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MOSCOW (15-Aug) -- Sitting off the pace for the first 400 meters, Brenda Martinez carefully controlled her effort in her 800m qualifying heat here this morning at the 14th IAAF World Championships. She coolly let early leader Karine Belleau-Beliveau of Canada run ahead of the field, saving her strength for the final dash to the line where she finished first in 1:59.39, the fastest World Championships preliminary ever recorded by an American.
"I was trying to feel the pace," said Martinez, the runner-up at the American championships in Des Moines last June. She continued: "I was trying not to get too excited. I had to learn to be patient, especially for the eight; that's kind of what you have to do."
Martinez, 25, a Californian who is originally from Rancho Cucamonga but now lives and trains in Big Bear Lake, has indeed learned patience, thanks in part to veteran coach Joe Vigil. Vigil, who most notably coached marathoner Deena Kastor in the early part of her professional career, took over Martinez's training in the summer of 2011, and Martinez --who had bounced from coach to coach-- has become a major force in American middle distance running, both at 800 and 1500 meters. She has the fourth-fastest time in the world this year at the 800 (1:58.18) and seventh at 1500 (4:00.94).
Last season, her first full year under Vigil's program which is administered by her husband Carlos Handler, Martinez only finished sixth in the USA Olympic Trials at 800m, and 12th at 1500m. Although she didn't qualify for the London Olympics, she steadily improved in the latter stages of the track season, getting her 800m time down to 1:59.14 and winning the prestigious Fifth Avenue Mile last September. She only ran one race during the 2013 indoor season, instead focusing on endurance training in preparation for outdoors. That preparation has paid off handsomely: she's broken two minutes for 800m six times this season, and decided in early June that the two-lap event was her best.
"I think at Pre (the Prefontaine Classic Meeting) when I went 1:58-low I told myself I'm ready to go sub-that, in Europe especially, knowing that I was going to peak for it, " Martinez explained. "So, here I'm really confident coming in."
Vigil is best known for training endurance athletes, and Martinez corrected a reporter when he said that he had never coached an 800m runner.
"He did," Martinez said laughing. "Julie Jenkins, 1:57.80. So, that's my target, too."
Martinez is part of a strong three-woman American team here, joined by five-time national champion Alysia Montano and 2012 world junior champion Ajee' Wilson. Montano won the second heat here this morning in 1:59.47, and Wilson also advanced by finishing third in the third heat (2:00.00). Martinez, who has never before competed in a global outdoor championships, said it's thrilling to be part a team where all three have broke two minutes this season.
"It feels great," Martinez said about being part of the team. "These girls, I mean Ajee' is so young (19), she's handled everything so maturely. I'm happy for her. Alysia, obviously, is going to be tough in the final." She added: "I love that we're all in it; it's a strong group."
The semi-finals of the women's 800m will be contested on Friday, and the final will come on the last day of competition on Sunday. No American woman has ever won a medal at 800m in the IAAF World Championships. The best finish has been fourth place by both Jearl Miles-Clark (1999) and Montano (2011).