Fast friends they are, but the fact is Nectaly Barbosa and Isak Bergman shouldn't know each other. They shouldn't even cross paths, odds insist, except for a brief encounter at a national track and field meet.
That's what you would think, given the uncommon times these two high school kids are running for 800 meters.
Over the last two decades the nation has averaged three performances a season of 1 minute, 50 seconds or better in the two-lap race. Most of those come from California and the eastern states.
And yet here we have Barbosa and Bergman, from Prosser and Ellensburg, respectively, achieving these high feats in each other's Eastern Washington backyard.
Earlier this month Barbosa became the second prep runner in state history to slip under 1:50, clocking 1:49.94 and coming within a half second of the state record. And Bergman is just a few ticks away at 1:50.63, which he ran last summer.
"It's almost eerie when you think about it," Bergman says. "Maybe there is a little planning in the universe. The same place, the same time, the same races."
That's just it. Not only are Barbosa and Bergman the same age, they compete in the same classification and in the same conference. When the state underwent its most dramatic classification realignment ever a year ago, Prosser dropped
from Class 3A to 2A.
And so did Ellensburg.
"The funny thing is we're more friends
than rivals so I like that we're always together," Barbosa says. "I've been to a lot of meets (around the country) and it's cool to think we can race with anybody."
Race with range, too.
Both possess the speed to break 49 seconds in the 400 and the strength to be among the national leaders in the 1,600.
But the manner in which these times are run, that's where Barbosa and Bergman have their own distinct identity.
What they believe and how they express it offer classic contrasts at the heart of competitive racing.
Barbosa the bold
At the Pasco Invitational two weeks ago, Barbosa made it known before a 1,600 race loaded with the state's best that he wanted a fast time. And he was willing to do all the work.
"I thought it was a little risky, but that's what he does," Bergman says. "I said, 'So, you're going to take it for all of us?' I wasn't skeptical because
I knew he could do it."
Not waiting for anyone's assistance with pace or shelter from the breeze, Barbosa powered through three laps in 3:09 and built a 3-second lead. The crowd rose out of appreciation for the solo effort and he responded, even more impressively, with a 60-second final circuit, shattering the meet record in 4:08.86.
Bergman, who was second with a huge personal best of his own, admired his friend's let-it-fly mentality.
"He runs brave and strong," Bergman said that day. "You have to like anybody who does that."
Barbosa's fierce racing persona can, on occasion, leave him vulnerable. Later in the day at Pasco he raced the 800 as though he was fresh, towing Nathan Hale's Abdi Hassan through a blistering first 600. Hassan, who didn't run the 1,600, rallied and won by a half second.
No regrets, though, for someone not only comfortable with risk but demanding of it.
Barbosa has never been a wait-and-see racer. And it's not like he bolts wildly, just with more regard for a final time than a place. It's a courageous disposition that is reminiscent of what made Oregon legend Steve Prefontaine so popular.
"If it's a nice day and conditions are good, I don't want running a fast time in somebody's else's hands," Barbosa explains. "If I get stuck in the pack and we go out in 65, I can run that race. But I want to be the one to make it a fast race."
A devout soccer player in his youth, Barbosa was cajoled into giving track a try in eighth grade. His talent was immediately evident as none of his races were remotely competitive.
Bergman remembers watching Barbosa run a 4:29 mile in a middle school district meet. The view was from a distance.
"I did a lot of different events in that meet and when the mile came around I thought, 'OK, this is a good event for me.' Then he goes out and just kicks my butt," Bergman says. "I had no idea there could be talent like that."
By that summer, Barbosa ran 1:58.72 in the 800 and won the National Junior Olympic title in Miami for the 13-14 age group. He often started races wickedly fast and tired but still won by half a lap.
"I've tried to learn about pacing and tactics and not to go out too fast. I'm still figuring things out," he said in the summer of 2003 before going to Miami. "People ask me how I run so fast and I don't know what to say. It's just natural for me."
From these hard-charging roots, Barbosa has channeled his audacious talent into something of a visceral force. A race comes along and two things happen: The gun goes off, and he's gone.
For his friend and rival, it's quite a bit different. The gun goes off, and the beat begins.
Bergman the musician
As a connoisseur of all things lyrical, Bergman identifies running and racing as his "carnal vibe."
The hours he spends running can be matched — and often exceeded — by the hours he spends with music. Bergman plays bass in the Ellensburg jazz band, writes music and is skilled with a set of drums and piano.
It's the artist in Bergman that calls for an intuitive approach to racing, one that blends thought and mood. He thinks his way around the track carefully, makes a move when it feels right and then lets his body decide whether it's a symphony or rockabilly.
