AZ colleges putting top distance runners on national stage

Who would have thought Arizona would become a hothouse for developing top distance runners?

Our mile-high elevations to the north challenge runners with cold winters and thin air, while down on the desert floor summer temperatures consistently hover above 100 degrees, making training runs perilous at best.

But a collection of college runners, and their respective track programs, have drawn national attention to the success our distance runners are achieving.

Up in Flagstaff, Diego Estrada is breaking Northern Arizona University records this year in just about every distance event possible – and also has the best time in the nation in the 5,000 meters.

The redshirt junior from California holds the NAU records for the mile, 3,000 meters, and 5,000 meters.  Earlier this month, he ran a 3:55.46 mile that broke the Olympian Lopez Lomong’s 2007 record.

His coach, Eric Heins, has been impressed with Estrada’s progress this year:  “He continues to show that he is not intimidated by anyone or anything, and he runs every race the way it should be run – as hard as he can.”

Estrada is peaking in his career progress at Northern Arizona, but he had built a good foundation before entering college.  He holds the records at Alisal High School for the 3,000 meters, 1,600 meters, and the mile.

By choosing NAU he knew he would be part of a men’s program that has been dominant in the Big Sky Conference when it comes to the distance events.

This should be another stellar year for NAU at the Big Sky Indoor Championships this weekend, led by its distance runners.  Estrada will join with Jordan Chipangama to form a potent one-two attack.  Chipangama, a senior from Zamia, is running first in the conference in the 800 and second in the mile, while Estarada holds the top mark in the mile, 3K, and 5K.

Meanwhile, down the hill and over to the south, the University of Arizona has a couple of outstanding distance runners from Kenya who are not only the best in the Pac-12, but the country as well.

Lawi Lalang is a sophomore who arrived at the Tucson campus in 2011 with literally no competitive running experience.  He started his career with a flourish, finishing second in a 3,000-meter race, and setting one of the top marks in the nation in that event.  His career climbed from there and he finished last year with a runner-up finish in the 5,000 meters at the NCAA Championships, posting a time of 13:31.69.

A couple of weeks ago, he set both the school record and the collegiate record in the 5K (13:08.28) at the Millrose Games in New York.  Earlier in the season he posted a NCAA qualifying time of 3:55.09 in the mile run, which was the NCAA No. 1 time this season and was also the No. 3 all-time mark.

Stephen Sambu, a senior who is also from Kenya, finished right behind his UofA teammate at the Millrose Games, coming in third with a time of 13:13.74 – which is the second-best collegiate time ever.

The two Wildcat runners currently rank No. 1 (Lalang) and No. 2 in the NCAA standings.

Next up for the Arizona track & field program is the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Indoor Championships, beginning tomorrow in Washington.  The men’s team enters the event ranked No. 6 in the nation, a one-spot drop since the previous rankings, while the women, which were No. 10 earlier this month, will come in ranked No. 16.

(Photo: NAU Athletics)