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Runner and coach: Montoya and Norton build strong relationship for Cibola running
A funny thing happens whenever Cibola runner Bernie Montoya talks about a race.
He doesn't says “I” won a race, but “we” won the race. The plural reference is because he genuinely feels he doesn't do it alone. There are his parents, who provided nutrition, shoes and support. There are his teammates, who pushed him in practice.
Then there's his coach Kris Norton.
“I know a lot of credit goes to me but there's a backstory to the whole magic, I guess we'd call it,” Montoya said, “because of my coach. My coach is always there. He's willing to come in early in the morning and help me run on the track. He's always been there for me.”
There is little debate calling Montoya a special runner — a once-in-a-lifetime type of runner, even. Montoya is quick to call Norton “one of the best coaches in Arizona.” It's a mutual relationship that has resulted in Montoya winning two cross country state championships, five track-and-field championships and the prestigious adidas Dream Mile in New York earlier this month. The Dream Mile race, which put Montoya into the national spotlight, was something both Montoya and Norton have been training for since last summer.
Norton is no stranger to long-distance running. He was an All-American at Pima Community College and went on to run for University of Arizona, where he recorded the 10th-fastest mile in school history.
“Being a runner myself and going through that, it's very easy to connect with these kids and Bernie,” Norton said.
But the impressive success of Montoya has made Norton walk something of a tightrope as a coach. In Montoya, he has a type of runner he may never see the rest of his career. However, he has an entire team to coach. There are kids who are worried more about being able to finish a three mile race than beating the top runners in the country.
The travel that comes with Montoya's races — New York, Portland, Arcadia, Phoenix — has naturally formed a close bond between Norton and Montoya. But according to Norton, the other Cibola racers' attitudes have allowed Norton to focus on squeezing every drop of potential out of Montoya.
“You want to treat all the kids equally and share the program. But the kids are very supportive. You can see that in their eyes when Bernie wins, it's a win for the team.”
For the Dream Mile race, Montoya received an extra free ticket to give to somebody. He could have given it to one of his parents, another family member or one of his friends. Instead, he gave it to Norton.
“I don't feel comfortable being at a race if he's not going to be there and telling me what to do. (Norton and I) worked together to get to this point, we're going to finish it.”
During the race, Norton sat in the visitors bleachers at the 200-meter mark — and was a nervous wreck. After four decades in the sport, one would expect the anxiety lessen for Norton, but the butterflies were stronger than ever.
He watched as Montoya went from eighth place with around 300 meters to go to win the race, celebrating “a little more than I should have,” Norton said. He watched as Montoya, a bouquet of flowers in his hand, took a victory lap at Ichan Stadium. Halfway through his victory lap, Montoya found Norton on the rail.
“Coach, we did it! We did it!” he cried out as the two clasped hands in celebration.
When Norton called his assistant coach Kevin McLean and his sister, Kim, about the good news, the always emotional coach couldn't hold it in any longer.
“Over the few years I've shed a few overjoyed tears and that was one of those special moments where you couldn't help yourself. Just all the work and commitment that goes into it, to do something like that at this level is almost too much to ask for.”
After Montoya's victory lap was finished, he disappeared into the media tent. As Norton went to find his prized pupil, he saw Montoya in front of photographers preparing to take his photo. In a move that Norton called “typical Bernie,” Montoya saw his coach, grabbed him and pulled him into the photo.
“It was really emotional, because it was a goal we wanted since last summer,” Montoya said. “It just shows how far we've come.”
Norton and Montoya, with the bouquet resting on his right forearm and holding the Dream Mile trophy with both hands, posed with a smile a mile long.
There they stood — runner and coach.
Jesse Severson can be reached at email@example.com or at 539-6881. Find him at facebook.com/YSJesseSeverson.