aspirationally to create community. The run keeps him moving; it provides the baseline rhythm for his week, a regular and reliable pulse by which he can set his watch. It’s made him resilient – and fast. And while the run takes him away from time to time, it also delivers him home to his family, as exhausted and satisfied as a border collie after a day chasing sheep on the moors.
“He’s always in a good mood on Saturday afternoons,” his 12-year old son Dashiell observes.
It may be that Dashiell, more than anyone, recognizes the intrinsic reward in tackling an outsized physical challenge. The last day of his family’s recent trip to Vermont, he set out to ski 26 miles: a nordic ski marathon completed in three hours. Wonder where he got that idea?
For a year now we have all been tasked with defining our own start lines and finish lines. And although the storied start lines in Tokyo, Hopkinton and London will remain vacant this spring, we can be sure that if it’s Saturday, Neil Martin will be running a marathon. And when he does, he’ll be adhering to the laws of motion at his private start line in Newton: Keep moving. Get faster. Stay balanced. And do it all on your own terms.