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Brenda Martinez Gets Creative at Home During the Pandemic

Training hard and pouring herself into woodworking projects has gotten Brenda Martinez through the tough months of the COVID-19 quarantine.

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She’s barely strayed from her Big Bear, California, neighborhood since the pandemic hit in March, but Brenda Martinez hasn’t really needed to, either. There’s plenty to keep her busy at home right now.

Martinez, the 2013 world championships silver medalist in the 800 meters, mapped out a two-mile loop from her door, where she can do all sorts of workouts, whether the day calls for an easy run or a tempo or some speed. And when she’s not running around in that particular circle, she’s been wielding power tools, finding a lot of joy in do-it-yourself home improvement projects, which she’s documented on Instagram.

After Martinez suffered an appendectomy last year that ended her competitive track season, she was looking forward to a comeback in time for the 2020 Olympics. Like all athletes, she had to recalibrate when the Tokyo Games were rescheduled for July 2021—and in some ways Martinez, a 2016 Olympian in the 1500 meters, has welcomed the extra time to prepare.

In the meantime, she and her husband (who also helps out as coach), Carlos Handler, have stayed in Big Bear instead of sticking to their typical routine of driving to her hometown, Rancho Cucamonga, several times each week for sea-level track workouts and time with family.

Martinez spoke with Women’s Running by phone on Monday to talk about woodworking, training through a pandemic, and finishing up her master’s degree in positive coaching and athletic leadership.

Women’s Running: Generally, how are you doing right now? This year hasn’t gone the way anybody expected, so I’m wondering how you’re coping?

Brenda Martinez: It’s just a little bit different. I mean, I don’t train with anyone usually, so in that aspect not much has changed. I work with Carlos all the time, so it’s always been me and him the last 10 years. The only thing that’s changed is the racing schedule and not seeing my family since February, even though they live an hour away. The concern is just for everyone’s safety.

I’m not too concerned about racing. If races come up, that’s great, but I think safety is first. If I have to just do time trials, so be it. It’s something we all have to deal with. It’s kind of weird because I had my appendix taken out last year right before nationals, so I didn’t really have a season. I just wanted to be healthy and not take it for granted anymore, which has been my attitude this year. I am just feeling grateful for being healthy and able to train. I’m trying to not focus on the bad so much, but more so on what I can control. Right now, that’s my fitness and my attitude. It’s fine. I’m not too concerned. I’m fit right now and my job is to not lose fitness in case some races come up.

WR: How have you framed your training at this strange time? Did you take a break or choose other goals?

BM: We’ve done the majority of our workouts up here at altitude (Big Bear is just less 7,000 feet above sea level). We’ve always dropped down two or three times a week to go to a track or bike trail to do some of the work, but we just made the decision to stay up here. It hasn’t been easy—it’s really hard to find flat roads, so I’ve done most of my running in my neighborhood. It’s undulating. I’ve gotten the work in, though. I think in the past I would have complained that it’s too hard. But I’m able to get out the door and I’m healthy and I haven’t really left my two-mile loop. I went to the post office a month ago and that was a big deal for me. Carlos goes to the store and everything. I try not to go out much, which is why I’m staying so busy in the house. It keeps my sanity.

WR: You said a while ago that you were considering not focusing on the 800 meters as your main event anymore. Is that still your thinking?

BM: To be honest, I was mentally in a different space when I said that. I did my first track workout last week; we’re doing a 12-day cycle now, so we’ll probably be at the track every 12 days. It went great. I didn’t have any reaction in my achilles or anything, so that was a good sign. I think I still have a chance to run fast in the 800. I wouldn’t mind trying to get some 800s in and seeing how that goes. I have the strength and speed to do both the 800 and the 1500 meters.

Brenda Martinez and Alysia Montaño at 2019 World Athletics Championships
Brenda Martinez and Alysia Montaño receive reallocated medals at the 2019 World Athletics Championships after a Russian athlete tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. Photo: Kevin Morris

WR: What have the low points been for you, when you questioned your desire to continue? How have you turned it around, mentally? You’ve had some disappointments along the way and had to deal with competitors who were served doping suspensions.

BM: You’ve seen that side of me, where I’ve been down on myself. You’ve heard the hurt in my interviews. A lot of us go through that at the elite level. I just got to the point where I told myself that I can’t control what people do, so why am I going to worry about it? I tried accepting that. When I did, it changed everything. I literally just have to worry about what I can control. Again, it goes back to my mindset—my happiness and my attitude are all that matter. I’m just trying to keep it simple. It’s a simple concept I can follow and apply it every day.

WR: So, you said you’ve been keeping busy at home. I had no idea you had this talent for creating such beautiful work, like a porch swing and a bar in your kitchen. Have you always been interested in woodworking? How did you get started?

