We are just a few days from the 2020 Olympic Marathon Trials. And runner Taylor Ward is more than ready to take on the distance.
Held on February 29 in Atlantic, GA, there are lots of competitors gearing up for their chance at a spot on the American team to run the marathon at the 2020 Olympic Games in Japan.
This year’s Olympic Marathon Trials will be bigger than ever after changes to the qualifying time to now include finish times of at least 2:45 in the marathon and 1:13 in the half marathon.
Ward is just one of the 511 women who qualified for the Olympic Trials. A 2:30:14 marathoner who won the Philadelphia Marathon in 2016, she is no stranger to being a qualifier. She previously qualified for the 2016 Olympic Marathon Trials after her debut Marathon in 2015 with the Chevron Houston Marathon.
I had the honor and pleasure to speak to Ward about her running journey including why she loves the distance of the marathon so much. And of course, we had to talk Olympic Trials.
Q: How did you get started in running?
A: I remember in the year 2000 when the Olympics were in Sydney I was so inspired by it. But I actually played soccer growing up so that was my passion.
In the summer before my freshman year of high school… the coach stopped showing up. The older sister of one of the girls that I carpooled with asked me if I wanted to come run with the cross country team.
So I went that day to the cross country practice and they did a timed mile. And I was like, ‘Oh no, they are doing a time trial!’ I was just coming to get a run in to get some fitness.
But they did the timed mile and I beat all the girls and half the guys on the team. So the coach was instantly on me like you need to run cross country.
Q: Was running professionally always something you wanted to do?
A: In my junior year I ended up winning State in the 2-mile and I beat the school record and that’s when I started getting recruited by colleges. And I was really excited because I was like you know what? This is really what I want to do in college— because originally soccer was what I wanted to do. But things were just coming along so well with running.
I was instantly drawn to the sport because go how nice the community is and how supportive the competitors were—even if you’re fierce competitors in the race, as soon as you cross that finish line you tell each other good job, you know even if somebody beat you or you beat them, everybody is supportive of each other.
This is where I belong.
I decided to solely focus on running and I did cross country for the first time. I got recruited by Brown, Columbia, a few places in New Mexico, several of the Utah schools and I ultimately decided to go to Weber State University because they have the nation’s best Radiology programs as well as the coach.
Coach Paul Pilkington himself was a world-class marathoner but also had just had an Olympian Lindsey Anderson make the team for the steeplechase in 2008 and so that next year I was graduating from high school so that was something where I was like I want to really see what I can do, and I think that this is a place where I have the best potential.
Q: What was it like running at Weber State?
A: I wasn’t the best one on the team, but I made the travel squad and I was able to get better and better over time.
That’s something that coach Pilkington is very good at— is developing his athletes over time— and I ended up being on several conference championship teams, regional teams, we made it to nationals twice for cross country and I won individual 10k title on the track my last year, but I was never all-American or anything.
Q: How did you go from college runner to a marathoner?
A: After I had my last race in college, I turned to my coach and said, ‘Well now what?’ And he said, ‘Do you want to train for a marathon?’
And I said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’
So that summer I graduated and moved to Auburn, Alabama and trained for my first marathon and did the Houston Marathon in 2015 and I ran an Olympic Qualifying time. I ran 2:38 my first marathon and I was instantly in love with the marathon. So since then I’ve just been growing and building off that.
Going into my second Olympic Trials Marathon this year is really exciting.
Q: What about the marathon do you love so much?
A: I love everything about it.
I love the training itself. It’s just really empowering as well as exhausting.
And then going into the race you have a good idea of where your fitness is at from your training. Just the way the race plays out—every single race, every single marathon has its own unique story and I’ve been able to learn something from every single marathon I’ve done—whether good or bad.
I just love the journey of it. I love being able to build and build and maybe have a bad race, but learn from it and then come back and keep moving forward.
Q: What is one of the things you learned from your first marathon?
A: I learned to believe in myself more than I thought I could. Going in, I wanted to get an Olympic Trials qualifier, but at the time the “B” standard was 2:43, it was right before they changed it to 2:45, and so I was like if I go in that 2:41 range then I’m pretty safe.
But I just felt good and I ran smart in the beginning. I was able to build and actually negative split from my first to my second half and ran at 2:38, so I was well below what I originally planned on.
And I think for me, I learned that you need to trust your body. And obviously, be smart at the beginning of the race—you don’t want to be stupid and ruin your whole race in the first 10k, but I think just believing in yourself and knowing that you can accomplish your goals as long as you put the work in and trust yourself and trust the process.
Finishing that race—my first marathon—was just so overwhelming with emotions. It was such an amazing feeling— finishing 26.2 for the first time ever but also to get that qualifying time and to just have that sense of accomplishment that you did that.
Q: You went on to win the Philadelphia Marathon in November of 2016. What did that win feel like?
A: To this day it is probably one of my favorite memories of a race ever.
The race itself, it was really cold and really windy. There was a group of us women and then it slowly started dwindling down and eventually it was just down to me and the lady who got second place [Serkalem Abrha]. We were running together, but she was trying to be right behind me for me to take all the wind.
The race course basically goes out and back—it goes out six miles then back six miles into the finish—so we are going out and it’s like a hairpin turn and as soon as we hit about 20 miles and made that hairpin turn we turned right into the wind.
And it was at that point where I decided that I’m not going to run 20 miles of this thing and not win it. I’m not going to block the wind for this girl to out kick me, and so I started doing some surges and I moved laterally a little bit so that she was right behind me and eventually I broke her and was able to beat her by I think close to 90-seconds.
