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Boris Berian’s Olympic bid caps his stunning 18-month rise

Boris Berian has had a stunning 18-month rise in the world of track and field, where he's gone from working at McDonald's to earning an Olympic bid to compete in the 2016 Games in Rio.

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EUGENE, Ore. — At the intersection of American track and field’s stubborn past and tenuous future lives a 23-year-old distance runner with the ominous and intensely marketable name of Boris Berian. In spikes and a New Balance (the sponsor here is significant, not gratuitous) racing kit, Berian is a potentially transcendent middle distance runner of the likes the United States has not seen in half a century, an athlete with a sprinter’s speed and a miler’s endurance and the courage to test the limits of pain and suffering and bring opponents along with him to test theirs. In street clothes, his courtroom battle against shoe-and-apparel giant Nike has made him a (somewhat reluctant) symbol to a generation of track athletes who have felt powerless to control their careers and for the first time can see the vague beginning of a path out of the woods.

Monday night at Hayward Field, on the fourth night of the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials, Berian finished second behind Clayton Murphy in a strange 800-meter final to earn his first Olympic berth. Before a near-sellout crowd that loves all events but most passionately embraces those from 800 meters and up, Berian was unable to take his customary place at the front of the field, battled to the lead after 200 meters and led until Murphy, the NCAA indoor 800-meter champion and outdoor 1,500-meter champion while at Akron University and a member of the U.S. team at last year’s worlds while still in college, nailed him in the final strides.

It was an odd race on a trials evening that was light on finals, but heavy on controversy. Minutes before the men’s 800-meter final, sentimental favorite Alysia Montano and Brenda Martinez, who was regarded as likely to make the Olympic team, became entangled as the field entered the home stretch. Martinez stumbled badly and came home in seventh place. Montano, who had talked passionately about her frequent international losses to proven doped athletes, fell to the ground and finished minutes later, weeping openly. USA Track and Field officials ruled that there had been only “incidental contact,” and did not disqualify any runners. (Videos seemed to indicate that it was probably Montano who caused the contact with Martinez, although it is difficult to say with certainty).

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In the men’s 800-meter final, there were nine starters (because of a protest in the semifinals), but only eight lanes on the track. The most common practice is to put two runners in one of the lanes, but USATF officials instead opted for a “waterfall” start, with six runners spread across the inside four lanes and three in the outside lanes. Berian was fourth from the inside, but the first part of the race was more roughly run than if the runners had been in lanes around the first turn. “It was real hectic for 250 or 350 meters,” said Berian. “I really had to sprint to get to the lead.”

Once there, Berian actually slowed, covering the first lap in 50.59 seconds. He is gifted athletically, but tactically inexperienced and it showed. He had run the first lap of his semifinal race in 49.72 and usually goes in sub-50. Berian pulled away to a 10-meter lead on the final turn, but the slower pace had left kickers in play and Murphy is a talented and experienced kicker. Yet these are the Olympic Trials, where third place is as good as first. “Just amazing,” said Berian. “I’m so excited. It’s been a stressful four days here.”

It might be only the beginning. Hours before the final, 86-year-old Joe Vigil, who is one of the most respected coaches in U.S. track history and writes the workouts that coach Carlos Handler implements for Berian, said, “Boris is a such a damn horse. We really don’t know what he can do, yet.”

Berian’s performance was the crowning moment in a stunning 18-month rise that began at the end of 2014, when Berian was working at a McDonald’s—and not just any McDonald’s, but a tiny, two-person McDonald’s inside a Wal-Mart—in his hometown of Colorado Springs, two chords of Glory Days shy of leaving his potential by the side of the road forever. Within seven months he had found a coach—or, more correctly, a coach had found him—lowered his personal best in the 800 by more than five seconds, signed an endorsement contract and, after a selfie snub at a track meet in New York, vowed never to let world record holder David Rudisha beat him in a footrace.

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By the spring of this Olympic year, he was an indoor world champion and was also in the early stages of a legal staredown with Nike that would end with a victory just days before the Trials that gave hope to athletes everywhere caught in unfavorable, one-way contracts filled with punitive clauses. “Nike did [to Berian] what Nike does, which is use bullying tactics when they don’t have a legal leg to stand on,” says two-time 800-merger Olympian Nick Symmonds, who missed these trials with an ankle injury, and has also battled Nike and other of track’s corporate overlords. “They thought Boris would lay down and die, but they fought, and I’m really proud of him for that.”

