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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Keeping it 400: Spencer Barrera, a Mt. Spokane grad and Idaho sprinter, looks to add to his collection of medals at Big Sky Conference championships

By John Blanchette The Spokesman-Review

Spencer Barrera confesses that he was “never a diehard” when it came to track and field.

Funny, then, that his chosen specialty mandates he be just that.

Because, really, isn’t that what the 400 meters is all about? The not-so-simple act of not melting down on the final straightaway after mostly emptying your tank getting there?

“That last 100 meters, you’re running under water,” the University of Idaho senior said. “You’ve got to push past your limits sometimes to places you’ve never been before.”

This weekend, he’ll simply try to get back to a place he’s been – atop the medal stand at the Big Sky Conference indoor track and field championships, which begin a three-day run Thursday at the Podium in Spokane.

It’s Spencer Barrera’s meet.

Not that it’s exclusive ownership or anything. The Mt. Spokane High School grad has won a few and lost a few. But in his first three years at Idaho, he’s never finished lower than second in the Big Sky 400 indoors or out, which speaks to his competitiveness and sense of the moment.

“It’s the meet that generates the adrenaline for him,” said Idaho’s director of track and field, Tim Cawley. “When it’s on the line for the team, he rises to the challenge. We saw that from the beginning.”

It was in February 2020, just before the pandemic shut down nearly everything athletic. Barrera had spent the brief winter season learning the rigors of college training and running 400s in the mid-to-high 48-second range, not yet as fast as his high school best. In the Big Sky indoor prelims, he won his race, but his time – fourth overall – put him in a finals heat away from top qualifiers Paul Johnstone of Montana and Drake Schneider of Montana State.

Even without their push (or pull) Barrera ran a lifetime-best 47.64 to win the first of his three Big Sky individual titles out of the “slow” heat. He’s also anchored three championship 4x400 relay teams.

“I was absolutely surprised,” Barrera said. “When I looked at (running in college), it seemed like a great opportunity to get a scholarship and finish my education – that was always my priority. I love track and especially being part of a team, but I was kind of just running. Winning that race was the clicking moment. I figured I could be pretty good at this.”

In the process, he became the fastest quarter-miler in Spokane history.

It was 50 years ago that Tim Giesa, a Washington State freshman from Gonzaga Prep, clocked 46.9 for 440 yards in Pullman against rival Washington – despite cutting his foot on a piece of glass that morning. With conversions to meters and auto timing, that pencils out to a 46.74 for 400. Barrera lowered his best to 46.73 in 2021, then to 46.53 in winning the Big Sky title outdoors in 2022.

Can he get into the 45s?

“It’s a tough balance,” Cawley said. “It’s a matter of optimizing the first half of the race, because if you’re not at a certain pace you’re not going to come back the second half.”

Barrera surely would celebrate such a milestone – he split 45 seconds in a relay leg last year – but is hardly going to be consumed by it. He works on different segments of the race during the week (“I used to just jog the first 200 and sprint the last 200,” he said) – but in the end, he’s more about the competition than the clock.

“In track, there’s no way to hide from the time showing at the end of the race,” he said. “But maybe there are races when I won’t run my fastest, but I ran a portion really well and internally I know I’m getting closer. I don’t get too caught up in the week to week, other than trying to be consistent. Running the same time, or close, is a good thing because it probably means you’re going to have a breakthrough.”

A breakthrough may be needed this weekend. Newcomers Jett Grundy of Montana State and Donovan Castillo of Northern Colorado top the Big Sky’s seasonal list, and there are eight runners with lifetime bests under 47.50, including 2023 outdoor champion Raphael Egbuchilem of UNC.

“This year is pretty stacked,” he said.

But Barrera is more than OK with that. It was the competition that fueled him when he was long jumping 22 feet in high school, or playing defense atop Mt. Spokane’s press (“I miss basketball more than anything,” he said), and even now he’ll message Cawley with a challenge for weekend golf. After this spring, he’ll have to find a new outlet “because I plan on running away from track,” he laughed.

“In my head, I’ve already accomplished more than I would have expected, so I’m just trying to have fun and enjoy it this last year. I don’t know – maybe I’ll try a marathon (after college) for another notch on my belt.”

Speaking of diehard distances.