RRW: The Marathon Project Delivers Fast Times, Great Racing

By David Monti, @d9monti
(c) 2020 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved

(20-Dec) — In this pandemic year marked by so much pain, struggle and loss, The Marathon Project today in Chandler, Ariz., provided a much-needed high note before 2020 passes into infamy, at least for fans of distance running.  Today’s elite-only race –bootstrapped by Josh Cox, Ben Rosario and Matt Helbig– ended up being one of the best-ever marathons on U.S. soil for North American athletes, punctuated by exciting victories for Sara Hall (2:20:32) and Martin Hehir (2:08:59).  Depth was impressive for a mostly domestic race, with 12 women going sub-2:30 and 13 men going sub-2:12 (seven sub-2:10).


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Sara Hall running the second-fastest marathon time by an American woman (2:20:32) at The Marathon Project in Chandler, Ariz. (photo by Kevin Morris)

Sara Hall, 37, made no secret of the fact that she was going for a fast time today, and perhaps Deena Kastor’s vaunted USA record of 2:19:36 set in London 14 years ago.  In sunny, comfortably cold and windless conditions, Hall went out hard from the gun with her four official male pacemakers, passing 5 km in 16:38 and 10 km in 33:02.  Through 10-K she was on a 2:19:23 pace and only Kellyn Taylor was willing to risk such a fast pace and run with her.

“This is a gift; they have nothing to lose,” commented 2018 Boston Marathon champion Des Linden at the top of today’s broadcast on usatf.tv.  Commenting on the weather she added: “I’m not sure it gets any better than this.”

Hall, Taylor and their pacers rolled along through 15-K in 49:29 and 20-K in 1:06:03 on pace for a low 2:19 finish time.  Behind them, Keira D’Amato was running alone in third about two minutes back (1:08:00), with Emma Bates a further 23 seconds behind.  Steph Bruce, who had been in the second group, was forced to drop out.

Hall and Taylor were still together at halfway (1:09:38) and on pace for Kastor’s record, when Taylor began to fall back.  By the time Hall got to 25-K (1:22:43) Taylor was already 17 seconds behind.  It was now Hall (and her pacers) against the clock.

Her ponytail swinging behind her, Hall ran from 25 to 30-K in 16:39 which kept the record within striking distance.  But in her next two 5-kilometer segments, her pace slipped to 16:47 through 35-K then 16:57 through 40-K.  She was now on pace for a 2:20:24 finish, and Kastor’s record would have to wait for another day.  Still, she got to enjoy the 400 meter run-in to the finish without a credible threat and got to hear the cheers of her husband, Ryan, and her four daughters.

“It was a tough race,” Hall told today’s sideline reporter, five-time Olympian Bernard Lagat, in her post-race interview.  “I wanted to run a little faster than that, but it’s a good PR, number-two all time U.S., like I should be happy with that.  But, you know, the competitor in me is a little like, ‘oh,’ I wanted to run faster, but maybe next time.”

Commenting on Hall’s performance, Deena Kastor told Race Results Weekly via text message: “Kellyn and Sara ran with authority from the beginning.  I had Sara’s number queued up all morning for a congratulations phone call.  She deserved it regardless of coming up a little short.  She ran amazingly well and I would have been proud to pass the torch to another ASICS athlete.”

Behind Hall, Taylor was hurting and D’Amato had been making up ground.  By the 35-K mark, Taylor was only nine seconds up on D’Amato, and on the strength of a 16:56 split through 40-K (to Taylor’s 18:34) D’Amato took over second place and finished in a huge personal best of 2:22:56 making her the #7 USA all-time performer on a record-quality course.  Taylor hung on for third in 2:25:22, Bates got fourth in 2:25:40, and Canada’s Natasha Wodak got fifth in a personal best 2:26:19 and likely ran her way on to the 2021 Canadian Olympic team.  Sixth place Andrea Ramirez of Mexico also notched an Olympic qualifying time (sub-2:29:30) with a personal best 2:26:34.  Steeplechaser Paige Stoner made an excellent marathon debut, finishing eighth in 2:28:43.


The men’s race was a more tactical affair, but off of an honest pace.  Pacemakers Mason Ferlic and Frank Lara took a pack of 15 men through halfway in 1:04:27, right on 2:09 pace.  Hehir, a medical student in Philadelphia, was tucked in the that pack with other pre-race favorites Cam Levins of Canada, Noah Droddy, Jared Ward, Scott Smith and Scott Fauble.  Everyone looked relaxed as the desert sun rose to warm them.

Ferlic would soon drop out (he actually made his half-marathon debut today) and over the next 10 kilometers the lead pack would thin, man by man.  Only 12 men were left in contention at 25-K (1:16:26) and 11 at 30-K (1:31:44).  None of the big guns had dropped off the pace. The 15:11 split through 35-K was only fast enough to drop three men (Ian Butler, Cam Levins and Colin Mickow), but people were getting tired and found the 2:09 pace too difficult to maintain.  Hehir got in front, split 15:13 through 40-K, and although he had actually slowed slightly, he found himself with a ten-second lead over his nearest chaser, Noah Droddy.  Droddy actually looked better, but was running out of time to catch his rival.

Hehir, who turned 28 yesterday, shot a few looks behind him.  It’s not clear if he knew how close Droddy was, but he did not let off the pace and entered the final 400-meter finish straight with a big enough lead to put the race away.  He broke the tape in 2:08:59, a huge two and one-half minute personal best and became the #7 American of all time on a record-quality course.

“It felt pretty smooth through most of the race,” Hehir said in his post-race broadcast interview.  “The pacing was amazing.  It was amazing just to sit on Frank and Mason and let them do all the work.  I mean, it started getting hard, but I think because of the flat course, like, you were just able to keep going, next mile, mile, mile.  It started to fall apart in the last couple of miles there, but I was able to hold it together just enough.”

Droddy, who revealed he had a positive COVID test back in July, also set a very good personal best of 2:09:09 (previous 2:11:42) in second place, and third went to Hehir’s Reebok Boston Track Club teammate Colin Bennie (they were also teammates at Syracuse University), clocking a personal best 2:09:38 (previous 2:12:14).  Scott Fauble (2:09:42), Ian Butler (2:09:45), Scott Smith (2:09:46), and Mick Iacofano (2:09:55) rounded out the top seven, all breaking 2:10.

Today’s winners earned $5000 in prize money, but surely would be receiving valuable time bonuses from their sponsors.  Forty men and 33 women finished the race.

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