On June 13, 2014, 21-year-old Boris Berian got up early, put on a red and yellow uniform with a name tag and started his shift at the McDonald’s inside a Walmart in Colorado Springs. He’d dropped out of college, and was staying with a friend. Berian was an 800-meter runner; his best for the two-lap race was one minute, 48 seconds, which was good. In a college context.
On June 13th, 2015, Berian lined up for the 800 at the Adidas Grand Prix in New York City, got out well and finished a step-and-a-half behind world record holder David Rudisha, in a personal best time of 1:43.84. That’s the fifth-fastest 800 in the world so far this year, fastest in 2015 by any U.S. athlete, and just 1.29 seconds off Johnny Gray’s American record.
One of the few people not shocked by Berian’s dizzying transition from working class to world class is Carlos Handler, who in the same short space of time, has gone from being mid-distance star Brenda Martinez’s husband to being the co-director of Big Bear Track Club, home of the underdog. I made up that tagline; Handler prefers something like, “We pride ourselves on development.”
Big Bear Track Club plucked the unpolished nugget that was Berian out of the lode; they saw his potential. Here’s how it happened. Handler and Martinez work with coaching legend Dr. Joe Vigil. Vigil was the long-time coach at Adams State, the institution Berian attended for three years. “Vigil told me about this talented kid, Boris Berian, who had some wheels,” said Handler. “Heck, the kid had run a 46.9 400 in high school. That’s pretty much professional. I liked his speed, because you have to be born with speed. We can develop strength.”
Berian didn’t exactly come out of nowhere; he came down from Colorado Springs, which is to say, altitude. He counted track as merely a hobby, and still, he was the Colorado state high school champ in the 400 and 800 meters his junior and senior year.
“I didn’t take it seriously until finally one day I told my coach I kind of wanted to win state,” Berian said. “I was ranked fourth or fifth in the 400 and tenth in the 800. My whole attitude changed. I really wanted to win. I surprised myself—I got pretty excited.”
His high school times—46.9 in the 400 and 1:50 in the 800—earned him a spot on the track team at Division II Adams State, in Alamosa, Col., in the fall of 2011. Their investment paid off quickly—Berian won the D2 national championship at 800 meters, indoor and outdoor, the spring of his freshman year.
But beginning in the fall of 2012, Berian’s grades made him academically ineligible to compete. He continued to work out with the team until he finally quit school entirely after the spring semester of 2014.
“I didn’t care too much for school, but I was still training with the team, and the workouts became really, really easy for me,” Berian said. “I wasn’t even giving it my all, but I had a ton of energy. I just wasn’t able to show that by racing. School had been stressing me out the whole time, so it actually brought my emotions up when I finally quit. I had somewhat of a plan, and knew I could make it in running if I concentrated.”
His plan was to move back to Colorado Springs, stay with a friend, train on his own and work at McDonald’s to make travel money. And that’s what he did for six months.
“I liked the morning shift, 8 a.m. til 2 p.m. Then I’d head home, rest, eat. I didn’t run until it was close to dark, when it cooled off. Then I ate dinner and went to bed. I didn’t really do much else. I made minimum wage—seven or eight-something an hour. I had those days when I thought, this kind of sucks right now. I didn’t want to wake up early and deal with a lot of rude people, but I kept thinking about Worlds and thinking about what I’d done in the past, the state championships when I got really excited about running—I kept going back to that feeling.”
By October, the summer track season was over and Berian hadn’t raced at all.
Big Bear Lake, Calif., population 5,000 or so, is east of and upward from Rancho Cucamonga, where Brenda Martinez grew up. She joined a track program at age five and, specializing in middle distances, ran through high school and college at UC-Riverside, where she became her family’s first college graduate. After graduating in 2010, Martinez drifted and struggled with running. Coaches were not impressed; she was rejected by several training groups. Finally, she contacted Dr. Joe Vigil, one of the most successful and influential coaches in the sport, who had, in fact, retired. Something about Martinez’s grit, her blue collar background, and untiring work ethic interested Vigil, and in 2011, he forsook retirement to work with Martinez. Vigil, who lived in Arizona, wrote the workouts; Martinez’s husband, Carlos Handler, was the on-site executor and logistics guy, overseeing the day-to-day issues at their home in Big Bear Lake.
So, an old coach, a husband with a stopwatch, and a pretty good runner decided to give elite running a go. They weren’t in Oregon. They had almost no budget. Unlikely was probably the most generous odds that could have been given. But in 2013, Martinez won a bronze medal at the World Championships in Moscow, something never before accomplished by a US woman at 800 meters.
“We’re old school. We have no underwater treadmills, no fancy facilities, no doctors. Dr. Joe Vigil helping us—that’s what we have,” Handler said.
At first, it was just a family affair, Brenda and Carlos, but soon enough other hopefuls were attracted by the altitude, the running heaven that is Big Bear, and the zero-to-hero dream. Junior-college runner Danny Guerrero joined the tiny tribe, as did Dalanne Zanotelli, who’d dropped out of Arizona State.
“Brenda and I started our nonprofit, Big Bear Track Club, so people wouldn’t have to struggle and slip through the cracks like she did,” said Handler. “We’re not looking for a D1 national champ; we’re not looking for people who are already at the top. They think they already know what works. We want to work with positive, humble people who are willing to listen, be positive and work hard.”
