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Marathon man Estrella ran into 'The Wall'

Juan Estrella, 34, of Franklin Square, is shown

Juan Estrella, 34, of Franklin Square, is shown at Eisenhower Park in East Meadow. Estrella won the Long Island Marathon in 2001, 2002, and 2003. (April 26, 2011) Credit: Chris Ware

Marathoners call it "The Wall," with good reason. It's the suffocating feeling late in the 26.2-mile race when the combination of pain, cramps and mental fatigue makes a runner feel as if there's no way you can take three more steps, let alone run three more miles.

Surely most runners in the Long Island Marathon Sunday will experience that dreaded sensation, and it's one that former three-time champion Juan Estrella knows all too well.

A 34-year-old Kellenberg math teacher from Franklin Square, Estrella is the only person in the race's 38-year history to finish first three straight years, from 2001-2003. But Estrella's impressive feat almost didn't happen because of his fight with The Wall during his first victory.

On a recent drive of the course with a Newsday reporter and photographer, Estrella recalled what was going through his mind at each point of that first win 10 years ago this weekend, a run that was capped by a mental duel with himself that nearly cost him the victory.

It's an experience any runner preparing to run this weekend's race can appreciate because it happens to just about all marathoners regardless of their pace. And, as Estrella knows, it's not fun.

"It was my first time running a marathon, and I heard about 'The Wall,' " he said. "But when I reached that point where it hit me, I remember thinking, 'This was worse than what they were talking about. Something's wrong with me. I'm not going to make it.' And that thinking just fed into it."

Driving on the Wantagh State Parkway, where a significant portion of the race is run, Estrella remembered the moment when he saw his Kellenberg track team cheering for him from the sideline for the final time in the race. They had been following him through the course, catching up with him at various points and providing much-appreciated updates on the runners immediately behind him.

"Mr. Estrella, you have a 10-minute lead on second-place guy," Estrella remembers them yelling at him from around the 23-mile marker. And Estrella smiled at the memory of what happened next. He said he thought to himself: "You've won this. That's it. It's done."

Only that's when it all nearly came apart.

Estrella said he had been averaging about high-5-minute miles up until that point, but once the pain and fatigue set in he slowed down considerably. Having kept track of his mile splits on his watch, Estrella said he suddenly was running the final three miles at a 10-minute pace.

"I'm not going to finish," he thought. "I'm not going to be able to do this."

Having "willed" himself to continue pushing, Estrella entered Eisenhower Park for the race's final stretch still in the lead, which gave him some comfort. The race was almost over and he wasn't going to blow it.

But with the finish line in sight, Estrella saw his team again, but this was a much different scene than their previous meeting. Suddenly, the kids were frantically screaming and pointing behind him.

"He's right behind you!" they yelled, and even 10 years later Estrella can still hear the words. "There was this sense of panic," he said, "that I had run 26 miles and I was going to lose it right at the end."

But he held on just long enough, winning by a mere nine seconds. The overwhelming sensation when he crossed the finish line was one of "relief," he said, because he won but also because he was done.


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