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High Country Running: When opportunity balks

High Country Running: When opportunity balks

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Scott Smith and NAZ Elite

Scott Smith (third from left) and other members of the NAZ Elite team train in the Verde Valley Thursday.

The last mass participation event I competed in was the Olympic Marathon Team Trials on Feb. 29. Despite not having the performance I envisioned and trained for, I was still immensely proud; proud of myself, but also proud to be part of the team that produced the women's champion.

Running is an individual sport, but I know the NAZ Elite team has made me better, and I hope that, in a small way, I’ve made the team better, too. So when Aliphine Tuliamuk won, it felt like we all did.

Just over six years ago, this team didn't even exist. Ben and Jen Rosario started it with a dream and their savings. I and other original members joined for a $100 monthly stipend and a mutual promise that we would work hard to make this a viable, sponsored organization.

Thanks to this team, I now have a new event to look forward to: The Marathon Project on Dec. 20. On the Gila River Indian Reservation in Chandler, Arizona, a field of no more than 50 men and 50 women will run 26.2 miles on a 4.3-mile loop. Pacesetters will aim for sub-2:10 pace for men and sub-2:24 pace for women. Spectators won’t be able to watch, but broadcast details are being finalized.

As professional runners, our livelihood and passion lies in competitive racing. When opportunities were postponed and eventually cancelled due to the pandemic, Ben and other like-minded people in the industry began to develop events that would create safe and competitive environments. They were mostly track races, as those were easiest to deliver with adequate safety protocols.

While I was excited at the prospect of competitive races, I was not intrigued with track racing. Ever since I moved to road racing after college, I’ve found more success and happiness in that arena. My motivation dwindled as marathon after marathon cancelled its 2020 edition. But I was encouraged when the success of these track races kindled discussion of a marathon.

As talk turned to action, we began seeking and testing potential locations. On the Phoenix Raceway in the dead of summer, I even ran a lap in 115-degree heat to test the camber of the racetrack. I kept my expectations tempered, yet I knew we had the right people on board -- the same people who gambled on a dream and built a professional running team that produced an Olympian. So when we finally received word that The Marathon Project was happening, I was relieved but not surprised.

In a year that has stripped away opportunity as well as revealed an inherent lack of it for so many, it seems trivial to be upset with the cancellation of foot races. Still, I think it's OK to feel disappointed when something you’re passionate about gets taken away. I’m fortunate to be surrounded by people who have turned frustration into initiative, and even more grateful that we have this opportunity on Dec. 20 to do what we love.

Scott Smith has run 4:01 for the mile, 1:02 for the half marathon and 2:11 for the marathon. He currently splits his time between Los Angeles and Flagstaff.

Do you have a column, tip or idea for High Country Running? Send it to coordinating editor Julie Hammonds at


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