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2017 Boston Marathon

How analytics help Jared Ward be a better marathoner

Jared Ward was third at last year’s Olympics trials.
Jared Ward was third at last year’s Olympics trials. Saucony

Sixteen miles into the Olympic marathon in Rio de Janeiro last summer, Jared Ward’s legs felt heavy and his stomach was in knots. He had never run in such humid conditions.

As he struggled with the difficult course, the American began to wonder what the next 10 miles had in store.

“I didn’t know if I could make it to the finish line at the pace I was running, but I believed that I should be able to because of my training,” Ward recalled. “I knew that I could make it 2 more miles to the next water bottle, so I just focused on that.

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“I focused on 2 more miles to the next water bottles, then I could get some rest. When I got to the next water bottle and drank it, I felt a little better.”

Ward’s positive approach was a byproduct of his studies on pacing strategy in the marathon. He is considered one of the best pacers in running and even wrote his master’s thesis at Brigham Young on the role optimal pacing can play in an elite runner’s finishing time.

That knowledge helped him to a sixth-place finish in Rio and a personal-best marathon time of 2 hours, 11 minutes, and 30 seconds.

Ward, who will make his Boston Marathon debut this year, will present his thesis “Optimal Pace Strategy in a Marathon” Friday in Boston for the first time outside of an academic setting. He is a statistics professor at BYU, and will present the thesis to a group of runners and spectators.

“I think the demographic of athlete at the Boston Marathon really cares about their performance moreso than probably any other marathon in the world,” Ward said. “You really have to be a quality runner just to get into the Boston Marathon.

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“I think this demographic cares about the specifics of the research and the validity of the research more than an average marathoner audience.”

Ward’s thesis states that runners who finish with the fastest times tend to start the race slower relative to their overall pace. This allows them to store energy, take advantage of the terrain, and go faster on downhills.

In his research, Ward analyzed data from the St. George Marathon in Utah and compared the times of those who met the Boston Marathon qualifying mark with those that did not. Ward put his research into play in Rio and he’s incorporating it into his training for Boston.

“That data told me that I should be conservative in my approach to the start of the marathon and not go out too hard, but also that I should be ready to take advantage of the terrain,” Ward said.

“It makes sense that if you’re going downhill, you ought to be able to run faster. So it added some importance to being prepared to take advantage of downhill portions.”

“Boston has some downhill in it, so as part of my training, I’ve done some downhill running,” he said. “I try and get into the weight room and squat heavy and lunge — things where I can get that eccentric motion to prepare my legs for that downhill so that I’m prepared to take advantage of it cardiovascularly without beating up my legs too much.”

Ward teaches statistics to undergraduates at BYU.

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He is passionate about education, and as part of his presentation Friday, a grant from his shoe sponsor, Saucony, will be presented in Ward’s name to the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science.

“I hope to be able to send the message to kids who want to be involved in sports that you can,” said Ward. “You can be involved in sports in a number of ways beyond just being an athlete or a coach or an agent or some general manager.

“There’s a world of analytics and various sports that are interested in knowing what the numbers say. Through being a statistician, you can help increase performance for athletes and teams. That to me is exciting, and I hope I can convey that message.”


Brandan Blom can be reached at brandon.blom@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter@brandan_blom.