Men’s Marathon Project Preview: With a Fast Course & Perfect Conditions, Sunday Could Be a Historic Day for US Marathoning

By Jonathan Gault
December 17, 2020

In the annals of US distance running, a total of 21 men have broken 2:10 in the marathon, doing so a combined 56 times.

There are only six races in history in which more than one American has broken 2:10. The list:

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Marathons in which multiple Americans have broken 2:10

Race Sub-2:10 Americans
2012 Olympic Trials
Meb Keflezighi (2:09:08), Ryan Hall (2:09:30), Abdi Abdirahman (2:09:47), Dathan Ritzenhein (2:09:55)
1983 Boston Greg Meyer (2:09:01), Ron Tabb (2:09:32), Benji Durden (2:09:57)
1982 Boston Alberto Salazar (2:08:51), Dick Beardsley (2:08:53)
2002 Chicago Khalid Khannouchi (2:05:56), Alan Culpepper (2:09:41)
2010 Boston Ryan Hall (2:08:41), Meb Keflezighi (2:09:26)
2019 Boston Scott Fauble (2:09:09), Jared Ward (2:09:25)

That list could be due for a major revision on Sunday. While the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a wrench into the traditional marathon schedule — the three US-based World Marathon Majors (Boston, Chicago, New York) were all cancelled — it has also created opportunities that would not otherwise have existed. Like the Marathon Project.

The brainchild of HOKA NAZ Elite coach Ben Rosario, agent Josh Cox, and Big River Race Management’s Matt Helbig, the Marathon Project, which will be held on Sunday in Chandler, Ariz., on a flat 4.3-mile loop around a replica of an 1880s frontier town, is a race the likes of which the United States has never seen: a custom, invitation-only marathon featuring a critical mass of America’s top marathoners with the express goal of running as fast as possible. And, for better or worse, it never would have happened without COVID.

In a traditional year, the two of the three biggest races for American marathoners are Boston and New York, races where the goals revolve around place rather than time. Sure some  top US runners will sometimes chase a fast time at another race, normally Chicago, but the weather isn’t predictable there and it is rare for many of the country’s top athletes to do so at the same race.

Ward (second from left) is the only American male pro to have raced a marathon this fall. (Jed Leicester for Virgin Money London Marathon)

2020, however, presented precious few racing opportunities. Just one American, Jared Ward, ran October’s London Marathon. None ran Valencia two weeks ago. That left the Marathon Project as the only viable option for America’s 2:10-2:15 types looking for a race. And many were looking: six of the top 10 finishers from February’s US Olympic Marathon Trials are entered on Sunday. Only the three Olympians (Galen RuppJake RileyAbdi Abdirahman) and Leonard Korir who, as a member of the US Army WCAP program, does not have shoe contract with time bonuses, are absent. (UPDATE: Fifth-placer Augustus Maiyo of the Army WCAP is a late scratch as the Army has cancelled holiday travel)

“I see them getting asked a lot, well, why are you racing?” Rosario says. “They’ve missed out on so much money not having these major marathons all year, not only because the top athletes get appearance fees at these marathons, but when they run fast and when they place high, they get bonuses from their sponsors. This is very much their job, and the opportunity to run these fast times and get a year-end bonus is really important.”

That is why we could see a flood of fast times on Sunday. Just consider the ingredients:

  • A big financial incentive. While the specifics of most contract bonuses are protected by NDAs, there are some obvious benchmark times to hit. “If you’re a male in the United States running under 2:10 — now who knows how things will change in the future — but right now there’s huge value in that,” Rosario says.
  • Good conditions. February’s Olympic Marathon Trials featured a tough, hilly course and brutal wind that made it challenging to run fast. Sunday’s race, meanwhile, will feature a fast, flat course with near-perfect conditions (40s F, minimal wind). Rosario thinks the course will run three minutes faster than Atlanta. For reference, 12 men ran under 2:13 in Atlanta (seven of whom are racing Saturday).
  • A race geared for speed. To run a fast marathon, it helps to have good competition and good rabbitting. This race should have both. We know there will be good competition, and the rabbits leading the top group (shooting for 2:09:00 pace) are very fit: Mason Ferlic (just beat Paul Chelimo at the XC Town USA meet in Terre Haute) and Frank Lara (just ran 27:44 for 10k).
  • Super shoes. Almost everyone racing on Sunday will be in some form of super shoe — either the Vaporfly/Alphafly or their brand’s response to it.

