When running for Absegami High School in Galloway Township, New Jersey, Ford Palmer could look into the stands and see his grandfather, Frank, watching him.
When Ford moved on to Monmouth University, low mileage and constant racing led to a slow start -- sixth in the men's 800-meter championship at the 2011 Northeast Conference Championship -- and his grandfather was disappointed.
"He flat out-said 'I'm not going to come to your track meets if you're going to do this poorly.'" Palmer remembered.
That flipped a switch in Palmer's head, so he trained through the summer for the first time. After focusing primarily on the 800 meters, his mileage allowed for a smooth transition to the mile and 1,500-meter distance. His grandfather was impressed. Frank would call after every race and the two stayed in constant communication.
Frank died a week before the 2013 NCAA regionals in Greensboro, North Carolina, and Ford finished last in the fourth section of the 1,500-meter preliminary. Thoughts of quitting surfaced early in 2014 while Palmer was balancing his late-night job as a bar back and bartender in Atlantic City with life as a professional runner for the New Jersey-New York Track Club.
He was disappointed again after finishing fifth in the 1,500-meter race at the 2014 U.S. Championship in Sacramento, California, but Palmer also knew he'd turned some heads there and made the right decision sticking with the sport for his grandfather.
"He's the reason I'm still running," Palmer said. "He cared so much about me."
Making a splash
Palmer was among 14 runners who toed the line for a 1,500-meter semifinal in Sacramento. Just before the race, he received a quick pep talk from New Jersey-New York Track Club head coach Frank Gagliano -- known as "Gags" to the running community.
"If you talk to Gags on the phone for over a minute, then that's a success," Palmer said. "His advice to me before the race was to 'Be competitive and have confidence.'
"I knew I was running against a bunch of big names that I've looked up to over the last few years. I ignored that, and they were just normal people to me."
Things felt surreal after the starting gun.
"It felt like I was in a YouTube video," Palmer said. "You're watching the race [in a video] and they go out in 64 seconds for the first lap and then 2:08, which is exactly what we did."
Fear gripped Palmer for a few seconds, and he says he started "weeping deep inside" halfway through the race. The realization that the race was just another trial helped push him in the final 200 meters.
"It was just another race, because while running with the New Jersey-New York Track Club every practice is a race," Palmer said. "We train fast and hard. Every run is the same as the last one."
He had never been in a tactical race where the pace was that fast, though. He found it within him to kick for a time of 1:51.05 for the final 800 meters, just off his personal best of 1:51.01. His overall time of 3:44.73 put him in the final, something that once seemed like a distant dream.
"To be honest, nobody knows who I am," Palmer told reporters in Sacramento.
Palmer went on to finish fifth in the final, and all four runners who finished ahead of him have worn a Team USA uniform in the last year.
"This was just a stepping-stone in the right direction," Palmer said. "That just comes with experience. I'll be in more professional races with guys of high caliber, so I can understand their strategy. That's for the future as well as trying to make the world championship team next year."
Most elite runners will spend their summer on the European track and field circuit to make money, but Palmer has confidence in Gagliano's training and will remain in the United States.
"We're sticking to the original plan," Palmer said. "I wasn't supposed to be this good this soon. Gags is focused on 2016, and I'm on board. We're training through this year."
"I'm finding out that he's a racer. He loves to race. Next to that, he's also a great competitor," Gagliano said. "He has a lot ahead of him if he keeps his head on his shoulder."
Changing athletic gears
Track is still pretty new to Palmer, who focused on football in high school and ran fewer than 20 miles per week then.
"I wanted to be a quarterback, so I showed up to football during my sophomore year," Palmer said. "Head coach Doug Colman grabs me and says 'You're never going to play offense ever again.'"
"He wanted to make me his middle linebacker prodigy."
Colman, now the special teams coach for the Houston Texans, coached the Braves to a state championship with Palmer as his starting linebacker. Scholarship offers from the likes of Michigan State and Penn State followed.
"The reason why I chose track over football was because I suffered from four concussions going into my senior year of high school," Palmer said. "Why would I go to college and get beat up for four more years, when I can run track and still get a full ride?"
He arrived at Monmouth in the fall of 2009, relying on talent early in his career before committing himself fully after his sophomore year.
"Ford is not one to just talk. He came back and he really made a transformation," Monmouth track coach Joe Compagni said. "He put more into summer training than he ever had and put a lot of action behind his words."
On the third day of his junior year at Monmouth, the medical staff at the school was performing a physical and noticed Palmer had abnormally high blood pressure for his age.
