Women’s Marathon Project Preview: Will Anyone Go With Sara Hall? How Fast Will Keira D’Amato Run?

By Jonathan Gault
December 17, 2020

Women’s marathoning in the United States has never been as deep as it is right now. Witness the 450 women who ran at February’s Olympic Marathon Trials, or the US all-time list in the marathon, where 10 of the top 14 athletes are currently active. Of those 10, nine have set their personal bests within the last four years. And that list could undergo further revision this weekend at the Marathon Project.

Just consider some of the women lining up on Sunday in Arizona who have shown the potential to run considerably faster — all of whom will be racing on a flat 4.3-mile loop designed for speed:

  • Sara Hall (2:22:01 pb, #6 all-time US): Hall’s pb came in London in October on a cold, rainy day where she mostly ran by herself.
  • Kellyn Taylor (2:24:29 pb, #9 all-time US): Taylor did get a boost from a friendly tailwind when she ran her pb at the 2018 Grandma’s Marathon. But she’s also run significant pbs at pretty much every other distance since then and is undoubtedly fitter than she was in 2018.
  • Stephanie Bruce (2:27:47 pb): Bruce set this pb just last year in Chicago, but based on her run at the Trials (6th in 2:29:11) and the fact that she ran 31:24 for 10,000 two weeks ago in the middle of marathon training, she should be able to slash some time off her pb.
  • Keira D’Amato (2:34:24 pb): D’Amato’s pb came at the Trials, but that was before she went supernova. Since then, she’s run 15:04/68:57 and set a women’s-only American record of 51:23 for 10 miles.

Add in Emma Bates (2:25:27 pb) and you have a quintet of top Americans primed to run fast. And they should have every opportunity to do so on Sunday. The conditions (40s F, minimal wind) look good, and there will be a total of 10 male pacers on hand to assist with a variety of paces.

The most aggressive pace group will try to come through halfway in 69:40 — under American record pace (2:19:36 by Deena Kastor). So far, Hall is the only one who has committed to going with it; will anyone be brave enough to follow?

The next group is slated to go 2:23:00 pace — a time only seven Americans have ever bettered — while there will also be groups at 2:26:00 and 2:29:30 (the Olympic standard for women). It should be a very fast — possibly historically fast — day in Arizona.

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For more on how the event came together and insight from HOKA NAZ Elite coach Ben Rosario, who helped organize the race, check out the start of our men’s preview (link is behind a paywall until Friday, SC members click here for immediate access). For a full preview of the women’s race, keep reading.

We have a separate article on Sara Hall’s American record chances here: Will Sara Hall Break Deena Kastor’s 2:19:36 AR In The Marathon On Sunday? Her Coach/Husband Ryan Hall Says Sara’s Training “Has Gone Phenomenal” (link is behind a paywall until Friday, SC members click here for immediate access)

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.

Women’s elite field (sub-2:30/other notables) *Full field

Name Country PB Comment
Sara Hall USA 2:22:01 After incredible 2:22 in horrific conditions in London, Deena Kastor’s 2:19:36 AR could be in danger
Kellyn Taylor USA 2:24:29 8th at Oly Trials while running on a stress fracture; time is right for a big pb
Emma Bates USA 2:25:27 4th at ’19 Chicago and 7th at Trials; coming off 69:44 pb at Michigan Pro Half in Oct
Stephanie Bruce USA 2:27:47 6th at Trials and just ran 31:24 for 10k; big pb is in the cards if her finicky stomach cooperates
Diane Nukuri USA 2:27:50 Top 10 at Boston & NYC in ’17 but hasn’t raced since Aug. ’19
Adriana Nelson Romania 2:28:52 Switched allegiances from USA in Feb and will be chasing 2:29:30 Oly standard
Ursula Patricia Sanchez Mexico 2:29:32 19th at World Half in 70:19
Julia Kohnen USA 2:30:43 Recently joined NAZ Elite after taking 10th at Trials in Feb
Kelsey Bruce USA 2:31:53 Represented LRC at World XC last year; 21st at Trials
Keira D’Amato USA 2:34:24 One of the breakout stars of 2020, the 36-year-old has run 15:04/68:57 and should run big pb here
Natasha Wodak Canada 2:35:16 Canadian record holder at 10k (31:41)

Will the American record go down?

Hall and Molly Seidel after Hall’s historic run in London. (Bob Martin for Virgin Money London Marathon)

Though Sara Hall is planning on going through halfway in 69:40 — which projects to 2:19:20 for a full marathon — she doesn’t want to call Sunday’s race an American record attempt.

“I can be kind of all-or-nothing,” Hall says. “And so I don’t want to be in a scenario where I’m running really well and if I’m just off American record pace, it feels like I’m failing. Because I think that would still be a big success. It would be a big PR. So that’s my main focus, is just running as fast as I can.

“…That being said, I’ve done a good amount of work faster than [American record] pace. So I think that’s definitely possible based on my training, and something that would be, obviously, a really exciting goal out there if it’s looking like my best day would be under that.”

