Commentary

Competing with the Kenyans

Elite runner from Arizona will take the fast lane in Boston Marathon

Updated: April 16, 2012, 6:26 AM ET
By Tom Lakin | ESPNBoston.com

Nick ArcinagaAP Photo/Winslow TownsonNicholas Arciniaga was the top American finisher in the 2008 Boston Marathon and is eager to run it again this year. "There's a lot of tradition here," he said.

Those readying crisp American flags to wave during Monday's Boston Marathon might be disappointed to hear that the 2012 elite field is short a number of familiar American faces -- a result of January's Olympic marathon trials and the Olympic track trials coming up in June. Ryan Hall, last year's fourth-place male finisher, is out, as are Desiree Davila and Kara Goucher, who finished second and fifth, respectively, among women in 2011.

Still, all is not lost for patriots on Patriots Day: Meet 28-year-old Nicholas Arciniaga, a 2006 Cal State Fullerton grad who, with a personal best of 2:11:30 (Houston, 2011), has every intention of competing with last year's winner and course record holder (2:03:02), Kenyan Geoffrey Mutai.

Arciniaga checked in from Flagstaff, Ariz., where he trains with coach Greg McMillan and Team USA Arizona, to talk about his shot at American glory.

Q. This will be your second Boston Marathon. In 2008, you finished 10th (2:16:13). What do you hope to do differently this year?

A. The class of the field has actually changed since I last ran [in Boston]. I ran a 2:16 marathon in 2008, and that was my personal best at the time. Going into this year, I've already run a couple of 2:11 marathons, so I'm hoping to improve off that and run another personal best. Hopefully that will help me finish higher up in the top 10. But the African contingent is a lot stronger than it was four years ago. Geoffrey Mutai is the course record holder now. Still, I've improved pretty much every year since I've started running marathons professionally, or close to it, and I'm hoping to continue that trend.

Q. You ran January's U.S. Olympic trials in Houston [2:11:56, finishing eighth] just three months ago. How have you prepped to run again so soon?

A. [Running back-to-back marathons] is not as common among the elites these days. It was a lot more common back in the '70s and '80s, during what people refer to as the heyday of U.S. marathoning. Those guys would run a marathon every two or three months and they'd run well -- 2:10s, 2:11s.

For me, personally, I've tried it out a couple times. I've had four or five and even sometimes three months between some of my marathons. And each time I've had that short recovery, I've ended up running well. In making this decision, it was basically about taking into account how well I was doing at the trials, what my legs were telling me, and whether I would be able to handle all the training leading up to Boston. Since I did a lot of marathon-based training going into the trials three months ago, all of that is still in my legs, all that strength work. So this time around, my coach and I did a lot more shorter-distance stuff -- some track work and tempo work, where I try to run faster than race pace for a shorter period of time, knowing that I have the endurance in me already.

Q. You dealt with a minor hip injury this fall. How are you feeling now?

A. Yeah, the chiropractor I was seeing said that my hip joint was rubbing a little bit out of the socket. It was affecting my stride and I was kind of limping for quite a while, so I had to take a month and a half to two months off before I really started my training before Houston.

But now I'm feeling a lot better. I've been doing a lot of stretching and massages and just making sure I take care of my body. Injuries do pop up, so I'm just making sure I'm healthy before anything occurs.

Q. From a running standpoint, what is unique about the Boston Marathon?

A. One of the big things is prestige. [Boston] is the oldest marathon in the world, having been around since before 1900. And you also have to have a qualifying time in order to get into the race -- no other race has that sort of standard. So there's a lot of tradition here.

From a running standpoint, with this course, I'm trying to make it a two-part race, basically, in my mind -- just getting through the first 21 miles to the top of Heartbreak Hill, trying to stay positive and keep moving forward until that point, and then, once I get there, I'm going to try and run as hard as I can to get to the finish line. The last five miles head downhill, so that's where I really need to put in all my time to get to the goal I'm shooting for.

