On a cool, sunny, and dry Phoenix morning, 88 elite men and women toed the starting line at one of the greatest and fastest marathons of 2020. When describing great or fast marathons in America most usually think of historic and popular events like the Boston, New York City, Houston, or California International Marathon, but in a year when none of those races were run, the Marathon Project stood out to be one of, if not the most, anticipated long-distance race of the year.
The Marathon Project, born out of necessity after many of the world’s top marathons were canceled due to COVID-19, was the brainchild of HOKA NAZ Elite’s coach Ben Rosario and renowned sports agent Josh Cox. They meticulously planned a perfect race, inviting 100 of the top long-distance runners in the country and creating a fast, nearly flat course, all while ensuring strict safety precautions for all runners.
The Marathon Project did not disappoint, ending the year in a wild, fast, and entertaining race. Sara Hall clocked one of the fastest female marathon times in history, barely missing the American record. The men’s race continually left spectators on the edges of their seats as the top 10 men battled it out for first, with Martin Hehir pulling away from the lead group near the 35k mark, edging Noah Droddy by 10 seconds and leading seven men under 2:10 In addition to fast times, the Marathon Project marks the calendars as a truly memorable race. Here are five reasons why the Marathon Project’s legacy will not be quickly forgotten.
1) Sara Hall showed up and didn’t disappoint
Sara Hall dominated the women’s field, laying down 5:22 minute splits and just missing the American record with a time of 2:20:32. Leading up to the race she said, “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.” True to her word, she ran fast, hitting a 69:38 half marathon split that put her on pace to beat Deena Kastor’s 14-year-old record. Despite missing the American record, her race makes her the second U.S. woman of all-time, the fastest American time in almost 15 years.
2) It was competitive, compelling and entertaining
From Sara Hall’s near-record race to a wide-open men’s field climaxed by Martin Hehir’s impressive win, the Marathon Project epitomized long-distance running entertainment. From the start, the race was poised to be eventful, hosting eleven sub-2:12 men and six sub 2:30 women. At the 35k mark, the men’s field still had nine men on track to run a 2:09 pace; it was anyone’s guess who would close the final 7k the strongest. Martin Hehir, Noah Droddy, Colin Bennie, Scott Fauble, and a few other notable athletes battled it out, putting viewers on the edge of their seats.
In addition to stellar performances, there were a few surprising disappointments. Cam Levins finished with a time of 2:12:02 in 15th, describing the race as “beyond frustrating and disappointing,” saying that after the 30k mark “the wheels completely fell off.” Sara Inglis showed up for an inspiring and impressive marathon debut, finishing with a time of 2:29:41, yet her race ended in disappointment, missing the Olympic Standard by a heartbreaking 11 seconds. Stephanie Bruce — the sixth-place finisher at the Olympic trials — ended her race in a surprising DNF at mile 17. In and amongst the disappointment and elation was truly a drama-filled and entertaining race, giving all online viewers a phenomenal end to a seemingly disappointing 2020 race calendar.
3) It was fast
For Sara Hall to become the 2nd fastest American woman marathoner in history, it goes without saying that the Marathon Project was fast. Prior to the race, organizer Josh Cox said, “We wanted to create a flat, fast course for professional athletes so they could showcase their talents.” The results proved it was indeed speedy: an historic seven Americans broke sub 2:10, shattering the previous single-race record of four at the 2012 Olympic Trials. Winner, Martin Hehir said post-race “the pacing was immaculate. They made it easy. I’m still in a bit of disbelief. We came through the half in 64:30 and we all kind of looked around and everyone was still there feeling good, and it was like, it’s now or never.”
In addition to a speedy podium, there were several impressive marathon debuts on Sunday. Canada’s Ben Preisner’s debut time of 2:10:17 put him well under the Olympic standard of 2:11:30, giving himself a good chance to be included on the Canadian Olympic team for Tokyo. Despite Sara Inglis’ disappointment with just missing the Olympic standard, her debut effort was impressive.
4) It was a light in the dark to the running community
The Marathon Project ended the year in elation for most fans of the sport, finishing off a deeply disappointing year plagued by race cancellations with an unbelievable, drama-filled race. Prior to the event, organizer Josh Cox said, “we want to look back at 2020 and know that we did everything within our power to help not only the athletes but also the sport.”
The Marathon Project did just that, providing fans, media, brands, and athletes the opportunity to celebrate the sport. In Cox’s words, “It was everything we could have hoped for and dreamed.” In a year where there was not much to be celebrated, the Marathon Project stands as an inspirational event for all lovers of the sport.
5) It reimagined the format of professional racing
The Marathon Project reimagined how marathons could be hosted. The event proved that a fast, successful, and wildly entertaining race could be organized and executed outside of the traditional world of mega-events hosted in Boston, New York, or London. The Marathon Project has opened the door for future unconventional races and proves that an ‘off-the-cuff’ race can be a smashing success creating a handful of impressive sub 2:10 and 2:25 times — even without the presence of a large African field.
To say that the Marathon Project will leave a legacy is an understatement. Josh Cox and Ben Rosario deserve hearty applause for delivering one of the best races of 2020. From fast times to mid-race drama the Marathon Project was truly a saving grace for long-distance running in 2020.