by Sydney Valerio
Pictured as a child, sporting a children’s race bib, is young Syrretta Martin, a volunteer from our 2022 inaugural Soundview 5K.
During the inaugural Race The Bronx (RTB) annual Soundview 5K many people showed up to volunteer their time. Syrretta Martin was one of those volunteers. On the day of the race, Syrretta shared with us how Soundview park was part of her childhood as a member of a family of runners. In the months leading to our second annual Soundview 5K, I spoke with Syrretta and her father. I learned about her organization 4The Love Run Project, a global movement promoting the representation of BIPOC and disabled runners in trail running. In our conversation, I learned about the ways running formed the fabric of her family and the Bronx legacy they created with love. Our conversation had two parts to it. The first was a conversation only with Syrretta. The second was a conversation with Syrretta and her dad Alphonso Martin. Our conversations have been edited and condensed.
I'm so glad Alex and Sol have asked me to converse with you today about your family’s journey as runners and your experience as a volunteer at the inaugural Soundview 5K.
I thought it was really, really dope that Race The Bronx wanted to bring more racing to the community and to our borough.
I was born and raised in the Bronx and spent a lot of my younger years in the South Bronx, spending a lot of time on Morrison, Westchester Avenue, and Soundview. I have a lot of memories in that park. My running journey is a little bit different than most people who maybe new to the running culture because my dad was a middle and distance runner.
What is his name?
My dad’s name is Alphonso Martin, and as a child, I have many vivid memories of us cheering him on at races throughout NYC, Long Island, Upstate, New York, FDR park. He also would take us along to his training and workout sessions. My dad ran for City College and was a part of North Shore Track Club, founded and coached by Art Hall. My dad ran with them for about seven years.
So when you say he ran long distances, was it a half marathon, etc,. or were there other distance events?
He ran 5Ks, 10Ks, half marathons and marathons.
Oh, that must have been so beautiful to witness your dad not just train but also compete.
It was a normal part of my childhood, so I didn't really see it to be anything else. My dad was running and it was pretty cool to watch him race and cheer him on. I also enjoyed watching him train. Sometimes I would “train with him” by him racing around the newly renovated Soundview track with my bike and training wheels, follow him up as he ran up and down the stairs in our 12-story apartment building on Morrison Avenue, or do wall sits, and planks while he strength trained.
My dad had this trophy wall where I would be amazed at how many trophies and metals he had. I remember spending time
painstakingly looking at all of the details of all the trophies that he had.
I'm curious, did he run before you were born? Is it something he did in high school, college, etc.
He ran when he was at Monroe High School and at City College. He also ran with the North Shore Track Club which was founded by Art Hall in Staten Island.
Can you tell me more about Art Hall?
According to my dad, Art Hall was a very kind person and very fast. He was very supportive of his runners.
What else do you remember about your dad as a runner when you were just a child?
He worked at the elementary school my brother and I attended. He would tell us, I'm going for a run and he would come back full of sweat on his lunch hour. He would run maybe 10 to 15 miles. His goal was to make the Olympic trials for the U.S. Virgin Islands. My dad's from St. Croix, and he moved to the Bronx when he was eight. I also remember going to the New York Road Runners’ original location on the Upper Eastside, near the museum. There was so much energy in that space, runners hurrying in and out to pick up their bibs, saying hello to familiar faces. The culture of running as through the eyes of a little girl from the Bronx, felt electric and exciting. I also saw how hard my dad worked to chase his goals. I understand now how lucky I was to have these experiences. My dad is the reason why I fell in love with running.
What I find just remarkable, and what makes me curious was, you know, you have this whole generation of elders that were running in New York City, in the 70s and 80s, when New York was so different. So what did that local park look like in your childhood versus today?
Sometime after moving to the Bronx, my grandparents moved the family to Soundview houses. I remember when they built the new track. Prior to the revitalization, the park was unkempt and felt unsafe. If I remember correctly, parts of the park were unfortunately used as a dumping ground for people's unwanted things. The park was also much smaller than it is now.