But going back towards the finish there were some really strong winds, a couple of gusts that basically stopped me in my tracks. And I was just like, ‘C’mon on keep pushing. I got to this!’
And coming into the finish there was a slight, tiny uphill and I kinda came over the hill and saw the finish line tape they were pulling out and I was overcome with even more emotion than I ever thought possible. And as I was coming in they were like, ‘And your winner is Taylor Ward,’ and I crossed the line—I never broken tape before ever in my life.
It was to this day one of my favorite memories. It’s not every day you get to win a marathon.
It was really special to be able to take that moment in and have that experience and it was really a good comeback for me after the 2016 Trials which was a little discouraging.
*Note: Ward said she got injured while gearing up for the 2016 Olympic Trials. Dealing with hamstring issues, she went into the race with only two workouts completed. “It was more of a battle just to get out there healthy and be able to run it and finish more so than being competitive,” she said.
Q: The Olympic Trials are coming up. How do you feel going into the race?
A: I am beyond excited. I can’t wait.
I’ve been training really hard and this has definitely been my best training block that I’ve ever had to this date. I’ve been putting a lot of good workouts and my training is going really well.
I’m going in confident. And I’m just really excited this time to be going in ready to compete and see what I can do if I put myself out there.
Q: Do you have a specific time goal?
A: No, not for this course. This course is so hilly that I don’t necessarily think it’s going to be a race for time. It’s going to be a little more strategic with the hills.
It’s going to be a little different than in other marathons where you’re focused on pace.
It’s going to be more of a going off on feel
And being aware of my surroundings and being aware of my competitors, but not worrying too much because I think there’s going to be a lot of movement.
Some people might run up the hills faster and slow down on the downhill and vice versa. I think there’s going to be a lot of shifting and movement that you can’t worry about too much.
Q: What is your race strategy?
A: I’ve been training on hills here in Utah, and so I’ve been training my body to know it’s okay to hurt on hills and start hurting earlier than you think you will. And so I’ve been training that way, so I know I’m physically ready for that.
I think that my strategy is not to be stupid early on, but still be in contact and put myself out there.
It is the Olympic Trials, I do want to take some risks but I’m not going to be stupid in the fact that I’m not going to put myself out there and set myself up for failure. I’d rather have a great race even if that means getting top ten or better.
Q: Are there nerves there and how do you handle the pressure?
A: I usually don’t worry too much until the night before. And then it’s like what am I doing?! And that’s usually when the nerves hit.
Honestly, it’s really nerve-racking right before you start and when you’re on the starting line. You try to stay calm but at the same time, you’re really focused. I’m not very talkative before the race. I just focus on what I need to do and keep my nerves down.
And as soon as the gun goes off, when you start, you are kind of like okay I’m good. My body knows what to do now because once you start the race I think the nerves leave.
Q: What do you think your biggest challenge will be in this race?
A: I think it’s going to be a mental toughness battle out there. The American women are crazy competitive right now and there’s a lot of amazing women out there, so I don’t underestimate any of them.
I think the biggest thing is staying mentally tough and focusing on what I can do, and taking some risks to put myself out there and give myself a shot while still be aware and realistic of what reality looks like. And not getting upset if things stay playing out differently than I imagined during the race.
Q: What does your training look like leading up to the Olympic Trials? Are you doing anything differently?
A: The difference in my training started about a year ago when I decided to do the LA Marathon last spring because I wanted to have a hilly marathon under my belt to get ready for the Olympic Trials. So I purposefully chose that race.
In that build-up, I did a lot of hill training and through that was my long sustained tempo run and I was able to use that can race the LA Marathon.
I was able to take that experience and tweak a few things and I’ve been doing a lot of hill work in this build-up to prepare specifically for that course.
Q: What would it mean to you to make the Olympic Team?
A: It would mean the world to me.
As I said before, watching the 2012 Olympics, I was so inspired. I remember telling my dad that I wanted to be an Olympian. And he said, ‘Well, you’re going to have to eat, sleep, think, drink poop running and you’re going to have to put hours and hours of work in and you’re going to have to like eating broccoli,’’ she laughed. “I think that last one was to get me to eat broccoli, but at that time as a 10-year-old that seemed really overwhelming. I didn’t know if I could do it.
As I progressed over my career I learned that I love running so much that it has become a lifestyle. So it’s not a sacrifice to eat, sleep, drink, poop running. It’s part of life and it’s what I love to do. I’m really passionate about it—not just racing but also the training—it’s a lifestyle.
Until recently it didn’t seem like being in a position to make the team was as close to a reality as it is now, and so it’s been really invigorating—really exciting —to get closer to that goal and see it within grasp and know that I have a shot.
Q: Besides the Trials, what are your goals and what races do you have planned? What’s up next for Taylor Ward?
A: It does depend on the outcome of the Trials, but I do have a couple of spring races that I would like to go do. So I was planning on going to the Pittsburgh Half Marathon, that’s been a race that I love going to over the years.
Potentially thinking about a fast fall marathon.
I’m not sure where that would be yet, but I would like to turn around after the summer and do a fall marathon.
I really want to do some international races. That’s my next step after the Trial buildup is to start looking at some international races in the marathon.
And I’ve got several races on my list that I haven’t been to yet that I want to go to.
I do want to do all the world majors at least once if not more than that.
Again, I haven’t set anything in stone because I want to see how the Trails go first and then see what’s next.
If Ward does make the team she said she would probably take a week off and start training immediately for her Olympic debut.
Watch Ward compete in the 2020 Olympic Marathon Trials on February 29 on NBC.