As if Diego Estrada hadn’t done enough in his career with the Northern Arizona University track and field and cross country programs, the senior Olympian and nine-time All-American put up the best 5,000-meter race of his life Sunday night in Palo Alto, Calif., breaking the Big Sky Conference and NAU records in the process with an NCAA-leading time of 13 minutes, 15.33 seconds.
“What a fantastic race it was for Diego,” director of track and field and cross country Eric Heins said. “For him to have a shot to win the thing in such a star-studded field was phenomenal. He’s been working a lot this year on his finishing kick, and he did a great job moving up steadily through the race and to finish as the top collegian, even though he took third overall.”
Estrada shattered former teammate David McNeill’s school and conference 5,000-meter record time of 13:25.63, set three years ago at the very same track. Estrada now holds two of the top three times in NAU history in the event.
Section one of the men’s 5,000 meters, Estrada’s section, was hotly anticipated by fans and athletes alike, and the show didn’t disappoint. The race was a who’s who of high-caliber talent that included two-time NCAA champion Sam Chelanga, formerly of Liberty University, American 1,500-meter record holder Alan Webb, American 10,000-meter record holder Chris Solinsky, Evan Jager, the sixth-place finisher in the steeplechase at the 2012 London Olympics, and World Cross Country Championship sixth-place finisher Ben True.
Estrada finished ahead of everyone except Jager and True, barely beating 2011 NCAA 5,000-meter champion Leonard Korir and former All-American Hassan Mead at the line after an outstanding strong final lap.
“I think Diego took a big step forward tonight in establishing himself as a world-class runner,” Heins said. “Competing in the Olympics last summer was just the beginning for him, and now he’s taking the right steps toward finishing out his collegiate career on a high note and moving on to what should be great success as a professional runner.”
Estrada, who prior to the 2013 season was known for leading the pack throughout most every race in which he competed, decided to change his tactics in his final collegiate season. His pair of All-America awards, career-high finishes in the 5,000 (second) and 3,000 (fourth) meters, from NCAA Indoors in March are proof that the switch is working.
Estrada’s successful race strategy showed again Sunday night. He began the race hanging toward the back of the pack, but slowly crept forward until a group of runners broke out in front around the 2,500-meter mark. Estrada hung at the back of the lead group for the next couple of laps before beginning his ascent once again.
With three laps to go, Estrada was hanging around 10th place, waiting until there were 800 meters to go to make his move.
Estrada began to pass runner after runner, eventually getting to fifth place as the bell sounded for the final lap. Estrada’s finishing burst of speed, quickly becoming his signature in big races, allowed him to overcome Korir and Mead and take third place.
Estrada’s time in the 5,000 meters currently leads the country and is just seven seconds shy of Henry Rono’s 35-year-old American collegiate record (13:08.4). He adds his Sunday performance to a 10,000-meter time (28:52.73) and 1,500-meter time (3:41.90) that sat third and 12th, respectively, on the national rankings prior to the weekend’s competition.
Incidentally, Estrada wasn’t the only Lumberjack to break a school record this weekend either. Junior Lauren Stuart smashed her own record in the hammer throw Saturday in Tempe with a mark of 201 feet 8 inches, making the two days of competition a resounding success for the talented NAU men’s and women’s teams.
Both track and field squads are off next weekend in preparation for the Big Sky Outdoor Championships May 8-11. Hosted by Portland State, the conference championship meet is being held at Pacific University.