But the Berian story begins long before his victory lap at Hayward Field and long before he took on the Swoosh and long before he assembled his first Big Mac. Berian twice won the Colorado state high school title in both the 400 meters (46.93 as a senior) and 800 meters (1:52.18). Those times are excellent and hint at significant talent, but as in all sports, significant further success is not promised.

Berian did not have a strong academic record and landed at Adams State, a Division II athletic program in Alamosa, Colorado. (And, coincidentally, the school where Vigil coached 425 All-Americas and 87 national champions). Berian did not run exceptionally well. As a freshman, he barely lowered his 400 PR and dropped his 800-meter mark only to 1:48.93 and only ran three races. He was academically ineligible as a sophomore and ran only sparingly in his third year in Alamosa. After that, he flunked out. Vigil shrugs, and says, not as a criticism, but as a simple fact, “Not everybody is cut out to go to college.”

Like any 21-year-old cast adrift by the educational system, Berian went home and got a job, at the McDonald’s where his cousin was the manager. (By the way, in the Berian story, working at McDonald’s has become symbolic of rock-bottom, which seems harsh. But it’s an easy grab, to be sure). Berian did keep training. He would ask his cousin to give him morning shifts and train in the afternoon. “I had some tough days,” says Berian. “But I was always pretty sure I could do something with running.”

Enter Carlos Handler. Handler, 32 years old with the build of a linebacker, says he once ran a 2:22 marathon, “fifty or sixty pounds ago.” Handler is married to Brenda Martinez, who was the bronze medalist in the 800 at the 2013 world championships and had been expected to make this year’s Olympic team. In 2011, Carlos and Brenda had been rejected by several elite training groups, but were taken in by Vigil’s group in Big Bear Lake, California, as time has gone by, Handler increasingly facilitated Martinez’s training. Late in the fall of 2012, a friend of Handler’s told him about Berian, a once-great high school runner who was no longer training at a high level. “All I knew was that he was a high phenom who ran 46 seconds,” says Handler. “With all the knowledge that coach Vigil has given me, I wanted to coach somebody.”

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Berian took two weeks to decide and then moved to Big Bear and began working with Handler, while Vigil consulted. Berian took to the training immediately. “You knew he had ability, from the times he ran in high school,’’ says Vigil. “But a lot of people have the ability and they never become great runners. I think the most important thing was that Carlos and Brenda have made Boris feel at home in Big Bear. For young athletes that came from difficult home situations like Boris did, that can be the most important thing.”

Berian got fast almost immediately. At an early May meet at Stanford, he ran 1:45.72, lowering his personal best by more than three seconds. Vigil sought to gain entry for Berian into the prestigious Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, but says he was was refused. However, meet director Mark Wetmore gave Berian a lane in the early June Adidas Classic in New York and Berian chased Rudisha of Kenya, the world record holder (1:40.99) and acknowledged greatest 800-meter runner in history, to the line in 1:43.84. That time made him the ninth-fastest American male in history.

It was after that race when Berian asked Rudisha to pose for a photo. Rudisha declined. Handler insisted and Rudisha eventually relented. But Berian was already scorned. “Delete it,” he told Handler. “I’m never going to let that guy beat me again.” Shortly after that race, Nike signed him to the endorsement deal from which he would later escape, heroically.

Before the summer was over, he would run 1:43.34, which made him the fifth-fastest American ever. This year, he won the world indoor championship in Portland. It had all happened so quickly. “If you told me two years ago that I would be here,” said Berian this week in Eugene. “I would have said you were crazy.”

Berian usually runs the 800 meters from the front, a daring and painful tactic. Rudisha runs that way. Promising U.S. 19-year-old Donovan Brazier, who was eliminated at the Trials, runs that way. Symmonds was a kicker, but he sees front-running as the future. “Everybody is gravitating toward front-running, because of Rudisha,” said Symmonds. “The 800 has become a sprint. There used to be this idea that nobody could go wire-to-wire because it’s just too hard. But you get a guy like Rudisha, or a guy like (Abubaker) Kaki (who finished second behind Rudisha in London), they’re just so strong, they can go wire-to-wire, stay on the rail, not have to do any of the pushing and shoving.” Berian learned all of this Monday. He is a much better runner from the front than in traffic.

