The North American running world has seen glimmers of normalcy these past few months — but never the full picture.

American training groups flexed their collective fitness in team challenges and semi-secret events. Some Canadians, Americans and Mexicans snuck across the Atlantic and posted results in high profile races. But since the world shut down in March, we have yet to see a true field of elite runners assemble in the Western world. That comes to an end on December 20, at 8:00 a.m. MST (10:00 a.m. EST) when the Marathon Project starts.

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So, What is The Marathon Project?

The Marathon Project is an elite-only race in Chandler, Ariz. that will comprise roughly 50 men and 50 women from across the world (as of Dec. 17, there were roughly 100 total athletes, according to the organizers). The field is predominantly American, with six top Canadians also trying to run an Olympic qualifying time, as well as runners from France, Eritrea, Mexico, Puetro Rico, Romania and Libya aiming at those key Tokyo standards.

Start time: 8:00 a.m. MST (10:00 a.m. EST)

Elevation: 1,214 ft.

Weather Forecast (as of Friday at 5:28 p.m. EST):

Who put it together?

Josh Cox: American 50k record holder turned BOOM Management sports agent

Matt Helbig: Founder and CEO of Big River Race Management

Ben Rosario: Hoka NAZ Elite head coach

What's the point?

The Marathon Project will give runners from North America and beyond a coveted chance to race in a competitive environment that adheres to World Athletics' COVID-19 guidelines. Because the race is certified by World Athletics, runners will have an opportunity to hit the Tokyo 2021 qualifying standard. While Team USA is already selected (based on the top three finishers at the Olympic Trials held just before the pandemic began), and while some runners already have standard, nine men and 11 women will be chasing the Olympic benchmarks — that includes Ursula Patricia Sanchez Garcia of Mexico, whose personal best of 2:29:32 is tantalizingly close to standard.

The Marathon Project Organizer Ben Rosario Anticipates Something Special on Sunday
The NAZ Elite coach describes how the The Marathon Project came together, the importance of making this race entertaining, and the possibility of a very big record falling

The (Strange and Wonderful) Course

Runners will race on a flat, 4.26-mile loop, completing it a total of six times. It's shaped like a sideways horseshoe, with a north and south cul-de-sac to negotiate, as well as one 90-degree angle turn that must be done twice on each loop. In total, there will be 26 turns.

But the course is very fast. It's pancake flat, with one runner who ran it this week telling us that there's only about five feet of total elevation on the loop. The asphalt is smooth and well maintained, and it should provide some very quick times.

Here's a complete tour of the course, which is fascinating, bizarre, and should be quite quick:

The Marathon Project Course Is Wonderfully Weird
The strangest race in the strangest year has the perfect course for running fast and seeing weird stuff. Here, we give you a complete tour

How Fast Are They Running?

Pacers will run at a variety of paces:

2:29:30

For international women looking to run the Olympic standard, as well as a group of American women who enter the race with a personal best near that time

2:26:00

A pace group is specifically set up for Canadian Natasha Wodak to attempt to run faster than her fellow countrywoman Rachel Cliff's 2019 qualifying time of 2:26:56. There should be a few American women on board for this pace as well.

2:24:00

This will be the lead women's chase group, no doubt including the second and third fastest runners in the field: Kellyn Taylor and Emma Bates.

2:19:00

Sara Hall will be afforded a pacer in order to attempt to break the American women's marathon record.

2:11:30

A large group of men will follow pacers in the hope of running faster than the male Olympic standard. This group will include three of the four Canadians in the race.

2:09:00

The lead men's group will go out at personal best pace for all but two of them in the field. Expect a group of around five runners.

Here is more on the key numbers to watch out for on Sunday:

The 13 Key Numbers to Track While Watching The Marathon Project
There is a lot at stake in Arizona. Here is a cheat sheet of the most important clock times to keep an eye on while watching

Who are some runners to watch?

Women

Full start list here

Sara Hall, USA – 2:22:01 - Sixth-fastest marathoner in U.S. history is coming off a personal best time and second-place finish at the London Marathon — she was the first American to mount the podium at London in 14 years. Interestingly, she is back for yet another marathon in the second half of 2020. She will attempt to break the American record, set by Deena Kastor 14 years ago. No other woman besides Kastor has run sub-2:20.

Kellyn Taylor, USA – 2:24:29 - The NAZ Elite runner re-wrote her 5,000m and 10,000m personal bests this year — her 31:07 suggests that she can challenge the 2:24 mark and inch towards Sara Hall territory.

Keira D’Amato, USA – 2:34:24 - The 36-year-old mother is properly back from a seven-year competitive running hiatus than spanned between 2009 and 2016. Her tour-de-force 2020 already includes a 15:04 5K time trial and a new American 10-mile record of 51:23. Her Strava is jaw-dropping.

Men

Full start list here

Jose Antonio Uribe Marino, Mexico – 2:08:55 - His personal best from 2014 suggests that the 34-year-old, if fit, could be within striking distance of the Olympic standard and of the official Mexican marathon record of 2:08:30.

Scott Fauble, USA – 2:09:09 - Twitter's favourite Burrito enthusiast ran 1:02:18 at the Michigan Pro Half Marathon in October, and seems poised to challenge the 2:09 barrier and eclipse his breakthrough race result from the 2019 Boston Marathon.

Jared Ward, USA — 2:09:25 - After a disappointing U.S. Olympic Trials, Ward jumped into The Marathon Project and is always a looming presence in a race. He finished just behind Fauble at the 2019 Boston Marathon. This could be an interesting duel at the front.

