A Closer Look at the Shakeup at NAZ Elite

By Jonathan Gault
December 22, 2021. Published on December 23, 2021

In the past week, four male members of HOKA ONE ONE Northern Arizona Elite have left the team, all of them marathoners. Scott Smith retired, Sid Vaughn‘s contract was not renewed, and Scott Fauble and Rory Linkletter elected to leave the team and change coaches, bringing to an end to what NAZ Elite coach Ben Rosario described as a “tough” 2021 season for the team. Earlier this year, former US 5,000m champ Ryan Hill also left the team after a brief, injury-filled stint in Flagstaff.

In professional running, contracts expire at the end of the calendar year, so upheaval at this time of year is not uncommon. But it is rare for a group to be hit as heavily as NAZ Elite, which now features just four male athletes to go with eight women. Before leaping to any conclusions, it’s worth looking at each departure individually.

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It’s really just Rory and I who made a decision to leave the group,” Fauble says. “And I can see how from the outside, someone might think there’s some kind of fire sale going on with NAZ Elite, and that’s just simply not the case.”

Smith, a 2:09 marathoner, is 35 and had spent the last several years commuting between the team’s base in Flagstaff and Los Angeles, where his wife works as a doctor. With the couple expecting their first child in January and Smith’s contract up at the end of the year, retirement makes perfect sense.

Vaughn’s contract also expires at the end of 2021 and was not renewed. Though Rosario says he still believes in Vaughn’s talent, the 27-year-old had struggled to stay healthy since joining the team in 2019. Vaughn started just two marathons as a member of the team, both in 2020: he dropped out of the Olympic Trials and ran 2:14:28 at the Marathon Project, finishing 25th.

“He and I have a great relationship, and we had spoken months ago [where I said], ‘Hey, I hate to say this, but you’ve got to put up a performance,'” Rosario says. “And he knew that. And unfortunately, he got a little dinged up again right before he was going to run first Chicago, and then US Half Champs.”

Fauble and Linkletter were the two departures that came as a surprise. Though the two reached their decisions independently, the cause was the same: neither was seeing the improvements in results that they wanted and felt it was time for a change. Both had time remaining on their HOKA contracts and Rosario wanted both to return in 2022. But Rosario accepted their explanations, and HOKA released them from their contracts (neither has a new sponsor lined up yet).

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“I feel like I have plateaued in a way, physically,” says Fauble, 30. “I haven’t PR’d in the marathon or really in any event since Boston 2019. It’s been coming up on three years and I felt like I needed some new stimuli.”

Heading into October’s Boston Marathon, Fauble felt that he was in the same sort of fitness as when he ran 2:09:09 there in 2019 to finish as the top American in 7th. But after struggling to 16th-place finish in 2:13:47 in October, Fauble came away from the race feeling that he had lacked the tools to be successful in a marathon like 2021 Boston, which featured a slow first half and a number of hard surges over the hilly second half.

“That was when my leaving considerations started,” Fauble says. “And I think when you’re having those thoughts about whether a group or training situation is right for you, you need to figure out a way to be all the way in or all the way out. Being half-in is no good for anybody. And once I couldn’t get all the way back on board, I decided it was time to leave.”

Under Rosario, Fauble finished 4th in the 10,000 at the 2016 Olympic Trials and earned pbs of 62:18 and 2:09:09.

“At first, I was disappointed [Fauble was leaving],” Rosario says. “But the truth is, sometimes you just need a change. And I think after six-and-a-half years, we’ve done so well, he’s reached such high heights. But that’s just sports…This is kind of the next phase he’s heading into, and if he wants to make a change, he’s got to make it now.”

“I still have a lot of faith that Ben and I will have a close personal relationship going forward,” Fauble says. “There’s no bad blood between Ben and I. This was exclusively a professional decision.”

Moving forward, Fauble will remain based in Flagstaff, where his fiancee works as a physical therapist for a local hospital. He will be coached by Joe Bosshard, and while their coaching relationship will mostly be remote, Fauble plans to spend some time training with Bosshard in Boulder leading into big races.

“I kind of know what I want to be doing, but I also know that I probably can’t and shouldn’t coach myself,” Fauble says. “So I thought that he was a good balance between treating me as an adult and providing guidance while not either of us feeling like he needed to be micromanaging every detail of my day.”

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Similarly, Linkletter, who joined the team in 2019, felt that he was not seeing the results he believed he was capable of. Early in his tenure with NAZ Elite, Linkletter, 25, rab 61:44 for the half in Houston in January 2020, the second-fastest time ever by a Canadian. But in his three marathons since then, he has run 2:12:54 (17th at the 2020 Marathon Project), 2:23:34 (36th at 2021 Boston), and 2:12:52 (2nd at 2021 CIM). The latter, Linkletter admitted, was a solid result, but he had been hoping to see more progress by the end of his second full year with the team.

