Francis Martingale was a soccer player who originally hailed from San Francisco.
“People told me that I was fast and one of my friends ran track, when I was a freshman,” Martingale said. “When he said ‘cross country,’ I had no idea what that was.”
Steven Ventura didn’t even know what track and field and cross country were.
“I didn’t even know it was a sport,” Ventura said.
At the time, both Martingale and Ventura were freshmen at Memorial High School. They both decided to join the track program at Memorial, with Martingale joining the team before Ventura.
Martingale came aboard during the fall season, running cross country.
“I really didn’t know what it meant,” Martingale said. “I thought it was running to the end of the field.”
But it was running more than two miles, something Martingale never did before. It didn’t matter. Martingale ran the 2.2-mile course at Garret Mountain Reserve in Woodland Park and finished third in his first-ever event.
“I thought it was pretty cool that I got a medal in my first race,” Martingale said. “So I just kept doing it.”
Ventura was spotted in a gym class by legendary Memorial track and field coach Julio Lopez.
“Coach Lopez saw me running and told me that I should join track,” Ventura said. “When he told me that, I didn’t know what track was. But I started doing it and I liked it. It was pretty cool.”
Little did they know back then that they would eventually become the top two distance runners in Hudson County.
Now seniors, Martingale and Ventura are among the very best distance runners in northern New Jersey and certainly loom as the 1-2 favorites to win the Hudson County Track Coaches Association championships in a few weeks.
After Ventura joined the program, he had a tough time finding his niche.
“In the beginning, I was trying out everything,” Ventura said. “I was a sprinter, but I was a small, scrawny kid. I once tried five different races in the same day.”
But when Ventura got to the 800-meter run, he realized what his future was going to look like. He ran the 800 in two minutes and 15 seconds, a phenomenal time for a novice.
“[Coach] Lopez realized my strength and toward the end of that day, I ran the mile,” Ventura said.
The rest was history.
Meanwhile, Martingale was always destined for distance greatness. Or so it seemed.
“When I was a freshman, I didn’t care what I did,” Martingale said. “I really wasn’t into it. I even made up an excuse not to go to the [NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV] state sectionals. I said I had some family thing, but I really didn’t care. That’s how I was my freshman year. I was doing it just for fun. I didn’t care.”
However, it was another standout Memorial runner who helped Martingale see the light.
“Rafael Hernandez [who is currently competing at Lehigh University] sat me down and told me that I could be pretty good,” Martingale said. “So I started to take it more seriously.”
Ventura said that the seniors on that Memorial cross country state sectional champion like Hernandez taught both runners the right way to perform.
“They saw our potential,” Ventura said. “They were constantly on top of us, pushing us to train. They made us realize that we had so much going for us. I think that helped spike our interest.”
And was there competition between the two?
“We were always competitive,” Martingale said. “But it wasn’t like we didn’t like each other.”
“We both give everything we have. We like to see each other succeed.”
And the two shot down any rumors that they didn’t like each other.
“I don’t know where that came from,” Ventura said. “We are good friends.”
“We hang out together,” Martingale said.
And get this: The whole thing almost ended for Martingale if it wasn’t for Ventura.
“Toward the end of freshman year, I didn’t want to keep doing it,” Martingale said. “I was going to quit. But Steve talked me out of it.”
And then Martingale helped Ventura.
“I didn’t know about cross country,” Ventura said. “The seniors were dominating and I wasn’t sure I was going to get a shot. I thought maybe I could run one mile, but five miles? I didn’t know about that. I’d run three miles and then say I had to use the bathroom. I would be looking around for deer. I thought I was done. I didn’t like it.”
“I told him that he had to take it seriously,” Martingale said. “I told him that things would get so much better.”
Ventura said that he was motivated by Martingale’s success.
“I wondered when I could ever get to his level,” Ventura said. “I wanted to beat him. I’ve run right next to him, but I wanted to be like him. He improved so much more than me and it really pushed me to be like him.”
Things have gotten much better for both as they begin their senior year. They trained hard over the summer, regularly running 65 miles a week. They would run in the streets of West New York, but would also take trips to Bayonne County Park (the site of the county finals), Garret Mountain, and even Holmdel Park.
“We’re doing that to get familiar with the courses,” Ventura said.
As the season began, the friends ran 2-3 at the Season Opening Invitational at Darlington Park in Mahwah, finishing behind the powerful Luis Peralta of Passaic. Martingale was second in 16:20.38 with Ventura third in 16:44.05.
A week later, Memorial ran at the Back to the Mountain Invitational at Garret Mountain. Again, Peralta won the race in 16:13.1 with Martingale second in 16:45.2. Ventura did not run.
“We have a way to go to beat him,” Martingale said.
Memorial head cross country coach Bruce Sierra knows that he has something special with the two runners.
“For me, it’s like I’m a father having twins,” Sierra said. “I don’t have kids, but they’re like my Ying and Yang. They help me motivate the others. I don’t really realize how special it is. Maybe when it’s over, I will. I just think it’s a stepping stone.”
In the weeks to come, we will have more from the interview with Martingale and Ventura, with the two being asked about their place in Memorial cross country history.