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On the Sidelines at The Marathon Project

How crazy would I have looked if I told you at the start of 2020 that there will be this race that doesn’t yet exist called The Marathon Project vying with the Olympic Marathon Trials for the title of America's premier marathon of the year?

My early-2020-self probably would have loved the out-there thinking of the idea but most people would have scoffed at me.

Fast forward 12 months though and I found myself in Arizona, in December, watching a who's who of American marathoning prepare to run a 4.3 mile looped course in front of no spectators: The Marathon Project was on. It wasn't a normal race, but then very little in 2020 has been normal. However, it did have that unique race day atmosphere – tension mingling with expectation and hope. Before the gun goes, everything is still possible.

The Marathon Project was the brainchild of Ben Rosario, the coach of the professional running team HOKA Northern Arizona Elite; Josh Cox, agent and 50K U.S. record holder; and Matt Helbig, owner of Big River Running and Race Management. Assembling a race during a pandemic to not only follow USATF protocols but, do everything in your power to make sure that it’s safe is no small feat.

In the opening section of their press release they promised months ago; “a flat, fast course”. Many races claim to have a fast course, some do, some miss the mark with turns that take away from your pace, but this was impeccable. I’ve been in this sport for over half my life now and other than maybe a flat-straight bike path (American River in Sacramento), I’m not sure that there are too many other segments of road that could beat this course.

The course contained loops of just under 4.3 miles/6.9 km's and during each loop runners would circle two roundabouts and make one turn to another street. Other than that, it was just long straightaways, with mountains in the distance, no wind and perfect temperatures of 39F/4C. And, with the course being in a remote spot, there were no fans and none of the large crowds of runners that are typically packed into the corral – the start area was very low-key.

I arrived in a dirt lot about 90 minutes before the race to catch the course as the sun rose over the San Tan Mountains. I’ve shot at a ton of events and every time I get just as nervous as I do (or more, really) than when I’m out competing. The fun part of event photography is that it’s raw, unstaged and the atmosphere is important to capture. The start of the Marathon Project didn't have the atmosphere we've come to expect at marathons. In fact, it was a bit eerie as, even when the race was minutes away from starting, there were no fans out to bring the noise. But there was still a story to document and it was exciting to see it play out.

On both the male and female sides, it was American heavy fields. Big names included Keira D’Amato, Sara Hall, Emma Bates, Scott Fauble, Jared Ward and many more. There were standards to get into the race and then within that, various pace groups were created to make sure fast times were hit.

In the women’s race, eyes and lenses were on Sara Hall and Kellyn Taylor. The pre-race hype was built around Sara as she made it known that she was shooting for Deena Kastor’s American Record of 2:19:36. But the tenacious Kellyn Taylor was right there with Sara through the ½ marathon splitting 1:09:36. Behind them, the rest of the field was running strongly with Emma Bates, Steph Bruce and Keira D’Amato ahead of a slew of American women chasing the 2:30 barrier. The race was delivering on its promise: it was fast.

The men were also proving the pre-race predictions to be true. A huge pack of athletes were in the front group, on pace for 2:09:00. No one had run that time before but you have to shoot your shot. Through 35 km many of the brave souls had slipped away, but there were still nine men on pace.

7 km to go. Lots of racing remained.

The unique part about this course is that I was able to get to so many spots to shoot, plus there was the silver lining to no fans being present – it was logistically much easier to maneuver with two cameras in tow. But, as the race closed in on its final kilometers, I needed to hustle to two more spots to catch the lead woman (Sara Hall) and men before they finished.

When I saw Sara for the final time before I shot towards the finish, she looked strong. I know she’s a grinder but I honestly had no idea, at this point, how close she was to the American Record. In the heat of the moment, even with less commotion of fans, I'm fixated on getting the shot, taking a peak or two at how the athlete looks and then taking off to the next spot.

Sara powered to the line at the finish stopping the clock at 2:20:32. Just off the record but still her second personal best in the space of 3 months and the second-fastest time ever by an American. Keira D’Amato picked people off in the final miles and stormed to a second-place finish along with an astonishing 12-minute personal best. After coming through in her ½ marathon best, Kellyn Taylor still gutted out a 3rd place finish and a time of 2:25:22.

On the men’s side of things, I was able to get caught up on who was leading through various group chats that were draining my phone battery, while I waited for the men to pass the final spot I was at before the finish. A lot of breakthrough names popped up, a big one to note, the winner Martin Hehir had himself a day. Hehir took the men’s title and just snuck under 2:09 with a time of 2:08:59, a best by over 2 minutes.

Martin is a dad of two young girls and a full-time med student, heading out the door to log the majority of his miles at 5 am before he heads into the hospital.

His splits for his ½ marathons were: 1:04:29 and 1:04:30. I’m not sure anyone was more inspiring or consistent on the day. Knowing Martin he’d say what he does isn’t anything crazy but it’s truly awesome to see someone logging long hours taking care of Covid patients becoming one of the best American marathoners of all time.

Just 5 seconds back of Hehir, Noah Droddy chopped over 2 minutes off of his best running 2:09:09, which came at the price of regurgitating his Gatorade onto the asphalt just seconds after crossing the line. Droddy’s run was especially meaningful as getting there wasn’t easy – he’d had a number of DNF’s and DNS’ over the years. Martin’s teammate, Colin Bennie ended up in 3rd place with a breakout race finishing in 2:09:38. He seems to be a natural marathoner as he’d placed 9th in his debut marathon at the U.S. Olympic Trials.

Two records did fall in Arizona. Keira D'Amato, with her 2:22:56, ran the fastest marathon ever recorded on Strava by a woman. She's the queen, if you will. And Nathan Martin ran 2:11:05 crossing the line in ninth place. It was the fastest marathon ever by a Black man born in the U.S.

The Marathon Project provided a real high note for the running community at the end of an extremely tough, long and sad year across the globe due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The results were staggering, with 12 women going sub-2:30 and seven men going sub-2:10 The Marathon Project was one of the deepest races in history on American soil and I think, based off of its success, it brings a lot of questions for the future of American marathoning:

Do professional only marathons have a role going forward? Does racing less give us the chance to produce a really special one? And will we ever see a race this deep and fast from Americans again?