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Shortly past 7:50 a.m. Sunday morning, a small group of elite runners took off from the Rock ‘n’ Roll Arizona Marathon and Half Marathon’s starting point in Tempe. They tore down East University towards McClintock then up towards Scottsdale and eventually back again, all with a determined set of goals in mind. They wanted to qualify for the Boston Marathon in April, post a personal record or simply build up strength as part of their training schedule.
But on Sunday, those elites only counted for a tiny proportion of the marathon’s participants. Far more took off 90 seconds later in the general population segment of the race. Here, the event’s personality was on display.
“It's not just a street marathon but the entertainment value of the fans and the nature of the course activations that people can really just have a good time in that positive way,” race director Justin Kern said.
Fifteen months ago, Kern and his organizing committee made the decision to cancel the 2021 race due to “uncertainty going on with COVID at the time.” For 15 months then, they built towards Sunday morning, organizing sponsors and planning a course in conjunction with city officials.
Amid that long slog, they dreamt of the scene in the middle of Arizona State’s campus at the start of the race. Alongside amateur runners whose outfits and physicality resembled the elites, one man ran in an all-white suit. A few yards behind him, a woman followed in a full Pikachu outfit. Kids ran alongside grandparents. One woman wore a tank top that said ‘after this, we’re getting tacos' and a firefighter jogged along in his full work outfit carrying an American flag.
At its essence, Sunday’s event reflected the “social atmosphere” Kern aimed to build, bringing people together after so many races across the country have been canceled due to COVID-19 over the past 22 months.
For some, the pandemic served as their introduction to running. With little else to do amid lockdown measures in spring 2020, they found the sport and trained with the long-term goal of eventually completing a full or half marathon.
Wendy Conrad is among that group. On Sunday, her whole family hung to the guard rails beside the start line, holding oversized cardboard cutouts of her face.
“My friends from high school did it for their senior year so I saw photos of it so I thought it'd be funny to do it,” Reagan Conrad, Wendy’s daughter, said.
Others, like Nicole Casaletto, were longtime marathoners getting back to racing after pandemic cancellations. Casaletto, who is from Los Angeles, came to Arizona on Sunday to complete the 27th leg of her goal of running a marathon in every state.
“I'm a little nervous about finishing,” Casaletto admitted, referencing the layoff that the pandemic inflicted on her normal schedule. “I haven’t done one in a long time.”
Hours later, a few blocks northwest of where they started, elites and regular runners alike commended the Tempe course.
“It was beautiful,” Dan Kasprowicz, who finished second in the men’s marathon, said. “It was really nice. Some tough sections. There was a bike path section that went up and down a bunch of hills, that was hard. But it was great. Beautiful weather. Little bit of breeze.”
Stephanie Bruce victorious in final Phoenix event
Earlier this winter, Stephanie Bruce — one of the nation’s best female marathoners — announced that 2021 would be the last season of her career after she was diagnosed with bicuspid aortic valve disorder.
In that context, every race from now until her career wraps up in the fall will be one to savor. The Arizona marathon, though, has always held a special meaning for Bruce, who grew up in Phoenix and graduated from Phoenix Xavier Prep.
On Sunday, she won the women’s half marathon — which featured the majority of the day’s elite runners — in 1:10:33.
“We were out clear from the beginning,” Bruce, who runs for NAZ Elite in Flagstaff, said. “I think I wanted to run as hard as I could — I came short of that today — but we weren't too concerned with who was in the field, we just wanted to go out there and rip as hard as we could.”
Though Bruce said she felt short of her best with heavy legs throughout, the moment was bolstered as she got to run with her husband, Ben Bruce. A former elite runner himself, Ben now works with NAZ Elite, helping pace their runners in races like Sunday’s.
That, though, doesn’t always mean he and Stephanie get to run together.
“It was very special,” Stephanie said. “We've been together a very long time and we've been in this sport a very long time so to be able to go out this last year for myself with him alongside me is a dream come true.”
Frias takes men’s half
Just over an hour after opening the race on East University, Chris Frias came sprinting south on Tempe Bridge, towards the celebratory tape and party unfolding in Tempe Town Park. With a time of 1:07:43, Frias — who runs for HOKA ONE ONE Aggies in California — won the men’s event by 18 seconds.
“I’d say around mile four,” Frias said. “I made a slight move, kinda maintained the pace but just went a couple seconds faster and I was able to get a little bit of a gap when people disperse out and then from there, I just kinda increased my lead for the most part.”
Frias, though, hit a nervous moment around mile 11, on the turn back towards downtown Tempe. With a comfortable lead over the pack, he felt his calves cramping up.
“It's just a matter of survival at that point,” Frias said. “So I kinda wanted to push a little bit harder but I knew I had to hold off just a little bit so I wouldn't flair up again.”
Over the race’s final stretch, he found the right balance, using enough speed to hold off the runners behind him without further aggravating his calves. Two miles later, he saw the fruits of that balance, claiming first place in his first time ever running the Arizona half marathon.
Zachary Garner, 2:28:49
Dan Kasprowicz, 2:32:10
Brian Babykak, 2:34:30
Charlie Ware, 2:34:45
Frank Corrigan, 2:37:50
Joshua Hillis, 2:38:40
Matt Stump, 2:40:20
Alexander Witthus, 2:43:40
Jordan Maddocks, 2:44:12
Matt Peabody, 2:46:53
Kai Sharbono, 2:55:01
Sara Polatas, 2:59:00
Charlotte Bouyssou, 3:03:33
Corey Petersen, 3:07:12
Brenda McRae, 3:12:44
Mariah Burroughs, 3:14:15
Esmeralda Olivas, 3:14:29
Casey Fleming, 3:15:11
Sara Fry, 3:15:18
Dani Whitcher, 3:16:36
Chris Frias, 1:07:43
Bryant Byrd, 1:08:01
Austin Lavin, 1:08:05
Tanner Brown, 1:08:46
Ryan Irwin, 1:08:49
Fermin Villagran, 1:09:28
Adrian MacDonald, 1:10:06
Nicholas Shampoe, 1:10:15
Marcos Bailon, 1:10:20
Ben Bruce, 1:10:32
Stephanie Bruce, 1:10:33
Rosie Edwards, 1:16:39
Erin McLaughlin, 1:17:12
Natalie Severy, 1:17:39
Becca Kawaoka, 1:17:55
Amanda Miller, 1:18:26
Molly Callahan, 1:18:39
Abbie Tuomi, 1:18:49
Emily Roughan, 1:20:23
Erika Wallace, 1:24:37
Theo Mackie covers Arizona high school sports and Phoenix Rising FC. He can be reached by email at email@example.com and on Twitter @theo_mackie.
This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Arizona marathon returns after COVID-19 cancellation