Q. Do you get caught up in the spectacle that surrounds this event?

A. It definitely influences me. I remember running by the Wellesley College girls in 2008. It was 12 miles into the race and I was already feeling like, "Oh, I'm kind of tired. I'll probably slow down pretty soon because my legs are going to give out." But then I ran by all the cheering girls and the noise just amplified how I felt inside and turned it into a positive. And I felt good from there on in.

I also remember running by U.S. Army guys around Mile 17, and they started chanting "U-S-A!" and that pumped me up and gave me encouragement. All over the course there are people out watching, having barbecues, just having a good time and cheering everybody on. It really helps out a lot.

Q. Do you have a specific race strategy?

A. A lot of it depends on weather and how the elite pack goes off. If it's a really hot day or if there's a 20-some-mile-per-hour headwind it could go off really slow, and then my best strategy would be to run with the leaders for as long as possible and stay out of the wind. If there's a huge tailwind or if it's a perfect-conditioned day, those guys might go out and try to run the course record, and I'll have to hold back and just run it by myself, pace myself and run smart.

I do usually dictate my own pace. Right now I've been dabbling around 4:55 to 5 minutes per mile. If I can maintain that throughout the entire race, I'll run a sub-2:10, which is my goal right now.

Q. As one of the few Americans in the elite field, do you feel any added pressure to succeed?

A. That's definitely one of my goals. I want to run well, I want to place as high as I can in the race, but I also want to beat the other American guys that are in the field. I was the first American back in 2008 when I ran it -- granted, there was really nobody else in the field. But this time around, Jason [Hartmann] has run a 2:11 and Sergio [Reyes] won a U.S. championship in the marathon a couple years ago. So these guys have credentials that are similar to mine, but I feel like I really need to go out there and make myself the top guy.

Q. In high school and college, you were primarily a short-distance runner. How have you made the leap to marathons?

A. It was a step-by-step process. In high school I was focused on the half-mile and mile pretty much every weekend, every week. And I ran well in California, never made it to the state meet but ran well enough to call myself a miler. Then I got a scholarship to college, and my coach and I figured I was going to be doing the 800 meter and 1,500 meter, but I just never improved throughout my college career. Then my senior year I tried out the 5K and ended up doing a lot better compared to the leaders than in the shorter distances. So after college I tried out every single distance -- 5Ks, steeplechase, 10Ks, and then tried a half-marathon.

It's always been my dream to qualify for the Olympic trials and make it that far. But basically, in the 5Ks and 10Ks I just wasn't running fast enough, so in 2006 I decided to see if a marathon was going to work out for me, and I ended up running a 2:15 and qualifying for the trials and finding my event.

Q. What motivates you going into the race?

A. A lot of it is just my personal goals -- running as fast as I can, trying to finish as high as I can against the international field. All my teammates out here [in Flagstaff] are really encouraging. They all want to see me do well, so they are all rooting me on, telling me good luck and supporting all my workouts, so it's very motivating to have that kind of support around you. And then obviously my fiancee and my family have supported me ever since high school, so it's been great to have that type of support as well.

Q. What do you do for fun outside of running?

A. I do a lot of, like, watching movies and playing video games, that kind of thing. I'm in a book club with a bunch of people on the team, so we read different books, and I probably read twice as many as everybody else because I don't have a part-time job that I have to go to. So I spend a lot of time around the house just reading and playing video games, doing a lot of individual stuff like that. The last book I read was Emma Donoghue's "Room," which was good, and my favorite movies are the cult-classic types, like "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" and "Snatch," that kind of thing.

Q. What's next for you after Boston?

A. Afterwards, the No. 1 thing I'm going to be focused on is getting married on May 26. So I'm not going to really be training too hard or focusing on any races in May or June. I'll just be focusing on getting married and taking some time off, just recovering after two back-to-back marathons. And then, looking further down the road, I'll probably do a fall marathon, most likely one of the marathon majors, like Chicago, New York or Berlin.

Tom Lakin is a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com.

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