The American is making the step up from the half marathon distance this weekend.

NEW ORLEANS — When Ben Bruce was at San Diego Community College, he talked his track coach into letting him run the 3,000-meter steeplechase to “break up the monotony” of cross country. After that, he became one of the nation’s top steeplechasers.

On Sunday, the 31-year-old Bruce will venture into another event — the marathon. He will be making his debut in the 26-mile, 385-yard race and is considered among the top contenders in the Rock ‘n’ Roll New Orleans Marathon. This time, he has a bigger goal in mind. Bruce, who has run on three U.S. world teams — in cross-country, in the half marathon, and on the track in the steeplechase — hopes this will be a springboard to landing a berth on the 2016 U.S. Olympic team.

He doesn’t have any illusion of running a fast time Sunday, but says, “I’m not focused on time for this race. I just want to win and get experience in the marathon. A 2:10 time would be out of the ballpark. I’m not going out at that pace. 2:15 would be nice. If it’s hot and humid, it would be suicidal to go out at a fast pace.”

If successful, he plans on running another marathon in the fall. Although he has yet to run a marathon, he already has qualified for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials in Los Angeles based on his half-marathon time of 1:02:53 at Houston on Jan. 19.

Solomon Kandie of Kenya, who won the P.F. Chang’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Arizona Marathon earlier this month, was expected to be one of Bruce’s main contenders on Sunday, but he withdrew from the race late Wednesday.

The other elite runners in the field include Ryan Neely, 24, of Berkeley, Calif., winner of the 2013 Rock ‘n’ Roll Arizona Marathon, who in the past 12 months also has won the Half Moon Bay and Santa Cruz marathons as well as the Marin Ultra Challenge 50K; Ryan McGuire, 31, of Middleburg, Pa., fourth in his marathon debut at Philadelphia in 2010; and Steve Chu, 31, of Colorado Springs, Colo., winner of the 2012 Omaha Marathon.

“I’m not concerned about the opposition,” Bruce says. “That way I might get caught up in someone else’s race plan.”

RELATED: L.A. To Host 2016 Olympic Trials Marathon

His strategy is to go out “conservatively.”

“I should be able to be up front early in the race,” he says, “and I want to have something left for the finish.”

The marathoners will be running with the half-marathoners for about the first 12 miles before they separate. Then the marathoners will be on their own for the final 14 miles.

The versatile Bruce has been competing professionally for about 10 years, running distances from 1500m to the half marathon. So far, his first love is for the steeplechase, in which he has a PR of 8:19.10 at an invitational meet in Barcelona in 2011, a race that earned him a spot on the U.S. worlds team. Should the marathon not go well Sunday, Bruce said he would try for a berth on the Olympic team in the steeplechase, rather than the 5000m or 10,000m.

“The steeplechase is more of a strength event, so I would go back to that,” he says. “The early pace in the steeple is the same as in the 5 or the 10K on the track. But in those events, you would be running about 53 seconds at the finish and I don’t think I could go that fast.”

RELATED: Kastor Headlines Field In New Orleans

Bruce played golf and soccer and ran cross country in high school in San Diego. In college, he decided upon track. “I knew running was the best sport for me,” he says. “The steeplechase, because of its barriers and the water hazards, brought more intrigue to me than just running around the track. I also became good at the steeplechase, so I fell in love with it. The steeplechase also is a less tactical race than the others. I always enjoyed the steeplechase, and it came naturally to me.”

On Sunday, Bruce will find out if the marathon also comes naturally and if it’s a good fit for his Olympic ambitions.