Brenda Martinez is one of the genuine ‘break-out’ middle-distance stars of 2013. The world 800m bronze medallist, after a “crazy” race in Moscow, talks exclusively to SPIKES about a life spent running, a life-changing coach and an assault on the US record books.
If you wanted to create a textbook to give to parents about why their kids should take up athletics, then pay attention to the story of Brenda Martinez.
From “humble beginnings” in the Californian city of Rancho Cucamonga, in San Bernadino County, Martinez was not born into a family of great wealth. At just five-years-old, her Mexican-born parents introduced her to the sport of track and field.
Since then, some 20 years ago, running has proved her guiding light, her rock and her inspiration. “Athletics saved my life,” says Martinez.
“I know people I grew up with who didn’t finish school,” she says. “I’m not part of that because of my running,” says Brenda, whose dad is a landscape gardener and mum a YMCA teacher.
“Athletics kept me distracted in a good way. It helped give me discipline, integrity, basically a good life.”
And what a good life it has given her. Today Martinez, 25, is among the world elite in 800m and 1500m: ranked sixth in the former and seventh in the latter. She has just enjoyed the greatest season of her career, and the future looks rosy.
Martinez, who now lives at high altitude of around 2,060m at Big Bear Lake, California, with her husband Carlos, laughs at the memory of her first ever race, a 100m sprint aged five. “I was blown away,” she says, and her coaches wisely re-directed her energies into middle-distance and cross country running.
Martinez: “Someone from our federation started screaming out my name and said I got third! I then started crying”
Never over-trained as a youngster, she has always remained enthused by the sport. A good high school athlete, Martinez showed promise at college, finishing runner-up in the 1500m at the 2009 NCAA Championships.
After graduating from UC-Riverside in 2010, her career started to drift. Struggling to find a coach, salvation came in the form of her husband’s old college coach, who suggested Martinez chat to Joe Vigil, a sprightly octogenarian who guided Deena Kastor to Olympic marathon bronze in 2004.
So taken by Martinez’s plight, Vigil decided to come out of retirement in March 2011 to coach her. It was to prove probably the singularly most significant moment of the Californian’s career.
Not that Martinez, who receives most of her advice via telephone and email from the Arizona-based Vigil, found adapting to his training programme easy.
“When I first started with coach, I was really inconsistent and I couldn’t hit the times,” she says. “We had to adjust the work-outs for the first year and a half.”
She once even misread a hand-scribbled note from her coach about one of the workouts, which led to confusion.
“I thought I had to run a 4x1 mile tempo run in repeats of 5:20,” she says, “so I was taking breaks in between. Then when he said: the four miles should be run without stopping at that pace, it was like, ‘Oh, I don’t think I can do that’.”
Gradually, her body became accustomed to Vigil’s demands. In 2012 she qualified for her first major championships at the world indoors (she exited the heats of the 1500m) and smashed through the two-minute barrier for 800m, twice.
Last autumn, all the pieces of the jigsaw started to fit together. Finally able to adapt to the sessions, she completed her most consistent training base. Now running the four-mile tempo run at an average mile pace of 5:05, she was all set to make some noise in the 2013 season.
It’s not only about being a better athlete for Martinez, though. It has also been about becoming a better person as part of Vigil’s holistic approach to running and life.
“He’s more than a coach, he’s an educator and he likes to teach,” she says. “The one thing he wanted from me was to be a good person, to better myself as a person every day, and live a good life. He makes me feel like my mind is at ease and clear. He is one of my heroes.”
For her part, Martinez now runs a running camp for girls, and has not touched alcohol for two years in an effort to fully respect her body.
Diamond girl: Martinez takes an impressive Diamond League win in London’s Olympic Stadium
In June, she shattered her 800m personal best by running 1:58.18 to finish second in Eugene Diamond League meeting, before repeating that placing at the US champs.
Buoyed by the confidence that gave her, she secured an eye-catching 800m victory at the London Diamond League, and obliterated her 1500m best by almost four seconds with a 4:00.94 time for third in Monaco.
Entering the Moscow 2013 World Championships, she was confident but also cautious.
“I tried not to put the pressure of winning a medal on me, and take it one round at a time. But once the final came around I said to myself: ‘I belong here and know I can run with these girls’.”
Adopting cautious tactics in the final, she wanted to go through 400m in 58 seconds, a pace Martinez knew she was comfortable with.
Refusing to get involved with the blistering pace set by her compatriot Alysia Montano, who hit 400m in 56.06, Martinez intelligently executed her pre-race plan.
She started to make a move with 250m remaining, entering the final bend in fourth and in medal contention. However, running in lane one she was briefly boxed in with 100m to go, her chances of winning a medal under grave threat.
“It was just a case of holding my position and if there was an opening: go for it. I still don’t know how it happened [the gap opened up]… It was crazy. An odd race.”
You can watch the race below:
For the next two minutes she stared up at the giant screen replaying the race in the Luzhniki Stadium, before finally receiving the welcome news from a USATF official.
“There were two screens in the stadium, and many of the girls were looking up at the one which did have the results,” she says. “I was all set to walk off the track. It was only when someone from our federation started screaming out my name and said I got third! I then started crying.”
Since her success in Moscow, Martinez has not rested on her laurels. Taking just two weeks rest at the end of the season, coach Vigil already has a new plan in place.
“My coaches [her husband is the on-track facilitator of Vigil’s training plan] don’t care about the bronze medal right now,” she says. “They say, ‘we are not going to treat you like a bronze medallist. We will treat you like the same old Brenda with the same level of urgency to better yourself.’ They are definitely tough on me.”
In 2014, her aim is to get involved in some fast races and improve on her 800m and 1500m PBs. She also hopes to stretch her range and dip below 15 minutes for the 5000m – her current PB for the distance is 15:30.89.
Next year is the first of a three-year plan laid out by Coach Vigil, which he hopes could see her challenge the US 800m and 1500m records held by Jearl Miles-Clark at 1:56.40 and Mary Slaney 3:57.12.
“My coach is super-excited about the training, he has a three-year plan for me and we are looking at 3:55 [for the 1500m] and 1:55 [for the 800m]. He says it is actually a possibility that I can run that.”
"I’m up for the training, and I believe in myself.”