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How a BYU professor used math to help him qualify for U.S. Olympic marathon team

Jared Ward, the newly minted Olympic distance runner by way of BYU and Davis High School, is an adjunct professor of statistics at Brigham Young University. When he isn’t grinding out 10-mile runs, he teaches two classes a week — probability theory and statistical programming software.

Ward applies statistical science to his full-time job of running, studying optimal pace strategy, performance curves and other esoterica. He says things like, “I calculate my mileage, workouts, heart rate and how I feel. These indicators work in my mind almost like a subconscious regression to predict my performance.”

Did you get that?

He never performed a probability analysis of the odds of making the Olympic team, but he did turn his master’s thesis, which he completed last spring, into a scholarly approach to the marathon. At BYU, he completed an integrated academic program that enabled him to earn undergraduate and master’s degrees in statistics simultaneously. His thesis was titled “Optimal Pace Strategy in a Marathon.”

Among many other things, Ward’s thesis concluded that the more elite runners do a better job of maintaining a steady pace throughout the entire 26.2 miles, whereas less successful runners start too fast and vary their pacing. An even pace is more energy efficient in the same way a car gets better gas mileage with steady speed on the freeway than it does with varying speeds in city driving.

Steady, disciplined pacing proved to be critical during Ward’s run in the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials last February. When three runners broke away from the lead pack in the middle of the race, Ward stayed true to his thesis and let them go; he was rewarded when one of his front-running rivals crumbled. He clinched an Olympic berth with a third-place finish behind two Olympic silver medalists, Galen Rupp and Meb Keflezighi.

If he had chased his rivals when they broke away, Ward undoubtedly would have folded because, even while maintaining a slower mid-race pace, he hit the wall with a half-mile to go, when his stride was reduced to a shuffle.

“It was the most I’d ever hurt in my life,” he says. “I was just putting one step in front of the other and knowing I just had to make it to the line.”

To distract himself from the pain, he sang a song in his head, taking lyrical liberties with “Hall of Fame.” Over and over, he sang to himself, “Do it for mama, do it for wife, do for kids, do it for your life. …”

Ward crossed the finish line with a wide smile, his arms outstretched, finishing in 2:13:00 (Rupp clocked 2:11:12 and Keflezighi 2:12:20). He was immediately bear-hugged by Keflezighi and then went to his knees, resting his forehead on the asphalt, exhausted. Keflezighi poured water on his back to cool him off and then helped him up. Moments later Ward was greeted by his wife, Erica, who had served as his masseuse, cook, facilitator and adviser in the buildup to the trials.

“The finish photos show the raw emotion I felt,” Ward says. “… After a moment on the ground somewhere between prayer and exhaustion, I got a big hug and kiss from my wife, and that was a special moment. We both had sacrificed so much for this dream; the feeling was euphoric.”

Ward’s climb to the Olympics began at Davis High, where he was coached by Roger Buhrley, who has sent dozens of distance runners to collegiate programs. Ward took up running in earnest as a high school sophomore, splitting time between the track team, club soccer and playing his trumpet in the marching band.

As a junior, Ward dropped the other activities to devote himself to running, and from then on there was little that could deter him from training. When he needed to help out with his family’s ice-delivery business during the busy summer months, he wouldn’t get home until midnight or later. On such occasions, he put on his running gear and ran the streets of Kaysville in the dark.

“I didn’t find out about it until he graduated,” says Buhrley. “He wasn’t one to toot his own horn; he never said anything about it.”

Whenever Ward set a goal — as he usually does — he wrote it on a note and stuck it to the mirror of his bedroom. It was “state” when he wanted to qualify for state; it was “4:18” when he wanted to break that time in the mile; it was “Footlocker” when he wanted to qualify for the Footlocker national cross-country championships; it was “junior nationals” when he aimed for that competition.

“He never ran his goals by me, or I would have told him to be more realistic,” says Burhley with a laugh.