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Berian is manifestly fast, but he is also strong. Vigil’s and Handler’s training program emphasizes high-volume, high-intensity training that mimics training for a variety of distances, from 400 meters to the marathon. One of Handler’s favorite short workouts for Berian is a series of five 150-meter sprints in 15-16 seconds, which is the type of training that a 200-meter specialist might do. One of their favorite longer sessions is 3X400 meters in successive times of 48, 47 and 46 seconds, each faster than the one before, with 10 minutes’ rest between sessions. A world-class miler might do this workout, albeit a little slower and with less rest.

Vigil has his own favorite. This spring he instructed Handler to have Berian do four one-mile runs in 4:35, with three minutes of rest between the miles. Then Berian rested five minutes, allowing for the maximum buildup of killing lactic acid, to mimic the way he feels in the closing stages of an 800. Then Berian ran an all-out 400 meters in 45.5 seconds. This is a stunning workout, and helps explain how Berian can run with such power and effectiveness from the front, with a fast opening quarter.

One other factor: Berian has spent most of his life at altitude, like the Kenyan and Ethiopian runners who have been dominant for decades. Colorado Springs is at 6,035 feet above sea level and Big Bear is at 6,752.

All of this talent and training seemed in danger of being wasted, when Berian was sued by Nike for breach of contract. Berian’s Nike contract had expired at the end of 2015, and his agent Merhawi Keflezighi (Meb’s brother) had negotiated a new and better deal with New Balance, another shoe-and-apparel company. But Nike argued that it had used its right-of-first-refusal clause to match the contract. Berian was served with papers while watching training partners run at a meet on May 20. “I was chilling by the gate when this guy came up,” says Berian. “It was shocking.”

Keflezighi did not back down, arguing in court that Nike did not, in fact, match New Balance’s offer because the Nike contract contained so-called reduction clauses, which reduce an athlete’s compensation for failing to meet specified goals. (The opposite of incentive clauses). Berian ran, and won, the Nike-dominated Prefontaine Classic on May 28, while wearing New Balance gear and shoes. Nike then secured a temporary restraining order preventing Berian from running in New Balance gear. Keflezighi says Berian could have run, with logos covered, but instead Berian did not race at all in the month of June.

The story of Berian standing up to Nike overtook all other news in the insulated world of running and track and field. Berian was hailed as a pioneer, which he resists. “I just wanted to get out of my contract,” he says. Court discovery allowed that details of his contract were made public, extremely rare for track and field, where compensation is very secretive, and guarded by non-disclosure agreements. (Berian was to make a base salary of $125,000 for three years, but that was before his world indoor title. The numbers are higher now).

Keflezighi says, “The amazing thing about Boris is that he did not have a big agenda. There was this specific scenario that he felt wasn’t right. It wasn’t this big thing. But it became this big thing.”

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On June 23, eight days before the first round of the Olympic Trials 800 meters, Nike dropped the lawsuit. In effect, the monster blinked. It’s likely that Nike knew it would lose, but surely Nike did not enjoy seeing its financials made public and would willingly eat one defeat to prevent it from happening further.

Berian tore through his first two rounds in Eugene, running on training and emotion. “I didn’t realize how much it was bothering me until I got here,” he said. “It weighed me down a little more than I realized.”

His victory is seen as a step away from the darkness for track athletes. “Nike was trying to send a message to athletes and agents that they still own the sport,” says Symmonds. “Well, they don’t own the sport.” Yet: Nike still has a 20-year contract with USA Track and Field, and here at Hayward Field, the grounds are awash in swooshes. The very nature of shoe company contracts remains one-sided, tilted to move product for the company while pay the athlete as little as possible. “It’s the entire business model that needs to change,” said Adam Nelson, the 40-year-old shot putter and business school graduate who competed here. And the larger problem is this: Track and field is not a popular sport in the United States. It’s challenging to argue that its participants are worth large salaries.

Yet change, however small, begins somewhere. Scattered about the town are hospitality centers sponsored by other companies. Adidas. Asics. Brooks. Hoka One One. Oiselle. New Balance. Saucony. Davids taking a run at Goliath. Fresh logos on fresh faces, none more meaningful than the one on Berian’s shoulder as he crossed the finish line.