"I'm constantly finding correlations between running and music. To me, they're both art," he says. "I have a lot better sense now of being in tune with what my body's telling me. Whether I'm first, second or 30th doesn't matter as much to me as how I feel about the race."
Right now Bergman feels good about every race. Laboring early in the season to fight off a lingering winter illness, he's now racing better than ever with recent career bests in the 400 (48.91) and 1,600 (4:12.65) and nearly the 800 (1:51.22).
"After being pretty sick, I'm rejuvenated," he says with a jolt of excitement. "I'm remodeling all my goals and just sitting back and enjoying it."
Were it not for Barbosa, Bergman's 1,600 at Pasco would've been a victory of tactical brilliance. For the first half he measured his effort judiciously, running 2:09 while holding down fourth place. Then came a long, powerful charge, his third lap of 63 seconds leading into a final lap under 60 to run down second place.
With efficient form that conserves his weapons well, Bergman seems to glide in the early stages of a race. And when he changes gears it's smooth and sure rather than jarring and dramatic.
At last year's state cross country championships — an event that has always eluded Barbosa because of injuries — Bergman wasn't even in the top 30 of the 2A race after the first mile. At the finish he was third, leading the Bulldogs to the school's first team trophy in 24 years.
Bergman knows he doesn't have to match Barbosa's speed off the line to have a shot at him. He beat Barbosa twice last year in the 800 and on both occasions he came from behind to do it.
The first time came in a league meet at Prosser when Barbosa tried to break 1:50, and the second came in the prestigious postseason Golden West meet in Sacramento, Calif.
These victories, however, were not cathartic for a pursuer who once thought Barbosa may not ever lose a race. Bergman says he longed to reach Barbosa's side, not necessarily get a step ahead.
"I don't know if the goal was ever to beat him. It was more just to be at his level," Bergman says. "That first time I beat him we were neck-and-neck for the last 100 and we both collapsed. Just to be in a race like that when there's nothing more to give — you can't ask for anything more than that."
It's not just personal
Bergman and Barbosa are both balancing two agendas this year — their own ambitions as athletes with national prominence and making the maximum impact for their high school teams.
By winning the Pasco team title, Prosser has already made it clear the Mustangs will be a major player at the 2A state meet in Tacoma on May 25-26.
Ellensburg, too, hopes to be a trophy contender.
The question for both programs is how to best deploy their stars. Head-to-head meetings, after all, cost points.
"We're trying to solidify that soon," says Bergman, who competed in a daring 400-800 double in last year's 3A state meet and placed second in both. "I'm thinking probably of the 800 and 1,600 and I don't know about the 400.
"I'm banking on him doing the 800 and 1,600. That way we would run both fresh because they're on different days. I do try to seek him out because it's always a good race."
On paper, Prosser has more room to maneuver. Its 4x400 relay actually got its best time — 3:26.08 — without Barbosa last week.
"We've tossed around some ideas like the mile, 800, 400 and relay," Barbosa says. "I've also thought about the relay, mile, 400 and 200. Show some range."
He's serious about adding a sprint event. Barbosa clocked 22.8 in the 200 last year from a standing start.
Whatever the combinations, if both go in the 1,600 they would be completely fresh. Friday prelims for the 200, 400, 800 and 4x400 all come after the 1,600 final at Mount Tahoma High School.
"I would be running to win that first race, then do as well as I can in the rest of the them," Barbosa speculates. "If Isak is in there it's obviously going to be a lot harder than without him."
The final lap
After things are settled in Tacoma, graduation isn't the only thing on their calendars in June.
Bergman plans to defend his title at Golden West and possibly meet up with Barbosa and national 800 leader Cory Primm of California at the Nike Outdoor Nationals in North Carolina.
Barbosa is hoping he will merit an invitation to the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Ore., where Alan Webb broke Jim Ryun's venerable prep record in the mile six years ago. He's been told an invitation would require a 1,500 time of around 3:47, which he'll try to run on May 5 at the Oregon Twilight during a recruiting visit to the Oregon campus.
Does he think he can approach four minutes in the mile?
"Yes," he says after a couple seconds pause. But then he adds, "At least give it a good shot."
Both are closing in on their college decisions and Washington and Oregon are both high on the list.
Either school would be a good choice for an 800 runner. The Huskies have the reigning NCAA men's champion in Ryan Brown, and the Ducks have '06 women's champ Rebekah Noble.
"I've thought of that and it sounds good, us training together and just letting it fly," Bergman says. "Nectaly's had a huge impact on my success. I may have won a few more races if he lived in another state, but I don't look at it that way.
"The two of us running into each other at the same time, I'm pretty thankful for it, actually. It's been a blessing."
Of time, place and friendship.