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How Utah became fertile ground for elite runners

‘Per capita there is no place better than Utah’ says Isaac Wood, co-founder of Run Elite Program

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BYU distance runner Conner Mantz runs on campus in Provo on Friday, Feb. 19, 2021.

BYU distance runner Conner Mantz runs on campus in Provo on Friday, Feb. 19, 2021.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

With very little fanfare, an increasing number of former Utah collegiate distance runners are making their mark in the professional ranks on the road and track.

Shortly after turning pro in December, Conner Mantz, BYU’s two-time NCAA cross-country champion, won the U.S. Half-Marathon championships. Rory Linkletter, another former BYU runner, was 10th in the recent New York City Half Marathon.

Clayton Young, another former NCAA champion for BYU, won the national 15K road championships in 2021. A year later BYU alum Nico Montanez won the same championship race.

Connor McMillan, another former BYU All-American, placed 10th in the 2019 New York City Marathon. Lexie Thompson, formerly of Weber State, was second in last fall’s Philadelphia Marathon. Dillon Maggard, a former Utah State All-American who lives in Logan, placed ninth in the 3,000 meters race in the World Indoor Track and Field Championships in Belgrade.

There are at least 15 professional road racers who competed for a Utah university. Nine of them are former BYU All-Americans, 11 are Utah natives, three from American Fork High. This doesn’t even count Courtney Wayment, another Utah native who will turn pro in the spring after completing her eligibility at BYU. 

“Per capita there is no place better than Utah,” says Isaac Wood, a former college coach and administrator who continues to coach privately. “Utah is more fertile ground than any state in the country per capita, although Michigan would be up there, too.”

This prompted Wood to approach Jared Ward, the 33-year-old former Olympic marathoner, with an idea. “There is so much talent coming out of Utah now; we need to start a running club here,” he told Ward. “There’s way too much talent leaving the state to train somewhere else or they just stop training.”

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Jared Ward of the United States, right, and Italy’s Daniele Meucci race during the London Marathon in London, England, Sunday, Oct. 4, 2020. The former BYU standout, along with former college coach Isaac Wood, recently started a running club in Utah that caters to elite-level runners.

John Sibley/Pool via AP

At about the same time, state legislator Mike McKell, an avid runner, was looking for a coach and found Ward and Wood. He learned that they were organizing a running club, now named “Run Elite Program,” or “REP.” Sen. McKell, R-Spanish Fork, suggested that REP seek public funding, selling it to the legislature as a resource for improving community health and wellness.

It won approval this year, thus becoming the first and only professional running team funded with state money, rather than a shoe company contract. The team will make a public launch in August.

“The bottom line is that there are a lot of people in Utah who are into running and outdoor activities,” says Wood, the club director. “Our goal is to provide incentives and opportunities for these professional runners. We also want to create opportunities for them to spend time with, and influence, the running community at large.”

Wood envisions a gathering of elite runners — including those who have their own clubs, coaches and shoe deals — to train and interact with Utah runners at large in community events. “We want to support all runners in the community, and we want to bring notoriety to Utah running,” says Wood. “Our goal is to have one to two group workouts in which we convince coaches to agree to do the same workout — one that works for everyone.”

The club’s biggest mission is to provide financial assistance for promising runners. Or, as Wood puts it, “To provide a structure and resources to pro athletes that don’t typically come in their shoe contract. Looking at insurance, bonuses for community involvement, bonuses for times run, putting on free high school and community clinics, bringing events to the state that we’ve never had (a USATF road race championship), etc.” 

It’s difficult for promising runners to survive financially after they complete their collegiate competition. Shoe contracts are the lifeblood of professional runners, but can be difficult to find. Former Olympian Paul Cummings, who drowned in 2001, performed hot, heavy manual labor in the Geneva Steel mills while trying to run professionally in the ’80s, running from his home to the mill and back each day until he finally won a shoe contract.

Others simply don’t pursue promising careers for various reasons. Nachelle Stewart Mackie and Lacey Bleazard each won two NCAA championships at 800 meters for BYU a dozen years ago, but didn’t continue their careers after graduation. BYU’s Shaquille Walker, an All-American at 800 meters, lasted only a year as a professional even though he had a shoe contract. The hope is that REP will provide support for such runners to enable them to pursue running careers.

The birth of REP is occurring just as more and more Utah runners are turning pro. This might be the best era of distance running in the state since the 1980s. Henry Marsh, Doug Padilla and Cummings, all former NCAA champions at BYU, swept the distance events at the 1984 U.S. Olympic Trials, winning the 3,000-meter steeplechase and the 5,000- and 10,000-meter runs, respectively.

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Longtime track and cross-country coach Ed Eyestone, pictured in Provo on Thursday, May 30, 2013, has enjoyed success over the years with the many All-Americans he’s coached.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

During the 1984-85 school year Ed Eyestone became only the fourth man to win the NCAA Triple Crown, winning national championships in cross-country and the 5,000- and 10,000-meter runs. In 1985, Padilla won the Overall Grand Prix on the world track and field circuit and Marsh broke his own American record.

Marsh, Padilla, Cummings and Eyestone would go on to compete in nine Olympic Games combined, set several American records and earn regular appearances among the annual world rankings. While Padilla and Marsh competed on the track, Eyestone became America’s premier road racer for more than a decade, and Cummings, when he wasn’t battling allergies, also earned a good living off the roads.

In the last decade, distance running has taken off again in the state, largely because of the BYU program and the success of Eyestone and Diljeet Taylor — the men’s and women’s coaches at the school. Eyestone’s cross-country team has finished seventh or better in the last six NCAA championships, including a three-year stretch in which they finished third, second and first. Taylor’s cross-country team has finished second, first and second, respectively, in the last three NCAA championships.

