Making the Big Time

There’s always a sense of pleasure when you’re among the first to discover something – a little hole-in-the-wall bistro that serves the best tacos this side of Guadalajara, or the scuffling band playing at a free concert in the park, knocking out tunes that you can’t help but get up and dance to. And that feeling is justified and intensified when your discovery becomes a hit after being discovered by the general populace, although to be sure that can be tempered a bit when you can’t get a reservation for dinner at that spot you used to walk into on a moment’s notice or ticket prices for the band you used to see for free in the park approach the three-figure mark at a large concert hall.

It can be the same way in running, too. For many years I wrote the high school column in Running Times, profiling an up-and-coming scholastic runner who figured to make a mark on the national scene in the upcoming season. Most of the time, they panned out, and a few went on to successful collegiate careers, with an even smaller sampling continuing to compete in the open ranks in national and international events. Perhaps the most notable example was when an old college running buddy who was coaching in upstate New York tipped me off about this girl who was running at a school that didn’t even have a girls team, but was clearly head and shoulders above anyone else. “She’s the real deal,” he said. “Keep your eye on her.” Years later, when Molly Huddle set the American record for 5,000 meters on the track, I emailed Bill Mullarney and told him that he had indeed been right about her when she was just a high school sophomore. Now, if he could just use that talent identification skill to pick a few horses at the next season at Saratoga, we could both retire early.

ImageAll by way of saying it was gratifying to see Brenda Martinez win a bronze medal at the World Track & Field Championships in Moscow earlier this month, the first time an American had medaled at that distance in the meet.

I first met Martinez last summer when she won the Falmouth Mile, a race held the evening before the famous Cape Cod road race on the high school track. A few years out of college, she’d been suffering through the typical post-graduate struggles that plague almost every American track athlete these days, trying to make ends meet while working out under the guidance of her husband, racing when and where she could. Martinez had finished out of the top five in the U.S. Olympic Trials and wasn’t a big enough name to get invited to the major meets on the European circuit, and was running Falmouth as a vacationland end to her season. A 4:26.76 win prompted her to go back to California and train a bit more, resulting in a win over a loaded field at the Fifth Avenue Mile in New York. What impressed me about Martinez in both post-race interviews was the self-confidence she possessed. Obviously, you don’t get to even the lower reaches of elite running without a healthy dose of that, but Martinez seemed to exude an inner drive and sense of purpose that said if she got in the right setup, no guarantee in U.S. post-collegiate running these days, she was going to go far, and fast.

Fast forward, she connected with respected U.S. distance guru Joe Vigil, who had coached Deena Kastor to her 2004 Olympic marathon bronze, moved to Big Bear to train at altitude, and by summer’s end, she was standing on the podium in Luzhniki Stadium, a historic medal draped around her neck. I wish I could say I’ve got some hidden sixth-sense of recognizing a future world champion or Olympic medalist even before they know their own aspirations, but mostly, it’s a matter of luck and pure gut feeling. But when a runner does make it to the top, it’s as satisfying as when your discovered restaurant gets a Michelin star or the band you followed goes double platinum.

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