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Not many runners can claim personal records in 2020, but Sara Hall, 37, has done it twice in just 11 weeks. On Sunday in an elite-only 26.2-mile race near Chandler, Arizona, she won the Marathon Project in 2:20:32, becoming the second-fast American woman ever at the distance.
She was attempting to set a new American record, held by Deena Kastor (2:19:36) since 2006, but fell a little short. Still, it was 89 seconds better than Hall’s performance in October, when she placed second at another elite-only race, the London Marathon.
“It feels a little bittersweet, to be honest,” Hall said on Sunday. “I’ve had high expectations for myself and I felt capable of faster than that. But I feel grateful to run a big [personal record] and to be number-two, all-time in the U.S. during this year is such a gift. The competitor in me is disappointed — I maybe went out a little too hot out there.”
The conditions couldn’t have been better for marathon running, with no wind and temperatures starting out in the high 30s, climbing by the end of the race to about 47 degrees. Runners traversed a loop of the desert on the Gila River Indian Reservation, bookended every two miles with traffic roundabouts. With so few spectators and pacesetters leading each group of athletes to their predetermined goals, it felt more like a glorified workout than a race, but most runners agreed they were grateful to have any opportunity to compete during the pandemic.
Hall and Kellyn Taylor, who ultimately finished third on Sunday in 2:25:22, led the women’s field through the halfway mark in 1:09:38. Taylor fell back in the second half, however, and Hall was about nine seconds off the goal by mile 19, slowing only slightly as the miles accumulated.
“You go for it out there and that was definitely all I had today,” Hall said. “It was tough. It felt like training out there — just so quiet. I’m really looking forward to when we can get back to real races, when we can have crowds.”
After COVID-19 shut down most major marathons this year, two industry leaders — Ben Rosario, coach of Northern Arizona Elite, and Josh Cox, an agent for many of America’s top distance runners — wanted to fill the void, at least for those whose careers depend on racing. They created the Marathon Project, which featured many of the top finishers from the Olympic Marathon Trials in February. The field of 33 women finishers and 40 men competed on a mostly spectator-free 4.3-mile loop located south of Phoenix.
Athletes were required to take two COVID-19 tests, 24 hours apart, in the week leading up to the race. Volunteers, staff, and credentialed media members were also required to have a COVID-19 test in the seven days before the marathon. Everybody on the course on Sunday who was not competing wore a mask at all times.
The race, which provided pacers for men and women for several breakthrough marks, achieved what the organizers had sought to provide: a lot of fast times (seven American men broke 2:10, led by winner Marty Hehir in 2:08:59). They wanted to help pro runners who were in search of performance bonuses and sponsorship renewals during a year that had few opportunities to meet contract obligations.
But one athlete who will miss out on any performance incentive, because she is still unsponsored, is Keira D’Amato, who placed second in 2:22:56, which is her best by almost 12 minutes. She said after the race that she’s “weighing” some offers for sponsorship but isn’t in a hurry to sign on any dotted lines.
“For me, running has always been a really personal thing and my goal is just to see how fast I can run, so that would be a nice bonus for all this,” D’Amato said. “It’s not going to make or break me. I’m really proud that I’ve been able to do this my way so far. I’m proud that I’ve done it the D’Amato way.”
D’Amato set a 10-mile American record for a women’s-only race in 51:23 on November 23 in Washington, D.C. Despite the pandemic, it’s been a big year for the 36-year-old realtor and mother of two, who lives in Midlothian, Virginia. She also placed 15th in February at the Olympic Marathon Trials in her previous PR of 2:34:24. In June, she staged a 5,000-meter time trial on a track and ran 15:04, a minute faster than she ran as an athlete at American University, where she graduated in 2006. In July she ran the 10,000 meters in 32:33 and won the Michigan Pro Half Marathon in October another best, 68:57.
“I just tried to stay as relaxed as possible. I wasn’t looking at my watch. I wasn’t even concerned what mile it was. I just wanted to relax and stay right behind Ben [Bruce, her pacer],” D’Amato said on Sunday. “The legs started getting really heavy and feeling like trash, but I could breathe. Cardiovascularly I felt good. I’m pretty pumped with how that went. I’ve never nailed a marathon before.”
D’Amato passed Taylor, 34, with about 5K left in the race. After Taylor dropped from the lead pace group shortly after 13 miles, she found herself alone for the rest of the race. She did, however, set a half marathon PR (69:38) before she faded—and that’s not nothing, she said. Earlier this year, Taylor ran the Olympic Marathon Trials injured, diagnosed afterward with a tibial stress fracture. She finished eighth that day and spent most of the spring healing.
“The workouts I had been doing at home in Flagstaff, at 7,000 feet, had been equivalent to that record pace,” Taylor said. “But what you can’t account for is that overall cadence and that’s where I felt it. Cardiovascularly, that pace felt great. My legs got beat up pretty darn early. If you’re going to do anything, you might as well do it in 2020 — it was worth a shot. It wasn’t a complete disaster.”
As for the prize purse, the Hall took home $5,000, D’Amato got $2,000, and Taylor $1,000. All three will take a break now, then get back to training for the U.S. Track & Field Olympic Trials, scheduled for June in Eugene, Oregon. All three are aiming to compete in the 10,000 meters and, for D’Amato and Taylor, possibly the 5,000 meters, too. The top three at the Trials who also have the Olympic qualification times (15:10 for 5,000 meters and 33:00 for 10,000 meters) qualify for the 2021 Tokyo Games.
Hall is returning to the track after several seasons away. She said she plans to train with her Flagstaff neighbor Rachel Schneider, who recently debuted at 10,000 meters in 31:09.79.
“That’s the next focus. It’s only six months until the Trials,” Hall said. “It’s going to be here before we know it. So yeah, I’ll be transitioning to 10K training.”