It’s a little recruiting trick that Ed Eyestone pulls out on occasion. Little did he know that it may come full circle, 10 years later.
In 2006, Eyestone, the cross country coach at BYU, went to Kaysville, Utah, for an in-home visit with a state-champion runner named Jared Ward. As Eyestone came into the house, Ward right away noticed the bling on the coach’s finger.
“This ring,” Ward says, “that had the Olympic rings on it.”
“I don’t pull it out often,” Eyestone says with a laugh.
Eyestone was a 1988 and 1992 Olympic marathoner with a résumé that puts him among the greatest marathoners in U.S. history.
The ring wasn’t the deciding factor in Ward eventually choosing BYU, but the choice to follow Eyestone was indisputably the right one for him. A decade later, Ward is now trying to get an Olympic berth of his own in the marathon—and Eyestone is still coaching him.
“It’s nice, and like I say, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” says Eyestone, 54. “We’ve had some success working together.”
Ward’s rise to the short list of contenders in the Feb. 13 U.S. Olympic Trials is far from ordinary. He committed to BYU, but before enrolling he went to Pittsburgh for two years on a Mormon mission, where he barely did any running and actually gained 20 pounds. But the time away from running taught Ward a lot that helps him to this day.
“There are very few people that are excited to get into a big conversation about deity on their doorstep,” says Ward, 27. “It’s certainly a trying experience in terms of stamina and emotional resiliency. I feel like I really grew up in those two years. Anything that I lost (with not running) at the time I think was gained in other life lessons that I learned. It gave me a lot of perspective.”
Ward then enrolled at BYU and quickly flourished under Eyestone’s watch. But he soon made headlines for being ruled ineligible by the NCAA due to his participation in a fun run between his mission and enrollment at BYU. Expected to lose the 2013 cross country season as a result, Ward instead ran the Chicago Marathon that fall, finishing in a very respectable 2:16:17.
Soon after, though, the NCAA reversed their ruling and reinstated Ward’s college eligibility. So he ran the NCAA cross country championships a month after the Chicago Marathon and still earned All-America honors with a 36th-place finish, helping the Cougars finish fourth.
Which brings us to 2015, when Ward really broke out as an elite distance runner. At the L.A. Marathon last March (which served as the U.S. marathon championships), Ward finished third overall in 2:12:56 (a new PR by 64 seconds) and first among Americans, claiming the national title. He followed it up with U.S. championship wins in the 20K and 25K as well, capturing the 2015 USA Running Circuit title alongside Molly Huddle’s women’s title.
In the middle of all that, Ward finished his masters degree in statistics (with a thesis on pacing strategies in the marathon) and continued to raise his two children in Provo, Utah, with wife Erica. Oh yeah, and he teaches a couple of statistics classes at BYU.
So, yes, overall an unusual ascent for Ward. But make no mistake—he’s a true contender at the Olympic Trials marathon, and his training for the Feb. 13 race has gone as good as he could have hoped.
“Things have gone really well in this buildup,” says Ward, who’s sponsored by Saucony and GLUKOS. “I’d say this (buildup) screamed consistent all the way through. It’s been a very healthy block of mileage and training. We’re trying to capitalize on things that worked well last year going into L.A. and add things where we can in other areas. I feel good. I’m excited.”
The Olympic Trials race will be his fourth marathon, and the first three progressed two minutes from one to the next—2:16:17 in Chicago to 2:14:10 at Twin Cities in 2014 to the 2:12:56 in hot weather in L.A.—and if he continues that progression, he’ll find himself close to his coach’s PR of 2:10:59. For now, Ward owns the 15th fastest marathon time in the trials field. But Eyestone is confident that a repeat performance like his 2015 L.A. Marathon result would be enough to put Ward on the Olympic team.
Ward is a little more reserved about his chances, but is eager to see how it all plays out.
“It’s always hard to say, depending on weather and spur-of-the-moment decisions from some runners,” Ward says. “I think there’s certainly a talented debuting crowd, and then veterans who have done it a bunch of times, and then you have a few guys like me who have run a couple of marathons and are trying to make it to that next level.
“I see the race going out to an early, honest pace and then being a war of attrition. But it’s hard to say. You never know what the other guys are thinking. “