The end result: Sunday’s race is essentially the Dubai Marathon of America. Get a bunch of fast guys together, have the rabbits set an aggressive race up front, and see how many can hold onto it. Or if you don’t like that comparison, Ben Rosario has another.

“It strikes me as very similar to, let’s say, Fukuoka in Japan, where a ton of Japanese athletes get together and they hammer from the gun,” Rosario says. “And I guess the strong survive and they run really fast.”

During Wednesday’s elite press conference, I took an informal survey of the athletes on the call about how many people they thought would break 2:10 on Sunday. The estimates ranged from four (Jared Ward) to 10 (CJ Albertson), with an average of 7.2.

Putting it all together

Staging a race in the middle of a pandemic has been not been easy for Rosario, Cox, and Helbig. Four of the six majors opted against holding an elite-only marathon this year. London did stage one, but The Marathon Project features roughly twice as many entrants — and doesn’t have an organization like London Marathon Events whose year-long job is to focus on staging the marathon.

“If you’re not behind the scenes, you just don’t understand how much everything costs, but I mean, it’s just a massive undertaking,” Rosario says.

There is security and police and signage and athlete shuttles. There are stages and tables and chairs to rent, along with the cost of the venue itself. There are 14 pacers and drug testing expenses. There is even a modest prize purse: $5,000 for first, $2,000 for second, $1,000 for third. All told, Rosario thinks the event’s expenses will total over $150,000.

He hopes they can make that back — athletes had to pay a $150 entry fee, but 100 x $150 is only $15,000, and Brooks has come on as a sponsor. But Rosario’s main aim, he says, is to make sure Helbig and his Big River Race Management team gets paid.

“They have been unbelievable,” Rosario says. “They’re putting on a big-time marathon basically by themselves. Yeah, Josh is working on the sponsorships and I’m working on the communication, but these guys are working their butts off and you’ve gotta remember that they haven’t had any business all year. Our industry has been hammered by this thing.”

Race details

What: The Marathon Project
Where: Chandler, Arizona
When: Sunday, December 20, 10 a.m. ET
How to watch: USATF.TV will stream the race live here (requires subscription) race website. There will also be a 90-minute race replay on NBC Sports Network on Sunday at 7:30 p.m. ET.

Men’s elite field (sub-2:12/other notables) *Full field

Name Country PB Comment
Amanuel Mesel Eritrea 2:08:17 ’16 Olympian hasn’t PR’d since ’13, but ran 2:09 in ’18 and 2:11 in Houston in Jan
Jose Antonio Uribe Mexico 2:08:55 Set pb in ’14 and hasn’t broken 2:14 since
Scott Fauble USA 2:09:09 PR’d with 7th-place finish at ’19 Boston; 12th at Oly Trials in Feb
Jared Ward USA 2:09:25 ’16 Olympian was 27th at Trials, then ran 2:12 in poor conditions for 17th in London in Oct
Cam Levins Canada 2:09:25 Ran Canadian record in debut in ’18, but his last two marathons have gone poorly
Daniel Mesfun Eritrea 2:10:06 Has also run 61:12 half
Augustus Maiyo USA 2:10:47 Kenyan-born WCAP athlete ran his pb to take 5th at the Trials
Matt McDonald USA 2:11:10 Was in position to make Olympic team 20 miles into the Trials before fading to 10th
Scott Smith USA 2:11:14 34-year-old ran his 2:11 pb in Chicago last fall; 19th at Trials
Martin Hehir USA 2:11:29 Took 6th at Trials in 2:11 despite taking a bathroom break at 18 miles
Brendan Gregg USA 2:11:38 Ran 2:11 pb at Chicago in ’19 before taking 14th at Trials
Noah Droddy USA 2:11:42 Ran 2:11 pb at Chicago in ’19 but didn’t run Trials due to injury
Wilkerson Given USA 2:11:44 Ran 2:11 pb at Chicago in ’19 before dropping out of Trials
CJ Albertson USA 2:11:49 Has already broken 50k WR and run 2:09 on the treadmill this fall
Igor Olefirenko Ukraine 2:11:55 ’16 Olympian ran 64:22 for 92nd at World Half in Oct
Shadrack Biwott USA 2:12:01 Hard to believe a guy with three top-5 finishes at World Marathon Majors has never broken 2:12
Jonas Hampton USA 2:12:10 PR’d by 2+ mins to take a surprising 8th at Trials
Colin Bennie USA 2:12:14 9th at Trials in his debut; ran 62:30 half in Michigan in Oct
John Raneri USA 2:14:13 Ran treadmill WR in half (63:08) in June at 7,000 feet
Rory Linkletter Canada 2:16:42 BYU alum ran 61:44 half in Jan and has been hanging with Fauble in workouts
Reid Buchanan USA debut The most interesting of the debutants has run 27:58/61:45 at shorter distances

