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NAZ Elite burning up tracks on way to USATF Championships
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NAZ Elite burning up tracks on way to USATF Championships

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The head coach of NAZ Elite has been so busy lately that he hasn't had much time to let sink in just how well his professional runners have been doing on the track.

“Most of them have beaten their PRs by a big chunk of time, so we are very happy with how track is going," said Ben Rosario, who has been helping members of his roster prepare for the 2017 USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships.

The Championships, the pinnacle of the U.S. track season, return this year to Sacramento, California, where NAZ Elite seeks to have five of its athletes ride the momentum of a solid first half of the year to strong finishes. Representing the Flagstaff-based pro running team, Ben and Stephanie Bruce, along with newcomer Futsum Zienasellassie, will compete in 10,000-meter race Thursday night, with Craig Lutz and Rochelle Kanuho picking things up on Friday when they take on the 5000m.

Thursday will be a huge milestone for Ben Bruce, who will be lacing up for his 15th straight appearance. Seeded 10th this year, Bruce has either competed in the championship's steeplechase, 5000 or 10,000.

"Not too many runners have been doing what Ben is doing as long and at such a high level," Rosario said.

For eighth-seeded Zienasellassie, a former standout Northern Arizona Lumberjacks runner, it's the first time he'll be in the race as a pro.

The 10,000m is slated to be aired live on USATF.TV, and Friday's 5000m races will be live on the NBC Sports Network.

The top three of the USATF championships make the world championships this summer in London.

The weekend is also a finale for the team's first half of the year, as NAZ Elite members will start to focus more on marathons and road races for the latter half of 2017.

“We usually break up the year into two parts. Obviously each individual has different things throughout the year they are focusing on, but as a group we do have one big meeting as a team in January and talk about what we want to do for the entire year,” Rosario said.

Through the first six months, the team produced great results. NAZ Elite has a total of 31 top-10 finishes so far in 2017 to go with 12 PRs on the track.

The five members of the 13-man roster going into this weekend are peaking at the right time.

Ben Bruce recorded his 10,000m PR of 28:09.29 in March at the Stanford Invitational, and Stephanie Bruce logged her 10,000m PR of 31:59.88 at the same event. Zienasellassie posted his 13:34.84 PR at the USATF Distance Classic 5,000m in May, and Lutz went for two PRs so far, a 7:48.64 that came at the Adrian Martinez Classic 3,000m on the first of the month and a 13:36.03 at the USATF Distance Classic 5,000m.

“A guy who is on fire for us is Craig," Rosario said of his 2015 signee. "I feel like he’s adopted more of a healthy attitude toward his training and racing, and he’s got a much more confident attitude. The momentum is rolling in the right direction for Craig."

Crossing the line behind teammate Martin Hehir's third-place finish, Lutz took seventh place with this 7:48.64 not long after winning the Newport 10k in 29:46 in early May. At the USATF Indoor Championships two mile in March, Lutz finished 13th with a time of 9:01.25, and he clocked a 8:01.19 for bronze in January at the University of Washington Preview's 3000m.

Rosario said it's safe to say the team is off to a hot start and showing signs of success to come.

“If you get the ball rolling in the beginning of the year, you start hitting the goals you set out to achieve, and it all just snowballs from there," Rosario said. "It has been a good year."

The coach said the wave of great running has been forming since last year, when the team posted 32 top-10 finishes by the end of June. Rosario said that the overall success has had ripple effects.

"I think there is a certain expectation when you go to the line that, hey, my teammates have been doing this well, so I should be too," he said.

Rosario added that the success on the track makes his team appear more versatile, as sometimes the thought of NAZ Elite is that it's a team that is heavy on marathon and road races only.

And the hot start to the summer is great for the weather in Sacramento, where it's predicted to hit a high of 107 degrees. With temperature's nearing record highs in Flagstaff all week, the team has been able to train for the California conditions.

After cooling down from the weekend, coach and team plan to take the time to look back at how the year started in order to keep 2017 moving at its best pace.

“I think the thing about this fall that we are looking forward to is that the marathoners get to have their turn after the track folks have been doing so well," Rosario said.

Mike Hartman can be reached at 556-2255 or at mhartman@azdailysun.com.

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