By then Ward was dating one of his teammates, his future wife Erica Christensen, who would go on to hurdle at BYU. Following a date one night, as she watched Ward walk home, she remembers thinking, “He’s going to the Olympics someday.” She didn’t share those thoughts with him until he returned from his church mission more than two years later, in 2009.

Ward was a six-time, first-team All-America at BYU, and he might not have discovered his knack for marathoning, at least not in time for 2016, if not for the kind of mess that only the NCAA can create. Shortly after returning from a mission in the fall of 2009, Ward ran in a recreational fun run while waiting to enroll for winter semester. The race was such a lighthearted event that some of the entrants wore costumes.

The NCAA, which bans athletes from competing in organized, non-NCAA events that it believes will give them a competitive advantage over college athletes, suspended him for an entire season of cross-country. After two appeals were denied, Ward was forced to sit out his senior season of cross-country in 2013. When the Deseret News brought this injustice to light, the NCAA reversed itself in November with only two meets left in the season.

It was mean and petty of the NCAA to penalize Ward for participating in a fun run, but it did produce one positive side effect. Since BYU coach Ed Eyestone believed Ward would miss the entire 2013 cross-country season, he suggested that he train for a marathon. It’s a big jump from 10,000 meters (6.1 miles) — the longest collegiate race — to 26.2 miles, but in his debut, Ward placed 19th (sixth among Americans) in the 2013 Chicago Marathon with a time of 2:16:17.

“It was certainly making the best of a bad situation (with the NCAA),” Ward said, “but it ended up being a blessing in disguise to get that early exposure to the marathon.”

Ward entered his second marathon in 2014 — the Twin Cities Marathon in Duluth, Minnesota, which also doubled as the U.S. marathon championships. He placed second in the race behind Tyler Pennel, who pulled away at 21 miles.

In 2015, Ward entered his third marathon — the L.A. Marathon, which served as the U.S. championships that year. He placed third overall with a time of 2:12:56 in 80-degree heat, and as the top American finisher, he was the U.S. champion.

Ward returned to Provo and stuck the Olympic rings on his bedroom mirror.

“I had dreamed of running in the Olympics, but they were dreams, right?” he says. “After the L.A. Marathon, I realized I could make the Olympic team my goal.”

Awarded with a contract from the Saucony shoe company that provided the wherewithal to continue in the sport at least through 2019, Ward threw himself completely into training for the Olympic trials. He logged twice-daily training runs, pounding out 110-120 miles per week. He passed up other races, including the 2015 world track and field championships in August, to focus on the trials.

Eyestone, a two-time Olympic marathoner himself, wrote and oversaw his training program. The other key player on Team Ward was Erica. She suggested that Ward change his diet and began preparing meals that enabled her husband to cut his weight to 143 pounds on his 5-11 frame. Erica, a licensed massage therapist, also massaged the soreness out of his legs regularly. “Erica has always been a believer and enabler in my life,” says Ward. “She is the hero behind the scenes.”

In short, Eyestone and the Wards had done everything they could to prepare for an Olympic bid. Or had they?

The top three finishers would make the Olympic team, but when it was announced that Rupp, the 2012 Olympic silver medalist at 10,000 meters, had entered the race, that number effectively shrank. “It seemed like there were only two spots open now,” says Erica. This was to say nothing of Keflezighi, another Olympic silver medalist who was seeking his fourth Olympic berth at the age of 40.

This news caused Erica to make a bold, 11th-hour suggestion to her husband: Why not altitude training? Living and running at high altitude, where the air is thinner, forces the body to produce more oxygen-carrying red blood cells. This gives a runner an advantage when he returns to sea level. The “sweet spot” for altitude training is considered about 8,000 feet.

It was already mid-December, just two months before the race, but the Wards packed up their two children and moved to altitude, living in a series of apartments and hotels in the Utah mountains for five weeks.

“It wasn’t easy for our family,” says Erica. “It was complicated.”

