There’s got to be an explanation behind the seemingly disproportionate success that Latter-day Saints continue to enjoy in distance running events.
Maybe there’s something in the water flowing from the Church’s stake center drinking fountains?
Unlikely. There are plenty of first-rate people filling the chapel pews each Sunday — but most can’t run a sub-4:15 mile.
Still, a remarkable number of Latter-day Saint distance runners have been counted among the sport’s elite for decades. Their names are familiar to longtime distance running fans: Ed Eyestone. Clarence Robison. Doug Padilla. Sarah Callister Sellers. Paul Cummings. Paul Pilkington. Jared Ward. Jason Pyrah.
And the list goes on.
Meanwhile, Brigham Young University remains an All-American factory.
Last month, the women’s cross-country team at the Church-owned school won the NCAA national championship. Returned missionary Conner Mantz from the Cougars men’s side claimed the individual championship and was a member of BYU’s 2019 national championship team. And Courtney Wayment claimed the national crown in the NCAA women’s 3000-meter event a day after anchoring BYU’s victory in the distance medley relay race.
The long list of impressive Latter-day Saint performers at the recent national collegiate distance running competitions was not limited to athletes wearing BYU blue.
Taylor Roe, a sophomore from Oklahoma State, finished second in the women’s cross-country race. Five spots behind Roe was fellow All-American Summer Allen — a returned missionary, wife and mom from Weber State.
Running folks outside the Church are noticing the success.
Bob Wood, a veteran coach and sports agent who has represented several Latter-day Saint athletes, remembers being approached by a fellow agent at the New York City Marathon a couple of years ago.
“The guy asked me, ‘What are you [Latter-day Saints] doing?’” recalled Wood. “What is it that you’re doing to produce not only good runners but good people?”
So what gives?
Here are a few possible explanations why so many Latter-day Saint runners are both steady and very, very swift.
Coaching infrastructure + legacies = running success
No surprise, many of the Church’s past and current crop of elite runners hail from high-altitude areas in the U.S. Intermountain West that boast nationally renowned high school cross-country programs.
Plus, a sizable number of high school-aged Latter-day Saint youth participate in distance running events each year. Now combine that volume of rising athletes with high-end coaching. A numbers guy like Ward (an Olympic marathoner and a BYU statistics professor) would likely spot in that equation a formula for success.
“There’s a chance that we’ve just had a huge uptick in [member] participation and exposure to the sport — so our funnel is getting bigger, and we’re getting better athletes,” he told the Church News.
And, of course, it never hurts to come from a legacy of road warriors.
Taylor Roe’s parents, Lawrence and Jennifer Roe, were both track athletes at the University of Washington. Summer Allen’s parents, Hawk and Cheryl Harper, each claimed victories at the St. George Marathon, and all of her siblings ran collegiately.
(Allen’s husband, fellow Weber State distance runner/All-American Christian Allen, may not be a blood relative — but he provides his wife with an extra dose of good-natured motivation to be the family’s most decorated runner.)
“One of the oldest lines I use is that if you want to be an elite runner, choose your parents very carefully,” said Eyestone, a two-time Olympic marathoner and BYU’s longtime director of track and field/men’s cross-country coach. “That DNA component is important.”
Plus, he added, the children of runners seem to do a lot of running. Some families hunt. Some families fish. And some families lace up their Nikes and hit the road.
“On family vacations, we would always find a spot, and then just start running. It was what we did as a family and it brought us closer together,” said Allen.
Several elite runners who spoke with the Church News also noted the camaraderie found within the Latter-day Saint ranks. Roe, for example, has competed against BYU distance runner Lexy Halladay since high school. Each wanted to outrace the other. But once they found out they were both members, the road rivals “became instant friends.”
Allen, meanwhile, sought the counsel of BYU’s Erica Birk-Jarvis (a fellow returned missionary and mother) when she discovered she was expecting her son, Miles.
“Erica helped me realize that I could have my baby and still reach my running goals,” Allen said.
Purpose-driven gospel principles
On the morning of the 2016 Olympic Trials, Ward, a returned missionary, opened his Book of Mormon and turned to Alma 32.
The chapter’s final verse grabbed his attention in the moments leading up to one of the defining races of his career: “Ye shall reap the rewards of your faith, and your diligence, and patience, and long-suffering, waiting for the tree to bring forth fruit unto you.”
“I thought, ‘Hey, this is an analogy for the marathon’,” he remembered. “There is faith, patience, diligence and long-suffering. That’s how training was — and that’s how this race is going to be.”
As Alma reminds his readers, many gospel truths are anchored to principles of delayed gratification. One reaps what one sows is also a proven recipe for success for long-distance runners.
“The Church continues to emphasize [delayed gratification] with our youth,” said Ward. “We have goal-centered youth programs … and endurance sports is one of those spaces that requires delayed gratification. You have to consistently work hard for a long time before putting together a good cross-country or track race.”
The Church’s values “align very well with the distance running lifestyle,” said BYU associate director of cross country and track and field, Diljeet Taylor. Discipline, dedication, commitment and “living good standards” are all time-honored building blocks of success for the sport’s top athletes.
That’s not exclusive to Latter-day Saint athletes, added Taylor. She has coached and competed alongside several non-Latter-day Saint athletes who realized their own potential by committing to similar standards and values.
“There are advantages to living your life in a way that allows you to be the best version of yourself as a person — which then makes it easier to be the best version of yourself as an athlete,” she said.
Latter-day Saints are not merely encouraged to care for their bodies — it’s a commandment, articulated in Doctrine and Covenants 89.
“The Word of Wisdom teaches that if you keep your body healthy and free of certain things, you are going to have an advantage,” said Wood.
During his decades as a competitor and a coach, Eyestone has witnessed the ebb and flow of Latter-day Saint success in distance running. Some years there is a long list of high-performing members. Other years, not so much.
Still, he’s enjoying this particularly golden moment for Latter-day Saint runners.
From a training and development standpoint, many young Latter-day Saint runners grow up at an altitude that conditions their body to become more oxygen efficient. But it is also reasonable, he observed, to examine a few “gospel hypotheses” related to their success.
“The Latter-day Saint culture is, by and large, goal setting and hard working,” said Eyestone. “Maybe there’s something to that pioneer DNA; that grit that the pioneers had. … And then, of course, living a clean lifestyle allows you to ultimately maximize your potential.”
A blessing to compete
Gratitude is a gospel-centered word that comes up often when speaking to the current crop of rising Latter-day Saint distance runners and their coaches.
As an athlete, Roe remembers feeling grateful during the final kilometer of the recent NCAA championship simply because none of her nearest competitors had the juice to overtake her second-place spot in the race.
“I was thankful for that,” she said, laughing. “I was just trying to hang on with the girls around me because we were all just really tired at that point.”
As a Latter-day Saint, her gratitude extends beyond the events of a race.
“My whole approach to running is to appreciate it as a gift from our Heavenly Father,” she said. “It’s a gift that I choose to fulfill by maxing out my potential and striving each day to do my best. It is a blessing.”
While Roe is in the middle of her sophomore season at Oklahoma State, Allen has competed in the college ranks since 2013. She took time away from the sport to serve a mission in California.
Despite the detours, she never abandoned her goal to become an All-American. Over the years, Allen had run thousands of training miles on lonesome roads. But she remained focused on the possibilities in front of her. She ran toward that vision, one stride at a time.
“In the gospel, God sees us for what we can become,” she said. “If we can catch that vision, we will be all the better for it.”