Utah’s Jared Ward enters New York City Marathon with blinders off, sights set on getting back to the Olympics

Olympian will join fellow BYU alum Makenna Myler, whose pregnant running video went viral, in elite division of 50th anniversary race

Jared Ward pushed forward through the night. A stream of green lights — set to a 29-minute, 10-kilometer pace — led the way through the dark along the winding concrete path. Behind him, another 10 runners gave chase. When the pack dipped into the chambers of Germany’s Zollverein Coal Mine, strobe lights pulsated along the low ceiling, momentarily turning the event from race to rave.

September’s Fast, Future 10k, held in one of Europe’s largest mines, marked Ward’s first time running in an underground tunnel. It was not, however, his first time with tunnel vision.

Since finishing sixth in the marathon at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, the former BYU runner and Mapleton resident has on several occasions taken an unintentionally narrow approach to his goals. It has cost him opportunities, some he didn’t realize he valued more than the thing he was chasing until he’d blazed right past them. Qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics is a prime example.

But with pain comes revelation, or so he believes. So as Ward prepares to step to the starting line for the 50th running of the New York City Marathon on Sunday, the goal is the same. Only his vision is wider.

“New York is a step now in the direction of getting back to the Olympics in Paris in 2024,” he recently told The Salt Lake Tribune, “as opposed to the ultimate goal of being in a race where maybe I could finish on the podium.”

A dogged pursuit of the podium is what got Ward into trouble in the first place.

Seeking his major marathon moment

Six marathons dominate the distance-running circuit. Held in Tokyo, London, Berlin, Boston, Chicago and New York, they collectively are called the World Marathon Majors. Almost no elite runners will compete in all of them in one year, but as a circuit they determine the annual world marathon champions. Once every four years, however, nearly all the world’s best marathoners gather for a single race: the Olympics.

Ward inserted himself into that elite company in 2016 in Brazil with inspiring results. Despite running with a fractured pelvis — an injury he discovered only after the Games — he came so close to bringing home a medal that he felt a podium finish at one of the world’s major marathons was well within his capabilities.

So when he returned to top form after nearly two years of rehab, he zeroed in on that goal. In 2018, he finished as the top American man and sixth overall in the NYC Marathon, feats he would repeat in 2019. In between, he placed eighth at the 2019 Boston Marathon in a personal best time of 2 hours, 9 minutes, 25 seconds.

With a second pass at Boston looming in April 2020, Ward’s goal was well within his grasp. First, though, he had to compete in late February in an otherwise nondescript marathon in Atlanta that served as the United States Olympic marathon qualifier. He admits he felt miffed about having to veer from his podium path.

“Frankly, I was a little frustrated that I had to go and compete in an Olympic trial because that was — I don’t feel like I felt prideful, like I shouldn’t need to compete in the trial, but what I had really targeted as my goal was to finish in the top three in a major marathon,” Ward, 33, said. “And I thought, ‘Now I’ve got to go run a hard marathon [that’s] not at a major marathon and try to finish in the top three.’ You know, it’s not what my goal is. But I’m supposed to go to the Olympics and so I’ve got to go do this, and I was kind of bothered by that.”

Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune Former BYU runner Jared Ward runs alongside Cuthbert Nayasango, Zimbabwe, near Marina Da Gloria, in the Olympic Marathon, in Rio de Janeiro. Ward finished in 6th place. Sunday, August 21, 2016.

It wasn’t until he missed the Olympic cutoff, finishing more than six minutes off his best time at the 26.2-mile distance for 27th, that he came into the light — and recognized an opportunity squandered.

“I realized how much I had taken making an Olympic team for granted,” he said. “Now I am looking at the 2024 Olympic cycle as the ultimate focus of my training. I’d still love to be on the podium at a major marathon, but my focus has shifted back to make it to another Olympic team. And I think I’ve been humbled a little bit and have a new appreciation and gratitude for the experience that I had in 2016. And I want that again.”

Run Elite Program reinvents the running club

Ward never got to race Boston that spring. The coronavirus outbreak shut down the racing circuit, leaving him with plenty of time to dig out of his tunnel.

He committed to running the 2020 NYC Marathon, but it was canceled. Instead, he entered the London Marathon in October, without great results. Then, seeing his racing opportunities slip away, he jumped into a marathon in Arizona two months later. His time there was even worse.

