Michigan Pro Ekiden Preview: HOKA NAZ Elite Favored in Clash of US Pro Squads

By Jonathan Gault
October 20, 2020

How do you keep athletes motivated during a global pandemic? The question is one professional coaches across America have struggled with for the past seven months. The usual goals this time of year — major marathons, national championships on the road — are not an option in 2020.

So with race organizers largely unwilling (or unable) to hold elite-only races without the mass entries to fund them, several of the country’s top distance coaches are doing it themselves. Over the next two months, dozens of the country’s top runners will gather in Michigan and Arizona to race a series of events with fields comparable to what you’d find at your typical US 10K or 20K national championships. First up is the Michigan Pro Ekiden on Wednesday, a mixed-gender, six-person road relay modeled on the famous Japanese ekidens, followed by a half marathon on October 28. Finally, on December 20 in Chandler, Ariz., there is the Marathon Project, the brainchild of HOKA NAZ Elite coach Ben Rosario and his partners Josh Cox and Matt Helbig.

Kevin Hanson’s team will host the Michigan Pro Ekiden on Wednesday (Photo courtesy Brooks Running)

Kevin Hanson, whose Hansons-Brooks Original Distance Project team will host the first two events on a six-mile loop around Stony Creek Lake in Shelby Charter Township, Mich., is glad athletes have something on the calendar this fall. Hanson says the lack of racing options early on wasn’t a huge issue for his marathoners, since they were coming off the Olympic Marathon Trials in February and wouldn’t have raced much in the spring and summer anyway. But his track athletes lost their biggest race of the season, June’s Olympic Trials. And while they were able to race a few times this summer, Hanson began to worry what would happen this fall without any races to carry them through — even though, outwardly, they hadn’t shown any signs of lacking motivation.

“This sounds like a cop-out, and I don’t mean it to be, but it’s less about results and was more about, two months ago, when these people were having nothing to race for, that we could give them something other than doing a time trial amongst yourselves,” Hanson says. “That we could give them something that they could get excited for two months down the line.”

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While Hanson is hosting, he says the idea to hold the event at Stony Creek Lake came from Rosario, who estimates he ran around 100 workouts on the loop during his two years as an athlete with the Hansons-Brooks team. The loop is not overly hilly, it’s not on public roads (which would be difficult to close), and, most importantly, it’s at sea level, so athletes can run fast (three of the six teams competing in the ekiden are based at altitude).

While the event does not have a sponsor, there will be prize money. Hanson decided that, because his team is hosting, he would use the money he’d usually put toward travel and create a prize purse: $2,000 for the winning team and $500 for the fastest runner on each leg. The second-fastest leg will also receive $100, courtesy of a local USATF official, Mark Neal. Normally, it would cost the Hansons $750 to get the course measured and USATF certified, but Neal elected to forgo most of his fee.

“He said, ‘Give me a pair of shoes and put the other $600 toward the second-fastest leg,'” Hanson says.

With prize money on offer and an actual, in-person race to gear their training toward, excitement for the ekiden built quickly.

“It’s pretty much all they’ve been talking about on their runs for the last couple of weeks,” says Rosario. “But in a healthy way — joking around about it, looking forward to it. They were talking about what our order was gonna be before I even ever made it.”

The athletes weren’t the only ones excited about the ekiden, an idea that emerged from a discussion between Hanson, Rosario, T.E.A.M. Boulder coach Lee Troop, and Atlanta Track Club coach Amy Begley. Those coaches began reaching out to other coaches to gauge interest. Left out of the loop initially: the coach of a certain Nike-sponsored group in Portland famous for selectively racing his athletes.

“Word got to Jerry [Schumacher] when we were talking about it, and Jerry calls and says, ‘Hey, I want in,'” Hanson says. “We said, ‘Oh, come on, you’ve got bigger things to do and you’re not racing against anybody else.’ And he said, ‘No, I want in. I’m serious.’ We had weekly Zoom calls with the group, and Jerry never missed one.”

Schumacher’s team, sadly, won’t be in Michigan tomorrow — some members of the team were exposed to someone with COVID-19 and the team elected not to travel, depriving us of the chance to see Grant Fisher and Shelby Houlihan — but rest assured that Wednesday’s event has the Schumacher seal of approval.

