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NAZ Elite learned something from competing in last year's Flagstaff Downtown Mile.

“They really like to race in front of a hometown crowd," NAZ Elite head coach Ben Rosario said of his runners.

So this year, the team is sending twice the number of runners to the annual event that is part of the Flagstaff Summer Running Series. Stephanie Bruce, Erin Clark, Danielle Shanahan and Sid Vaughn will be in the NAZ Elite lineup for the race that takes place on July 4.

In the 2018 installment, the first year NAZ Elite competed in the event, the team saw its two runners, Aaron Braun and Scott Smith, finish the elite men's division in second and third place, respectively. Pat Casey edged out Braun, who has since parted ways with the team, by a second for the victory in 4:14.

There are plenty of other reasons Rosario likes this race.

“Sometimes professional sports, it’s just stressful, so it’s fun to have a race where there is little stress and they can enjoy themselves while still competing as hard as they can, and do it in front of friends and family," Rosario said.

The timing's right for his athletes as well, especially Erin Clark.

Clark is set to return to racing after battling the injury bug for months. She's closing in on the end of her first year of professional racing after NAZ Elite signed her in mid-July of 2018 along with Alice Wright and Grayson Murphy, who has also parted with the team recently.

Clark had a stellar fall before being sidelined. She placed third in her debut as a pro with NAZ Elite at the Reebok Boston 10K for Women, which was shorted by 300 meters as the lead car turned off the course early and caused the race to end prematurely.

She followed up with a ninth-place finish at the USATF 5K National Championships in early November and then recorded a first-place finish at the Flanigan’s Rockin’ Rib Run 10K in 33:37 later that month.

After taking 12th at the USATF Club Cross Country Championships, she was dealing with the setback. Despite the time away from racing, Clark's fitness, Rosario said, "overall is better than it was, I think, a year ago.”

The Downtown Mile made sense for Rosario and Clark as a jump-off.

"She’ll be running that in a way to shake off the cobwebs, so to say, racing-wise before USAs at the end of July,” said Rosario, referring to the USATF Natinoal Outdoor Track and Field Championships in late July.

The injury actually helped Rosario realize Clark was a good pick. During the process of getting back to full health and fitness, Clark showed she's on board with the team in all facets of being a pro.

“She’s been so smart about it and so patient and professional, and she’s really listened to our physiotherapist and has listened to what we need from her on that end," Rosario said. "That’s the type of person who’s going to have a long career."

Rosario also sees his female rookie class as having staying power in the sport.

Shanahan signed to NAZ Elite only weeks before the next three female newcomers joined the roster, and she has made strides in her first year. She PRed in the 10,000-meter with a time of 32:22.59 at March's Stanford Invitational while taking 11th place, and she just missed hitting a PR in the 5000m two weeks ago at the Adrian Martinez Classic.

Three of the four first-year female runners for NAZ Elite won a race, with Murphy the exception despite coming close as a runner-up a few times.

Meanwhile, Wright has produced at a high level as she nears the end of her rookie season. The England native set PRs in the 5000m, 10,000m and half marathon -- which impressed her coach the most. In her third half marathon for the team, Wright placed third at the Rock ‘n’ Roll San Diego half earlier this month for her fastest time at the distance yet.

“But she was the most accomplished coming out of college, so for her to see the most success out of the gates makes sense, and the others are getting there," Rosario said.

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Mike Hartman can be reached at 556-2255 or at mhartman@azdailysun.com. Follow him on Twitter @AZDS_Hartman.

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