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Northern Arizona Elite Beginning to Make Its Mark

Kellyn Johnson of Northern Arizona Elite will run Rock ‘n’ Roll San Jose this weekend.

There are people who think about their dreams. The Dream Job. Dream Vacation. Dream Car. Dream House. Dream Mate. And most people stop right there, dreaming. Never putting a plan into action.

Then there’s Ben Rosario.

Rosario is 34 years old, lives in Flagstaff, Ariz., and has lived the running lifestyle at almost every level.

Athlete: a two-time U.S. Olympic Trials qualifier in the marathon.

Entrepreneur: former co-owner of successful running shoe stores.

Coach: Three of his athletes landed in the Olympic Trials.

Rosario’s dream? Create a professional running team that enables talented athletes to continue chasing the stopwatch long after their college careers have vanished. Run the team like a business. Coach the athletes. Celebrate their successes.

In January, Rosario launched Northern Arizona Elite in Flagstaff. Is the man all in? Put it this way: to date, Rosario and wife his have personally invested more than $50,000 in the program.

“It might be closer to $100,000,” he says.

RELATED: Competitor Hangout: Ben Rosario on Sponsorship in Professional Running

On Sunday, one of Rosario’s athletes, Kellyn Johnson, will line up at the Rock ’n’ Roll San Jose Half Marathon.  The reigning U.S. 25K champion, Johnson boasts a 1:11:51 best in the half marathon. She’s hoping to dip under 1:11 at San Jose.

“We think she’s going to be a real good marathoner, soon,” says Rosario. “She has two big things going for her. One, she doesn’t get hurt. She can pile on tons of training month after month, year after year. And number two, like Deena (Kastor), she’s fiercely competitive.”

For now, Northern Arizona Elite is limited to eight runners, five men and three women.

“Eight to 10 has worked well for us so far,” Rosario says. “I feel if you get the numbers too big, chemistry can become an issue.”

While the club has been in existence less than a year, the athletes are grabbing headlines.

• Jordan Chipangama, 25, finished fourth at Grandma’s Marathon in June in 2:12:22.
• Matt Llano ran 1:01:47 at the U.S. Half Marathon championships in Houston, qualifying for the world half marathon championships.
• Ben Bruce has won three Rock ‘n’ Roll marathons this year—New Orleans, San Diego and Montreal.
• Stephanie Bruce, Ben’s wife, has clocked a 1:10:51 half.
• Scott Smith boasts a 1:03:18 half marathon and will line up Sunday at the Twin Cities Marathon.
• Amy Van Alstine is the reigning U.S. cross country champion.

Obviously, when you invest $50,000 to $100,000 of your own money in something, it’s not a hobby.

“I feel passionately about it because this is what I’ve loved my whole adult life, professional running,” Rosario says. “I ran on one of those teams for two years. (the Hansons-Brooks Original Distance Project). I had success with my stores. I was fortunate. I worked very hard and was able to make a profit.

“Everything I have in this life has been given to me because of this sport. I want to give back to it.”

The three most established professional programs for road runners are: the Asics Mammoth Track Club; the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project in Rochester Hills, Mich.; and Zap Fitness in Rolling Rock, N.C.

“I know we’re young,” says Rosario, “but I would put us in that conversation (with the big three), based at least in terms of results.”

Rosario runs the program not as a non-profit, but instead very much like a for-profit business. He sees no difference in Northern Arizona Elite and a professional sports franchise where companies pay sponsorships fees for advertising rights.

“Companies spend money to be on the scoreboard or a baseball team’s outfield wall,” says Rosario. “They don’t do it out of the goodness of their heart. They feel there’s a return for the investment.”

For running endemic companies, the ROI (return on investment) could come in several forms: similar to race-car drivers, athlete signage at races; signage at expos or on Northern Arizona Elite’s Web page; athletes helping with product design; social media, etc.

Rosario has landed the online software tool company Training Peaks as a national sponsor and is negotiating for a title sponsor.

Yes, the man is seeking to make a profit. And Rosario’s hoping there’s a trickle-down to his athletes.

“There’s plenty of money in running,” he says. “The problem for a long time was that athletes were never able to get their hands on it.

“Runners had all these ties to amateurism, this Olympic ideal that athletes didn’t deserve to be paid. That they should do it for the love of the sport. So they’ve taken weak contracts and never been paid as they should.

“I’m hoping that can change.”

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About The Author:
Don Norcross is a San Diego-based sports writer, follow him on Twitter @Don_Norcross.