So, Ward took a step back to help teach his four children, who were home-schooled during the pandemic, and support his wife, who was pregnant with their fifth child.

“It’s just been a mentally taxing year,” he said. “And really that was the lightest I had taken running since I was on a [church] mission in 2007 to 2009.”

But the break shed some light on another area in which Ward was experiencing tunnel vision.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Runners Jared Ward and Makenna Myler train in Provo Oct. 21, 2021. The two elite runners are training for the NYC Marathon on Nov. 7.

Ward and Isaac Wood, BYU’s athletics development coordinator and an assistant coach for the Cougars cross country team when it won the NCAA championship in 2019, had pinpointed a need for an elite running program in Utah. With Park City hosting top-tier training camps and with the state’s high schools and colleges producing some of the top runners in their class, it only made sense to have an in-state development program. Yet they kept hitting the same stumbling block: Elite running clubs are usually sponsored by shoe companies, and they couldn’t get one to bite.

“We’ve tried for years to get sponsorship around some sort of pro group, and it just hasn’t worked out,” Ward said. “And we just decided this year that maybe we don’t need, you know, a specific shoe sponsor or corporate sponsor or something like that. Maybe we can do it just by getting pros together.”

The Run Elite Program took off last spring. A nonprofit, it supports pro athletes by having them serve as the link between the Utah running community and nutrition and service providers, like coaches and running stores, in a sort of symbiotic relationship.

One of its captains is Makenna Myler, who will also toe the starting line in New York City on Sunday. Myler gained notoriety last fall when a video of her running a 5:25 mile while nine months pregnant went viral. Ten days later, she gave birth to a healthy baby girl named Kenny Lou. Just six months after that, she ran in the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials in Eugene, Oregon, placing 14th of 44 competitors in the 10,000 meters.

The NYC Marathon will be her second 26.2-mile race and the first for which she’s trained seriously. If it goes well, she may consider trying to qualify for the Paris Olympics in the marathon.

Yet taking a cue from Ward, whom she says is like an older brother, and pulling from lessons in flexibility she’s learned as a parent, Myler said she’s trying to stay open to other possibilities.

“It’s more like a test, and I just want to focus on this right now and see if I like it. See if I excel at it,” the Highland resident said. “And if it does go well, maybe that’s an option for the 2024 Olympics, to try to make the team for that, which could be a fun journey. But even if it doesn’t go well, maybe there’s something that I knew I could change and that I would excel if I just changed this one thing. I don’t know. I’m keeping the door open.”

This time, so is Ward.

Trading tunnels for bridges

An American-born man has not won the New York City Marathon since Bill Rodgers claimed his fourth straight victory in the 10th running of the five-boroughs race in 1979. Two naturalized Americans have won it since. Alberto Salazaar, a Cuban immigrant, won the next three after Rodgers. Then, 27 years later Meb Keflezighi, a native of Eritrea, won the 2009 race as the most recent American man to break the tape.

Ward doesn’t expect to have his name added to the roster of winners Sunday night. Then again, he’s not going to rule it out. Anything, he says, can happen over the course of 26.2 miles.

In fact, the only thing that’s guaranteed is pain.

“If it doesn’t hurt,” he said, “then probably nothing comes out of it.”

That wisdom applies to life as well as races. Over the past few years, Ward feels like he’s opened an encyclopedia into his psyche.

He’s gone into the dark and found new light. He’s seen races turn into raves.

He won that run through the coal mine in Germany, and he did it, he says, by winning the mental game against himself.

“I felt like I was competitive again, and that gave me a lot of confidence to be able to go back to New York and know that I could get my mind right and be able to put together the race that would maximize my potential,” he said. “I feel like you’ve got to have the mind that lets you unlock your potential.”

The rematch will start in Staten Island at 9:05 a.m. EST, Sunday. This one includes five bridges, but not a single tunnel.

Update: Nov. 8, 10 a.m. >> Jared Ward finished 10th in Sunday’s race and third among Americans in 2 hours, 14 minutes, 6 seconds. His best time on the course, 2:10:45, would have landed him in third place behind winner Albert Korir of Kenya (2:08:22) and runner-up Mohamed El Aaraby of Morocco (2:09:06). Makenna Myler placed 20th among the elite women and 115th overall. She improved her time over her only other marathon by nearly seven minutes, running the 26.2 miles in 2:40:45.