Brenda Martinez was in sixth place when she rounded the bend into the homestretch of the 800-meter final at the 2013 IAAF World Championships in Moscow. The crowd was roaring. A space opened up in lane one, Martinez dug deep and crossed the line in third place—the first American woman to ever medal in the event.
Three years earlier, when Martinez graduated from college at UC-Riverside, two Olympic developmental track clubs rejected her even though she was an NCAA runner-up and a three-time All-American who set numerous school records. Martinez went from rejection to a bronze medal, and now she and her husband, Carlos Handler, are recruiting post-collegiate athletes to join their newly developed Big Bear Track Club.
“Now that we have the resources, we want to develop athletes,” Handler said. “We don’t want someone talented like Brenda to slip through the cracks—so we started our own little group.”
While many athletes wait until retirement to give back to the sport, Martinez is dedicated to providing younger athletes opportunities that she didn’t have while still competing at the highest level. She’s also currently planning the third year of her running camp for girls that will take place the week after U.S. Track & Field Championships.
“Our coach’s philosophy is if you are given a lot, it’s your responsibility to give back to the sport,” Handler said, referring to the legendary Joe Vigil, who coaches Martinez.
Despite the initial rejection, Martinez was committed to pursuing a professional running career, no matter how difficult it was to make it post-collegiately.
“We were late on rent and shopping at the 99 Cent store,” Martinez said. “Carlos was cleaning houses, taking little jobs. We were doing whatever we could to make it.”
She eventually signed a contract with New Balance and Vigil agreed to coach her with Handler overseeing the daily workouts. They moved to Big Bear Lake, a small resort town situated at 6,800 feet above sea level in Southern California’s San Bernardino Mountains, just an hour’s drive to sea level. It’s ideal for middle distance runners who will benefit from sleeping high and training low.
The little-track-club-that-could is still in its infancy, but one of the first athletes to join the group has already seen immense success. Boris Berian had 24 hours notice to race the 800 meters at the Adidas Grand Prix in New York, and he made headlines when he finished second to David Rudisha in 1:43.84.
“I told everyone (Boris) was going to be the best guy in the U.S. this year, but he had only run 1:45 and no one wanted to believe me—no one,” Handler said. “Everyone thought I was crazy. I guess I don’t sound that crazy anymore.”
The 22-year-old Berian, from Colorado Springs, Colorado, was training on his own last year after leaving Adams State University. He was working at a McDonalds when he received a Facebook message from Daniel Guerro asking him if he was still running and if he was interested in joining the new developmental group. He made the move to Big Bear Lake last December to start working under Handler and Vigil.
Handler, who has been mentored by Vigil for the last three years, will co-coach the Big Bear Track Club. Vigil writes the workouts and Handler is the eyes and ears on the ground, overseeing the group and adjusting workouts for each individual. They plan to have eight athletes eventually. There are no time standards to join the group—they are looking for athletes that will work hard, not question the coaching and mesh well personality-wise.
“We aren’t interested in recruiting the NCAA champion,” Handler said. “We want to develop athletes that have world-class potential, that may not have the opportunity.”
There are currently four athletes in the club: Martinez, Berian, Guerro, and Dalanne Zanotelli. Each does easy aerobic runs on their own at elevation and a few times per week they drive down the winding mountainous road to work out at sea level.
“Having teammates is fun,” Martinez said. “It brings a lot more energy to the track.”
In less than a year of developing the group, they are already acting like a family. They nod their heads in agreement with each other in conversation, and complete each other’s sentences. They travel and race together, and after workouts the group stops by Martinez’s parents house to eat.
“My mom is going to stress out,” Martinez said. “They’re going to need a bigger table.”