It's Marathon Project Week at The XC. Be sure to follow all of our special coverage of Sunday's big race in Arizona, which will feature some of  North America's best marathoners, including those attempting to qualify for next summer's Olympic Games. We'll be releasing daily podcasts featuring interviews with athletes competing in The Marathon Project, plus our instant reactions pod immediately following the race. Be sure to subscribe to our newsletter for in-depth coverage delivered right to your inbox, and our Sunday Long Read.

The setting of Sunday's Marathon Project race on the outskirts of the greater Phoenix area would fit perfectly in a Cormac McCarthy novel. The term "post-apocalyptic" has been heavily abused during the Covid pandemic, but it’s apt here. If runners see a broken man and his young son coddling a Coke can on the side of The Road, then even more serious shit went down in the world since the gun went off.

The course sits at the southernmost edge of the Greater Phoenix area, just as the the bedroom community of Chandler gives way to the encroaching desert. Here, the organizers of The Marathon Project have found both the perfect location for a lightning fast world-class marathon and the most appropriate context for what could one day be seen as the apex of COVID-era races.

The key feature of this stamp of asphalt in the sand is the big parking lot at its centre, which will serve as HQ for the start and finish of the race. Beyond that there are a few standout landmarks and features of the loop, which I spent far too long exploring in granular detail on Google Earth. It gave me serious Fallout 3 vibes.

Interestingly, The Marathon Project is not the first foot race to be held on these grounds. During non-Covid times, the area plays host to something called the Inflatable Run, as well as a couple of knock-off Tough Mudders. It definitely has that feel. In a parallel universe, Sara Hall must leap over a fire pit before crushing the American record. And Cam Levins will have to ride a bull for eight seconds in order to get to Tokyo. Come to think of it... someone get Seb Coe on the horn.

And if after a couple loops runners get the feeling that this would be a fitting spot for a low-budget EDM festival, their instincts would be correct.

The tour starts here, at the 500-ish-metre straightaway that racers will use as both a launching pad at the start, and as the long finishing stretch that will deliver records, breakthroughs, Olympic berths, and heartbreak. Just imagine missing a chance to go to the Olympics while staring down this 500m monstrosity:

The race organizers are cruel!

Actually, these elite athletes will crush this sucker, mainly because there is little to distract or deter them from running crazy fast. Fittingly, the 4.26-mile loop was even desolate pre-Pandemic. Wandering the course with Google Street View reveals that there weren't many cars for runners to worry about even in the "before times," save for this guy in a golf cart... picking up road kill?

So, cool, no armadillo corpses to leap. That's a plus.

(Fun fact, nine-striped armadillos give birth to genetically identical triplets. Another fun fact: there aren't actually any armadillos in the state of Arizona. Damned facts ruined my clever quip.)

The loop, which is really a sort of sideways horseshoe, involves only two major 90-degree angle turns through wide intersections, that look like this:

Runners will have to do the above major intersection once in each direction, six times, and will also have to make a similar turn at both the start and the end of the race in order to finish up in the bleak parking lot.

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

At either end of the horseshoe are a pair of cul-de-sacs, which are also mercifully wide. In our conversation with NAZ Elite athlete Rory Linkletter, he indicated that the turns don't feel that devastating, so they shouldn't be a major issue. In all, runners will have to negotiate a total of 26 significant deviations from an otherwise more-or-less straight line.

Here's a look at the north cul-de-sac:

What's that in the middle, you wonder? Oh, just a few brass fellers setting up camp:

Or, as I like to think of them, the first significant cheer squad waiting for the runners to pass by. The other notable cheer squad? Stray dogs. We've also set the over/under of wildcats on course at 1.5 (yes, the "Arizona wildcat" is a real animal).

By contrast, the south cul-de-sac offers a more serene, stark, and beautiful experience, like a Stephen Shore photograph. This is where I recommend runners take a moment to contemplate the metaphorical nature of this cul-de-sac, this race, the marathon... running. Life.

But for the most part, worry not, there's a whole lot of this:

A place like this strip could only exist in America — A desolate, semi-obliterated landscape with perfectly manicured asphalt boulevards. Ideal for running a fast marathon or encountering the beginnings of a zombie apocalypse. Is Scott Fauble an axe guy, a bat guy, or a crossbow guy? Now I wish Des Linden were running this thing. She's the closest thing to Walking Dead Rick in the running world. (Wait, I stopped watching that show after season two... did I just maybe unintentionally insult Des Linden? Did Rick break bad? Alas, I won't know unless she @'s us after reading this, because I sure ain't watching late-period Walking Dead.)

Oh, and the runners will also pass by a rodeo:

Yes, a functioning rodeo (although, I checked, and they're closed during the Pandemic; boo!).

Just to the east, runners may hear distant sounds of screeching tires and the sweet release of NOS engines. This is because there's a drag racing strip and a 500m-squared "drifting pad" next door. Another fun fact, race organizers Ben Rosario and Josh Cox were initially going to call the event "More Faster, More Furiouser." (That's completely untrue.)

To the south, however, is a very chill, if slightly eerie, vibe — a whole lot of desert and open sky:

If this race were started just before dawn, the chances are high that runners would pass by a Cadillac with a popped trunk and a couple of burly fellows digging a hole in the desert. But would they yell, "Run Forrest, Run!"?

Thankfully, the race starts just after the sun rises, so those running The Marathon Project shouldn't be distracted by much, on this pancake flat, and rather brilliantly defined course.

Oh, and Fauble is for sure a #CrossbowGuy.