In a year when marathons had to be run in private, one elites-only event allowed Charlotte’s Olympic Trials qualifier Paula Pridgen to hit the road with some of the best. The Marathon Project in Chandler, Arizona, on December 20th allowed only 50 men and 50 women to compete on a closed, 4.26 mile-loop course. Pridgen says the unique situation, in a year with little racing, helped her learn a lot about herself as a runner.
“It was a little different,” says Pridgen, who runs for Charlotte Running Club and is sponsored by Oiselle Running Apparel for Women. “It was so surreal – so empty, but fun.”
Pridgen applied to be part of the invitation-only race after hearing about it from a friend and training partner. She didn’t know if she would be accepted, but was delighted to hear that she was. In a year with few in-person races to choose from anywhere in the world, she knew the field would be even faster than Olympic Trials in February had been.
The course was a flat, C-shaped loop that runners would run around and back on 4 times to finish the race (including turn-arounds at each end of the ‘C’). Every runner was allowed to invite only 2 people as a support team, so the wide-open road was mostly empty of people cheering. Out of 102 entrants, 76 finished. Pridgen placed 31st of 32 women after deciding she didn’t come all that way to drop out, and had no good reason to.
“On race day, I went out there feeling pretty confident I was in shape — and I do feel I was in shape — and felt good early on,” recalled Pridgen. “I jumped in with a pack that some were shooting to run a little faster, and may have started out running too quick. I slowed a bit, but didn’t get better.” Her finish of 2:42:18 was more than two minutes slower than her best of 2:40:04, but the lessons of pacing and perseverance she learned were important to her longtime running goals.
“I learned a little more about what works for me in a marathon, and how to run my best marathon,” says Pridgen. “It’s probably the most competitive marathon I’ll ever run.” She calls the whole experience – from the closed course on flatlands outside Phoenix, to the lack of cheering spectators, to the challenge of pacing with so few competitors — “surreal.” But she is still very glad she was chosen to take part.
“I’m grateful for the opportunity,” she says. “Most people have not had the opportunity to run in person – especially marathons – in 2020. I was thankful to have something to train for.”
After competing, it was back to life in Charlotte for newlywed Pridgen and her husband, fellow runner Franklin Keathley. Pridgen took two weeks off from training to rest and move into the couple’s new home. The time off gave Pridgen time to relax and reflect.
“Putting COVID aside, it was just a cool race,” she said. “It was nice to have something to get excited about.”