Charlie Lawrence wanted an easy video game victory a few days ago.
He decided to challenge fellow professional runner Will Leer, who lives a couple of blocks away from him in Boulder, Colo. Lawrence believed Leer, a Minnetonka native, doesn't really play video games, so he wouldn't be that good at FIFA.
Or so he thought.
Leer kicked more than the electronic soccer ball that day.
"He was sitting on my couch, beating me on my console and drinking my beer," Lawrence said. "It was just a triple loss for me."
The game at least gave Lawrence a competitive outlet, a rarity for runners this year.
The marathon year of 2020 has lacked … marathons. Boston, New York City and Chicago, three of the world's largest marathons, were all canceled. Grandma's in Duluth and the Twin Cities Marathon were also scrapped, with limited virtual elements.
That's where The Marathon Project comes in. Instead of thousands of entrants, about 100 elite runners will compete Sunday in Chandler, Ariz., on a 4.3-mile flat loop. Race organizers will use pacers, with a goal of getting men to finish in less than 2 hours, 10 minutes, and women in under 2 hours, 24 minutes.
Lawrence, a Foley native and former Gophers distance runner, will be one of six Minnesotans in the field. There are five runners from Minnesota Distance Elite.
The field includes athletes who finished in the top 10 at Olympic trials as well as some former Olympians.
"Every one of us wants to show what we've got and the work we've put in since Atlanta and show our fitness that we've hopefully gained from taking advantage of this time to get better," Lawrence said.
Atlanta served as the site of the U.S. Olympic team trials on Feb. 29, the most recent marathon for many of the runners Sunday. Such was the case for Lawrence, who finished 61st out of 175 men with a time of 2:20:40. He said he expected to finish in the top 25 and hoped for top 10, but he struggled with moderate anemia, which meant he didn't have enough healthy red blood cells to carry enough oxygen to his tissues.
Since then, Lawrence, whose personal best is 2:16:12, moved from Michigan to Colorado and switched trainers.
He averages 15-18 miles a day. On more extreme days, he runs 22-24 miles. Then on recovery days …
"You're only running 8-10 miles," Lawrence said.
These numbers have helped him prepare for the Marathon Project, but for a while, he was training for shorter events. He planned to run in the USA 20K and 25K championships to work on his speed but, like most races, they were canceled.
So how is The Marathon Project happening when most races couldn't? The low number of runners is a crucial element. The event is closed to spectators, and everyone who is there must always wear a mask. The only exception will be the athletes when they run. All participants also must test negative for COVID-19 multiple times this week. The host hotel will serve as a bubble of sorts.
Former Elk River standout Emma Bates, who has emerged as one of the top marathon runners in the United States, will be among the favorites; her personal record of 2:22:01 is third-best in the women's field.
This marathon won't be winding its way through a big city, so it will be quite different in terms of atmosphere. But it will be a chance for runners to compete at something besides video games.
"You want to take any opportunity you're given," Lawrence said, "and run with it."