Says Ward, “Erica said, ‘We should do everything we can to get you ready,’ but she was the one who had to do a lot of the hard things, such as living in a hotel and taking care of the kids and cooking my meals in a hotel.”

They cooked on a hot plate in their room. They celebrated the holidays in a hotel. Ward did some of his training runs on snow and ice and for speed work he drove to BYU. Studies show that in order to make physiological changes, an athlete must remain at altitude 18 hours a day for at least four weeks. Ward had to drive to BYU three days a week to teach classes and to do speed work on the track there, but he made sure he was never gone from his high-altitude home for more than six hours.

Heading into the 2016 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in Los Angeles, Ward was not considered one of the favorites to make the team, at least not by the popular press. His best time ranked no better than 15th in the field, but, as Eyestone notes, “People in the know knew Jared would be a factor. That 2:12 in the heat in the L.A. Marathon was worth about a low 2:10. That race led you to know that Jared can handle the heat and has the head for it. People underrate the talent of being tough and being smart.” The day before the race, Eyestone warned the NBC broadcasting crew to keep an eye on Ward.

Ward and Eyestone drew up a race plan that called for restrained, stay-with-the-pack pacing through the first half of the race, which was entirely consistent with Ward’s master’s thesis. Ward would execute the plan with remarkable precision. Checking his watch nearly every mile to gauge his pace, he covered the first half of the race in 1:06:31 and the second half in 1:06:29.

His restraint and discipline were severely tested between miles 15 and 16. That’s when Pennel accelerated and broke from the pack, and Rupp and Keflezighi covered his move. Until then, the field had been content to run a conservative pace because of the heat, but suddenly Pennel and company were laying down 4:47 miles.

Ward, forgetting himself briefly, gave chase, but when he checked his watch and saw that he had run a 4:50 mile, he backed off the pace.

“I thought, I probably ran too fast and so did they,” he says. “I let them go a little bit. I wasn’t prepared for that pace. I just needed to manage my body.”

It was the defining moment of his race. Who would’ve blamed him if he had panicked and continued his pursuit? After all, two years earlier he had lost to Pennel when the latter made a similar move at 21 miles and now he was letting him get away again. So were two Olympic silver medalists. Ward checked himself and stuck to his plan of even pacing, hoping one of the leaders would come back to him.

Ward, now in fourth place, throttled back while the leaders continued to push the pace, opening up a 20-second gap on him. He bided his time for the next three miles. At 19 miles, Ward’s patience was rewarded: Pennel began to fall off the lead pace. Just after the 20-mile mark, Ward caught and passed Pennel.

He continued to widen his lead over Pennel, but he wasn’t celebrating yet, knowing well that things can go awry suddenly in the marathon and that he had already pushed his body to the limit. Earlier in the race, at 18 miles, he had begun to feel cold despite the heat — a sign of dehydration — and he was drinking and dousing himself at every water station.

His situation became so desperate in that last torturous final half-mile that he would say later, “That’s the furthest into the well I’ve ever gone. Every step I wondered if it was going to be the last one. It felt like I was lugging bricks.”

It was only then, as he turned a corner for the final 200 meters, that he finally stole a look over his shoulder to see where fourth place was — “I couldn’t see him, and I thought, ‘I’m gonna make it. It was something.”

Ward was so exhausted at the finish line that he was placed in a wheelchair for a few minutes. His joy was in sharp contrast to that of another Utahn, Luke Puskedra, who finished fourth, missing the Olympics by one place. Patrick Smyth’s eighth-place finish meant that native Utahns accounted for three of the top eight places.

The day after the race, Ward and his family took a cruise to Mexico during which Ward did not run a step. He returned to Provo and a week later resumed light training to start the buildup to the Olympic Games in August. What will he put on his mirror next?

“That’s a good question,” he says. “I haven’t decided yet what to put up there yet. I’ve got to think about that one.”

Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: drob@deseretnews.com