Handler was also looking specifically for a young guy with speed, who could step into what he felt was a shallow men’s 800 pool. At Vigil’s suggestion, he reviewed Berian’s history.
“Boris was born at altitude, 6,100 feet, and went to school at Adams State which is at 7,500 feet,” Handler noted as he considered offering Berian a spot in the small Big Bear Track Club. “Big Bear is at 6,700 feet. He’s lived his whole life at altitude. I saw this as a huge positive. No other 800 runner in this country lives and trains at altitude. People think altitude makes you slow, but 99.9% of the World and Olympic champions live and train at altitude. It gives you an advantage like the East Africans.”
Altitude-trained, lives to run, proven wheels, humble, struggling—Berian had all the requirements for Big Bear. Handler doesn’t have a Facebook account, so he asked Danny Guerrero to contact Berian to see if he was interested in joining their group. Their offer was bare bones—no stipend, but help with rent and travel, and gear from Martinez’s New Balance largesse.
“I was like, ‘Yes!’ Their offer came at a really good time,” said Berian, who showed up in Big Bear on December 1, 2014 with high hopes and very few belongings.
Though he hadn’t raced in two years, Berian set an ambitious goal of lowering his good-but-not-great 1:48 mark to an A-list 1:44 by the U.S. outdoor national championships, then six months away. “Why have a goal if it’s not going to be crazy,” Berian said, laughing. But both he and Handler thought it was utterly realistic.
He won his first race, an indoor 600 meter, and kept going. A challenging recipe of strength-based training—“1k repeats, four or five of them, at 2:48 or faster with a rest of three-and-a-half minutes between, a warm-up of 45 minutes and a 15-to-20-minute cooldown”—prepared Berian for the outdoor season where he was the runner-up in his first race in 1:46.16, a huge two-and-a-half second improvement. The real head-turner was his performance at the important early-season Payton Jordan meet in California where he beat out the NCAA leader, the indoor national champion, and other players in the two-lap race to win in 1:45.30. Here’s the thing—that’s an IAAF qualifying time for the World Championships, so if he finishes in the top three at U.S. Nationals, he’s on the World Championship team. It was, at the time, the quickest 800 meters covered by an American.
“I can assure you, this kid is the real deal,” said Handler, slipping into sell mode. He’s frustrated by the up-and-comer’s catch-22: it’s hard to get into highly competitive races without a lengthy resume or the backing of a corporate sponsor, but the resume and sponsorship only come with big-race success. “That was the easiest race ever for Boris—why was no one saying anything about him? I think people are scared to leave the past. They’re looking at the same guys who’ve been running for years in high-profile programs. Boris is the future of the 800.”
Handler tried to enter Berian in the 800-meter race at the Diamond League Prefontaine Classic in May, a world-class event he thought Berian deserved to be a part of, but race directors passed on his application. Ever persistent, Handler leveraged Berian’s U.S.-leading status to enter him in the next Diamond League meet on the schedule, the Adidas Grand Prix in NYC, alongside David Rudisha.
“If you saw some of our workouts, you’d know why Boris was not intimidated by David Rudisha,” said Handler. “In fact, I thought he could take Rudisha down.”
Though he had never been in a major international race, though he had only been training seriously for six months, though he basically works out alone, though he had no sponsor and was racing in donated kit and was sharing a house in Big Bear with a roommate who was the only one of the two with a car, Berian was not nervous at all to line up next to the world record holder.
“I was way, way more excited than nervous to test out my fitness,” said Berian. “I like to run out front and usually have to run the whole way by myself. This time, I had a rabbit for 800 meters.”
Berian latched onto Rudisha’s train and lowered his personal best by almost two seconds, which at this level, is significant. Once at 1:45, improvements come in tenths and hundredths of seconds. “I don’t know why. I guess it’s all the strength work we’ve been doing. I used to just race and try to win, but now, I have to hit certain times,” said Berian.
He took on representation, Icon Management, the same company that manages Martinez, to negotiate the sponsorship offers that have flooded in since last weekend, for him personally and for tiny Big Bear Track Club.
“We’re holding off on offers,” said Handler. “A 1:43 guy can make a lot more than a 1:45 guy, and I don’t think he’s done—I think he can break the American record. You know, shoe companies have been calling, saying they’ll sponsor our group. I’m not impressed by that. I asked Brenda to take a chance [on Boris], and now I can say I changed someone’s life. If we can do more of that, this world would be a better place.”
Heading into next week’s USATF National Championships, Berian has the fastest personal best, but Handler realizes he’s still considered an underdog. A top-three finish will earn him a spot on the World Championship team in Beijing later this summer. It appears Berian’s “somewhat of a plan” is playing out, with a shoe contract imminent, but he doesn’t see much change in his lifestyle.
“All the money I made working at McDonald’s, I’m using that to buy food now,” Berian said. “It’s running kind of low, but I’m not worried really. I get a lot of support from Brenda and Carlos. And when I get a contract, I’ll probably buy a car. And me and my roommate are going to move to a different house [in Big Bear]. I’m not materialistic, I guess. Motivation-wise, I’m still excited.”
photo credit: Getty Images