In the state running records log, Diego Zuazua’s times have an asterisk.
Zuazua was born in Mexico. So despite running Tennessee’s fastest half-marathon time for his age, he is not fully recognized as the record holder. He is not a U.S. citizen.
But, when it comes to world records, no asterisk is needed.
Zuazua knows that because, in February, the Ravenwood High School freshman set the world record for the fastest half-marathon time for a 14-year-old.
Facing the gravel, puddles and mud of Cedars of Lebanon State Park, Zuazua finished the 13.1-mile Frostbite course in 1 hour, 15 minutes, 13 seconds — breaking a record set more than four decades ago by California runner Mitch Kingery in 1971.
Zuazua’s record (which, for us older, slower runners who may be interested in comparisons, translates to a pace of 5:45 per mile) comes at a time when young runners across the country seem to be setting a faster and faster tread. In the past three years, new half marathon world records have been set for boys ages 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11, 13 and 14, with Zuazua’s being the most recent.
A few years ago, the book “Born to Run” examined humans as distance runners. It chronicled the incredible endurance feats of the Tarahumara Indians, who live isolated in Mexico’s Copper Canyons and traverse the network of narrow footpaths through the rocky terrain. The book also sparked the barefoot running revolution.
A section in the book explores how one becomes a great endurance runner. Zuazua “has checked all those boxes,” his high school coach, Pete Mueller, says. They include good genetics, a supportive family and community, and, most significant, an incredible work ethic.
In middle school, Zuazua would get up and do morning runs before class.
“When I was that age I could barely get up in time to catch the bus, much less run 4 miles, shower, and then catch the bus,” Mueller says. “While he is incredibly gifted, I think his discipline and dedication are what set him apart.”
Some of his success, it would seem, comes through the example of his parents, immigrants who travel the world with their family for his father’s job with Bridgestone Americas. Both Mom and Dad are seasoned distance athletes. Zuazua’s mom, Claudia Herrera, has logged almost 30 marathons and more than 35 half marathons — all since her first, the Rock ‘n’ Roll Nashville half marathon, in 2007.
Herrera began running when the family first moved to the United States. Pregnant and with no nearby family or friends, she wanted something to look forward to, something she had never done before. “I picked running because I hated it,” she says with a laugh.
Zuazua and his younger brother often attended her races as spectators. When the swim team fell out of favor and soccer season ended, Herrera suggested her sons give running a try. “Would you like to get a medal like me?” she asked her boys. Of course, they answered yes.
She signed Zuazua up for his first race, the Superhero 5K in Birmingham, Ala., at age 11. He doesn’t remember much other than “I was in sixth grade, and it was a pretty chilly day.” He felt confident.
“I kept repeating in my head, ‘Just run fast, and see what you can do,’ ” Zuazua says.
He finished third in the 9- to 11-year-old male age group with a time of 24:06. He took off from there. Before he started high school, Zuazua claimed the Tennessee record in the half marathon for a 12-year-old.
At Ravenwood this fall, he became the school’s all-time fastest cross country runner, setting a school record with a time of 15:47. He finished 21st overall at the Class AAA high school state cross country meet with a 16:42 time. He was the second-fastest freshman in the state across all classifications behind Brentwood Academy’s Carter Cheeseman, and he was the first freshman in the chute at the Division I Class AAA state meet.
With such an impressive short-distance showing, Mueller actually tried to convince Zuazua to race the mile indoors in the offseason between cross country and track. The coach thought the freshman could qualify for the New Balance Indoor Nationals and go compete in New York.
But Zuazua wanted to pursue the half-marathon record instead.
With high school track season underway, and Zuazua now running the 1,600-meter (about one mile) and 3,200-meter events, that short-distance goal may be next. And then? Well, Mueller sees Olympic training in longer distances.
“I’ve read almost every book on running out there,” Mueller says. “And one thing elite distance runners have in common is that almost all of them started out just like Diego — a high school kid with big dreams.”
Foremost though, running remains a connection to family. The sport brings the Zuazuas together. Every time they move to a new state or country they start from zero, no family or friends.
“Running we can do anywhere,” Diego’s mom says. “The four of us, together.”
With Diego always waiting for them at the finish line.