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After a year-long search, Northern Arizona Elite’s founder, Ben Rosario, announced on Thursday that the group has hired two-time Olympian Alan Culpepper as its new head coach.
Rosario has been serving as the professional running organization’s head coach and executive director since it began in 2014 and will remain as the nonprofit’s executive director. During a virtual press conference on Thursday, Rosario explained that the group’s sponsor, Hoka, has become more interested in expanding the athlete roster from 15 to 30 athletes, with more of those runners focusing on competing the middle distances (800 meters to 10,000 meters) on the track. Traditionally the group, which includes 2021 Olympic marathoner Aliphine Tuliamuk, has largely specialized in long-distance road races, including the marathon.
“The idea at first was [to] bring on somebody who could work with the track athletes; we [could] then be real players in terms of getting the top athletes out of the NCAA on the track [and I’d] continue to focus on the marathon and we could have a dual head coaching role,” Rosario said. “Around Christmas time, I just got the feeling…that it was going to be better to have somebody in charge that was the head coach for the whole group.”
Rosario said that he felt it was time for him to focus primarily on marketing efforts and expanding the list of sponsors that back NAZ Elite. Aside from Hoka, the athletes also represent the Rudy Project, Final Surge, and Picky Bars. He plans to create a podcast network that includes shows hosted by athletes and increase the group’s YouTube presence. “Ultimately we feel like we can parlay that [content] into new sponsors—corporate sponsors, non-endemic sponsors more along the lines of the cycling model,” he said, “so that we can have more revenue to provide more amenities to the athletes and quite frankly just be better.”
The search for the new coach remained confidential to protect the current jobs of the candidates, Rosario said. It began with five prospects, which included one woman who was also considered in the final round of three possible picks, he added.
“I have such a high respect for what [NAZ Elite] has done and I really commend Ben for recognizing that it’s like, ‘Alright, it’s time for the next version of this,’ and bringing in another coach to say, ‘Hey, what’s the new perspective and how can we leverage a younger demographic and a younger athlete model while looking more toward the track?’” Culpepper said. “For me personally, this is what has been a 10-year culmination.”
Culpepper, 49, was head cross-country coach and assistant track and field coach at the University of Texas El Paso from June 2021 until this month, when he returned to Boulder, Colorado, with his wife, Shayne Culpepper, and four sons, Cruz, Levi, Rocco, and Chase. Now the family is relocating to Flagstaff, Arizona. Culpepper, who was self-coached throughout his pro career, was a 2000 and 2004 Olympian in the 10,000 meters and marathon, respectively. Until taking the job at UTEP, Culpepper was director of operations and marketing for the Conference on World Affairs at the University of Colorado in Boulder, his alma mater, where he was a 1996 national champion in the 5,000 meters. He has also coached high school athletes in Boulder.
Though Culpepper’s athletic experience speaks for itself, his coaching experience is less extensive as he takes one of the few high-profile positions in the sport in the U.S. After he finished competing, he began privately coaching recreational runners and sub-elite athletes in Boulder, as well as having “significant involvement” with his son, Cruz, who broke four minutes in the mile in high school, he said.
“I wasn’t actively pursuing coaching as my profession…when you finish running, especially in that day and age when you’re 36 years old, you gotta get to work. We had three children at the time,” he said. “It wasn’t the type of thing where I felt compelled to take three steps back and become a volunteer assistant coach at some Division II program in Topeka, Kansas, or what have you. That wasn’t my interest.”
Jenna Wrieden, hired in January of last year, will remain NAZ Elite’s assistant coach. Wrieden was an assistant at Appalachian State University and then a graduate assistant coach at her alma mater, Arizona State, where she competed on the team alongside Desiree Linden and Amy Cragg. Eventually Wrieden jumped to a head coaching position at High Point University in North Carolina, then was assistant coach at the University of Louisville, where she coached Edwin Kibichiy, the 2017 national steeplechase champion, and Dorcas Wasike, the 10,000-meter national runner-up in 2018.
After his own running career—spent, in part, with the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project—came to a close, Rosario, 42, founded Northern Arizona Elite in 2014. At the time, he and his wife, Jen Rosario, sold their share of Big River Running Company in their hometown of St. Louis to fund the new group in Flagstaff. A year later, Hoka became the title sponsor, which has enabled the athletes to follow a pro athlete career path with financial incentives, coaching, facilities, and medical support.
The group’s mission statement is to “Train hard, run fearlessly, and share the journey.” The athletes’ training logs have remained public and some members have consistently showcased their lives on social media—a strategy that was new at the time, but has caught on among other pro training groups along the way.
“When we started in 2014 we knew that this was a business. We knew that we had to tell stories. We knew that we had to make stars out of these athletes, that their performances weren’t going to be enough. We had to build a community around the team,” Rosario said on Thursday. “But I’m a very competitive person and the way I see the landscape right now is that people have caught up to us…and for a while now I’ve said that, hey, we’ve gotta get back out in front.”
As for the athletes and how they feel about the next chapter for their group? Tuliamuk, who became the first U.S. Olympian out of the NAZ Elite program and most recently won the 25K national road championship, said in a text message to Women’s Running on Wednesday (she was unavailable for a phone interview, she said) that “change is good.”
“I am super excited with the changes that NAZ Elite is going through,” Tuliamuk said. “It’s exciting to have an Olympian coach join our family. From my training perspective as a marathoner, I don’t think that these changes will affect me as much.”
Stephanie Bruce has been with the NAZ Elite group since day one, with a 2:27:47 personal best for the marathon and sixth-place finish at the 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, has seen the total evolution of the organization. She announced earlier this year that she’ll retire from pro competition at the end of 2022, but during a phone interview with Women’s Running on Wednesday she said that Culpepper is the right coach to take over.
“The athletes have been part of a lot of the decision-making, which is really unique for a professional running group,” Bruce said. “What kind of coach do you want as a professional athlete? I think it’s someone that understands you as a person…just someone that cares about you and knows that even though we’re a collective group, everyone has their individual careers and to help figure out what’s best for each of us.”
Bruce said the direction NAZ Elite is taking is the right one in its progression.
“I think we were looking for a coach that we can put our trust in—that we can trust the training and we don’t have to question anything,” she said. “We can just go out and execute and crush our races.”