BM: The power tools are a little bit scary at first, but once you dive into it, it’s fine. My dad has always done different types of work like construction and now he does landscaping. He would do repairs around the house and I’d always admire it. As I got older and became a homeowner, he would come up to Big Bear and leave his tools for me. He started to leave power tools he didn’t need anymore and I took over his equipment. Then I bought more on my own. Now we have the space and garage, so I started practicing. I look up Youtube videos and I’m obsessed with Pinterest. If I had to pick between Instagram and Pinterest I’d choose Pinterest for the DIY projects. It’s self-taught mostly. I’ve made mistakes, like some of my cuts have been terrible. But I keep getting better the more I practice. It’s like running. I have to train myself to do it. I can do it with confidence now, whereas before I questioned myself and was afraid to ruin projects.

I continue to learn and maybe when things are back to normal, I wouldn’t mind signing up for a woodworking class or something. It’s been my outlet and it’s given me confidence, too. It’s forcing me to be patient with my projects. I try not to put a timeline on anything to finish it. I just take my time, because it’s fun.

Brenda Martinez DIY projects
Brenda Martinez painted the wall and made the headboard in her guest bedroom. Photo: Courtesy of Brenda Martinez

WR: Did you start these pieces before quarantine or is this something you did before the pandemic?

BM: I was doing it before, here and there. But now it’s something to do. I’m working on the outside of our house now—I’m worried about the curb appeal right now. I’ll worry about the inside of the house later, because it’s not like we can have anybody over right now.

WR: Where do your ideas come from?

BM: Pinterest. I pin stuff that looks pretty or matches the theme of Big Bear. In our guest room, I painted the wall a buffalo checkered plaid and sewed the headboard. I used an old bed frame and reupholstered the headboard and made it into a pleated look. I saw something similar on West Elm and the frame was like $1,800 and another $200 for shipping. No thanks. I just bought the material and sewed it and stapled it. It looks just as great I think.

Outside I did corbels and I’m going to do a garage pergola, eventually, and put some vines on it for shade. I made a porch swing and now hopefully in the next week I’ll finish a porch railing. I did a chevron pattern. It used to be a simple railing and I repurposed the wood. I stripped the paint and rearranged the pattern. Now I need to paint it, then strip the top of the porch and stain it.

I did the buffet and liquor bar downstairs, too. That one took me awhile—like over a month. I was just working on it here and there. I try not to overdo it, because I need to take my naps every day. If I have two hours in the evening or an evening off because I had a long run in the morning, then I’ll go out there and do it two or three hours. My job is to be number-one in my running and take care of that first before I can get into my projects.

WR: Does Carlos help?

BM [laughing]: He says I need to give him credit for helping, but often he doesn’t help. If it’s something heavy I ask for his help. But, yeah. [Editor’s note: Martinez later texted: “I lied! Carlos helped me on the last two projects!”]

WR: What’s been your favorite creation so far?

BM: I think the porch railing right now. I told myself I could finish it in two or three weeks and it’s been two months already and I’m halfway. It’s been super challenging and I’ve gotten frustrated with the cuts because some of the posts were different lengths. One side was 80 inches, one was 85 inches apart. I’ve had to eye it and level it and just try to make it look as even as possible. The minute I start getting frustrated with a project, I’ll stop and save it for another day. That’s why it’s taken me so long.

Brenda Martinez porch DIY project
The porch railing has been a favorite DIY home-improvement project for Brenda Martinez. Photo: Courtesy of Brenda Martinez

WR: After you retire from running, do you think you’ll become a professional woodworker? Is that something you’d want to do?

BM: If something came up, yes. It’s like my wildest dream, if I could hook up with like Home Depot or Lowe’s. I need to post more about my projects, I think, and get a following through that, too. That’d be great if I could have a side gig once I’m done running. Right now I’m getting my master’s in positive coaching and I have three more weeks of school—maybe down the line I’ll want to coach. But in the quarantine I’ve tried to just stay busy with DIY and school.

WR: Tell me more about your master’s degree. Where are you doing that?

BM: Mizzou [the University of Missouri]—it’s online. It’s one of the top programs when it comes to coaching. It’s a semester of education and positive coaching and athletic leadership. A lot of the classes are about counseling and being there for your athletes, taking care of their wellbeing, and positive psychology courses. It’s a different approach. I’ve experienced this with past coaches, even in college, where it was “my way or the highway,” and our mental health was left on the back burner. I think taking these courses, I’ve learned so much. I’ve incorporated a lot of it into my training, which has changed the way I think. Taking these courses, doing my assignments, and writing my essays, it’s a good thing. It’s helped keep myself balanced.

WR: Are you also still doing a running camp for girls in Big Bear?

BM: It’s virtual this year, for the safety of everybody. I’m making their baskets now, just so they can sit in the garage and we can make sure everything is clean. I wiped everything down. I’m being super careful. But I think it’s going to be great. We’re doing video conference calls and we invited boys—five boys and five girls—so I need to update my presentations. I need to come up with more topics that will also interest the boys. It’s going to be fun. I wasn’t ever going to cancel it, but just make it different.

WR: And everybody in your family has stayed healthy?

BM: Yes. I made the decision not to see them because some of my family members don’t have the strongest immune systems, so I don’t want to be responsible if I’m a carrier and don’t even know it. We’ve been FaceTiming a lot. And if they need anything I will help them, but I just physically haven’t seen them.