With 15 men who have run under 2:12, and a dozen more who will be hoping to do the same on Sunday, it’s tough to pick a clear favorite. Though guys like Scott FaubleJared Ward, and Shadrack Biwott have had the most success in majors, they’re not far-and-away better than the rest of this field (just look at the results of February’s Olympic Marathon Trials).

The lead group is trying to run 2:09:00 pace (there is a second group shooting for the Olympic standard of 2:11:30) and Rosario expects roughly a dozen guys to go with it. Among that number, perhaps half will still be together at 20 miles…at which point, it’s anyone’s guess as to how they finish.

So rather than preview every athlete individually, let’s divide the men’s field into groups and assess them that way.

The Guys Who Ran 2:12 Or Faster at the Trials

Scott Fauble (2:09:09 pb), Augustus Maiyo (2:10:47 pb), Matt McDonald (2:11:10 pb), Martin Hehir (2:11:29 pb), CJ Albertson (2:11:49 pb), Jonas Hampton (2:12:10 pb), Colin Bennie (2:12:14 pb)

Scott crossing the line in at 2019 Boston

Fauble is the only one in this group who has actually broken 2:10 in a real marathon, doing so in Boston last year, and he should have a good chance to replicate that feat on Sunday. The Trials, where Fauble finished 12th in 2:12:39, was his first “bad” marathon (though 2:12 on that course is still pretty solid), but he missed 10 key days of training a month before the race. This time, Fauble has had no such issues, and he tied his half marathon pb with a 62:18 in Michigan seven weeks ago. Everything is in place for Fauble to challenge his personal best. But he is not focused on that on Sunday.

“All my PBs have come from racing,” Fauble says. “So I’m going in there with the goal of winning, and I think anything great that comes from that will be a product of the racing.”

Had the Olympic Trials ended at 20 miles, Maiyo and McDonald would have been on the team to Sapporo, and though they faded slightly late, both are threats to win here based on what they did in Atlanta.

Hehir and Bennie, training partners at Syracuse and now with the Reebok Boston Track Club, surprised by finishing 6th and 9th at the Trials, and both should be capable of significantly faster here. Hehir ran 2:11:29 in Atlanta despite taking a bathroom break at mile 18 (that’s another 15 seconds right there). And their coach Chris Fox expects big things from Bennie (who ran a half marathon pb of 62:30 at the Michigan Pro Half), noting that neither Bennie nor Hehir missed so much as a single run during their buildups — no injuries, colds, nothing.

“Colin has made significant progress since he ran in Atlanta and he ran great there for his debut,” Fox says.

Hehir, meanwhile, who is studying to become an anesthesiologist, has spent his last two weeks leading up to the race working in an ICU dealing mostly with COVID patients.

“It’s just as scary as it’s hyped up to be,” Hehir says. “And yes, not everyone ends up in the ICU. But when you end up there, you are incredibly sick. It’s definitely a bleak place to be.”

Albertson ran a world best for 50,000 meters in November (Courtesy Brooks Running)

Albertson is the most intriguing athlete in this group. Already this fall, he’s run a world best for 50,000 meters (twice — first on his treadmill, then on a track) and run 2:09 for 26.2 miles on his treadmill. Clearly, the dude is fit, and recovery doesn’t seem to be an issue for him. His 2:11:49 for 7th in Atlanta showed he’s not just a workout hero, and with the chance to run on a fast course, 2:09 looks very reasonable for him on Sunday.

If you’re looking for a blue collar hero to root for in this group, it’s Jonas Hampton. Despite college pbs of 14:52/31:45 at the University of Hartford, Hampton toiled away for years while working a full-time job as a highway design engineer. While his track pbs (14:17/29:53) remain pedestrian, he has steadily improved on the roads and ran the race of his life at the Trials at age 31 — a 2+ minute pb of 2:12:10 to place 8th. That earned him a deal with the BAA High Performance Team, whom he’ll represent on Sunday.