Just 15 months ago, it would have seemed insane to type the words “Sara Hall” and “American record” in the same sentence: 36-year-olds with nine marathons under their belt and a 2:26 pb don’t typically shave seven minutes off their personal best. But since breaking through with her 2:22:16 in Berlin last fall, it has become more and more clear that Hall was made to race the 26.2-mile distance.

While Hall’s results have been hit-or-miss over the last two years — in between her 2:22 in Berlin and her remarkable 2:22:01 pb to finish second in London in October 2020, she dropped out of both the New York City Marathon and the Olympic Trials — her overall fitness has continued to improve. Ahead of London, her coach/husband Ryan raved about Hall’s training, calling it her best buildup ever and saying she was in PR shape. She responded with the race of her life.

Ahead of the Marathon Project, Ryan is even more bullish on Sara’s chances.

“This has been the fittest I’ve ever seen her,” he says. “Every buildup she gets better and better. No missed workouts, no injuries, not even any bad workouts.”

(For more details on Hall’s training, check out our full conversation with Ryan Hall: LRC Will Sara Hall Break Deena Kastor’s 2:19:36 AR in The Marathon On Sunday? Her Coach/Husband Ryan Hall Says Sara’s Training “Has Gone Phenomenal)

Though Hall has succeeded with quick turnarounds in the past, it’s still worth pointing out that Sunday’s race is just 11 weeks after London — and it is very hard to run two A+ marathons in a year, let alone two in a three-month span. So many things have to go right over the course of 26.2 miles that isn’t fair to expect an athlete to run their absolute best every time out.

But if Hall can summon the same level of performance as the one she delivered in London — a performance I believe was worth 2:20 or faster in ideal conditions — then the American record is absolutely on the table on Sunday.

The Next Crop

If Hall runs her best possible race on Sunday, she is untouchable. But she’s no lock for victory. It will be interesting to see the strategy the other athletes take in this race. Is anyone bold enough to follow Hall at AR pace? Or will they opt to join the second group, which will be rabbitted at 2:23:00 pace, and hope Hall fades?

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The smart money says no one will follow Hall, as most of the women in this field have never even run 69:40 for an open half (though if I had to bet on anyone to go with her, I’d bet on Kellyn Taylor). Expect the second group to consist of Taylor, Stephanie Bruce, Emma Bates — and likely Keira D’Amato too, whose 68:57 half in October suggests she belongs in this group, even if she was well back of the other three at the Olympic Trials in February.

Taylor and Bruce, the NAZ Elite training partners, are both very fit. At the Track Meet on December 6, Taylor ran 31:15 for 10,000 and Bruce ran 31:24, both knocking out the Olympic standard in the process.

“We really were preparing for the marathon only,” Rosario says. “We really didn’t do much in the way of track work or anything that was meant to be specific to the 10,000 meters. They just did that off of pure strength. I would think that that’s a good indicator that they’re both ready to go on Sunday.”

D’Amato didn’t get a chance to run at the Track Meet due to food poisoning, but says she is 100% now. D’Amato has the potential to be a terrific marathoner. In October, she became just the 10th American woman to break 69:00 in the half; eight of the other nine all rank in the top 10 all-time in the US in the marathon (Molly Huddle is the only outlier, at #17), with an average pb of 2:22:23.

D’Amato ran a women’s-only AR of 51:23 for 10 miles on November 24 (Photo by Bob Burgess)

So does that mean D’Amato can run 2:22? Maybe. But she’s also only #10 on the half marathon list (meaning all those women have faster pbs than her) and was only 15th at the Olympic Trials in February. Clearly she’s in better shape now, but if her best event is really the 5k or 10k, then she could run 2:26 on Sunday and still consider that a success (she told me last month her goal is to break 2:25).

Bates, who ran 2:25:27 last year in Chicago and finished 7th at the Trials, admits 2:23 is aggressive for her. But everyone at the Marathon Project is shooting for big goals, and going out with the 2:26 group isn’t going to do much for her.

“I’m gonna go out with the 2:23 group, which is very, very fast, but I think that having time in the bank would be nice for that second half,” Bates says. “…Definitely really, really hoping for a big PR.”

Best of the Rest

The women’s field at the Marathon Project isn’t quite as deep as the men’s field. But there are a few other women entered to watch out for:

  • Diane Nukuri (2:27:50 pb): A three-time Olympian for Burundi, Nukuri, now 36, has run 2:27. But she ran that time five years ago and hasn’t raced at all in 16 months. Does she have anything left?
  • Adriana Nelson (2:28:52 pb): Nelson represented Romania until 2009, then switched to the US, then switched back to Romania this year to chase her first Olympic berth at age 40. She’ll be chasing 2:29:30, a time she has hit just once in her life.
  • Julia Kohnen (2:30:43 pb): The college soccer player was a surprising 10th at the Olympic Trials in February and now tackles her first marathon since joining NAZ Elite in October.
  • Kelsey Bruce (2:31:53 pb): Bruce ran for Team LetsRun at World XC last year before earning her way to Worlds in Doha, where she placed 38th in the marathon. After taking 21st at the Olympic Trials, she’ll be looking to improve her pb and perhaps duck under 2:30.
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