Pima College track coach Greg Wenneborg is 65,000 words into writing what he calls “the great American running novel,” a saga about a young lady on a college track team.
Let’s call her Kate Bruno.
“She was a gift to me,” says Wenneborg, Pima’s track and cross country coach since 2005.
Friday afternoon in Hobbs, New Mexico, across the street from the Zia Park Casino, Hotel and Racetrack, Kate Bruno will attempt to win the NJCAA national championship in the steeplechase.
Yes, Hobbs. It all lines up for the great American running novel.
Bruno is one of nine children of a retired Oro Valley mailman and his wife, a respiratory therapist at Banner-University Medical Center.
“I really didn’t have an athletic background,” Bruno says. “It just sort of happened.”
When Wenneborg, Bruno and her teammates climbed into a van for a 10-hour drive to the Ross Black Field of Champions at New Mexico Junior College on Wednesday morning, they were not accompanied by the innocence of a young lady from Canyon del Oro High School who has surprised virtually everyone in NJCAA distance running.
Bruno has twice won the ACCAC women’s cross country championship. She has twice won the Region 1 steeplechase title, as well as the 1,500 meters championship. A year ago she was No. 9 in in the national steeplechase finals.
“What’s really amazing,” says Wenneborg, “is that Kate is qualified for five events at the NJCAA championships.”
And then Wenneborg lists the five as if committed to memory: 800 meters, 1,500 meters, 5,000 meters, steeplechase and the 4x800 relay.
Pima College isn’t new to distance running at the highest levels of junior college competition. The school won the 1981 national cross country championship. It produced four-time Olympian Abdi Abdirahman and a string of nationally-strong performers, including Craig Curley, Aurora Trujillo and Dorota Gajda.
Bruno is probably the least likely of the group, and although junior college sports are brimming with rags-to-riches stories, Bruno’s story turns your head. Two years ago she was an unknown to about everyone in the Tucson running community except CDO state championship coach Rick Glider.
A month ago, she signed a full scholarship agreement with St. John’s.
“Arizona’s (distance running coach) James Li called me about Kate, but he couldn’t offer a full ride,” says Wenneborg. “St. John’s could. She’ll go there and have an adventure.”
Wenneborg knows a good story when he sees one. After his college running days at UTSA, he returned to Arizona — he attended Scottsdale Chaparral High School — and began a purposeful campaign in attempt to make the USA Olympic team.
He once entered the Mule Mountain Marathon, Bisbee to Sierra Vista, with a goal of winning a new car. If the winner from among more than 100 runners could break 2 hours and 30 minutes, he would be awarded a new car. Wenneborg won the race in 2:29.52, sold the car back to the dealer for $6,000 and put it toward his Olympic dream.
Ultimately he ran a 2:18.00 marathon and finished 20th at the USA Olympic Trials and has since become a full-time math teacher in the Flowing Wells School District, a part-time track coach and beginning novelist.
The Kate Bruno story is one of the best chapters of his running and coaching days.
“Kate probably felt lucky someone was coming to talk to her about running track in college,” Wenneborg says. “But it’s me who got lucky. We’re really fortunate to have her.”
“Absolutely,” says Bruno. “Running college track had not been my plan. I hope to someday be an illustrator and draw for children’s books, but running for Coach Wenneborg and for Pima has been the best. It’s so challenging. It’s a full-time commitment but I’ve been happy here.”
At 4:30 p.m. Friday, Bruno will line up for the start of the NJCAA women’s steeplechase championships. Her career best time is 11:36.62, which ranks No. 6 nationally. The form chart of leading times indicates that maybe 10 runners should have a realistic chance to win.
“She’s hungry and she’s fit,” says Wenneborg. “She’s got an energy level that gets her through the rough patches.”
Wenneborg and Bruno have been good for one another. At the start of many steeplechase events, Bruno looked at her coach and asked, “Hey, Coach, am I good enough?”
“She’s done that almost every race and I’m always reaffirming,” he says. “Kate has faced very tough competition but I think she’ll rise to it. She hasn’t taken her foot off the gas pedal yet.”