He was told to take the week off and spent his free time watching the documentary "Forks Over Knives," which is based on the research of two food scientists and outlines how the popularity of processed foods has led to climbing heart disease and obesity rates.
"I went from the football mentality of wanting to weigh as much as possible to the track mentality where I need to less and eat healthier," Palmer said.
Palmer never cheated on his diet and defeated cravings for burgers or bacon. He was a pescetarian for a year, eating a seafood-dominated diet, then became a vegetarian before eventually going full-on vegan. He has not consumed any animal products or byproducts for the past three years.
He saw a positive impact on his schoolwork, and his body felt lighter on the track. His mile time dropped to 4:00.4 and the quest to break the 4-minute barrier was finally on his mind, but he needed help.
Palmer had no clue who Gagliano was or that he has coached the most sub-4:00 milers in America, but New Jersey-New York assistant coach Eric Schaffer ran for Monmouth and connected Palmer with the group.
"Nobody talked to me at the first practice. Nobody knew who I was," Palmer said. "I didn't even talk to Gags for the first month. I just ran his workouts."
Gagliano laughs when he thinks back on Palmer's quiet first month.
"I put him in the second or third group when we were doing workouts in the fall, because he looked so big," Gagliano said. "He's a linebacker, and I looked at him and thought 'Hmm, what the hell is this kid?' Then I saw him progress and his training was coming along."
Palmer struggled at the beginning of his time with the team and could not finish some of the workouts. Just a few months later, he's thriving and leading some of the A-group workouts.
"He wanted to be up with the people that were better than him," Gagliano said.
Teammate Robby Andrews has known Palmer since their days as high school competitors.
"To see Ford develop into such a great racer has been a lot of fun," Andrews said. "He's tough, and his football mentality certainly shows on the track since he's not afraid of a challenge and loves competing."
Finding time to run
Running with the track club meant challenges in terms of time management, given Palmer's job at Revel Casino in Atlantic City. Some shifts would run from 7 p.m. to 5:30 a.m., and Palmer pleaded to work day shifts to make his workouts easier.
"That definitely took a toll on my body, and because of my poor sleep schedule, I would miss practice occasionally," Palmer said. "There was one point where Gags called me and said not to show up to practice. He pretty much said not to run if I wasn't committed."
Gagliano never saw signs of a quitter, though.
"He didn't want to show me that he was thinking of packing it in," Gagliano said. "Never, ever."
Palmer left his post at the bar to focus on the U.S. Track and Field Championship season, which started with a personal best of 3:38 for 1,500 meters in Los Angeles in May.
"That really put the bulb in other people's minds to pay attention to this kid," Gagliano said.
This will also be the seventh summer in which Palmer serves as a lifeguard with the Upper Township beach patrol. Last summer, he and fellow lifeguard Jack O'Hara came to the rescue of three victims foundering in the water.
"One of the three victims was a 13-year-old kid and he was barely above the water," Palmer says. "My fellow lifeguard jumps in and secures him. He immediately went limp and unconscious."
Palmer drove back to the beach, where the medical officers awaited to perform CPR.
"We saved his life. If we had showed up 10 seconds later, he could have been under water," Palmer said. "Ever since then I've been addicted to driving the Jet Ski and the adrenaline rush."
Palmer can relate the events of last year's rescue to the sport he loves. "It's equivalent to track where you have to stay calm under pressure and get the job done. You execute what you're trained to do."
Before the U.S. championships, the 2014 season was a trial of miles on the track for Palmer. The goal was to break 4:00, inching closer every time out and then running 4:00.00 at the Penn Relays.
"On the dot," Palmer says with a laugh. "Gags went to go ask for the photo finish, and it was directly on the dot. Four flat, point zero-zero. There's no arguing that."
After cooling down, Palmer got in his car and headed to Atlantic City for a night shift at the bar. It was a depressing drive, but he put his trust in his coach and teammates for the remainder of the season.
Gagliano believes Palmer can be special and has reached out to several agents to gauge interest. His next race will be July 26, when he chases another sub-4:00 mile in Oregon at Hayward Field.
"USAs changed everything, because it made me realize that I do have a shot of the Olympics and making this my full-time job," Palmer said.
Gagliano recently printed out a Track and Field News list of American sub-4:00 milers. He has coached many of the names on the list and expects Palmer's to be there, too.
"Every one of those runners has turned out to be a great man," Gagliano said. "Ford will be added to the list."