18 JUN 2014 Feature Big Bear Lake, USA

Martinez unafraid to ‘go after it’

Brenda Martinez in action at the US Championships (Getty Images)Brenda Martinez in action at the US Championships (Getty Images) © Copyright

The 2013 season, in which she won bronze at 800m at the IAAF World Championships, made Brenda Martinez the most successful US woman at that distance in decades, and introduced her to the world as a two-lap star.

But behind that stellar run, in which Martinez ran at or close to the back until the closing 200m, is a story which would make a Hollywood producer read the script, complete with closed doors, an underdog background, and a coaching guru. Perhaps the best part: there's room for a sequel.

With the first part of her 2014 campaign behind her, including IAAF Diamond League starts in Eugene, Oslo and New York, Martinez has already run 1:59.24 for 800m and 4:02.52 for 1500m, even with a less-than-ideal winter training session.

And with the US Championships and a large fraction of the IAAF Diamond League still to go, there's a lot of room for Martinez to find more pages for her story.

An early start on the track

The scene would open with a youth track meeting in Rancho Cucamonga, California, an inland city halfway between Los Angeles and San Bernadino. Martinez, the five-year-old daughter of Mexican immigrants, ran her first track race, a 100m. It was the beginning of a long-term fascination with athletics, but it was also focus, an anchor that kept Martinez from drifting away from school or her family. And, more importantly for her parents, it was a way to channel the spirited youngster’s energy into something productive.

A decent high school runner, Martinez wound up at the University of California’s Riverside campus, not too far from home. There she set programme records from 800m (2:00.85 in 2009) to 5000m (16:27.51 in 2008) and earned three all-American honours, in 2009 at the mile indoors, then in 2009 and 2010 at the 1500m outdoors, with her best NCAA Championships finish being a second place in the 1500m in 2009.

After that stellar season, her third in the NCAA, her fourth and last was hampered by plantar fasciitis problems and was less successful.

After graduation in 2010, however, Martinez stalled. With sponsorship but no training groups willing to take her on, Martinez struggled to find a training venue and a coach.

Building a team

The first step to Moscow turned out to be the second member of Team Martinez: Carlos Handler, now her husband. A fierce believer in Martinez’s potential, Handler made the rounds again looking for a better training situation. Working through connections, he eventually asked advice of coach Joe Vigil.

Vigil’s career is lengthy and so full of superlatives that it defies easy summary, most recently highlighted by his development of marathon runner Deena Kastor, bronze medallist at the 2004 Olympics. Vigil has “retired” from coaching Kastor – his second retirement, the first being when he left Adams State University in 1993 – but it’s not clear that Vigil’s idea of “retirement” is very different from other people’s idea of “working.”

SPIKES called him a “sprightly octogenarian” (he’s 85) and teaching comes to him as reflexively as breathing. His return to his home in Tucson, Arizona, was not enough to keep him from wanting to give Martinez a lift.

Frustrated that nobody else would take her on, he offered to coach her himself. Vigil would write the training and send it to them by fax, and Handler and Martinez would execute the workouts, with Vigil adjusting the plan based on Handler’s detailed reports back.

Martinez and Handler relocated to Big Bear Lake to live at 2060m of altitude in California’s Sierras, often driving down into the Central Valley to do speed work where there was more oxygen in the air. The plan was long-term and aimed at the 2016 Olympics.

The program was tough at first, the workouts sometimes so challenging to Martinez that she wasn’t sure Vigil really meant to make them so tough. But as Martinez adjusted to the workload, her race times began to come down again.

She ran the 1500m at the 2012 IAAF World Indoor Championships, but didn’t make the final, then finished outside selection in the 800m at the US Olympic Trials. With the spotlight on London competitors, Martinez lowered her PB to 1:59.14 in the 800m with a fourth-place finish in Brussels, ranking her second in the US that year; enough to make her a contender for a starting spot in Moscow.

Finding her event

Picking the 800m for 2013 was not an obvious choice, however. Martinez is quick to point out that even today she isn’t the fastest 800m runner Vigil has ever coached. At 1500m Martinez had every expectation of being competitive with the likes of Jenny Simpson, gold in that event in Daegu and silver in Moscow.

