Commentary

Diego Estrada using last season's 'disaster' as motivation for Chicago Marathon

Updated: October 6, 2017, 11:36 AM ET
By Anna Katherine Clemmons | ESPN.com

The race was going so well for Diego Estrada. During the 39th running of the Chicago Marathon last October, the Mexican-American runner was keeping pace with the leaders. His long, quick strides had the U.S. Olympic hopeful on track to finish in the top three, a much-needed result after his marathon debut -- and subsequent dropout -- at the Olympic trials in Los Angeles earlier that year.

  But at the 10K mark, Estrada tripped on a water bottle and fell. He twisted his ankle, and as he stood back up, he contemplated stopping all together. 

  "I felt that was the last straw," Estrada said. "I stood up, let my anger out for a bit and told myself, 'Just finish the race so you can say you finished a marathon.' It turned out to be a blessing in disguise that I managed to finish as high as I did."

  Estrada caught up to the leaders before the halfway point. He finished as the top American and eighth overall in 2:13:56, falling to his knees at the finish and maneuvering with crutches immediately afterward. 

Diego EstradaAfter struggling with health and hydration issues last year, Diego Estrada has cut back on his number of competitive races in 2017.

  "Usually when I finish a race, I'm disappointed if I finish second," Estrada said. "This was probably the only time in my life when I crossed the finish line where I really wanted to cry. It was such an emotional relief; it felt like I hit the restart button."

  Estrada hopes to replicate that happiness at this year's Chicago Marathon on Oct. 8 as he aims for the podium and a 2:10-or-faster finish. While his ultimate goal is to qualify in the marathon for the 2020 Olympics, the 27-year-old Flagstaff, Arizona, resident has spent the majority of this year -- with the help of coach Dr. Joe Vigil -- training specifically for Chicago. 

  "Training-wise, I'm well ahead of where I was last year," Estrada said. "I owe it to myself to run a good marathon."

    Born in Mexico, Estrada was 13 months old when his parents decided that the family (Estrada is one of six children) should move to the U.S. Estrada's mother carried him across the Rio Grande, headed toward California.

The family settled in Salinas, California, a community Estrada says was "90 percent immigrant and mostly Mexican." Signage in grocery stores and shops was written in Spanish. Walking around on the streets and through neighborhoods, people rarely spoke English. He identified more as Mexican, Estrada says, but he knew he wanted to be an American.

  It wasn't until he arrived on the campus of Northern Arizona University, for which he'd received a partial scholarship for track and field, that he experienced his first culture shock.

"I had an accent I wasn't aware of, I wasn't blond, and I was intimidated in the classroom," Estrada said.

  The first of his family to attend college, Estrada arrived in Flagstaff in 2008. He was homesick, having rarely been away from his community, and he struggled over whether to stay. "To this day, I don't enjoy running for fun," Estrada said. "I really enjoy the hard workouts, the competition."

  Estrada was a successful competitor, finishing second in the 5,000 meters and 10,000 meters at the Big Sky Outdoor Track and Field Championships during his freshman year. His sophomore season was cut short after one of Estrada's lungs collapsed, leading to a six-month hiatus from running as he recovered.

  He returned the next year and set several individual, school and conference records. Estrada also began eyeing the 2011 U.S. Olympic trials. He learned, however, that although he was a U.S. resident, he wasn't a citizen. So in the summer of 2011, he began the naturalization process.

  That October, three days before NCAA cross country championships in Terre Haute, Indiana, Estrada traveled to Phoenix to be sworn in as a U.S. citizen.

"It was a bigger, more emotional experience than I had anticipated," Estrada said. "When you are swearing the oath, people come up and share their life experiences. You realize that America, we have our flaws, but it is a great country full of freedom."     

Because of confusion over whether he was eligible to compete for the U.S., Estrada raced for Mexico in the 2012 Olympics, finishing 21st overall in the 10,000 meters. He returned for his senior season at NAU, finishing second in the 5,000 meters at the NCAA indoor championship.

  Estrada graduated from Northern Arizona in 2013 and hired Vigil, who has also trained Olympians Deena Kastor and Brenda Martinez. Though Estrada trains alone, the two talk via phone three to four times a week, and Vigil sends Estrada workouts.

  "Marathon runners have to have the volume, and Diego has high goals," Vigil said. "He has the fourth-best time in America; he won the national championship in Houston for the half-marathon [in January 2015]. Everything is in order for him to be a great marathoner." 

  Still, aside from finishing Chicago, Estrada called his 2016 running season, including his two DNFs and struggles with hydration, "a disaster. The year was riddled with injuries and setbacks. It was the toughest year I've had in terms of my career."

  That motivated Estrada and Vigil to decrease the number of competitive races Estrada entered in 2017. He ran in the U.S. outdoor track and field championships in June, finishing sixth in the 10,000 meters. Otherwise, his focus has remained on Chicago -- and the redemption he hopes to find in standing on the winner's podium.

  "I feel as if I've gained the mindset of a marathoner," Estrada said. "All year long, I've been inching toward Chicago. I think the third time's the charm."

Anna Katherine Clemmons is a contributing writer for ESPN The Magazine.

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