Running Nerd: The U.S. marathoner who is also a statistics professor
When Corbin Kaufusi signed up for Professor Jared Ward’s STAT 240: Discrete Probability class at BYU, he had no idea that he would be taught by such an accomplished runner.
Kaufusi, a 6-foot-10 junior who plays both basketball and football for the Cougars, knew that Ward was a former student-athlete at BYU. He also noticed that Ward often wore new running shoes to class. But Ward rarely used sports metaphors in his lectures, and never talked about his own races.
“I try to keep my nerd hat on in the classroom,” Ward said, “and my athlete hat on outside of the classroom.”
Ward’s secret was revealed, however, when Kafusi started watching the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials on Feb. 13. Kafusi spotted his statistics professor running in a bright orange singlet, and immediately texted a couple of classmates. By the end of the race, most of the class was able to witness Ward crossing the finish line in third place, earning himself a trip to Rio.
When Ward returned to teaching just two days later, he received a rousing ovation from his students.
“He is definitely a cool professor,” Kafusi said. “That doesn’t mean he’s an easy professor. It means he goes the extra mile to make sure you are learning.”
Ward started teaching at his alma mater after graduating from BYU with a master’s degree in statistics in April 2015. Some students address him as Professor Ward, but he prefers simply to be called Jared.
“I don’t feel like a professor like the other professors,” he said. “I still feel like a student, since I just graduated.”
Ward wrote his master’s thesis on the optimal pace strategy for the marathon. He analyzed data from the St. George Marathon, and compared the pace of runners who met the Boston Marathon qualifying time to those who did not.
The data showed that the successful runners had started the race conservatively, relative to their pace, and therefore had enough energy to take advantage of the downhill portions of the race.
Ward employs a similar pacing strategy, refusing to let his adrenaline trick him into running a faster pace than he can maintain.
“It has certainly helped, at least mentally, knowing that the data confirms our strategy,” he said.
Before a race, Ward predicts his own pace by plugging all of the data points he collected during training, such as his workout times and course conditions, into a regression.
Ward, who has run just four marathons in his running career, admits “most nerds will tell you that’s not enough data.” But every marathon helps him make a more accurate pace calculation.
“One more race,” he said, “one more data point.”
Like any statistical analysis, Ward has confidence bands to represent the uncertainty of his estimate, but he tries to stay within 2-3 seconds of his predicted pace.
His race preparation has earned him the nickname “Running Nerd” among his fellow marathoners.
“It helps me feel confident,” he said. “I’m not standing on the starting line feeling nervous, because I know what I’m ready for, and I know what I’m going to do.”
During a race, Ward constantly analyzes how he feels, and adjusts his pace based on this new data.
He did not know that the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in Los Angeles would be the hottest of all time when he did his pre-race calculations. He therefore had to slow his pace and drink more water.
“I don’t think there’s more relevant data in the middle and late stages of a marathon than what your body is telling you,” he said.
Ward anticipates that the weather in Rio will be just as hot, and more humid, than in Los Angeles, where he estimates he lost 15 pounds of water weight. After struggling to find a sports drink that would sit well in his stomach, he discovered GLUKOS, a company that uses glucose to make energy products.
Glucose has a high Glycemic Index, meaning that it raises blood sugar quickly.
“I know I am going to get the energy quicker than from other forms of sugar,” said Ward, who is sponsored by the company.
Kaufusi plans on watching Ward race in the Olympic men’s marathon on Aug. 21 with seven or eight classmates. Even after completing Ward’s class in April, they still share articles and photos about their former professor in a group text message thread titled “Ward’s Warriors.”
Less than two weeks later, Kaufusi will play in BYU’s first football game of the season.
“I didn’t think I would ever have a professor who is a better athlete than I am,” Kaufusi said, “but Jared would definitely beat me in a race.”