Jared Ward was about halfway through his two-year mission when he began wondering about his physical fitness level.
Prior to serving in Pennsylvania, the young elder had been an elite high school distance runner and had committed to compete for Brigham Young University’s renowned cross-country and track and field teams. But mission life afforded him little time for serious training. He had put on a few pounds and was several months removed from his last hard workout.
So on preparation day Elder Ward and his companion found a high school track and slipped on their running shoes. The Kaysville, Utah, native ran a mile in just over five minutes. Not bad for a recreational plodder — but a snail’s pace for a collegiate runner.
“I was really out of shape,” he said with a laugh.
But he wasn’t discouraged. Missionary service had already taught him patience, hope and perseverance.
To say Jared, 26, has “cut some time” from his mid-mission performance would be an understatement of, well, marathon proportions. He returned home in 2009 and became a four-time All-American at BYU. After finishing his senior season, he turned professional and made the challenging transition to marathon running. He took to the grueling, 26.2 mile event almost immediately.
“I’m grateful that I found a distance I’m really comfortable with,” he said.
He’s also very, very fast.
On March 15, he finished third in the Los Angeles Marathon, crossing the finish line in two hours and 12 minutes. The famous race doubled as the U.S. marathon championship. Since Jared was the top American finisher he became the national champion.
“It still hasn’t quite sunk in,” he told the Church News a few days after the race.
Winning the U.S. marathon championship was a life-changing moment for the Latter-day Saint athlete. But Jared says he was a blessed man long before winning that high-profile race.
Many of the skills that serve him well on the marathon course — resiliency, patience and determination — he learned as a missionary. He never regrets his decision to serve even though he was unable to seriously train for two years.
“Going on a mission was easy because I had already made up my mind to serve a mission,” he said. “I decided to serve a mission long before I decided to be a distance runner.”
He also brings a clear sense of priorities to each race. Yes, he is a first-class, professional marathoner — but he defines himself first as a husband and a father. He and his wife, Erica (a former BYU track athlete herself), are parents to two children — 3-year-old Paul and 11-month Ellie.
Jared runs about 110 miles each week to prepare for the marathon. He is also finishing up his statistics degree at BYU. But he’s careful to make plenty of time for his family.
“Balancing everything is easier when the priorities are set,” he said.
His faith remains at the top of that priority list. The Wards are members of the Bonneville 5th Ward, Provo Utah Bonneville Stake.
“We’re all excited about Jared’s success — it couldn’t happen to a better guy,” said Bishop Stephen Breinholt.
Jared added he is fortunate to be trained by BYU cross-country coach Ed Eyestone, a returned missionary and a two-time Olympic marathoner.
Coach Eyestone, he said, is skilled in developing LDS athletes and he understands and supports Jared’s decisions to skip Sunday training and prioritize family time.
Jared’s long-term athletic goal is to run the marathon at the Olympics. Next year’s L.A. Marathon will serve as the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon. Until then he’ll stay busy running a variety of distance races, graduating from college and having fun with Erica, Paul and Ellie.
[email protected] @JNSwensen