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On Sunday, we’ll watch something we haven’t seen much of in 2020, at least in the United States: professional athletes racing 26.2 miles for prize money, performance bonus incentives, bragging rights, and possibly even a new American record.
After COVID-19 shut down most major marathons this year, two industry leaders—Ben Rosario, coach of Northern Arizona Elite, and Josh Cox, an agent for many of America’s top distance-running performers—wanted to fill the void, at least for those whose careers depend on racing. They created the elite-only Marathon Project, which will feature many of the top finishers from the Olympic Marathon Trials in February, competing on a spectator-free 4.3-mile loop located south of Phoenix, on the Gila River Indian Reservation.
“I think everybody knows that this year, nothing is a given,” said Stephanie Bruce, who placed sixth at the Trials and will race on Sunday, during a press conference on Wednesday on Zoom. “I think for us, just every opportunity we have to be on a starting line is kind of a gift in 2020. It’s crazy to think that the Olympic Trials Marathon was just 10 months ago. It feels like 10 years ago.”
Here’s everything you need to know about how to watch the Marathon Project, who is competing, what they’re trying to achieve, and why.
The Marathon Project Broadcast
The live race broadcast begins at 9:45 a.m. Eastern on Sunday on USATF.tv, with commentary by 2018 Boston Marathon champion Desiree Linden, five-time Olympian Bernard Lagat, and Paul Swangard. A subscription is required. A 90-minute recap show is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Eastern on Sunday on NBC Sports Network (NBCSN).
The 4.3-mile loop is adjacent to Chandler, Arizona, located in the Gila River Indian Community. The Reservation was established in 1859, and it’s now home to members of the Akimel O’odham (Pima) and the Pee-Posh (Maricopa) tribes (read more on the history of the Indigenous people who have lived here since 300 B.C.).
The course, which will be closed to spectators, is designed to give athletes an opportunity to clock some personal bests. Many of these runners can earn bonuses from their sponsors for hitting pre-determined marks. The women’s race, which includes 42 athletes, will have four groups, paced by men, shooting for finish times of 2:19; 2:23; 2:26; and 2:29. The men’s side (52 runners) will have groups paced for 2:09 and 2:11.
Some of the competitors who live in proximity to the area have gotten the chance to run workouts on the course and get a feel for what they’re in for on Sunday. Each end of the loop requires negotiating a traffic roundabout—the turns could get a little tiresome as the miles wear on.
“It certainly has the potential to produce some very fast times,” said Kellyn Taylor, who trains with Northern Arizona Elite and comes into the race with a personal best of 2:24:28.
The Women (and the American record)
The field of women competitors includes some of the biggest names from the Olympic Marathon Trials, including Bruce (sixth), Taylor (eighth), Emma Bates (seventh), and Julia Kohnen (10th). Keira D’Amato, who recently set the American record for 10 miles (51:23) for a women’s-only race, will be there, too. Sara Hall, who didn’t finish at the Trials, is generating the most pre-race buzz, however, after placing second in October at the elite-only London Marathon in 2:22:01, her best so far.
Hall, 37, said that her training since that race in London has indicated she could set a new American record on Sunday, and she’s asked that the pacers take her through halfway in 69:40. She’d have to finish faster than 2:19:36, the mark held by Deena Kastor since 2006. Her primary goal, however, isn’t the record but simply running as fast as she can, Hall said.
“I can be kind of all-or-nothing, so I don’t want to be in this scenario where I’m running really well and if I’m just off the American record pace it feels like I’m failing, because I still think that’d be a big success,” she said.
Jared Ward (2:09:25), who placed sixth at the 2016 Rio Games, and Scott Fauble (2:09:09), a member of Northern Arizona Elite, headline the American side of the men’s race. They’ll face a few other top-10 Trials finishers like CJ Albertson (seventh), Colin Bennie (ninth), and Matt McDonald (10th).
“I want to compete to win,” Fauble said. “We can get focused on times and we can get focused on splits and stuff like that, but all my [personal bests] have come from racing. So I’m going in with the goal of winning.”
Ward didn’t argue with that strategy.
“It seems that the consensus here is that we have a few athletes with some clashes of goals—that, or a united front,” Ward said during the press conference. “I also want to win and to run very fast. It seems this race is shaping up to be a good opportunity for all of us.”
The field also includes international entrants Amanuel Mesel Tikue (2:08:17) of Eritrea and Jose Antonio Uribe Marino (2:08:55) of Mexico. Cam Levins, who competes for Canada, is going for 2021 Olympic qualification and needs to finish in at least 2:11:30 to put himself in contention for the team.
The COVID-19 Issue
The race doesn’t come without risk (nothing does in 2020) but Rosario and Cox have implemented COVID-19 testing requirements for athletes, volunteers, and credentialed media. They are also following protocols required by USA Track & Field, World Athletics, and the state of Arizona.
Still, many are traveling from outside the area to compete or otherwise be involved in the race, and cases in the area are spiking, as they are in most regions of the country. The Gila River Indian Community, which reports 30 members who have died of COVID-19 since March, is currently under a stay-at-home executive order and a face mask mandate. As of Thursday, Arizona reported 5,817 new cases in 24 hours and statewide ICU bed availability of 8 percent.
Athletes are required to show proof of two negative COVID-19 tests taken 24 hours apart within seven days of the race. Media members and volunteers are required to show one negative test in the week leading up to the Marathon Project. Masks are required at all times on the course for non-runners. And those traveling to the race are encouraged to stay at the hotel, to create somewhat of a “bubble.” Temperature checks will also be required.
Marty Hehir, who is competing on Sunday, has a unique perspective on the situation. He’s traveling from Philadelphia, where he’s in his last year of medical school and has been treating COVID-19 patients in the ICU. He said the ICU is “just as scary as it’s hyped up to be,” but that he appreciates the safety measures put in place at the race.
“[Racing] opportunities are far and few between,” Hehir said. “As long as we feel like it’s being done in a safe way, a lot of us are going to jump on it.”
Cox emphasized that he and Rosario wanted to create an option for athletes who have faced a lot of uncertainty in their careers without the opportunity to compete, to meet contract obligations and potentially earn some money (first place will get $5,000, second place gets $2,000, and third place $1,000).
“It was really on the heels of two athletes calling me. They were getting choked up with just uncertainty about their future and their contracts and even when they would ever get an opportunity to race again,” Cox said. “I represent these athletes, but they’re my friends. We just really wanted to put this on for the athletes.”