Did he ever run with you? Did you all run as a family?
Not exactly but we all have our own personal journeys with running. My mom was a sprinter in high school and that's how my parents met. She held the 110 record at her high school. My brother was a very good distance runner in high school.
And my dad, unfortunately, had to stop running because of irreversible damage to his knees due to overuse. The technology and the science wasn’t available to him back then to ensure longevity in the sport. I am the only one who is running, whenever my body allows, so I’m carrying the legacy.
So you’re a legacy kid--this is so beautiful.
Literally running is in my DNA.
So I feel extra special to be talking to you and to hear you share about your dad and also about your own journey. Do you participate in races today?
I appreciate you sharing that. I started running again last year, slowly, but surely, as I started to “recover” from a severe and debilitating flare up of Fibromyalgia. I love running and believe that once you’re a runner, you’re always a runner. I’ve gravitated to trail running because nature has played a pivotal part in my own journey towards healing. I completed a few trail and road races last year and I’m grateful for what my body has allowed me to do. It was more about being present to the experience rather than any personal goal.
I appreciate spaces like Race The Bronx in their mission to be able to offer inclusivity and opportunities for runners of all ages, various abilities.
I saw volunteering as an opportunity to redefine my relationship with running. I wasn’t physically running at the time because I was navigating through physical challenges, painful flare ups, mobility issues caused by Fibromyalgia. Walking was often very difficult. Even though I couldn’t take part in the inaugural race, I wanted to somehow be a part of that first Race The Bronx experience.
I want people to understand that no matter where you are in your journey as a runner whether you're running now or used to run 25 years ago or you have plans of running or you're running for enjoyment or for health or whatever it is--you're a runner. Once a runner, always a runner.
I am grateful for my body for allowing me to run because there will be times when I’m physically unable to do so. And so I run with purpose.
You know, every single volunteer was essential to the race and I just love that you're sharing this idea of honoring and presenting flowers to those who came before us in the present day. Is there anything else that you would like to share about what running means to you?
This is a great question. For me, running means love and legacy. I am very grateful to run, when I can. In my own way, I strive to create awareness of the need to have inclusive, safe, and accessible spaces for ALL runners.
Making running accessible to the community is so important. Running has always been a part of the Bronx. The Bronx has a rich but unknown history of black and brown middle and long distance runners. It didn't just happen at Van Cortlandt park or at Cross Country races. It also was alive and present in the South Bronx. It involved my dad, his running partners, his teammates (who were black and brown), running in the 80s, really trying to chase their goals. Running has always been a part of my life. I would love for other children from the Bronx to have the opportunity to fall in love with running right in their home borough.
Well, I appreciate your words and how much you have shared running means to you and to your family. It is so important to honor and preserve those who came before us.
Thank you. My dad loved running and I would love for him to have the opportunity to share his journey.
This would be such a privilege and I am completely open to having this conversation.
Pictured above in his CCNY jersey is Alphonso Martin
Good Afternoon, Alphonso Martin, I'm so glad Syrretta has connected us today so that we can have a conversation about your journey as a runner in the South Bronx. Thank you so much for carving out this time to speak with me again.
Well, I have all the time in the world, really. I'm just sitting here in the back yard with my flowers.
Well, let’s begin with you telling us about yourself.
I was born in St. Croix moved to the Bronx as a child with my family.
Absolutely. I love everything you're saying so far. So yes, please go on.
We moved from St. Mary's projects in the Bronx, to Soundview Houses. I started running at Monroe High School. I started running track there, and I became really, really good at it. I started winning all these races, 1 mile races, 3 mile races, and so on and so forth. As I aged, I started just running almost 100 miles a week.
I got accepted at City College. I got two offers to go on scholarship to Virginia and Texas Southern. I turned them down and decided to enroll at City College.