Cam Levins, Canada — 2:09:25 - Levins had a disappointing race in London two months ago, but has one of the fastest entry times, and has said he's fit and ready to run a new Canadian record, and win The Marathon Project in the process.

Noah Droddy, USA – 2:11:42 - The second-fastest runner in Indiana's history gained notoriety for his quirks back in 2016, which at least at one point included shoulder-length hair, an enjoyment of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, and a spot in a band called "Where's the Cake?"

CJ Albertson, USA – 2:11:49 - The 27-year-old ran an 2:09 marathon on a treadmill last month. But, obviously, it was unofficial. Albertson's eventual result at The Marathon Project could make for a fun case study of how a treadmill marathon translates to a road one.

In Canada 🇨🇦

The races to the Olympic marathon women's and men's teams are the most fierce in Canadian history. So far, four women (Dayna Pidhoresky, Malindi Elmore, Rachel Cliff, and Lyndsay Tessier) have achieved qualification standard, and only Pidhoresky, the 2019 Canadian marathon champion, is guaranteed a spot onto the team. Three women will use The Marathon Project as an attempt to enter the conversation.

Who Will Make Canada’s 2021 Olympic Marathon Team?
Canadian Olympic hopefuls in the marathon are running faster than ever, and it’s making the qualification process so complicated. We explain who’s in, who wants in, and how the team is picked

Emily Setlack and Lanni Marchant were also on an initial draft of the start list, but both have pulled their names in recent days.

1. Natasha Wodak (2:35:16) - Set a Canadian half-marathon record of 69:41 earlier this year (which was soon broken by Andrea Seccafien. Wodak has not raced a marathon since 2013, but she is working out at 2:26 pace.

Natasha Wodak On Running Her First Marathon in 7 Years
The Olympic 10,000m runner explains why she is returning to the marathon and why she chose The Marathon Project in Arizona

2. Kinsey Middleton (2:32:09) - Broke out in 2018 by winning the Canadian marathon championship, and has since recovered from injuries and clocked a 1:12:15 earlier this year.

It’s Olympic Standard or Bust for Kinsey Middleton
The Canadian-American knows she’s got to do something special this Sunday if she wants to lock in her spot for Tokyo

On the men's side, only Trevor Hofbauer, the 2019 Canadian trials champion, has a guaranteed spot on the Tokyo start line. 27-year-old Tristan Woodfine also has Olympic standard. Four men are within striking distance of 2:11:30.

1. Cam Levins (2:09:25) - The national record holder just needs to replicate his 2018 performance inside the qualifying period. He's time-trialed a 62:13 this year already.

Will Cam Levins Break His Own Marathon Record This Sunday?
Our coverage of Sunday’s Marathon Project in Arizona continues with... the man, the myth, the Canadian marathon running legend: Cameron Levins

2. Rory Linkletter (2:16:42) - Like Levins, Linkletter's prowess over 21.1km suggests he can run faster than standard on December 20. He's raced consistently all summer, and has broken 63:00 twice this year.

Rory Linkletter On The Marathon Project
Alex Cyr talks with the Olympic hopeful Rory Linkletter about facing off against Cam Levins for a spot in Tokyo, and what he considers to be his home course

3. Benjamin Preisner – Official debut - After time trialling an unofficial 62:30 this fall, the 24-year-old has made it clear that he will aim for Olympic standard. It would be a significant step from the 2:15 marathon he ran earlier this year (yep, also a time trial).

Ben Preisner Should Be Your Dark Horse Pick For Something Special at the Marathon Project
He low-key ran a 2:15 marathon time trial by himself during the Pandemic. Yes, you read that correctly

4. Justin Kent – Official debut - Kent broke the Canadian 20,000m record in November. His time of 61:01 equates to a 64:33 half-marathon. Perhaps a long shot, but still a shot.

Justin Kent Is a True Marathoning Cinderella Story
The Vancouver runner will make his debut at The Marathon Project on Sunday. He shares what he imagines the experience will be like

Which Shoe Will Win?

Nike has dominated distance running since in the past few years, first with the Vaporfly 4%, and now with its Vaporfly Next% and Alphafly, two carbon-plated and super cushioned lightweight racing shoes are said to give runners a significant advantage over those with traditional racing flats. But many other brands have all but caught up to Nike on the technological front during the Pandemic.

Our Inaugural Shoe Power Rankings: the Alphafly is Not the Alpha
Will the Nike Alphafly, Next% or the new Adidas super shoe reign supreme on our leaderboard? Every major carbon-plated running shoe, ranked.

The Marathon Project will be the first race where we could see Nike's super shoes shut out of the podium. Hoka, Brooks and Saucony all have representatives in their own version of carbon-plated racing flats, as does On Running, New Balance and Asics. Sara Hall will no doubt be wearing the Asics prototype that she used to finish second at the London Marathon in October when she goes after the American marathon record on Sunday. This could be a big moment for the little brands, and could perhaps signal the beginning of the end of the Swoosh's absolute dominance on the roads since the 2016 Olympic Games.

Can we watch this?

Live coverage will begin on USATF.TV+ at 9:45 a.m. ET. American elite runners Desiree Linden and Bernard Lagat, as well as Runnerspace broadcaster Paul Swangard will share hosting duties. A one-month membership costs $12.99 USD.

There will also be a 90-minute replay of the race on NBCSN from 7:30 p.m. – 9:00 p.m. ET. Membership is only available in select countries (USA: Yep. Canada: Nope).

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We'll  push out an instant reactions podcast immediately after the race has ended, so be sure to subscribe to our feed as well:

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