“I felt like there was a disconnect between the training I was putting in and the results I was putting out…it was just this succession of underwhelming performances,” Linkletter says, adding that he had no issues with Rosario as a person or any of his teammates.

Rosario ran for the Hansons-Brooks Original Distance Project from 2003-05, and his time under the Hanson brothers influenced not just his training philosophy, but the way he runs his group. NAZ Elite is not just a training group where athletes get together for workouts, but a team, where members meet daily for runs or gym sessions. Under that model, athletes develop close bonds — Linkletter referred to his NAZ Elite teammate Nick Hauger, who finished just behind him at CIM, as his best friend — and receive plenty of hands-on coaching. Linkletter, however, wanted more say in his training, which influenced his decision to leave the group.

“If we’re all training for the same race, we train the same and it’s very team-driven,” Linkletter says. “And I think at the professional level, the athlete knows their body the best and that just became my philosophy is that I needed to do things the way I felt were best for me and I needed to find a situation where I could call my own shots a little bit more.”

Moving forward, Linkletter will remain in Flagstaff (he bought a house there with his wife earlier this year) and be coached by Ryan Hall.

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One question that has to be asked, in the age of supershoes, is whether footwear factored into either Fauble or Linkletter’s decision. A recent study conducted by Dustin P. Joubert and Garrett P. Jones at Stephen F. Austin State University comparing running economy across seven carbon-plated shoes found that HOKA’s Rocket X performed no better than a “traditional” marathon racing shoe, the Asics Hyperspeed, and significantly worse than Nike’s Vaporfly.

Fauble, who finished 12th at last year’s Olympic Marathon Trials in the Rocket X, said that HOKA’s footwear had nothing to do with his decision to leave the team. The top five finishers in the men’s race at the Trials all wore either the Nike Vaporflys or Alphaflys, though just one of the top five in the women’s race wore a Nike shoe, and the winner, Fauble’s NAZ Elite teammate Aliphine Tuliamuk, wore the Rocket X.

Linkletter, meanwhile, said that footwear was a factor into his decision to leave the group — but it was not the main factor.

“I think it’s important that you have the one piece of equipment in our sport isn’t holding you back in any way,” Linkletter says. “And if I’m giving a competitor wearing a different shoe any sort of time buffer, that can mean a lot for my career.”

Linkletter believes racing styles have changed due to the influx of supershoes, which reduce pounding and leave athletes’ legs feeling fresher over the final stages of a race.

“People are just going out more recklessly and not paying for it at all,” Linkletter says. “These times are getting a lot faster, quickly, and I think that shoes are definitely playing a big part in the dynamics of racing. So if you’re not in a shoe that is comparable to the competition, you’re going to lose, whether it just [is] strategical [and] you can’t run the way they’re running, or time-wise, you’re just losing seconds, maybe more depending on the distance.”

Linkletter added that shoes are only one factor that contribute to an athlete’s performance, but he believes they’ve had an impact.

“Guys that I used to regularly compete with or beat that were now handily beating me and the biggest change in variable was two things: my training and the technology shift,” Linkletter says.

Now, of course, Linkletter and Fauble will be able to compete in whatever footwear they want. Neither has a shoe contract, and as we saw with Noah Droddy and Ben True, who went unsponsored for the first 10 months of 2021, those contracts can be hard to come by. Turning down the guaranteed security of a shoe deal for 2022 requires some gumption.

Fauble is the same age as Droddy was this time last year and has the same marathon pb, but has accomplished more in his career (two top-10s in majors, sub-2:10 twice) and should be able to find a contract. Fauble says his agent Josh Cox has had some “good conversations” with brands, adding that he has enough saved up from his HOKA deal that he can survive without a sponsor for the immediate future.

“I’m not super worried about it by any means,” Fauble says. “That’s not a big deal to me at the moment. That’s something I’m going to let my agent figure out and I’m going to try not to stress about it.”

Linkletter’s situation is more precarious. He does not have the same record of success as Fauble in the marathon (though his half marathon pb is quicker) and represents Canada internationally, not the US. Linkletter may have to run something fast in early 2022 in order to prove himself worthy of a contract.

“It’s definitely scary because there’s no guarantee that I’ll get another deal in my lifetime,” Linkletter says. “I like to believe I’ll perform at a level that will put me in a position of power where I’ll get something but there’s no guarantee. So I’m just betting on myself.”

NAZ Elite, meanwhile, will move forward with its four remaining male athletes — Matt BaxterTyler DayAlex Masai, and Nick Hauger — and whomever it signs in 2022.

“Of course we’ve gone on recruiting visits and we’ve had people come to Flagstaff,” Rosario says. “We’ve done both of those things, but these things take time. We don’t rush these signings. So maybe we’ll have a new athlete or two to announce [in January], maybe we won’t. But it won’t be long thereafter, because we’re talking to plenty of people.”

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