One of America’s best marathoners will test his thesis about marathon pacing in Boston

Jared Ward finished sixth at the Olympics.

Jared Ward explains his thesis to students and fellow runners in Boston on Friday, April 14.
Jared Ward explains his thesis to students and fellow runners in Boston on Friday, April 14. –Via Doug Levy

Jared Ward is not your typical 28-year-old. Not only is Ward a member of the BYU faculty, but he’s also an elite distance runner who finished sixth in the Rio Olympic marathon. As a professor of statistics, Ward has found a way to combine his academic and athletic interests. His thesis topic was a fitting one: statistical analysis of marathon pacing.

Ward is making his Boston Marathon debut in 2017. Finally, the timing was right.

“I’ve been excited for Boston since my first marathon three and a half years ago,” Ward said, “but that first one came when I was still in college. I was running the spring [collegiate season] after, and the next year I ran the U.S. championships in the spring, which was in Los Angeles. The year after that was the Olympic trials. So now we’re finally at the year when I could do this. I’m excited to get on this course and to run Boston.”

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He’s been impressed with Boston runners for a long time, noting that, “The people who toe the line in Boston are real runners.”

And in his thesis, Ward paid special attention to runners who successfully qualified for the Boston Marathon. The data from Boston qualifiers was contrasted with those who didn’t qualify.

So, what does an elite marathoner discern from his statistical study?

Be conservative to begin with, and take advantage of the downhill. As he noted in his thesis conclusion:

Advise to marathoners seeking to improve performance would be to pattern pacing after what the elite and experienced runners are doing–start the race more conservative, and run the downhill portions faster.

His distinction of “elite and experienced runners” was partly based on what he saw from those who qualified for Boston. It’s high praise from a four-year All-American. That said, Ward tries not to take himself too seriously. After running a personal best time in Rio, he recalled how media members described him as “the most excited guy to finish sixth that they had ever seen.”

He didn’t disagree with that analysis.

Ward is excited by the unique nature of Boston’s course. The undulating sections are potential advantages for him.

“I like the up and down nature,” Ward explained. “I think that it favors the very aware runner here. And so I hope so. I’ve never run a marathon on a course quite like Boston, and so I can only make educated guesses, but it’ll be fun to collect this data point and then think about that.”

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Putting his theory into practice, Ward has his eye on a particular aspect of the marathon that some of his rivals might overlook. With all of the focus on the uphill sections in the Newton hills, Ward–as the data informed him–is looking at the downhill that comes immediately after.

That said, Boston is theoretically putting his two points of emphasis at odds with each other. While he disciplines himself to stay conservative at the start, runners start right away with a downhill stretch. It’s the type of terrain he usually tries to run more quickly. So, should Ward alter his approach to be aggressive early?

“I think you balance the two,” he says in response. “One reason that we get so, maybe, shy at running downhill is because of the damage that that eccentric loading does to you. But there are things that you can do to prepare your body for that. I try to do everything I can to prepare to take advantage of that downhill, and so hopefully it hurts me a little bit less later in the race. Certainly I think when it’s downhill, you have to be running a little bit faster.”

Ultimately, Ward knows that running a marathon–especially Boston–is more than a question of applying the right mathematical formula. It’s a balance between, as he says, between a “wise plan” and good old fashioned adrenaline.

“I think mentally I try to let the educated race plan formulate from an educated decision from the data and the training,” said Ward. “Then you let adrenaline carry you through the hard parts of the race as you try to execute. If you know your plan well enough, you don’t have to think about it. You know what you’re going to do. Then you can get into the race and let your adrenaline carry you. And hopefully you can utilize both a wise plan and the energy to tap into it.”