Ben Rosario has been a coach and competitive runner. He was a running store owner from 2006 to 2012 and part of a race management team in his native St. Louis, where he organized well over 100 events, including the 2012 and 2013 U.S. cross-country championships.

“A national championship was a huge undertaking, but so fun,” says Rosario, who now lives in Flagstaff, Ariz., with his wife Jen and daughter Addison. “It was a rewarding experience and I feel this will be that — times one hundred.”

He is speaking of The Marathon Project, an elite-only professional race this Sunday in Chandler — 270 kilometres south of Flagstaff — and the brainchild of agent Josh Cox, Rosario and Matt Helbig, Rosario’s former business partner with Big River Running Company.

Rosario expects 100-110 participants divided equally between men and women, including seven Canadians, to line up for the 10 a.m. ET start that will be live streamed on USATF.TV, with a 90-minute replay following in prime time at 7:30 p.m. on NBC Sports Network.

“This is an event to provide athletes an opportunity to compete, the top athletes an opportunity to earn bonuses from their individual sponsors via their [finishing] times, and some of the international athletes a chance to make an Olympic team,” says Rosario, 39, coach of Northern Arizona Elite.

In mid-July, after Chicago was the fourth of the World Marathon Majors to cancel this year due to the coronavirus pandemic, Rosario sent a text message to Cox.

“We gotta do a pro-only marathon,” it read. “I know we could do it and know it could be safe.”

Rosario, who dipped into his savings six years ago to form NAZ Elite and has seen it grow into a 14-member powerhouse, was concerned about the limited racing opportunities for his own athletes and others in the sport.

“I’m a huge sports fan and was seeing these other sports and leagues figure out a way to survive and provide entertainment for their fans,” he says. “There was no reason we couldn’t do the same.”

Once Rosario, Cox and Helbig sent out “feelers” to top athletes, coaches and agents to gauge interest in the event, it became immediately clear there wouldn’t be a problem attracting a talented field.

Rosario first visited Phoenix Raceway, a NASCAR track in Avondale, Ariz., as a potential location and looked at “three or four” others on the Internet before choosing “Loop Road” on the Gila River Indian Reservation in mid-September, a flat 6.9 km out-and-back loop with a roundabout at each end.

“It’s kind of an isolated area,” Rosario says. “It was important not to have spectators for obvious safety reasons from a health perspective. We felt [this course] would be a lot easier to manage as we couldn’t risk being on open roads where folks could step out of their house and watch.”

Rosario and his staff will follow Arizona state, USATF and World Athletics health and safety protocols to mitigate COVID-19 spread, including testing before the 42.2 km event.

While some runners received automatic entry to The Marathon Project, including top-25 finishers at the U.S. Olympic trials and Americans with a top-15 finish at a World Marathon Major each of the past two years, others had to register within a two-week window and pay the $150 US entry fee.

“It was expensive, but we didn’t have any revenue and had to make sure we could pay the venue,” Rosario says. “As soon as we opened registration we got flooded with entries.”

While organizing a race isn’t new to Rosario, it’s been a while, but he’s enjoyed working again with Helbig.

“It’s got that fire going again,” says Rosario, who placed second at the 2005 U.S. marathon championships. “He’s a logistical wizard and leaves no stone unturned. I think both of us and Josh, we’re going to be proud that in a [pandemic] we gave these athletes an opportunity to compete.

“I’m looking forward to watching the race as a fan as much as I am organizing the race. We’re fans, too.”

Sara Hall, the first American to mount the podium at the London Marathon in 14 years with a second-place finish on Oct. 4, enters The Marathon Project as the top women’s seed with a 2:22:01 personal best. The 37-year-old Flagstaff resident has trained on the event course a couple of times, according to Rosario.

“Some of Sara’s comments about the course being ‘very, very fast’ have circulated among the athletes and that’s got everybody excited,” he says.

“I think there is a thirst to see this kind of [elite] field and depth competing in one place. There are a lot of people trying to make their Olympic team and fighting for their future, in terms of sponsorship.

“There are others trying to, perhaps, get some revenge on what happened at the [U.S. Olympic marathon] trials [in late February] if they didn’t make the team. All these things create an atmosphere and tension on the start line that is unique. You usually only get it at the Olympic trials or Olympic Games.”

Canadian record holder Cam Levins and Kinsey Middleton, the top Canadian women’s finisher at the 2018 Toronto Waterfront Marathon, are eyeing the respective 2:11:30 and 2:29:30 Tokyo Olympic standards.

“This is not your regular big-city marathon so it’s interesting in that regard. The [men’s lead pack] going out at 2:09 is potentially Canadian record pace,” says Levins, who didn’t finish in the cool and rainy conditions of the London Marathon on Oct. 4. “If I lower the [2:09:25] Canadian record I should be in good position for being selected for the Olympics.”

Middleton is competing in a non-virtual race for the first time since surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff in her left shoulder in late June.

“I’m ready for some warm weather,” the Boise, Idaho resident says, laughing. “The goal is to go out at Olympic standard pace, and training has indicated that is in the realm of possibilities. There’s an opportunity for a ton of fast performances and I’d love to be among them.”

Adds Rosario: “I don’t think we’re going to see any world records, but I think we might see national records and certainly tons and tons of personal bests.”

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