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“If you practice as if you are competing, then you only have to compete like you practice.” – Jared Ward

By Mike Atwood

It was supposed to be the Ryan Hall Show.

For the entire month before the 2015 Asics Los Angeles Marathon, there had been posters, banners, interviews, newspaper and magazine articles, a Hollywood-style media campaign…all announcing Ryan Hall’s return to the marathon. L.A. was going to be his big comeback race, they said. After all, Hall, a two-time Olympian had a run a 59:43 minutes half-marathon at Houston a few years ago not to mention his astounding 2:04:58 at Boston in 2011 – the fastest American time ever recorded for 26.2 miles.

However, BYU grad Jared Ward was coming off a pretty fast half-marathon in Houston himself. In January, he had run 61 minutes, finishing runner-up to Diego Estrada in the U.S. Champs – even beating last year’s Boston Marathon Champion Meb Keflezighi by almost a minute.

But Jared Ward’s name was barely mentioned him in the L.A Marathon / U.S. Championship media blitz.

Still, Ward didn’t mind; he soaked up the anonymity and focused on his training that was going very, very well. At the start, he raced conservatively (67 minutes for the first half) and then, around that 13.1 mile mark Ward looked up and saw  something strange in front his eyes. An oasis perhaps? He rubbed his eyes again saw a slowing Ryan Hall right in front of him. Ward suddenly had a vision: he knew he was not only going to beat Ryan Hall today, but also win the U.S. Marathon Championship.

“When we saw him (Hall) coming back, I think I felt a shot of adrenaline thinking I could be a national champion,” said Ward.

Temperatures were also shooting up quickly during the race with the elite runners finishing before the thermometer hit 80 degrees but the mass of L.A. marathoners faced 90 degree heat – not exactly ideal marathon conditions. It became more like a chess competition with the remaining men’s lead pack and Ward was playing the game wisely.

“The heat changes the dynamic,” said Ward. “I feel like the race turned more tactical versus what could have been a time trial on a faster course. I focused early on relaxing, hydrating, and fueling; I think that helped me better combat the heat later in the race when the pace ramped up.”

Ward moved into 3rd place overall and went onto sprint down Ocean Boulevard in Santa Monica, finishing in 2:12:55, a P.R. by over a minute

But even in victory,  it was Ward who had compassion for Hall.

“All of us respect Ryan for what he has accomplished. The pre-race attention on Hall is well deserved. And when he takes off at 4:41 pace, I respect him for it,” said Ward. ” I also feel sorry for the rough patch Ryan has been through recently. I hope he can get back to the old Ryan. He is an inspirational runner, and a hero of mine.”

However, it wasn’t a fluke or the fact Hall had dropped out. Instead, it was a solid block of training and good coaching that put Ward in position for his big break at L.A.. Coached by two-time Olympic Marathoner Ed Eyestone (2:10:59), Ward has improved by leaps and bounds over the last year. Eyestone’s knowledge on international marathon racing as well as developing collegians speed on the track has reaped rewards for Ward.

“I feel like I have the blessing of being coached by the best,” said Ward about Eyestone. “Who else would a young marathoner choose to transition from the 10,000 meters on the track to the marathon? Coach often seems to know my body better than I do, and I have come to trust his judgements on pace even when what he says seems fast. Also, he relates and understands that religion and family are an important aspects of my life. He is there to help me be the best I can be as a runner, but supports decisions to put emphasis on other important things too.”

And it was Eyestone’s experience that predicted a big P.R. for Ward, perhaps “close to 2:10″ if conditions were ideal. His mileage was up to 120 per week, almost 10% higher than previous build ups and his workouts were faster than ever before. However, the L.A. weather was not willing to cooperate with a heat wave moving across the region that week.

“You kind of just know what you’re ready for,” said Ward.  “This (the 2:10 prediction) took a bit for me to wrap my mind around, but the the workouts seemed to concur. After a few marathons I feel like you can get a pretty good handle on what your training is going to translate to.”