At City College, my running started to improve because I had a great coach, Mr. Castro. I developed great friendships, I ran the one mile in 4 minutes and 21 seconds.
My goal was to break the 4 minute barrier. I used to run over 100 miles a week while not knowing at that time that I was overworking myself. I then graduated from City College after winning many races. I've earned tons of trophies and medals. Then I became a teacher. I continued running middle and long distance races, like the Yonkers marathon with my friend Danny Dickinson.
Your mile time is impressive and also running a marathon in Yonkers because it is literally all hills. I'm curious, what did you teach?
Education placed me in a good, positive, and really caring environment. I continued to run. I would train during my lunch hour, after work and run, like I said, over 100 miles a week. I ran so much that both my knees got bad. There's no cartilage in my knees.
I taught reading and math to first grade through eighth grade. I was really good at what I did. I loved teaching. I mean, that [running] helped me because it molded my way of thinking and the way I looked at life. The kids I taught excelled. I was honored as Teacher of the Year twice and retired from New York City’s Board of Education as a Dean.
Before I became a teacher, I was attending City College, and at the same time, I was a custodian for an elementary school where my children were enrolled. I would go to school in the daytime and work as a custodian cleaning classrooms, and bathrooms and stuff like that, at night. After I finished cleaning, I would be able to study. I was cleaning the assistant principal’s office and we just so happened to have a talk about what I was doing in life. Sometimes she would go over my writing for a project. She told me she was opening up a school and offered a position after I graduated from City College.
She hired me as a first grade teacher. Everything just took off from there. You know, the kids excelled so much that I would have almost 50 kids in my class and they hired an aide to help me.
Pictured above is Alphonso Martin running
for the North Shore Track Club
So you were chasing a goal, right?
Yes, I was trying to make the Olympic team but never got to do it because of my injury. Life also made it challenging to just focus on my Olympic goals.
Tell us more about your Yonkers marathon.
My friend, Danny and I got into the Yonkers marathon, we trained together. We would run from the Bronx to Brooklyn and back. There were maybe 5000 runners in that race. My friend Danny said to me, Listen, I'm gonna, let's go. He and I just took off and left the rest of the runners behind. Maybe for about a half hour or so no one was behind us. I got a cramp with just a mile left. I just couldn't hang on. And then tears came to my eyes. And the next thing I know, one person passed, then another person passed me. But I ran and I finished in about 2 hours and 40 something minutes. If I were able to keep up, I probably would have done it in like, 2 hours and maybe 30 or 20 something minutes.
And what did you do as a runner after that race? I imagine you learned a lot of lessons about your own running.
Shortly after, I was told about my knees, and that I couldn’t run anymore. My focus was on teaching the kids that I was responsible for, so that became my running, in terms of making sure that they excelled in reading and mathematics.
Tell us more about your running at City College.
We used to train in the gym. Mr. Castro was very nice, very intelligent, and he knew what he was doing. He used to have us run half mile intervals down there and he wanted me to be number one in every race I competed in.
I love that all these experiences led you to be an educator and to be able to provide for your family. Tell us about your time for your 10K races and other events.
My 10K time was 32 minutes. I was definitely in the top finishers for the short distance races. I did earn MVP in my days at City College and earned top times at races with Art Hall. I ran the mile at CCNY in 4 minutes and 21 seconds. My goal was to break the 4 minute barrier but I never reached it because I didn’t let my body recuperate.
So back then you didn’t have the many resources we have today in the race world. What were your running sneakers and how did you fuel, hydrate for your races, etc.?
I ran with Adidas and Saucony sneakers/spikes depending on the terrain and type of races. We would run cross country in the trails and tracks of Van Cortlandt park and needed different footwear. We drank water and gatorade for electrolytes. Today is vastly different in terms of options for recovery.
What was your running mantra?
Never give up. Just continue and don’t give up. Try your best.
