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A Marathon for the Fastest and a Challenge for the Masses

Some of the fastest women in the country will compete at the Marathon Project this winter in Arizona, but runners of all abilities will have a chance to get involved.

Sara Hall started 2020 with what she describes as the biggest heartbreak of her career, dropping out of the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials on February 29, around mile 22, beaten by the brutal hills on the Atlanta course. Little did she (or anyone) know that it would also serve as one of the last opportunities to race in the months ahead, while COVID-19 spread around the world.

Hall, 37, wanted redemption from that performance and a chance to prove the fitness she knew she had built to prepare for the Trials. The pandemic, of course, made that wish harder to fulfill than she ever anticipated, until October 4, when she had the opportunity to race the elite-only London Marathon. In a furious finishing kick over the last meters of that 26.2-mile race, Hall sprinted to second place in a personal best 2:22:01, charging past Ruth Chepng’etich, the reigning world marathon champion, who crossed the line four seconds later.

From the low point in Atlanta to the race of her career in London, Hall, who lives in Flagstaff, Arizona, still isn’t ready to wind down for the year. Next up she’s planning to race the Marathon Project, another elite-only race on December 20, in Chandler, Arizona.

“The day of the [London Marathon] we were already talking about what was next,” Hall said on Thursday, during a press conference for the Marathon Project. “As someone who races more than most, it’s been really hard for me, so I can’t wait to toe the line again. It’s such a gift.”

The pandemic has forced coaches and other industry leaders to take on the added responsibility of executing new, COVID-19-safe races for professional athletes. The Marathon Project is the creation of Ben Rosario, the coach of Northern Arizona Elite; Matt Helbig, from Big River Race Management; and Josh Cox, agent to some of the top runners in the country, including 2018 Boston Marathon winner Desiree Linden.

The field is limited to about 50 men and 50 women who qualified, and the course, a flat 4.3-mile out-and-back with roundabouts at each end, will be closed to spectators. Hall comes in with the fastest time, but she’ll face challenges, including Atsede Baysa of Ethiopia, who trains in the U.S. and won the 2016 Boston Marathon and the 2012 Chicago Marathon, where she also set her PR of 2:22:03. Some of the top finishers from the Olympic Trials are also planning to compete, including Stephanie Bruce (sixth), Emma (Bates) Ulmer (seventh), Kellyn Taylor (eighth), and Julia Kohnen (10th).

Although Hall’s race in London was her best to date (and lands her as the sixth-fastest woman in U.S. history), the cold, rainy conditions, the silence on the course, and the fact that she ran nearly the entire way by herself leaves room for improvement, she said. Her splits in training indicate that on a more perfect day she could vie for Deena Kastor’s American record (2:19:36).

“I’m able to run long tempos in the 5:20s pretty consistently at altitude now,” Hall said. “So that is a good indicator.”

Rosario said that officials will follow Arizona state, U.S.A. Track & Field, and World Athletics health and safety protocols to mitigate COVID-19 spread, including testing before the event.

“We can do this. We can put on events…Let’s do them really safely and let’s take all the precautions we possibly can,” Rosario said. “But our sport is a professional sport, too, just like football and baseball and basketball and soccer that you’re watching on TV, our sport is professional too and we’re going to move it forward.”

Live streaming and broadcast information is forthcoming, but as a means of getting fans and recreational runners involved, the organization will announce a virtual challenge during the 26 days leading up to the race—which doubles as a way to cover some of the costs involved with putting on the event. Details and registration will come soon.

“We have a charity partner for it and of course it is going to be a revenue-generator for this event,” Rosario said. “The more revenue we’re able to generate through sponsors, through the virtual challenge, the better we’re going to make this event for the athletes in person and for the fans watching.”