However, challenges have come in different forms for Ward his whole life. His Mormon religion called for a Mission to – of all places – Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Two years of knocking on doors and probably a few slammed in his face as he worked to spread the word about the Mormon faith. The pain of the marathon may seem easier to Ward in comparison.

“My mission has made an enormous difference in my life. I was able to come to terms about what I really believe eternally, and determine what I really what out of life,” said Ward. “I think perspective is key, and that is something I credit to my mission. Perspective helps to combat the roller-coaster like emotions that come with the ups and downs of life, and gives you an anchor. My mission taught me that running is something I do, not who I am–and I think that mindset has taken pressure off performance and in turn helped my running.”

Also, Ward suffered an eligibility snafu when the NCAA  made him sit out for the majority of his senior X-C season for competing in a “fun run” cross-country race, citing a compliance issue. The race had been run before he even entered BYU as he returned from his mission in 2009 and Ward self-reported it to be safe to BYU. That fall, he still trained and finished 19th in the Chicago marathon in 2:16:43, a sign that 26.2 was in his future. Ward finally came back and ran well for BYU after finally being reinstated by the NCAA at the end of that season, being the leader on a NCAA X-C team and running bests of 4:03 for the mile and 13:37 in the 5K there.  He also earned All-American status for finishing 4th in both the 3000 and 5000 meters at the NCAA Championships, two of his four All-American awards (10k and X-C). His P.R. of 28:36 at the Stanford Invitational doesn’t hurt either.  Ward’s name can’t helped but be mentioned in the prospects of American Olympic running.

“I certainly think that collectively as American marathoners we need to elevate our expectations. Among other Americans, if runners can get down to 2:11-2:13 we can compete, and get complacent,”said Ward. “But to compete internationally we need more Ryan Halls who are striving to compete with the 2:04-2:06 guys. This is a process, and it doesn’t mean try to run that pace when we aren’t ready for it, but we need to train like we hope to someday elevate ourselves to that level.”

His 2:12:55 puts him in great position for next February when the Olympic Trials will be held at L.A. again. Ward likes his chances but realizes some veterans are still running very well.

“There are a number of other guys that have a great shot too,” he said.”I look forward to watching Boston this year, as they are hosting a number of the contenders. This next trials will be a fun one, with so much Sr. talent in the Meb, Hall, Abdi, Ritz group, but then a pack of up-and-coming talent. The senior group is getting old, but how do you count any of them out? I look forward to seeing if this year is another team comprised of the same guys that have been representing the US for the last three or four Olympics, or if this year will be a changing of the guard so to speak.”

For now, Ward plans to continue training and relying on his sponsor, Saucony, coach, Eyestone and his support crew of family around him.

“Saucony has been great. They came in with the help my family and I needed when there weren’t really anyone else knocking at the door, and signed me for a year,”  However, I think the real hero is my supportive wife, Erica. She makes every effort to facilitate me chasing my dream–even if it means continuing to live like college students.”

When asked about the elite distance runners and his competition using drugs, Ward seemed pretty naive to the drug culture out there.

“Maybe I’m just ignorant, but I like to believe most guys are clean. Especially guys I’m running with on the circuit. I get frustrated when I hear of positive tests that seem too close to home: Americans I have raced,” said Ward. “But ultimately I can only control me. And when it comes down to it, I love running to see what I can get my natural body can do, so it doesn’t matter what others are doing.”

At then end of the day, Ward is grateful for all that he has outside of running. His wife, children, immediate family, and teammates have created a strong village of supporters.

“I feel very blessed in a number of ways. I feel like I can only credit success to having been blessed by people around me.  I also have great teammates, siblings, and children (Paul and Ellie) that make life fun,” he said. “I have been blessed to been given all the people in my life. I think anyone could have succeeded had they been dealt the royal flush I was handed.”

Originally appeared on Mike blog CoachAtwood.com.

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