When Nutley track coaches Gerald Ryan and Ed Annett first presented Marcella Blancato with the idea of running the 800 meters near the conclusion of the indoor track season, the idea was met with disbelief.
Most of the runners in the 800 specialize in distance running, so for a sprinter like Blancato, the idea of being moved to the 800 seemed, as she put it, “crazy.”
“I was really confused because it just seemed like a really long distance for me,” Blancato said. “When I was a freshman, I ran the 55 and the 200 in my winter season before losing the spring because of Covid. Then, in my sophomore season, I started running the 400 (during outdoor). Then this year, they brought up the 800 and I was like ‘woah, we keep upping the distance!’ It just seemed crazy to me.”
Now the only thing that seems crazy about it are the times Blancato is already putting up in the event.
During Friday’s Essex County Championships in Montclair, Blancato set a school record in the 800 with a time of 2:23.77. The time, more than three seconds faster than her previous personal best, was good for second place to only Millburn’s Miriam Wolk.
For her performance, Blancato, who only started training for the 800 on the first day of practice for the outdoor season in March, has been selected as The Observer Athlete of the Week.
“When (Ryan) told me, I didn’t believe him. I had him show me the record and I was like oh my gosh I actually did do it because I didn’t believe it,” Blancato said. “I was in shock and really didn’t think I could do something like that.
“I couldn’t even fathom that I could do that time. I don’t think I’ve ever hit a number close to that. In a sprint medley relay earlier this year, I ran a 2:26 so I was expecting something closer to that. Three seconds faster than that is just crazy in just the span of a week or two. I was just shocked that I could do something like that.”
Ask Ryan about what the biggest difference has been and his answer isn’t physical, but rather mental. It wasn’t until she broke 2:30 in a dual meet with Millburn the confidence started to grow and since then, Blancato has taken off.
“She didn’t believe in herself to be able to run that fast. Now, I honestly think she does,” Ryan said. “After Friday night, I think she believes. She believes in the training she’s done, she believes in the process and I’m looking forward to seeing her run in the state sectional race.”
“About two or three weeks ago, I started feeling a little more comfortable,” Blancato said. “It’s just a little bit difficult to get used to the strategy and techniques of how to run the 800 because it’s not just an all-out sprint. You have to plan out the way you want to run it. It takes a little while to get used to.”
Blancato and Ryan took a different approach to Friday’s championship. Rather than focus on specific times after each quarter, Ryan told her to “worry about where you are in the race.”
“(I told her) you’re running in the seeded race so you’re going to be with all of the fastest kids in the county,” Ryan said. “Stay with the lead group and you and Miriam (Wolk) from Millburn are the only two girls who can really sprint. The others are true distance runners. You can outkick everyone else in the race.”
Despite getting boxed in a bit with the pack, Blancato started her kick with about 200 meters remaining, quickly going from seventh place to second.
While she ultimately finished 2.52 seconds behind Wolk, it was a performance that showed not only how good Blancato has already become in the 800, but just how high her potential is as she gains more experience.
“I never thought that a race besides the 400-meter, which I was so comfortable with, could be one of my better races and more suited for me,” Blancato said. “(Before) I would have watched these other girls running this race and wonder, ‘how do they run that fast?’”
“I think she has almost unlimited potential in this event. She has that sprinter’s stride, she’s got long legs, she knows how to run,” Ryan said. “I think every time she races now I think the confidence is going to continue to grow and grow. And as the confidence grows, the experience grows, she’s going to become the alpha in these races.”
Jason Bernstein | Observer Sports Writer
Jason Bernstein joined The Observer as its sports writer in March 2022, following the retirement of Jim Hague. He has a wealth of sports-writing experience, including for NJ Advance Media (nj.com, The Jersey Journal, The Star-Ledger.)