Track standout Diego Estrada eyeing longer distances, U.S. team berth

Diego Estrada has gone from competing for national titles to chasing a spot on Team USA. Scott Olmos/USA TODAY Sports

Olympian Diego Estrada (Asics) won last weekend's Aramco Houston Half-Marathon in 60:51, which is tied for seventh on the all-time U.S. list.

The race was his first serious attempt at the 13.1-mile distance, and the former Northern Arizona track star is showing flashes of potential for the full marathon. We caught up with Estrada after he discussed the potential move up in distance with his coach.

Over the years, spectators have grown accustomed to seeing you take races out hard. What went through your mind while executing the same tactic in Houston?

I really wasn’t thinking much. That was one of the game plans and I decided early on to go with Plan B by going to the front. I was mentally prepared for it.

What was Plan A?

Plan A was that the guys would take it out in a hot pace and I would sit there as long as I could before taking over. I had a Plan C where I would wait until the last 200 meters to kick.

Now, after looking at the time, some might think "Wow, this guy might really be able to exceed in the marathon." What are your thoughts on the marathon?

I really want to run the marathon. I feel like the marathon is the most prestigious event in the U.S. Everyone can relate to it. I really want to be a marathoner. But taking it a step back and after talking to my coach (Joe Vigil), at the moment that may not be the best decision. We want to be able to produce good results and in order to do that I need to have a couple years under me building mileage and developing. It’s not just a jump up.

What was that conversation like with coach Vigil, and who brought up the marathon?

I’m the one that keeps bringing it up, and occasionally he does. He doesn’t want to make any mistakes with me and he wants me to have a long career. We’re going to work on the shorter distances and keep going up to the half-marathon and so on. He wants me to be full prepared and approach the marathon with confidence and produce good results in that event.

He was a bit surprised. He expected me to break 62 minutes, but to break 61 we needed the perfect day in terms of competition. To go out there and run three quarters of the race on my own was a bit of a surprise for him.

You teamed up with Vigil in the summer of 2013. Last year was a tough year on the track and you took some time off after the Payton Jordan Invitational in late April, so how’s the training finally coming together now?

I run about 50 miles per week. Even for this half-marathon, the highest I got up to was about 70 miles. At first the workouts were aggressive and now they’ve just become normal. Basically, when I got sick, I took a month off and I started building back up carefully. We started off with five-minute pace and got down as low as 4:25 pace for interval workouts. With mile repeats and tempos we would go about 4:35. My body weas reacting to the workouts differently. I could go out and do a tempo and not feel like it was taking too much out of me.

What’s the toughest set of workouts Vigil set for you leading up to this race?

Estrada: One of the weeks of training that I had -- and there were multiple ones like this -- started off with 7 x mile-repeats around 4:25-4:26. I would come back two days later with 12 x kilometer-repeats under 2:50. I could run the last kilometer in about 2:35. I could come back two days after that and run an 8-10 mile tempo run going under 4:40 pace comfortably. The next day I’d run a 15-mile long run and I’d have to hold myself back from running faster than 5:20 pace. Nothing crazy. I was running 70 miles a week. My slowest run was 5:50 to 6:00 pace. Everything was just quality and repetition at goal pace or faster. (Note: All of Estrada’s training was at altitude except for three weeks during the holiday season.)

Last year you said you saw yourself running the 5K on the track for a while. Is that still the vision?

I think after [the half-marathon performance] I’m going to have to learn to like the 10K and I think I should move up. I have a better opportunity at qualifying for the national team and I think it’ll be better for the move up to the marathon.

Let’s go to the decision to switch your citizenship from Mexico to the United States. It’s a much tougher team to make for international competition, so what factored into the selection?

From a personal level, it didn’t feel right (representing Mexico) because I live here in the United States. It didn’t feel right to not represent the country that’s given me so much. As a competitor, I miss the NCAA environment where it was so competitive to try and win a national title. I trained so hard to give myself the opportunity and I figured if I ever was going to do anything good I needed to challenge myself with an environment to give it 110 percent.