As a student-athlete at the University of California at Riverside, Brenda Martinez never imagined she'd be considered one of the top middle distance runners in America, let alone the world. Though she had good collegiate credentials, including a runner-up finish at the 2009 NCAA Outdoor Championships over 1500m, the California native never regarded the possibilities of being a contender on the world stage.
"Maybe not even a year ago, obviously not before that," she told Race Results Weekly today, speaking moments before flying to Des Moines, IA, for the USA Championships, which open on Thursday.
Now, three years after graduating as the first member of her family from college, Martinez's outlook is completely different. With the help of veteran coach Joe Vigil, the 25-year-old is primed and ready to compete this weekend, seeking a ticket to Moscow and August's IAAF World Championships.
On Thursday, Martinez will toe the line for round one of the 800m at Drake Stadium with the mindset of a champion. Much of that can be credited to Vigil, who helped shape the career of American marathon record holder Deena Kastor.
"I think when I joined Coach Vigil it all kind of changed," said Martinez. "When I started working with him he told me he could get me to run really fast in all sorts of events. I put all my trust in him and it's paying off."
It certainly has. In 2013 alone, Martinez has set personal bests at 800m (1:58.18), 1500m (4:04.86), and 5000m (15:30.89). Her 800m time ranks second in the world, only behind Burundi's Francine Niyonsaba, who has run 1:56.72.
So what has been the secret to Martinez's success this year, aside from Vigil?
"I wouldn't say there is a secret," she said. "It's just the consistency and believing in myself and the training. The way Coach Vigil has been training me—for me to have a really good range between the 800m and the 5000m—I would definitely say my strength has gotten a lot better. I want to better it every year. Definitely working hard and definitely working the right energy systems."
Hand in hand with the hard training completed in Big Bear Lake, CA, comes a confidence unlike any she's had before.
"Even before the Prefontaine [Classic], coach told me 'you could run 1:57 high to 1:58 low' and I believed him. I was like 'I'm going to go after it,'" said Martinez. After timing 1:58.18 and finishing second to Niyonsaba, Martinez was happy with the personal best, yet knew she could go even faster.
"I think I might have made a little mistake not going out harder, but I'm not going to complain; it was a really big PR for me," she said.
When asked if a sub-1:58 clocking may be in her future, Martinez said yes without much of a hesitation.
"I know I can get there, it's just a matter of time," she said. "I'm super excited about it. I know these girls can pull me to a fast time and I have the strength to back it up. I'm going to try my best through all the rounds and see what I can do."
Time won't be the focus in Des Moines, though. There Martinez will focus on finishing in the top three of the 800m. Since she has the IAAF World Championships "A" standard already, all she has to do is finish on the podium and she has a spot on the starting line at the IAAF World Championships.
Without Vigil, Martinez insists that she likely wouldn't be where she is right now, sitting as the top American middle distance runner in the sport.
"I would just say he definitely gave me my heart back for the sport," she said, her admiration of Vigil clear in her voice. "I fell in love with the sport again. A few years ago I was very inconsistent and just wasn't there with my heart and my mind. He pulled it out of me. It took some time, but I just believe every word he says. He has it down to a science; he can work on the training, I just have to worry about the running part. I know it's going to pay off eventually."
On Tuesday, Martinez completed her final tune-up workout before beginning the championships, running a set of 400, 300, 200, and 100 meter intervals in 57, 43, 29, and 11.93 seconds, respectively.
"Felt amazing," she tweeted.
As for selecting the 800m over the 1500m at the national meet, Martinez said it came down to which event she was more keen on and where she stood in the rankings.
"I kind of was just stuck in the middle," she said. "I think I got more excited for the 800m cause I know it is going to take a 1:56 to 1:57 to be a medal contender. I think for the 1500m it is kind of tricky; there are some East Africans who can put down a 56 [second 400 meters] or 57 in a slow race and it would take a 58 in a fast race. I don't know if I'm quite there yet but I know I can run a really fast 1500m eventually. I think just right now I went with 800m because I'm number one in the U.S. and number two in the world."
Doing workouts every other day, Martinez has built up a strength that she feels will help her survive the two rounds and final at the USA Championships, then eventually in Moscow.
"I'm just feeling really strong and confident going into all my races," she said. "I'm happy the way the progression has been going. I'm going to use every race as a stepping stone"
Looking ahead to Sunday's final, Martinez is eager to toe the line and make her first IAAF World Outdoor championships team.
"I want to place as high as I can in the final and just race smart. I have this thing I tell myself when I get on the line be as happy as you can be and have fun. I've been doing that year round and have really been enjoying my racing," she said.
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