Utah taxpayers helped Olympic marathon qualifiers across the finish line

State subsidizes pro running team striving to keep stream of talent from leaving its borders.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Clayton Young and Taylor Rohatinsky, run at the Clarence F. Robison Outdoor Track, on Friday, Feb. 23, 2024.

Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, cued up the video of the final stretch of last month’s United States Olympic Marathon Trials and cast it on a large screen set up on the Senate floor. On the screen, two lanky young men raced toward the finish line stride for stride, side by side, with nary another runner in sight.

Conner Mantz and Clayton Young, both raised in the high desert of Utah, dominated the race in the humid lowlands of Orlando. Manifesting their plan to run together, they crossed the finish line nearly a minute ahead of third-place finisher Leonard Korir to claim the U.S.’s two guaranteed spots in the pack at the Paris 2024 Olympic marathon next August.

It was an effort for Utah, by Utah.

Mantz, Young and several other runners who shined at the Feb. 3 marathon trials belong to an unprecedented running team called the Run Elite Program. The nearly 2-year-old team, founded in part by 2016 Olympic marathoner and Utah native Jared Ward, seeks both to keep talented runners in Utah and establish the state as a hotbed for all distances of the sport. With their win, Mantz, of Provo, and Young, of Springville, became the third and fourth Utahns to qualify for the Olympic marathon behind their coach Ed Eyestone and Ward.

And it was appropriate that their effort was shown on the senate floor last week, since in 2022 many of the same legislators in attendance approved a bill that gives REP more than $160,000 in Utah taxpayer money every year.

“I can’t believe,” Isaac Wood, REP’s mastermind, gushed a few days after the race, “that we’re here now at this point where it worked!”

The team has borne fruit faster than even Wood could conceive when the unique concept came to him in the shower three years ago.

What makes REP different

To be honest, Wood, the head coach at Salt Lake Community College and a former director of athletic development at BYU, was tired of the suck. Year after year, Utah would produce some of the nation’s most talented prep and college runners. As soon as they turned pro, though, they’d be pulled away to other states. Making matters worse, they often ended up just a few hundred miles away in Colorado or Arizona.

Count Rory Linkletter, who grew up in Herriman and attended BYU, is among the local talents who left. Earlier this month, the dual citizen ran the second-fastest marathon time in Canadian history to qualify to represent that country at the Paris Olympics.

“It stunk for us,” Wood said. “Because we’re like, ‘These guys are too good. And they represent Utah. They’re from here. Even if they just went to college in Utah, they still spent four years of their lives here. We want them to stay here.”

Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune Jared Ward poses with friends Tim Hope, coach, Ed Eyestone Jared Ward, Ryan Jones, Dan Jones, friends from Utah sporting mustache's in support of Jared who placed 6th in todays Olympic Marathon, in Rio de Janeiro, Sunday, August 21, 2016.

Utah can offer runners high altitude and world-class coaches in addition to familiarity. But pro runners need physical and massage therapists, access to gym equipment and tracks and, perhaps most importantly, camaraderie — elements to success that are readily available in college but drop away once they graduate. Places like Boulder, Colorado, and Flagstaff, Arizona, have basically become a one-stop shop for those resources, especially for pro athletes whose teams are based there. Piecing together that support in Utah took much more work and discipline on the part of the runner.

Ward showed it can be done, but even he acknowledged the struggle.

Enter REP. Thanks in large part to its partnership with Intermountain Health, the program provides access to all those resources for its 13 elite athletes — a BYU-alum-heavy group that ranges from sprinters to marathoners. But the thing that REP does that’s truly revolutionary in the running world is that it permits its athletes to select their own sponsors and their own coaches.

Most of a professional runner’s paycheck usually comes from their shoe sponsor. Likewise, shoe manufacturers fund most elite running teams. And if Adidas is footing the bill, it’s a safe bet it’s not going to allow a Saucony athlete in its midst.

REP, meanwhile, allows a Nike runner like Mantz to train with an Asics runner like Young because it isn’t tied to any specific shoe company. Furthermore, someone like Makenna Myler, who finished seventh in the U.S. women’s marathon trials, can be coached by Olympian Ryan Hall, while Whittni Orton Morgan and Anna Camp Bennett take direction from BYU women’s track coach Diljeet Taylor. Yet, they can still meet up for the occasional interval workout or long group run.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Conner Mantz, and Anna Camp Bennett, run at the Clarence F. Robison Outdoor Track, on Friday, Feb. 23, 2024.

“I think that is one of the coolest parts,” said Myler, a Sandy resident who has turned her attention to punching her ticket to Paris in the 10-kilometers and 5k at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials in June, “having different sponsors and being able to train with people based off of talent rather than based off of sponsors and what club you belong to.”

Though that has become a central tenet of the team and a key reason why REP is working, Wood freely admits the “shoe agnostic” aspect was a fluke.

“We tried a couple shoe companies at first because we were just trying to get funded,” Wood said. “And we got rejected — hard.”

Then Wood, Ward and third partner Landon Southwick struck upon a unique source of funding, one that allows it to offer its runners a healthy stipend to stay in-state.

That’s where the taxpayer money comes into play.

A love of running

Sen. McKell loves running. For proof, look no further than his X (formerly Twitter) profile. Among his descriptors, he lists “marathon runner” only after Utah State Senator and a few spots ahead of “father” and “husband.” Then he takes it a step further, posting both his marathon personal-record time and the corresponding average minutes per mile.

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a few years ago the senator sought out Ward, not far removed from his sixth-place finish at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016, to coach him. Nor does it seem out of character for him to suggest REP ask the legislature to help fund their effort to keep runners in the state.

“We do have a cluster of super-athletes in the state of Utah,” McKell said when introducing Wood and Ward during a 2022 senate appropriations committee hearing, “that is more evident with our distance runners than with any other sport, I think, in the state.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Resolution sponsor, Sen. Mike McKell discusses SR1, during the Senate Business and Labor Committee meeting, which will limit media access to the Senate floor and committee rooms, at the Capitol, on Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022.

REP initially requested a one-time infusion of $450,000 plus $150,000 annually. The legislature voted not to give them the one-time sum. Instead, it granted them $166,000 each year, making REP the first and only state-funded pro running team.

The money comes with strings, however. REP is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and in addition to keeping elite runners in the state, it is charged with promoting healthy lifestyles. To fulfill that role, elite athletes must participate in school appearances and community runs.

Young said he initially didn’t like the idea of tapping his neighbors to pay his grocery bills.

“I was really hesitant about it and I didn’t really like it because of the fact that it’s raising taxpayers’ dollars for me to run. That just seems silly, right?” Young said. “But I will say something that has been incredibly satisfying and I think really has made a difference is Conner and I have spoken to probably eight high schools [this year] alone and probably two or three events on top of that. Talk about inspiring the next generation to lead a fulfilling, hardworking, dedicated lifestyle.

“I feel like it has been worth it,” he added, “the support we’ve received from the state of Utah.”

Some would consider two Olympic berths a pretty good return on investment. Those within the program say that’s just the beginning.

“Anytime the state gives anyone money, there’s going to be other sides of that,” Wood said. “But I don’t see anyone having too much of an issue with it now, knowing that this [tax money] went to go support these two athletes who have lived the Olympic dream and represent not only America but our state right now.

“And there’s more coming. I think we’ve got more [Olympic qualifiers] coming. This isn’t it. Conner and Clayton are just the first two of hopefully several more.”