© Copyright – 2020 – Athletics Illustrated

The road to hell may be paved with good intentions, but the road to redemption is paved with blood.

A few dozen North American athletes have their own reasons for racing Sunday, December 20 in Chandler, Arizona. Some sound as though they are prepared to bleed, metaphorically-speaking. However, some are just grateful for the good intentions of race organisers Josh Cox, Ben Rosario and Matt Helbig for putting on The Marathon Project during the coronavirus pandemic.

Given social distancing protocols and the prospects of a marathon in the sunny Sonoran Desert, it is not beginning to look a lot like Christmas. However, it is beginning to look a lot like the perfect marathon scenario.

During an online media conference on Wednesday, the consensus was that the athletes are feeling very fit. Additionally, the course seems fast, and the forecast calls for a cool start at 6-8C (43F) with a mild finish around 14-15C (57-58F), with light winds and sunny skies expected.

Lining up is 100 of North America’s better marathon runners made up by 50 women and 50 men.

Who will be racing?

Sara Hall coming off her 2020 London Marathon performance of 2:22:01 on Oct. 4, and Scott Fauble with his 2:09:09, 2019 Boston Marathon best time are the North Americans leading the field. Eritrean Amanuel Mesel Tikue owns the best personal record at 2:08:17, which he ran during the 2013 Valencia Marathon. Since then he has run 2:08:18 in 2015 and has pulled off a pair of 2:09s at the Fukuoka Marathon in 2017 and 2018.

Hall introduced herself with, “I am just grateful and really excited to get out there to see what I can do. It is a quick turnaround since London, but I think I can handle it and I am just happy for the opportunity to get out there and race.”  

When asked if she will be seeking the American marathon record of 2:19:36 set by Deena Kastor from London 2006, Hall suggested the possibility, “I am not calling it an American record attempt. I am going into this marathon to run the fastest race possible. I don’t want to go out at pace and find that if I am off it, then think that it wasn’t a good performance if I still have a personal record.”

“I have run faster [than pace] in training. London was not a great opportunity to run fast, so I am looking to improve on that performance with The Marathon Project on Sunday.”

Emma Bates is seeking to redeem herself from the Olympic Trials. “I wasn’t happy with the result there. I didn’t make the right moves at the right time. Once I saw that The Marathon Project was happening, I was thinking that it would be a great opportunity. I think some special things will happen on Sunday and I am excited to get started.”

Bates finished the Olympic Trials Marathon in the time of 2:29:35. Her best is 2:25:27 from Chicago in Oct. 2019. She finished seventh overall and a cruel five seconds outside of the Olympic Standard and finished just 43 seconds behind Sally Kipyego who took third place.

Among the women in the presser, there was a sense of gratitude towards the opportunity to race. Interestingly Stephanie Bruce and Kellyn Taylor who bookended Bates in Atlanta for sixth and eighth positions, respectively and finished within 44 seconds of each other are also toeing-the-line, which should make for a very exciting race.

The men

In the men’s field, Jared Ward appears to be the feistiest. He and Scott Fauble own similar personal bests. They finished 16 seconds apart in the 2019 Boston Marathon at 2:09:09 and 2:09:25, respectively. Both want to race hard and are willing to do what they need to do to win.

Right with them is Canada’s Cameron Levins who enters the race owning a 2:09:25 best. It is the Canadian record, however, wasn’t achieved during the Tokyo Olympic qualification window. He needs to run sub-2:11:30 on Sunday.

During the London Marathon, he went out fast at approximately 2:08 pace, however, the cool temperatures slowed him considerably and he eventually dropped out. Given the limited opportunities to race before Tokyo, he will indeed be seeking that standard.

Asked if he will go out fast or controlled, he said, “I am going to go for Olympic standard. A strong second half will be good for everyone. I have been on the course and it is fast. I will play it more safely than I did in London and of course, the weather is going to be much better.”

Asked how many of the athletes will finish sub-2:10, there wasn’t a consensus. Fauble said, “20 will go out at that pace, 10 will finish under 2:10.”

Levins setting the Canadian record at the 2018 Toronto Marathon.

Ward, who happens to teach statistics at Brigham Young University disagreed. Smiling, he simply said, “five.”

The over-under according to Rosario is 6.5.

Regardless, the opportunity is well set for all athletes to earn lifetime personal bests, whether that is a national record for Hall, or Olympic standard for the Canadians which include Natasha Wodak, Kinsey Middleton, Justin Kent, Ben Preisner and Rory Linkletter or some much-needed redemption for Ward, Fauble and Bates.

Cox and company have gift-wrapped the perfect opportunity for 100 athletes to have a great post-marathon Christmas holiday.

David Katz the world’s premier course measurer handled the layout so records and standards can be certified. There will be drug testing and the prize money was announced at $5000, $2000 and $1000.

Pacing has been finalized with four groups for the women:

WOMEN: 69:40, first half (US record pace), 2:23, 2:26 and 2:29:30. All groups have multiple male pacers.

MEN: 2:09 and 2:11:30. Even splits for both groups.

Josh Cox added finally, “We really wanted to put this on for the athletes. I had some athletes call me concerned about their careers and they were a little choked up. Sure, they are my athletes, but they are also my friends. So, this is for the athletes.”