By: Ellis Simon
Nov. 7, 2018
For 15 years, Merlin Padilla, Jr. has known what he wants to do after graduating from college: Enlist in the United States Army with the goal of becoming an officer. He could have earned his commission by enrolling in City College’s ROTC program, but he chose to follow a different path; that of the long-distance runner.
“When I came to City College, I knew they had a ROTC program, but I could either commit 100 percent to athletics or 100 percent to ROTC,” the three-time CUNYAC Runner of the Week said. “There was no way I could keep my head in two different places.”
Padilla, who hails from Washington Heights and was raised by a single mother, got a taste of military life participating in the Army Cadet program for five years in middle school and at Cardinal Hayes High School. As he approached graduation, however, he was still undecided about whether to enlist or go on to college.
Becoming a distance runner helped him decide. He joined the indoor track team at Cardinal Hayes, which had a strong athletics program, but was new to distance running. “I had a taste of ROTC life and being an athlete,” he explained, “but I knew if I wanted to be a runner I’d have to put in ten thousand percent.”
Padilla, who stands 5-foot-11 and weighs 150 pounds, said he decided to become a distance runner because it was more physical than sprinting and winning relied more on endurance than speed. “In distance running you got to keep up the ‘grind’,” he said. “It’s not who is fastest but who can grind the longest that matters.”
He trains in short intervals by running 800 meters at speed. “Anyone can do a quick 200 to 400 meters, but the people who can grind for 2 1/2 intervals (2,000 meters), those are the guys who will be the champions,” Padilla said.
Padilla has excelled on the trails this season for the Beavers. Most notably, he was named the Most Valuable Performer at the CUNYAC Championships, after racing to a winning time of 28:11.6 in the 8k at the league meet. He is set to compete at the NCAA Division III Atlantic Region Championships on Sunday.
Padilla said the team results have given him more satisfaction than his personal achievements. “Cross country is a team sport,” he explained. “I can’t do my race without my team. My biggest achievement is getting my team to a better place. My goal is to get my teammates to a stronger mentality; to a point where we all have the same mentality.”
Alluding to the achievements of CCNY athletes from years past, Padilla said he wants him and his teammates to excel and earn invitations to regional and national championship meets. “Every institution should have the same goal – winning titles,” he continued. “If the institution doesn’t believe in athletics and vice versa, you can’t win. When you go through City College’s Hall of Fame and see athletes who competed at the national level, you want to make sure their legacy was not in vain.”
His day revolves around running and academics. He said he has no time for outside interests, other than working part-time as a sales associate for JackRabbit, a running specialty retailer. “I have very set goals, and if an activity doesn’t help me to achieve them, I have no need for it,” Padilla explained. “I know what I have to do every day: wake up, run, go to school, go to work, rinse and repeat. Everything in between helps me running-wise or academic-wise.”
In addition to CCNY athletes from years past, Padilla draws inspiration from another CCNY alumnus, Gen. Colin L. Powell (USA) ret., who was the first African-American to serve as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State. No doubt, he will reach for the stars by applying the same discipline and focus to military service that he brings to running and schoolwork.