Rising Arizona star Bernie Montoya "toughened" by the desert heat

Bernie Montoya (Ieft) leapt into everyone's national radar with his 8:48.25 for second at the Arcadia 3200. John Nepolitan/ESPNHS


It was 100 degrees in Yuma, Ariz. on Thursday, where Cibola High junior Bernie Montoya was preparing for the Arizona state championships this weekend.

On Friday, he’ll run in the 1,600 and 800 at Mesa Community College. On Saturday, he has a leg on the 4x800 relay, and finally, the 3,200 meters.

This spring, Montoya has emerged as one of the standout members of a junior class of distance runners that includes Edward Cheserek, Jake Leingang, Jacob Burcham and Andrew Gardner.

A month after taking the lead on the last lap and finishing second in the blockbuster Arcadia 3,200 meters, in an Arizona record 8:48.25, Montoya is still coming to grips with his sudden rise to the prep distance ultra-elite.

“Honestly, I never thought I’d be at this level,” he said.

At Arcadia, he went to the starting line unsure whether he could break nine minutes.

“I was just hoping to survive,” Montoya said. “It gives me goose bumps and chills just thinking about (what happened). To challenge Futsum (Zeinasellassie), I didn’t think I’d be a contender for the gold. But with two laps left I thought, ‘I’ve gone this far. No reason to quit now. Why not go for it?’”

Montoya has the U.S. lead in the 3,000 meters, 8:18.81, because he was leading the race when the runners hit that point and timed en route to the finish line.

Since then, he has run 4:07.72 in the 1,600 meters and 1:53.22 in the 800.

In 2011, Montoya made news in Arizona when he won the 1,600 at the state championships despite losing his shoe midway through the race. He ran 4:12.01, crossing the finish line and then limping off the track because of torn skin on the bottom of his foot.

He didn’t race again on the track last spring, though Arizona’s state meet is in mid-May.

“The reality is, we saw it coming,” Cibola coach Kris Norton said of Montoya’s improvement. “His sophomore year, at a dual meet, he ran 9:22 goofing around and smiling. There was no way he couldn’t have run nine flat, but he only had one good chance with Billy Orman. But that state race got tactical. They were running together and came through the mile in 4:50.”

So Norton said he was thinking 8:55 at Arcadia – great, but not the eye-popping 8:48 that broke Orman’s state record.

But the most noticeable change in Montoya might be his physique. He came out of his sophomore year looking like a high school kid. He emerged from Yuma’s furnace of a summer this past September with a physique more typical of a college runner. That led to a fall campaign that included a state title and, eventually, a 12th-place finish at Nike Cross Nationals. But it seems the fruition of that summer work has truly come this spring on the flat, fast ovals of California and Arizona.

“I think it’s just more experience,” Montoya said. “My sophomore year, I was barely entering the sport. With a year of solid summer training and winter training, and resistance training that I’ve done, it defined and toned the body.”

Montoya was already blessed with impeccable running form. With a bigger base, natural maturation and repeated exposure to Yuma’s tough running conditions, he has moved to the forefront.

Over the summer, Montoya trained with Norton and his college-aged son, Ryan, on the flat paths that follow the Colorado River and assorted canals.

They would rise at 4:30 or 5 a.m. to get up and go run 10-12 miles early in the morning when the temperatures were still cool. Norton and three other coaches were in charge of transporting water to them at checkpoints on the route.

“We just need to be careful with training because the heat is really dangerous,” Montoya said. “It could toughen you up a little bit.”

In July, the average daily high temperature in Yuma is 107 degrees; in August, it’s 106 but there is more humidity.

Montoya also has easy access to sand dunes, which he runs in early in the season for a challenging leg-strengthening workout.

“It’s mostly very dry and scorching hot,” he said. “I’ve always been able to manage (the heat). You learn to adapt here. You have to drink a lot of water and stay out of the sun. For training, we find a way around (the challenges) and get our workouts in.”

After this weekend, Montoya will begin to focus on the Dream Mile at the Adidas Grand Prix. Beyond that, the schedule is still up in the air. He has also been invited to the Nike Elite Camp in July.

Norton and Montoya are still getting used to the opportunities that come from being a national caliber elite.

“It’s a little strange,” Norton said. “You’ve been doing the coaching, and doing all the training, and then you get a kid like this. You want to make sure you are doing everything you can for the kid to make sure he fulfills his potential. That’s the main thing, taking little extra steps to challenge a kid at this level.”