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Catching up with Hoka One One Northern Arizona Elite head coach Ben Rosario to discuss the Michigan Pro Ekiden that was held at Stony Creek Metro Park in Michigan this week.
For those unfamiliar with the ekiden racing style, it’s super popular in Japan where a race consists of a multi-person road relay. In this case, it was six legs. Three men and three women covering the 26.2 mile-marathon distance with 10K, 6.1K and 5K legs.
The NAZ team won in two hours, 10 minutes and 11 seconds. Hansons Brooks Original Distance Project took second in 2:12:08 and Minnesota Distance Elite rounded out the podium in 2:12:51.
In this episode, you’ll hear about how the race came together and where the ekiden style of racing could fit into the American distance running scene going forward as well as a little bit about race innovation amid the global pandemic, which has also led to Ben teaming up with a group to host The Marathon Project later this year.
‘The history of this thing goes back to the summertime when Amy Begley called me and she was putting on the idea that maybe we should get the coaches together and see if we could maybe do some sort of road race in the fall. We sort of saw the writing on the wall that there weren’t going to be any mass road races for obvious reasons. We didn’t think that precluded us from having a professionals-only race because there are so many fewer logistics and so many fewer people so you can create a safe environment with testing and we felt like we could do it. We were watching other sports happen. We got Kevin Hanson and Lee Troop on the phone. We had a Zoom call between us and we started bantering about some ideas. I think that was maybe the first group. Then, we got Jerry Schumacher involved and eventually Chris Lundstrom from Team Minnesota Distance Elite and Richey Hansen from Roots Running. We kind of had this coaching conglomerate working together…
When we were talking about what we could do, I remember that I had put forth the idea out to my athletes. Ultimately, this was for them. It’s what do the athletes want to do. I think it was Scott Smith on my team who said, ‘Hey. We should have an Ekiden relay.’ I had asked them this before the first call because I wanted to come into the call with some ideas. When I threw out that idea about the Ekiden relay, everyone was excited about it because it was different. I don’t remember exactly who said what but we kind of thought, ‘What about a half marathon?’ And I thought, what if we just stay in the same place so we can do the Ekiden relay one week and then the half marathon the next. That was the thinking. And then we thought: Where? We can’t do it up at altitude. We couldn’t do it down in Atlanta. Amy felt that the weather would be a bit unpredictable plus getting a permit was going to be sort of impossible for any sort of roads down there. I think that’s maybe when I said, ‘What about Stonycreek?’ to Kevin. I knew he had a good relationship with the park and when you think about a bike path, it’s so isolated and enclosed as opposed to getting permits for city streets or downtown streets. That’s just not happening right now. When I said that, Kevin kind of perked up and got really excited about the possibility of hosting the event and then he really took it from there.”
“I thought the whole event went well. The big winner was the event. As far as our team, it was mission accomplished. We wanted to win. We did win and I thought we did so in a pretty convincing fashion. You can’t ask for much more than that because we were facing some really good teams, clubs, coaches and athletes. We were very pleased.”
“We had a text exchange with all the coaches after and everybody was just thrilled. Everybody loved it and thanked Kevin, Keith and the whole Hansons community as they should have. Our athletes loved it. I’m staying in an Air BnB with Scott Fauble and Rory Linkletter and everybody is in a great mood.”
“I hate to do this because there’s just a great spirit about it but it will probably come down to money. If there’s enough hype about the event coming off of this and someone, perhaps an agent, is willing to take this on and work with Kevin. They’ll need to create a pitch deck for sponsors, endemics, non-endemics and all over the place to start working on it sooner rather than later. Then you have a lot of time to potentially create a situation where the prize money in a race like this is one where you wouldn’t have to make those tough decisions of ‘Why would I go to road race X when the prize money only goes 10-deep and fifth through 10th is $500-400-300-200-100. Why would I do that when I could come here and my team could win $10,000 split between six people?” I hate to make it about money but it is a professional sport. I would think that would be one solution: To create enough of a prize purse. This is not a knock. I couldn’t believe Kevin came up with any prize money. That’s unreal in two months. He basically took it out of his own pocket because we won $2,000 for winning this race, which was great. The athletes won $500 because they won their leg and $200 if they got second place in their leg. That’s actually a pretty good prize structure but if it could be more money subsidized by a big sponsor then that would be the No. 1 thing to make it work.”
“I actually like this time of year because a lot of people are doing fall marathons. I’m thinking maybe it would move to September and it would serve as a (I hate this word) tuneup before the athletes would go on to run Chicago, New York, CIM or whatever it might be later in the fall.”
“The club cross country championships are popular because of the team aspect. I can speak to this because when I owned my running stores (Big River Running Co.) we used to send our team (Big River Racing Team) to Clubs and it was our chance to re-live our high school and college glory days. You put on the spikes. You huddle up as a team before the race. You run the race. It kind of reminded you of the national meet back in the day when you’d go party afterward because it was the end of the season. We’d get together for workouts in the weeks leading up to the race. It was great. I think that the same atmosphere can be achieved in an ekiden. I know it can because I just witnessed it yesterday with that same kind of camaraderie. I think there’s plenty of sub-elite, high-end amateur teams around the country who can put together a co-ed team of six people. I don’t think that’s hard to imagine. I don’t see why you couldn’t get 20-25 teams that are pretty decent to do this sort of thing.”