“I talked to him [on Tuesday] and he goes, ‘Hey, if this becomes a continual thing, are you guys gonna not invite me because of what happened this year?'” Hanson says. “I go, ‘No, absolutely not, are you kidding?’ He goes, ‘Because I’m serious, there are some people mad at me right now that we couldn’t go.'”


Previewing the Michigan Pro Ekiden

Wednesday morning is an odd time for a professional distance race, but organizers chose a weekday morning to cut down on foot/bike traffic since the Michigan Pro Ekiden is being held in a park that won’t be closed to the public. And the good news is that it will be streamed live at 10 a.m. ET on the Hansons Brooks Facebook page, with Dathan Ritzenhein and Samantha Hanson (Michigan State runner and Kevin’s daughter) providing commentary.

The race consists of six legs (three men, three women), who will combine to cover a full marathon — 42.2 kilometers or 26.2 miles. Below are the entries, broken down by legs.

Team Leg 1 (M 10K) Leg 2 (W 6.1K) Leg 3 (M 5K) Leg 4 (W 10K) Leg 5 (M 6.1K) Leg 6 (W 5K)
Atlanta TC Matt McDonald Yolanda Ngarambe Justin Wachtel Janel Blancett Wilkerson Given Allie Wilson
NAZ Elite Tyler Day Lauren Paquette Rory Linkletter Kellyn Taylor Scott Fauble Dani Shanahan
Hansons-Brooks A Zach Panning Anne-Marie Blaney Ben Kendell Natosha Rogers Hassan Abdi Olivia Pratt
Hansons-Brooks B Ian LaMere Megan O’Neil Shadrack Biwott Amy Davis Brendan Gregg Dot McMahan
Minn. Distance Elite Joel Reichow Breanna Sieracki Danny Docherty Annie Frisbie Kevin Lewis Meghan Peyton
TEAM Boulder David Goodman Melissa Dock Jake Waterman Carrie Verdon Jake Riley Ericka Waterman
Roots Running Frank Lara Maggie Montoya Austen Dalquist Alia Gray Will Cross Lexi Zeis

On paper, NAZ Elite should run away with this thing. It’s very hard to run six-deep in an event like this, but NAZ simultaneously has the best depth and the best top-end talent — at least on the women’s side, where Kellyn Taylor, last year’s third-placer at USAs who ran 31:07 on the track last month, is a cut above the rest of the women’s 10k runners.

Day will make his NAZ Elite debut on Wednesday. He’s running the 10k leg.

While the race has the potential for some nice head-to-head matchups — former Stanford/Hansons teammates Jake Riley and Brendan Gregg could battle on leg 5 — the reality is that the race will be pretty spread out after the first few legs. The one matchup we know we’re getting is the seven guys slated to run leg 1, and there’s some real talent there. Tyler Day, making his NAZ Elite debut, was one of the top distance prospects in the collegiate class of 2020, having run an American collegiate record of 13:16 indoors in February. But Roots’ Frank Lara (28:10 10k pb, USA 15K champ) and Hansons’ Zach Panning (28:16 10k pb) have both been in fine form this year, and Atlanta TC’s Matt McDonald was an impressive 10th at the Olympic Marathon Trials in February.

“That’s gonna be a hard leg to win,” says Rosario.

Even if someone can keep it close to NAZ through the first couple legs — Roots, with Lara and Maggie Montoya (32:11 10k pb), would appear to have the best shot — eventually, NAZ Elite’s depth should win out. If not by Paquette and Rory Linkletter‘s legs, then certainly when Taylor takes the sash on leg four. But no one can say for sure what to expect. It is October, so who knows how fit all these athletes are?

What Rosario does know: his team will be running hard. He doesn’t usually talk about time goals ahead of races, and has no plans to do so this time around either.

“There’s no strategy about holding back or anything like that,” Rosario says. “We definitely want to just get the sash and basically run the fastest 10k you can run, the fastest 6k you can run, and the fastest 5k you can run on the day.”

*Discuss the Michiga Pro Ekiden and give your predcitions in our forum: Michigan Pro Ekiden Official Thread/ Predictions

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