In today’s running community there are many spaces that honor, celebrate and hold space for Black runners. Ted Corbitt is also revered for his leadership and for being a role model. Tell us about your experiences as a Black runner in New York City during that time period.
Absolutely, I would race the buses when I ran on the streets to Brooklyn [to and through Prospect Park] and back to the Bronx. I would look at the people’s faces who were riding on the bus and they would stare in astonishment. I would cross the bridges and see the people in the car.
I loved it. It was my way to deal with stress. I would be able to take in the wind and pass the buses and cars. I didn’t think about the exhaust of the vehicles going into my system like I do now.
Syrretta shared in response to my question how as a young girl she would attend her dad’s races and would notice that her dad was the only Black man in the racing crowd. She remembered a race at FDR that was also very significant.
Yes, daughter, thank you for reminding me. I won a race at FDR where there was a lot of tension. At this 10K, this Caucasian runner and I left behind the whole group. He and I would pass each other at every part of the race and we reached the finish line at the same time. We both finished in first place and we crossed the finish line holding hands. The press wrote about how times had changed and how our act of crossing the finish line together holding hands showed unity.
How did you pass on your wisdom as a runner to your children who also became runners?
Syrretta responded to this question by sharing that she and her brother witnessed all of the different parts of preparing for a race. The training, the bib pickups, etc. -It was all a normal part of our lives. My mother was also a runner and running was a thing my dad did. It was a natural progression for my brother and I to become runners ourselves. It is part of our DNA.
I am the only one in my family who can run today due to injuries, aging, etc. Living with Fibromyalgia has impacted my ability to run consistently. I don’t often get to run as much as I would like. It took years for my flare up to subside enough so that I’m able to do more of what I enjoy but the challenges I face won’t ever go away. I also don’t know when those symptoms will flare up again, leaving me unable to physically enjoy the sport. What I do know is that I am grateful for every moment I’m able to. So today I run with purpose. I learned from my parents that longevity is key. I have redefined what running means to me, doing it my way, and at my pace. I hope to encourage runners living with a chronic illness, disability, or from underrepresented communities to do the same.
So, from what I have listened to in our conversation today, I am so grateful for the wisdom your life’s journey has contributed to our community. We learn from each other. What I have gleaned from our conversation is that you’ve learned many lessons. For example, you’ve learned the importance of recovery and taking care of yourself. It’s important to not over stress your body.
From our conversation, I have also learned the importance of dedicating time to family. It’s important to balance our love for running with taking care of family and teaching family that lifestyle because we pass that on to our children.
What is another lesson that you want to share with our community that you have learned from your wisdom as a runner and a family man?
Because of running I never give up on my life experiences. For example, just because I got Teacher of the Year twice it didn’t mean that I gave up. I kept giving my best to my students. The same for family--it is important to take care of your children too. It is important to maintain a connection no matter the distance.
Since I can’t run anymore I dedicate my time to my garden. Running has taught me to never give up on what is good for my heart and my soul. Syrretta will tell you how my home is full of vegetable gardens and flowers. Perseverance is important.
Syrretta, how about you? What lesson do you want to share with our community?
Once you’re a runner, you’re always a runner. I can enjoy running and carve out a space for myself in running. I can redefine my relationship with running, meeting myself where I am. It is about me and my relationship with running more than anything else. It’s about providing opportunities for other runners who look like me or may have similar health challenges to do the same.
I’ve met some inspiring runners who say I am not a runner, I am not fast. They get intimidated by the whole culture of running and I say if you love running and it is something you want to try then give it a try. You don’t have to come into the running space knowing who you are as a runner or have goals of completing a marathon. Your relationship with running is very personal and hopefully we can continue to foster safe running spaces and events that really promote inclusivity, accessibility, and community. This is what running has evolved into for me.
Sydney Valerio is a storyteller and writer for Race The Bronx. She is a local Bronx crew runner and marathoner. She believes in the healing power of beets and community. Contact Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Instagram: @nyckidwhoisnowanycadult