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Jared Ward’s Steady Approach to the Olympic Marathon

After earning third place at the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon, Jared Ward has continued to train hard in preparation for Rio.

Jared Ward likes to ride mountain bikes, but his knobby tires haven’t been seeing much action lately.

“Some friends took me out on the trails at home a few years ago, and they warned me that I might not want to run again. It’s a blast—I really love the adrenaline,” says Ward, one of six runners who will compete for the U.S. in the marathon at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics next month. “But I’m about to begin my main training cycle for the marathon in Rio, so my bike is going to stay in the garage for a while.”

That pronouncement came in late May, just before Ward ran the Bolder Boulder 10K, donning bib No. 1 for the American pro squad—he ran 30:28 for 16th place in Colorado, hitting the even splits one might expect from a marathoner, though he lacked the speed exhibited by the lead group.

A little more than a month later, at Georgia’s Peachtree 10K on July 4, Ward, 27, expressed satisfaction with his fifth-place effort (29:29), despite running on tired legs and in hot conditions.

“Racing just offers a good baseline. In Boulder, I just wasn’t quite there yet,” Ward said. “At Peachtree I felt that fitness has come around. I’m looking forward to a few more weeks of training, but really like where I am.”

He says that he logged a 100-mile week just before racing in Georgia, and kept the intensity at 90 to 95 percent of his previous training weeks.

Ward’s personal brand is not yet as ubiquitous as those of his well-known Team USA marathon teammates, Galen Rupp and Meb Keflezighi. But if his progression in the marathon continues, that’s bound to change. Rupp, Keflezighi and Ward will toe the starting line of the men’s marathon at 9:30 a.m. local time (8:30 a.m. ET) on Aug. 21 and run a course that includes several criterium-style loops along Guanabara Bay before finishing in Sambódromo open-air stadium. It will be one of the marquee events in the Olympics, televised live around the world.

Ward earned his Olympic spot with a third-place finish at the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon on Feb. 13 in Los Angeles, running a near-PR of 2:13:00 on a hot day. Eight weeks later, he nabbed his second U.S. championship at the 25K distance, winning the River Bank Run in Grand Rapids, Mich., in 1:14:56. Ward’s progress in the marathon has been remarkably consistent; he’s improved steadily in each of his first three appearances at the distance. (He debuted at Chicago in 2013 with time of 2:16:17, followed by a 2:14:00 at Twin Cities in 2014 and his PR of 2:12:56 at the 2015 Los Angeles Marathon.)

His third-place finish at the Olympic Trials Marathon in February marked his seventh top-three finish at a U.S. championship race since the fall of 2014. While he’s made a name for himself among his peers, he’s OK with the notion that he hasn’t become a household name just yet. He’s a thoroughly analytical thinker—he even teaches a course in statistics at Brigham Young University, and devoted his master’s thesis to an investigation of pacing strategies for the marathon.

If Ward has become expert at calculating his training and racing, he has not done it alone. He ran at BYU under coach Ed Eyestone, a two-time Olympian (1988 and 1992) in the marathon with a PR of 2:10:59. After Ward’s collegiate career came to a close, he decided to stick with Eyestone’s coaching and has not wavered in the decade that they have been together. He is married to Erica, once his massage therapist, and they frequently bring their two children to his races.

Eyestone and Ward also share a faith in Mormonism, which shapes Ward’s training week into a six-day-per-week schedule—Sundays are reserved for worship, contemplation and family time, but not running. While being interviewed for this story, Ward did not bring up the topic of religion, but he said that he is very comfortable discussing it when asked.

“Anybody that has a personal relationship with God, I think they are going to want to share that,” he said “I find it really comforting to know that there’s much more than running out there. My family and my faith are connected to everything I do.”

The demands of training inevitably affect Ward’s family life. “There are tough days when Jared is feeling down or frustrated about how his running is going,” said his wife, Erica. “He is relieved when his morning run is finished early, and he gets stressed if he needs to squeeze two runs late in the day, without adequate recovery. There are a lot of times when we lean on each other—sometimes I am his support and more often he is mine.”

When asked about Jared’s meticulous approach to scheduling, Erica pushes back on the suggestion that he’s too rigid.

“Jared plans things in his mind…partly because he loves efficiency. But even in training, you have to go with the flow and see how you feel each day. Listening to his body keeps him healthy longer than pushing too hard or too far,” she said. Her insight includes hands-on experience as Ward’s massage therapist—Erica is a certified professional in that field.

Ward may have entered the sport’s brightest spotlight only recently, but he says that he’s ready for it. “I’ve been blessed to have a great coach and a great support system. I’ve been able to recover from injuries and run at a high level. I still enjoy racing, as much or more than I ever have,” he says.

With the spring races now behind him, Ward will focus fully on the marathon in Rio. He plans to watch videos of the course during the build period and try to unlock its secrets. With Eyestone’s guidance, he will challenge himself by creating marathon simulator courses in Utah before he arrives in Brazil. After that, the time for analysis will be over—Ward and the rest of us will find out if his steadily upward trajectory as a marathoner will continue.