Proven Commodities

Jared Ward (2:09:25 pb), Shadrack Biwott (2:12:01 pb)

Biwott taking 3rd in Boston in 2018 (Photo courtesy Brooks Running)

Ward, who ran 2:09 in Boston last year, is coming off a 2:12:38 run in tough conditions in London on October 4. Ward had a very abbreviated buildup for that race, and as a result, he didn’t take much time off before resuming training for the Marathon Project. His coach Ed Eyestone says his workouts have looked as good as they did ahead of his pb race in Boston in 2019.

“With the right pacing, on a flat course, I think it would be fun to see him run in that range of sub-2:09 shape,” Eyestone says. “That’s certainly what he’s going out after. If he felt like he was 2:12 shape, he wouldn’t just go do this.”

As for Biwott, he’s two years removed from his last good marathon (9th at NYC in 2018), and his two half marathons this year (63:54 in Houston, 64:11 at the Michigan Pro Half) haven’t been particularly impressive. But he also has three top-5’s and five top-10’s at World Marathon Majors. Yet because those races came in New York and Boston, his pb is still just 2:12:01. The Marathon Project may be the last, best chance for the 35-year-old Biwott to lower that mark.

Looking for a Breakthrough

John Raneri (2:14:13 pb), Reid Buchanan (debut)

Raneri, 29, has run five career marathons, none faster than 2:14, but he’s been having a huge 2020 and seems destined for a big pb on Sunday. He ran 2:14:13 in his most recent marathon to finish 15th in NYC last year, and since then he’s only gotten better, running a half marathon pb of 61:51 in Houston, 63:08 (at 7,000 feet) on his treadmill, and 62:23 at the Michigan Pro Half — just five seconds back of Fauble. If he can translate that success to the full 26.2, watch out.

Buchanan is the top debutant in the field — he’s run 27:58 on the track for 10,000 and 61:45 in the half. The question is whether he plays it safe and runs with the 2:11:30 group or takes a risk and tries to go with the 2:09:00 group.

Guys Who Ran 2:11 in Chicago Last Year

Scott Smith (2:11:14 pb), Brendan Gregg (2:11:38 pb), Noah Droddy (2:11:42 pb), Wilkerson Given (2:11:44 pb)

All four of these guys ran a pb of 2:11 in Chicago last year. 2:11 is nothing to sneeze at. But none ranked among the top five Americans in Chicago, and none finished better than 14th at the Olympic Trials (Gregg was 14th, Smith 19th, Given DNF’d, Droddy DNS’d). Chicago last year was close to ideal for running fast — decent weather and pacing and a big group of guys to run with. So for any of these guys to break 2:10 or challenge for the win on Sunday would require quite a breakthrough.

International Athletes

Amanuel Mesel (2:08:17 pb), Jose Antonio Uribe (2:08:55 pb), Cam Levins (2:09:25 pb), Daniel Mesfun (2:10:06 pb), Igor Olefirenko (2:11:55 pb), Rory Linkletter (2:16:43 pb), Benjamin Preisner (debut), Justin Kent (debut)

This race isn’t just a chance for Americans to run fast; it’s also an opportunity for several international athletes to secure Olympic berths. Of the men listed above, only Mesel, who finished 21st at the 2016 Olympics for Eritrea, has the 2:11:30 Olympic standard. Hitting that time will be the primary aim for these men on Sunday, but some will have to do more to earn their way onto the team.

Levins breaking the Canadian record in 2018

This race is especially important for Canadians, as it essentially doubles as a second Canadian Olympic trials. The first trials race was held in Toronto last year, but only the winner, Trevor Hofbauer, was guaranteed a spot on the team. The other two spots are discretionary, and currently only one other Canadian man, Tristan Woodfine, has the standard. Which means the top Canadian here (assuming he breaks 2:11:30), is almost certainly going to be on the team.

Cam Levins is the top Canadian entered on paper, but after setting the national record (2:09:25) in his debut in Toronto in 2018, he ran 2:15 in Toronto last year and dropped out of London in October. His top Canadian competition figures to be NAZ Elite’s Rory Linkletter, who ran 61:44 in the half in Houston in January and about whom Rosario is bullish and says seems “every bit as fit as Fauble.”

“He’s looked great in the workouts, his long sessions have been really, really good,” Rosario says. “He’s a year older now. When he debuted in Toronto [in 2019, where he ran 2:16:42], he wasn’t really ready for a marathon.”

Debutants Benjamin Preisner (63:09 half) and Justin Kent (13:46 5k/64:20 half) are the two other Canadians running here.

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