Brenda Martinez wasn't ready to give up her running career after earning all-America honors three times at UC Riverside, but the running community seemed ready to give up on her.
The Rancho Cucamonga native struggled while seeking a training situation that would develop her potential. Rejected by two running groups, Martinez and her husband-turned-coach, Carlos Handler, didn't know where to go.
Handler took a chance and contacted renowned coach Joe Vigil, who lives in Arizona when he's not conducting clinics around the world. Vigil, who helped guide Meb Keflezighi and Deena Kastor to Athens Olympic marathon silver and bronze medals, respectively, was intrigued enough to meet Martinez and Handler while visiting Los Angeles.
"I saw how intent she was on becoming a good runner," Vigil said, "so we started talking about what it takes and I asked her if she would be willing to commit the effort, because I've had medalists in the Olympic Games and world championships before and I know what it takes. And she seemed like she was very sincere in saying yes, I'll do what it takes."
Although Vigil and Martinez rarely work together and have communicated mainly by phone or email the past two years, she has kept her promise. The result has been a breakthrough season and a chance to make U.S. running history.
Since moving to Big Bear for altitude training — one of Vigil's requirements — Martinez, 25, has become a medal contender in the 800 at the world championships, which began last week in Moscow. The career-best time of 1 minute, 58.18 seconds she ran in June ranks fifth in the world this season; Francine Niyonsaba of Burundi, who ran the two fastest times, withdrew because of an injury. Martinez will run her first heat late Wednesday Pacific time, Thursday morning in Russia.
No American woman has won a world championships medal in the 800, but Martinez and Alysia Johnson Montano of Canyon Country — whose 1:57.75 ranks fourth in the world this year — could change that. The achievement seemed impossible when those running groups rejected Martinez a few years ago.
"I'm kind of glad those two doors closed on me and this one opened up," she said recently by phone.
Martinez began to respond to her new training regimen last season with personal bests in the mile on the road (4:24.2) and on the track (4:26.76).
This season, besides her personal best in the 800 — which she nearly equaled with a 1:58.19 in a late-charging win last month on the Diamond League circuit — she set career marks of 4:00.94 in the 1,500 and 15:36.65 in the 5,000 and was part of a record-setting 3,200-meter relay at the Penn Relays.
She's known for her strong finishing kick in the 800, but Vigil wants her to go out faster so she won't have to waste energy by running around rivals later.
"The training Coach Vigil gives me is definitely hard, but I'm improving. I believe in his training," she said. "It's just a matter of me being consistent and adapting. I feel that it finally paid off this year, whereas the year before, I was trying to race and adapt at the same time."
Not every athlete can thrive in a long-distance coaching relationship, but Martinez's single-mindedness makes it work. Even though she has competed and trained in parts of Europe this summer, she has few souvenirs to show for it.
"I've been in the hotel all day most days. Anywhere I go I don't really get the chance to go sightseeing is because my job is to rest and I really want to perform well at worlds," she said. "I have many years once I retire from running to travel and all that.
"This is a full-time job and I take it seriously. Coach, sometimes when he calls, he'll mention that he's not going to be here very long. He's 83 years old, so anything he tells me I try to implement in my training and I take it very seriously."
Vigil, who saw Martinez compete this season at Mount San Antonio College, Carlsbad and the U.S. championships, writes out her workouts in advance. Martinez or her husband send him almost daily reports on how she's training, resting and feeling.
"Sometimes coaches have a big group of runners and they don't spend a lot of time with each one. But with her, whatever time I spend is quality time and we're able to communicate with each other just beautifully," he said. "And it's more important for her to be at altitude, training, than for her to be in Arizona with me watching her every day. So everything is working out just right."
Vigil said he believes she can run in the high 1:57s, which should get her to the final in Moscow. She's confident she can get there and is preparing for her big moment.
"Honestly, I don't think it's hit me," she said. "I think maybe once I get on the track and I'm at the stadium it might hit me. I think at that time I need to really focus on my nerves and visualize, stay calm. I know that I can compete at a higher level."
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