The deciding moment, and probably the start of the real breakthrough, was at last summer’s Eugene IAAF Diamond League, where Martinez placed second in the 800m behind Francine Niyonsaba in a PB of 1:58.18. Among those in her wake were 2007 world champion Janeth Jepkosgei, 2010 world indoor bronze medallist Alysia Montano and Olympic bronze medallist Ekaterina Poistogova, the latter two of whom would go on to join Martinez in the Moscow final. It was the race which led Martinez and her coach to put all their effort for the US and World Championships into the 800m.

“I felt so strong,” Martinez recalls, “I said, I know there’s more here. I just knew.”

That was the open door. Martinez stepped through in a big way. She ran sub-2:00 for 800m three more times between Eugene and Moscow, and twice more in the Moscow rounds, before her 1:57.91 in the final. She had the fastest qualifying mark of any semi-finalist and the second-fastest time in the semi-finals.

She won the 800m at the London IAAF Diamond League and placed third in the 1500m at the Herculis meeting in Monaco, chopping four seconds off her PB and, at 4:00.94, garnering the seventh spot on the 2013 world list for that distance, just one place lower than her place on the 800m list.

Not too much has changed in the Team Martinez plan since then. The training plan hasn't changed, her coach treats her the same as he always did, and her willingness to dig in to the hard work hasn't changed. There are details which look different now, of course. But the big picture remains the same.

Leading off the track

All the same, Martinez’s revelatory 2013 season has her squarely in the spotlight, facing regular media queries and a new set of demands on her time. “Dead weight,” she says her coach calls it.

For that, Martinez has a counterweight: outside her team of three, Martinez has a keen sense of her place in a larger running community.

The most immediate example is the altitude training camp for junior girls Martinez started in 2013. She took 100 fliers to the 2012 Inland Empire Challenge, an October cross-country invitational in San Bernadino County, to advertise the first year. She got 30 applications, and chose five girls for the pilot session.

The girls came to Big Bear for a week to train with Martinez and, more importantly, to soak up the principles of hard work and motivation. Martinez planned to expand the camp in 2014.

The lessons of the camp go both ways, too. “How badly do you want to motivate those girls?” is the phrase Handler uses in the thick of a challenging workout, Martinez says. She is keenly aware of their eyes on her.

“When the [2013] season was over,” she said, “I invited [the campers] to a party I had for my family and my team, and they got to see my medal. I still can’t believe it, and they really couldn’t believe it. But I’d been telling them if they set a goal and work for it, good things can happen. I could say it over and over, but I actually did it. It turned out to be a good example both for them and for me.”

Martinez has also been adopted as an inspiration by the USA’s large Mexican-American community. After Moscow, Martinez appeared on television and radio shows and was highlighted in several magazine articles aimed at the Latino audience.

Plans for 2014

“We’re using this year to get ready for 2015,” says Martinez, “but also for fun. There might be a few races where we just … go after it. The really exciting part might be not knowing what will happen.”

Martinez’s first big splash was at the recent IAAF World Relays in Nassau, The Bahamas, where she played a significant role in winning the Golden Baton for the USA. Anchoring both the 4x1500m and 4x800m teams, Martinez brought home second-place and first-place finishes, respectively, both in national record times.

In the 4x1500m, the US team was under the old world record, albeit well behind the record-setting Kenyan squad; in the shorter race, Martinez went out hard to put the race out of reach of world champion Eunice Sum. “I wanted to bleed for my teammates,” she explained afterwards. Only Jamaica’s super-anchor Yohan Blake, with two victories, was more successful.

While she has now marked up a sub-two-minute 800m for the season, her 1:59.24 in Hengelo putting her fourth on the world list, the scope of “fun” leaves open the option of other distances when they look interesting. A 4:02.52 1500m at the Eugene IAAF Diamond League suggests her 4:00.94 PB might be in danger.

She ran a road 5km early in the season, clocking a PB of 15:24. In 2011 and 2012 she ran track miles in Falmouth, Massachusetts, in August, an event tied to that town’s well-known road race. Everything is on the table.

Her phrase “go after it” captures the intensity without limiting the scope of the goal. Martinez doesn’t talk about specific time goals, or a level she thinks she can attain; instead, “going after it” means taking risks, accepting the possibility of failure to see how great a success is possible. That kind of daring can lead to dramatic racing.

And it’s all a set-up for 2015, when Martinez hopes to be in Beijing to improve on her Moscow performance.

Parker Morse for the IAAF