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NAZ ELITE THIS WEEK

NAZ Elite This Week: Early 2022 slate full of intrigue

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Matt Baxter

Matt Baxter

When Stephanie Bruce toes the start line at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Arizona Half Marathon on Sunday, she'll be 38 years old. Moreover, she'll be seeking to set a PR at the distance just days after her Jan. 14 birthday.

Head coach Ben Rosario said Bruce, who's been with NAZ Elite since its start, represents much about her team and what it stands for as a group of elite runners.

In her final year of professional running, Bruce is out to smash races, PRs and ideas about running professionally after a certain age. Her desire to keep improving is still there. It's something she's always done. 

“That’s what we’re all about," Rosario said, adding that he wouldn't be surprised if Bruce comes away from Sunday with a new personal best.

Bruce, who announced last week via social media that due to a congenital heart condition 2022 would be her final year of pro running, is coming off a fifth-place finish at Saturday's USATF Cross Country Championships, where she clocked a time of 34:50. Her solid performance has helped the team keep its sense of momentum.

At the end of 2021, NAZ Elite started coming away from races with finishers on the podiums, successful outings and PRs being set.

Rookie Katie Wasserman, in just her second race ever, placed fourth at the USATF Club Cross Country Championships with a 6K time of 19:57 in mid-December. Not long before that Nick Hauger ran a marathon debut of 2:12:59 at the California International Marathon, where former NAZ Elite teammate Rory Linkletter placed second with a PR of 2:12:52. Also at the beginning of December, Lauren Paquette came in fourth in her debut in the half marathon in 1:09:46 at the USATF Half Marathon Championships.

Just before the new year turned, NAZ Elite announced some big roster moves. In addition to Scott Smith retiring, NAZ Elite saw Scott Fauble and Rory Linkletter head in different directions. Sid Vaughn also wasn't going to be part of the team in 2022.

“The thing about the end of December and coming into January was that, of course we had some roster changes, but the thing about that is it’s good," Rosario said Wednesday. "Change is good. Energy, you need new energy, new blood, new years. And having Katie get off to such a good start as a rookie, and having Alex Masai come in now, and he’s training awesome with Matt Baxter, and then you get something like what happened with Steph and everybody is behind it.”

And everyone is feeling the urge to race. It's one of the reasons Rosario is looking forward to the continued start the early 2022 schedule.

Baxter will be at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Arizona 5K on Saturday. Although bigger races and opportunities await him not too long down the road, he'll run Saturday with the motivation to try to break the New Zealand 5K road record of 14:13. The end of this month, and then February and March will be when Baxter really starts chasing some PRs.

"He would like to PR in the 3K on the track, the 5K on the track, the 10K on the track. He’s ready to take advantage of the works he’s done these last couple of months, because he’s been healthy and has been putting in a lot of work," Rosario said.

Meanwhile, Alice Wright will make her long-awaited marathon debut at Sunday's Houston Marathon.

Wright was supposed to make her debut at the distance at Athens in mid-November, but a fluke health issue ultimately kept her out of the race. Since then, however, she's been training well and is in a good place as she approaches the race, Rosario said.

“You could make the argument that she is better prepared now than she was then just because of the extra time,” Rosario added.

Julia Griffey will race in the half marathon at Houston on Sunday, as she seeks to get her year off to a good start while early in her fitness segment.

To end the month of January, Baxter will be joined by rookie Masai, who will make his debut in a 3K track race at the John Thomas Terrier Classic in Boston.

“He’s been great," Rosario said of Masai, who signed with NAZ Elite in the fall of 2021. "He came (to Flagstaff) at the end of December. Every single workout he comes and performs at a high level, but he has fun. I think the athletes like being around him and like his attitude. I think we are already to the point to where they are excited to see him race because they know how fit he is.”

Despite all the intrigue involved with the start of the year for 2022, Rosario simply enjoys the fact that his athletes are slated to be competing a lot.

“We’re healthy and fit, and we want to take advantage of that. We want to get out there and race, and we want to run really well and just get everything off to a great start. It looks like that’s what we are going to do, because we’ve got the right personnel, we’ve got the right races on the schedule that are kind of tailor-made for these folks," Rosario said. "We think we’ll see fast times and fast performances.”

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

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