U.S. half-marathon champion Diego Estrada plans to make his marathon debut at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials on Feb. 13, which will send three men and women to the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
Since running 60:51 at the Houston Half-Marathon in Jan., Estrada has contemplated contesting the 26.2-mile distance. The time was the seventh fastest half-marathon by an American. He opted to run a full track season and finished 15th in the 5,000-meters and eighth in the 10,000-meters at the U.S.A Track and Field Outdoor Championships in Eugene, Ore. Estrada says that offers to make his debut at a World Marathon Major setting like Boston or Chicago were discussed with coach Joe Vigil but never really reached him.
“In early September, since we went through another track season without any major breakthrough, coach [Joe] Vigil just decided to give marathon training a go,” Estrada told SI. “Of course the plan is to run the marathon, but if anything goes wrong we could always skip it and go to the track trials. The idea behind this was to find something to keep me motivated and see what I could do.”
Estrada does not have much of a time goal for February's race. The main priority for most runners at the Olympic Trials is to just place in the top three, so a tactical race could play out on the streets of Los Angeles. Estrada competed in the 10,000-meters at the 2012 and finished 21st for Mexico. Next year presents his first attempt at competing for the United States at the Olympics since switching citizenships in April 2014.
“I've done a few of the [U.S.A.T.F. Running Circuit] races from the mile to the half-marathon and I really enjoy those races. I don't worry about time much,” Estrada says. “I don't see this as a marathon but instead as a big circuit race and an opportunity to race with guys. As far as time and chasing any specific goals, I probably wouldn't run as well with a rabbit since I'm very spontaneous with how I feel. I can go from five-flat pace to 4:40-pace at any time in a workout. It's going to be more beneficial to me to run without a pacer and run my own race.”
Among other possible U.S. debutantes at the marathon trials are newly minted American citizen Sam Chelanga and Aron Rono. Fellow American marathon prospect Matt Llano said that he would target Ryan Hall's American debut record of 2:08:24 for his first attempt at the marathon. Llano ended up running 2:17:43 for his first try at the 2014 Chicago Marathon. Estrada will not be as bold.
“My goal is to get to 20 miles and take it from there. Time is not really a factor so I just want to finish it and go under 2:15,” Estrada says.
Estrada feels that the marathon could be his calling. The idea to move up to the marathon has been discussed with Vigil several times over the last few years. Vigil coached American marathoner Deena Kastor to a bronze medal for the marathon at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens. Estrada often brings up lines from Vigil's "The Anatomy of a Medal" reflection that he posted after the Summer Games.
“I start quoting lines and tell him, 'Coach, this is what I enjoy doing. Why won't you let me do it?'” Estrada says. ”I've become very familiar with his work and I'm not ready to give up some of his secrets since he thinks outside of the box. Whatever I envisioned marathon training to be, it's not that. It's peace of mind knowing that if he think I'm ready then there's no doubt that I'll have a good debut and good experience.”
Down the road, Estrada could see himself joining a club is only occupied by Ryan Hall and Khalid Khannouchi as the only Americans to run under 2:07 in their career.
“I like to think that if I put in the work and give me a few marathons, people may doubt this but I can see myself running 2:06," Estrada says. “That's all if I can handle the marathon. If my body can handle it and I stay motivated, I think I can be a 2:06 guy."
The current state of American marathoning has 40-year-old Meb Keflezighi as a favorite to make his third Olympic team along with two-time Olympian Dathan Ritzenhein, who has run the fastest time since the 2012 Olympics. Ritzenhein and Keflezighi are the only men that have run faster than 2:09 in the last three years.
"Once we get another American running under 2:08, I think the mentality is going to switch and we'll see about 10 guys under 2:08," Estrada says. “That's just a discussion that I'm having with coach.
Luke Puskedra, a former Oregon Duck and half-marathon standout, ran a dismal marathon debut in New York City last fall before running a personal best of 2:10 to be the top American at this month's Chicago Marathon. Puskedra could be a contender for that third spot with another repeat performance.
Behind them is a slew of Americans in the 2:10 to 2:12 that could see a breakout on the right day. Estrada thinks personal bests can be thrown out the window come race day in February.
“It looks like its open but I think the trials are going to be a big shock,” Estrada said. “There's a slew of guys that can run 2:12 on paper but I don't think they will be that come February. There will be a bunch of 2:09 and 2:10 guys. America is on the upswing. Luke's performance in Chicago solidified that thought.”