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Marathoner Nick Arciniaga readies for his 'best shot' to reach the Olympics

Marathoner Nick Arciniaga readies for his 'best shot' to reach the Olympics
Nick Arciniaga celebrates as he crosses the finish line, winning the Twin Cities Marathon in 2013. (Brian Peterson / Star Tribune)

Competing as an elite runner in a half marathon takes a considerable amount of planning. It requires many high-mileage training runs — often done at high altitude to build endurance — eating right, getting enough rest, and, sometimes, finding the right lightsaber to break the tape at the finish line.

Most runners consider the lightsaber optional. But for Nick Arciniaga of Fountain Valley, a lifelong "Star Wars" fan whose collection includes a laminated Boba Fett toilet seat, the lightsaber was a must-have accessory at the Star Wars Half Marathon on Jan. 17 in Anaheim.

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The race was no problem. Arciniaga, wearing a Darth Vader T-shirt, repeated as champion in 1 hour, 5 minutes and 49 seconds.

"More or less the biggest trouble was getting the lightsaber. I had to order it online," he said by phone from Flagstaff, Ariz., where he has trained for nearly six years.

"It shipped in a couple days, but once I got it I realized the light portion didn't work. I put in batteries and it just wouldn't light up. So I thought, 'That's unfortunate, I don't have time to order a new one.'"

Arciniaga initially planned to carry the lightsaber throughout the race but instead had his wife, Carolyn, hand it to him at a spot not far from the finish.

"She was able to hold up the lightsaber as far as she could and I was able to grab it pretty easily," he said. "Similar to how I used to do in high school, getting a baton from a teammate. It came pretty naturally. After that it was just running through the line with the lightsaber."

It never did light up, but his theatrical, saber-slashing move made for a fun moment in a race that served a serious purpose for the 32-year-old Cal State Fullerton alumnus.

The half marathon was part of Arciniaga's preparation for the U.S. Olympic marathon trials, which will be contested Feb. 13 in downtown Los Angeles. The top three finishers in the men's and women's fields will be nominated to the U.S. team for the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

This will be Arciniaga's third try for an Olympic berth, following a 17th-place finish in 2008 and eighth place in 2012. He brings in the ninth-fastest qualifying time, 2:11:47, recorded at Boston in 2014. He's hopeful that he has recovered from nagging injuries that contributed to his 16th-place finish and 2:22:07 time in the New York marathon on Nov. 1 and can now put everything together.

"This is more my best shot to make the Olympic team," said Arciniaga, whose personal-best marathon time is 2:11:30, set in 2011 at Houston. "I'm feeling great now and the Star Wars Half Marathon was exactly what I wanted to get out of it. The next [few] weeks, as long as I can stay away from any more injuries, I should be fine.

"There's about 10 to 15 guys that have a legitimate shot of making the team. I'm somewhere in that realm where I should be able to make the team. I just have to have the right day on that day."

Arciniaga primarily ran the 800- and 1,500-meter events at Fountain Valley High. "It wasn't until my last year of college that I actually ran a pretty legitimate 5K and I thought I should be doing longer distances," said Arciniaga, whose wife ran the 5,000 and the 3,000-meter steeplechase at Cal State Fullerton.

"I ran more 5Ks and after I graduated, I started running 10ks and road races and half-marathons and eventually moved on to the marathon once I realized the longer I went, the better I was doing. My first marathon I qualified for the Olympic trials and I never looked back from there."

Now, he's looking to Feb. 13. He has scoped out the course, which is mostly a six-mile loop that will be covered four times.

"It has a lot of turns, a lot of U-turns, which is not conducive to marathon running because you have to accelerate and decelerate and change pace quite a bit and in the marathon you actually want to try to find a rhythm and not have to change pace for 26 miles," he said. "That's going to be very difficult on this type of course. That layout is going to be difficult, but everybody has to deal with it. It levels the playing field, really."

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Arciniaga might have an edge in the size of his cheering section. He's expecting his and his wife's families from Orange County, along with bands and cheer squads from Fountain Valley High and schools where his friends work. "It's going to be pretty exciting, giving it more of a hometown type of favoritism," he said.

He won't be carrying a lightsaber this time, but if all goes well, the Force may still be with him.

Twitter: @helenenothelen

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