Messenger file photo by Chris McCarthy
By Josh Bean/For AHSAA
Westbrook Christian senior Jackson Martin spent years suffering from mysterious “episodes” near the end of his long-distance races in cross country and track, instances that robbed him of finishes and put his running career in jeopardy.
Quite simply, Martin became the runner who couldn’t run full-out.
“I was really upset I couldn’t perform at my best,” he said.
For the last two years, however, Martin found ways to overcome his physical challenges and compete fully.
Jackson’s perseverance and tenacity are major reasons why was recently selected as a 2022 regional winner in the Bryant-Jordan Scholarship Program’s Achievement category, which honors senior student-athletes in the Alabama High School Athletic Association who have overcome personal adversity to excel. All 52 regional winners in the Achievement category and 52 scholar-athlete winners received a $3,000 scho-arship.
Martin self-described “long journey” started during the sectional outdoor track meet during the spring of his seventh-grade year at Westbrook. Not long after he started his kick, which is a strategic sprint at the end of the race designed to insure the highest possible finish, something unexpected happened.
“All of a sudden, I had a funny feeling my legs,” Martin remembered.
The lack of muscle control in Martin’s lower body prevented him from running his preferred line around the track, and he eventually fell during that race. Officials and trainers rushed to him before he got up and finished. He chalked it up to failing to properly hydrate or get enough sleep before the race.
However, Martin suffered a similar episode the following fall during cross country season, followed by another and then another. Martin, his family and the Westbrook coaching staff asked one simple question: Why is this happening?
There was no convenient or easy answer. A visit to his pediatrician led to a referral to a neurologist at Children’s of Alabama Hospital in Birmingham. Initial tests proved inconclusive, so visits to a cardiologist, pulmonologist, ophthalmologist, orthopedist and geneticist followed. Doctors checked him for degenerative nerve disorders.
All the while, Martin’s episodes became more frequent and more severe. It seemed as he got bigger and stronger, which allowed him to run faster and exert more energy, the episodes happened more. In the most severe episodes, he lost feeling in his arms and his speech became slurred.
“When they were like, ‘You’re above average, a really healthy kid,’ it really was frustrating,” Martin said of his many medical tests. “What I’d do is I’d use that frustration as motivation for the next race. And that didn’t really help me, because I’d have another episode.
“I was really getting upset, because I was working really hard in practice – I never had an episode in practice – and I couldn’t feel like I could show off my efforts in a race and show off how much I had worked and how much I had improved.”
Doctors eventually diagnosed Jackson with “episodic ataxia,” which is described as “a neurological condition that impairs movement” and affects 0.001 percent of the population, according to healthline.com. For Martin, extended and intense physical exertion caused his reaction.
According to Martin’s father, coaches and family instructed Jackson to “throttle it back” during races to avoid experiencing another episode. While doctors could not pinpoint a precise cause and believed the episodes were not causing permanent or long-term damage, it seemed prudent to avoid them. Like most teenagers, Jackson admits he did not take that advice to heart.
“At first, my parents were like, ‘We think this would be a great pace and we talked to [the] coach about it,’” Martin said. “I’d start and I wouldn’t listen at all. I’d go run all the way out, and I’d have an episode. After two or three races of that, I thought, ‘Okay, I have to actually start listening.’”
Eventually, former Westbrook cross country coach Brian Curp suggested a solution. Instead of Martin sprinting away from the starting line, he would stay with his younger and mostly middle-school age teammates in order to pace them. Curp’s concept called for the younger runners to keep up with Martin, allowing them to run a faster pace than they likely would by running on their own. It also gave Martin the chance to compete and help the team score better. It seemed like win-win.
“In true Jackson form, he chose to face this obstacle head-on and do what he could for the betterment of the team,” Curp wrote in a letter to support Martin’s Bryant-Jordan candidacy. “As his coach, it was hard to hold him back from his potential, but it was necessary for his overall health and well-being. Jackson never let that frustration or obstacle deter him from being a great teammate.
Curp’s strategy worked, as the Warriors finished third at the Classes 1A-2A state cross country meet in 2018, thanks in part to Martin’s pacing skills.
Martin’s parents, though, soon delivered a grim decision – the 3,200-meter race during indoor and outdoor track was now off-limits. Moderating his pace at the 1,600-meter distance made running it futile.
So Martin again improvised – he abandoned long-distance running and concentrated on the 400- and 800-meter runs, enabling him to run full-out with no restrictions as a middle-distance runner.
“It was so freeing; I felt like a little kid again,” Martin said. “It was like running in the yard. You don’t have a care in the world. You’re just having fun. I had so much fun doing it. I didn’t have worry or stress about those other things.”
Added his dad, Jason Dean, “It’s hard to convey the relief that was it’s been amazing. Having to move to the mid-distances after we throttled him back, we were concerned about him being able to compete. He shattered those expectations. We enjoy seeing him enjoy being out there.”
This spring during the outdoor track season, Martin is competing in five events – the 400 meters, 800 meters, 4×400-meter relay, 4×800-meter relay and 300-meter hurdles, all while running with no restrictions like virtually every other high school runner.
“The health challenges that Jackson faced could have easily led him to quit running and competing in cross country and track,” said Curp. “Instead, Jackson looked at this obstacle as an opportunity to help others and be part of something bigger than himself. He made a lasting, positive impact on his teammates and on me as his coach.”
Martin plans to attend the University of South Alabama in the fall. He’s undecided on a major, although he’s considering business. He understands his competitive running career ends with this year’s outdoor season, but he still plans to run for fun.
“Jackson is a man of quiet strength and integrity,” said Westbrook Christian headmaster Cindy Greer. “His determination and work ethic are admirable. Jackson will always give his very best to accomplish his goals, regardless of the obstacles in his way.”