Mantz won the last two individual NCAA cross-country titles and Whittni Orton won the 2021 cross-country championship. Wayment won individual NCAA titles in the 3,000 and 5,000, anchored a national championship relay team and placed fifth in the Olympic trials with the 10th fastest time in U.S. history. Behind its distance and middle-distance prowess, the BYU women’s track team has finished seventh and eighth in the last two indoor championships and 10th at last spring’s outdoor championships, highlighted by Anna Camp’s victory in the 1,500-meter run in 2021.

BYU is producing most of the state’s distance talent, but Southern Utah, Weber State and Utah State have all placed well in the NCAA cross-country championships in recent years. According to Wood, Utah collegians have produced a total of 246 All-American performances in the last decade.

Wood believes that Utah’s running prowess is a byproduct of a lifestyle and a culture steeped in working hard to achieve long-term goals, as well as the emergence of quality coaching at the high school level. “There are a lot of coaches that prepare runners to run well in high school and the next level,” says Wood. “Look at how  many different high schools qualify for the national Footlocker (cross-country) championships every year — Timpview, Springville, Corner Canyon, Davis, American Fork …”

Here’s a quick look at the pro runners from Utah and what they’ve done lately:

Conner Mantz (BYU, Smithfield) — the two-time NCAA cross-country champion won the U.S. half-marathon championships shortly after turning pro in December. He also was fifth in the New York City Half (1:01:40) and fourth in the 3,000 at the U.S. indoor track championships. This winter he also recorded big personal bests in the 5,000 (13:10:24) and 10,000 meters (27:25:23).

Rory Linkletter (BYU) — Linkletter asked to be released by his sponsor (Hoka shoes) so he could change coaches and wear different shoes, and then immediately performed better. His best performance was a 10th-place finish in the New York City half marathon in 1:02:19.

Jared Ward (BYU, Kaysville) — The former statistics teacher at BYU made a name for himself by finishing sixth in the 2016 Olympic marathon. He finished sixth and 10th in the last two New York City marathons. He plans to compete in the Boston Marathon in April.

Clayton Young (BYU, American Fork) — The former NCAA 10,000-meter champion has been busy: first in the national 15K championship last year, third in the 2021 national 10K  championships and fifth in the 20K championships. He also was 13th in the Chicago Marathon last fall.

Connor McMillan (BYU, American Fork) — He was one of the top stories during the New York City Marathon, where he placed 10th in 2:12.07 — 12 minutes faster than he had ever run. He was a media favorite after the race because he had no job and no sponsor at the time. A chemical engineer by schooling, he continued to train because he felt he had “unfinished business.”

Lexie Thompson (Weber, American Fork) — Thompson was second in the Philly Marathon with a fine time of 2:30:37. She also had top 10 finishes in the national 20K and 15K road championships. 

Sarah Sellers (Weber, Ogden) — She’ll always be known as the nurse who delivered a shocking second-place finish in the Boston Marathon 2018. It was her second marathon ever. With no sponsorship she had to pay her way to the race and pay her entry fee, unlike other elite runners. After an 11th-place finish in the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in 2020, she became pregnant and gave birth in January 2021. Since resuming her running career she placed third in the Mesa Half Marathon and plans to make her next big race Grandma’s Marathon in Minnesota.

Grayson Murphy (Utah, Salt Lake) — She didn’t take up competitive running until she was in college and has forged a good pro career, mostly in the world of mountain running and its many iterations. She surprised everyone when she returned to the track last year and placed sixth in the Olympic trials steeplechase. She is the undisputed queen of mountain running.

Nico Montanez (BYU) — He won the USA 15K title this year and was third in last year’s 20K championships. He also has a 2:14 marathon to his credit.

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Anna Camp of Millard High, right, heads for the finish line of the girls 2A high school cross-country state championship in Salt Lake City, Wednesday, Oct. 22, 2014. Camp recently turned pro, signing with Adidas.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

Anna Camp (BYU, Milford) and Whittni Orton (BYU, Panguitch) — The two former NCAA champions, both of them from small towns, have performed sparingly since turning pro and signing with Adidas, but their racing should pick up when the track season heats up in the spring. At the Millrose Games, Orton finished ninth in the 3,000 and Camp was 12th in the mile.

Dillon Maggard (Utah State) — Maggard has continued to progress since graduating from Utah State in 2018. He made the U.S. indoor world team by finishing third in the 3,000 at the U.S. indoor championships and then went on to claim ninth at worlds. He was second in the U.S. cross-country championships last fall and ran a fine 5,000-meter time of 13:13.62 in Boston in February.

Makenna Myler (BYU) — She became a national curiosity last year when her husband Mike bet her $100 that she couldn’t break eight minutes for a mile when she was nine months pregnant. She did it in 5 minutes, 25 seconds, all captured on video that was posted on the internet. She went on to qualify for the Olympic Trials and placed 14th in a field of 44 in the 10,000-meter run, seven months after giving birth. She finished seventh in the U.S. 20K road championships last fall in Connecticut.

Cam Levins (Southern Utah) — The former two-time NCAA champion and Canadian record holder for the marathon, Levins is 32 and active on the marathon circuit. Last year he finished first in an Austrian marathon in 2:09:14, but only 72nd in the Olympics.

Jordan Cross (Weber State, Ogden) — He managed to qualify for the Olympic Trials last summer in the steeplechase, but did not advance to the final.

Wood hopes that REP encourages more promising runners in the future to continue in the sport after they are finished with collegiate competition.