Last month Boris Berian struck world indoor 800m gold with a classic front-running display. The American tells us how he went from flipping burgers to the top of the world.

Sister act

Born and raised in Colorado Springs to an Afro-American dad and German mother, Boris Berian was inspired to run by his older sister, Leslie. A nine-time state champion, his 400m sprinting sibling left a lasting impression on kid brother.

“It was my sister that made me decide I wanted to run,” admits Berian, who began his own athletics journey aged 12. “I went to lots of her meets and I loved watching her run.”

4 X freak out

He started out as a 100m and 200m sprinter, but in high school he stepped up to the 400m. It proved an inspired decision as he secured state titles, topping out with a blistering 46.9 in his senior year. Yet, his head had already been turned by this thing, this thing called the 800m.

“My coach randomly threw me in a 4x800m relay race in my junior years,” explains Berian. “I definitely ran a slow time, but I actually enjoyed it. People think I’m crazy to like the 800m more than the 400m, but I feel like it is easier than the 400m.

“I got way more nervous [running the 400m]. Mentally, the 400m freaks me out. It was a painful race for me.”

School’s out

Berian’s star potential became immediately apparent when still a freshman (first year) student at Adams State University, where he won both the indoor and outdoor 800m NCAA Division II titles in 2012.

Yet, a glittering college career did not materialise. After struggling to adapt to the academic rigors of his college he opted to quit school in the spring of 2014.

“I never really liked school,” he says. “It wasn’t for me. I never took it seriously.”

But Berian’s track ambitions never wavered. He took a job at McDonalds and began training alone on a track made of dirt. He barely competed the whole year.

 

Excited to announce my new training partners @soratos_miler & @misspurplebrown #livehigh #trainlow #bigbearlake I am a member of a team, and I rely on the team, I defer to it and sacrifice for it, because the team, not the individual, is the ultimate champion. ~Mia Hamm

A photo posted by BRENDA MARTINEZ (@bmartrun) on

From nowhere

His rudderless career was drifting into the abyss until, in late-2014, he was randomly contacted by Daniel Guerrero of the Big Bear Track Club. Guerrero wanted to know if he was still running, but Berian ignored the initial Facebook message.

Guerrero sent him another message the next day. This time it said that Carlos Handler, coach and husband to 2013 world 800m bronze medallist Brenda Martinez, was keen on him joining the club – originally founded by Martinez – down in California. This time Berian did not ignore the helping hand on offer.

“I thought ‘hey, this is a good opportunity because I will have a coach and a team to train with’,” says Berian. “That’s when I messaged back and asked what I needed to do. I spoke with Carlos and all he said was ‘have a positive attitude’.”

And simple as that, Berian was on his way west to join the training group in Big Bear Lake, which is at 6700ft (2,058m) altitude.

Suck it and slog

Berian, who was born in Colorado Springs (6100ft) and trained at Adams State University (7500ft), found it easy enough to settle in the thin air of Big Bear Lake. The hard part was adapting to Handler’s strength-based workouts.

They would leave home every second morning at 5am to embark on a two-hour car journey to train at sea level. Once there, the training was demanding.

“They were definitely the hardest workouts I’d ever done,” Berian says. “I was asked to do a six-mile tempo run at a certain pace and I thought ‘there is no way I can run at that pace’.”

His coach remained patient. Inspired by those around him, Berian sucked it up and slogged through.

“I’d seen Brenda’s success, so I knew to go through the hard work would clearly make me the athlete I wanted to be,” he says.

Boris Berian Adidas GP ()

Berian caught the eye on his Diamond League debut in New York, when he finished only a fraction of a second behind Olympic champ David Rudisha

Racing Rudisha

In his first race back – an indoor outing in Seattle – he ran 1:48.53. It was 0.36 quicker than his outdoor best. “It was a really easy 800m, so right then I thought ‘this is working’,” he says.

It was a performance that filled Berian with belief. He went into the 2015 outdoor season hopeful of running 1:45. At the Payton Jordan Invitational in Stanford, his second race outdoors since joining Big Bear TC, he took the win in a PB 1:45.30.

A Diamond League debut in New York came the following month. He finished second, just 0.26 behind Olympic champ and world record holder David Rudisha.

“Surprisingly, I wasn’t nervous at all, just 100 per cent excited to race Rudisha,” he says. “I looked at the clock and when it said 1:43, I stared at it for a little while and thought maybe it is going to adjust.” It didn’t: 1:43.84 for his fourth PB of the season.

By the US championships he was “tired and burnt out”. He failed to advance from his semi-final but he refused to get “bummed out” by the disappointment. Just three weeks later he further underlined his world-class ability running 1:43.34 – another PB – to finish fourth at the Monaco Diamond League meet. It ranked him fourth in the world for the 800m in 2015.

Faster, higher, stronger

Living in a house with three other athletes on Big Bear Lake, Berian has further benefited from a second full season under Coach Handler. He says he is “much stronger and way ahead of where I was last year”. Whereas he used to labour through those six-mile tempo runs at six minute mile pace, these days he zips through at an average of 5:25.

Boris Berian Erik Sowinsky ()

Berian celebrates winning gold with his US teammate Erik Sowinksi, who snared 800m bronze in the OCC

Punt to hunt

Berian took a punt on running the indoor season this year. What a punt it was.

With not a single indoor 800m race under his belt, he held off the Erik Sowinski – who had tuned up in Europe – to land the US title. Berian had qualified for the World Indoor Championships.

He went into his heat with a plan to track the leader and outkick them at the close. Things did not go according to that plan. His kick wasn’t there, and he finished second behind Botswana’s Antoine Gakeme, only just scraping into the final as the slowest of the fastest losers. “I guess I didn’t have that kick,” he admits.

This prompted Berian into a tactical re-think for the final. No messing around, just hit the front and take control. Good to his word he blasted through 200m in 23.92 and hit half way in 49.73. The world record pace saw him open a 10m gap on the field. He still held half that advantage going into the fourth and final lap.

Could he hold? The vociferous Portland crowd made the answer known.

“They started going crazy with about 150m left and I really started to feel their energy,” he says. “I thought ‘keep going, pump the arms’.

“With about 70m to go the noise got even louder and I thought I just couldn’t let them down.”

He didn’t. Berian flashed across the line in 1:45.83 by recreating the sort of front-running that Rudisha made his trademark.

“When I crossed the line, I was like ‘okay, how did nobody catch me?’ I was so happy,” says Berian. He now has his sights set on making this summer’s Rio Olympic final and hopefully a medal.

Tatt’s alright, mama

With the world title came a cool $40,000. He celebrated by buying some new tyres and wheel rims for his car.

Though he’s not a huge fan of watching sports, he does have a passion for tattoos, and post-Portland has added a third tattoo to his body: “a whole bunch of leaves” on his forearm because “I love the fall”.

Yet Berian is far from the autumn of his career. Still only 23, the world indoor champion’s best is yet to come.