NEW YORK –– Jared Ward wasn’t sure if he would make it.
With about six weeks left before Sunday’s 2018 New York City Marathon, the pain in Ward’s legs was almost too much to bear. The 2016 U.S. Olympian had recently pulled his hamstring, and after being forced to drop out of a half marathon in the Czech Republic in September, Ward felt that he wasn’t ready to compete in the big race.
“I called [New York Road Runners professional athlete consultant] David Monti six weeks before the race and just said, ‘Hey, I don’t know if I’m going to be ready for this race,” Ward said.
“But he just encouraged me to come and said, ‘Hey, don’t feel any pressure from us. If it’s a 13.1 mile race and you have to pull the plug, that’s ok.’ He just let me know that there have been a lot of marathoners that come here not feeling ready who have still done really well.”
On Sunday, Ward became one of those runners, finishing sixth overall as the first American to cross the line with a time of 2:12:24. Ward averaged 5:03 through the 26.2 miles and led a competitive group of Americans for most of the race.
It wasn’t easy for Ward to convince himself that such a finish was possible. After placing sixth at the Rio Olympics in 2016 with a personal best 2:11:30, Ward had to battle through a string of injuries, sometimes wondering if he would ever reach the fitness level he had long desired.
“Last year, after the Olympics, I started to ask myself if it was worth it, going through all of this pain and training,” Ward said. “What I realized was that what meant most to me after my performances was what I learned from it and how I feel about myself and how I feel about how I pushed through it. That was the win today, feeling like I really pushed through those last miles and came out tough, like I’ve won the battle against myself.”
Ward wasn’t alone in facing those battles. In what became the second-fastest men’s race in New York City Marathon history––Lelisa Desisa’s winning time of 2:05:59 came just shy of Geoffrey Mutai’s record-setting 2:05:05 in 2011––four different U.S. runners placed in the top ten.
Two of those were Shadrack Biwott and Chris Derrick, who were running toe-to-toe with Ward to start the race.
“It helped to know that when Chris got up there and he started pushing, that he wanted me to come,” Ward said of the group of Americans running together. “When I got up there and started pushing, they were also right there behind me. When Shadrack passed me with two miles to go in Central Park on a downhill, he pushed me and said, ‘Come on, come on,’ and it was that push there that really set the rest of the way. It means a lot to be running with a group like that. I really appreciate some of those guys.”
But despite coming in ninth and tenth with times of 2:12:52 and 2:13:08, respectively, neither Biwott nor Derrick ended up being Ward’s toughest competition amongst the U.S. men.
That role belonged to HOKA NAZ Elite runner Scott Fauble, who finished seventh with a personal best marathon time of 2:12:28.
After crossing the 30K mark in 14th place, Fauble quickly gained speed, jumping from a 5:09 pace in the 22nd mile to a 4:58 pace heading into the final stretch. By the 40K mark, he found himself in ninth, and a 4:51 pace across the line put him just eight seconds behind Ward’s sixth-place finish.
It was just the second marathon contest in Fauble’s young career and his first ever in New York.
“Today was a big run,” Fauble said after the race. “I’m very proud of it, the way I competed and particularly the way I closed.”
Like Ward, Fauble said having a group of American teammates to run with encouraged him throughout the race. It could have been easy to lose momentum so far behind the leading pack, but for Fauble, being able to keep his eyes on the U.S. competitors helped push him through the second half of the marathon.
“I wasn’t delusional,” Fauble said when asked if he was taken aback by the men’s fast start. “I know that I can’t go in the 2:05’s and 2:06’s like those top guys. But I was lucky in terms of staying in pace those last few miles because there was a group of Americans ahead of me, and I could see them for a long time, so it was helpful to be able to walk in on them and have them as a target out there.”
Despite not having an American break the top five, both Ward and Fauble believe Sunday’s race was an assuring one. Each competitor held their own, ultimately urging one another to cross the line at a pace faster than last year’s 2:12:48, seventh-place finish by Abdi Abdirahman.
The 2018 New York Marathon was evidence of a US men’s field that has increased in depth, and that, Ward believes, is something worth celebrating.
“Team USA is strong and extremely talented,” Ward said. “There are guys right on the cusp of a lot of these big breakthroughs with 2:09 or 2:10 marathons for a lot of these guys coming. So on this lighting fast course and on a lightning fast day, it’s exciting to know that there’s a bunch of guys there who are ready to compete, and hopefully we can start bridging the gap to some of these big performances and get closer."
Both Ward and Fauble have their sights set on the 2020 Olympic trials, and after witnessing the level of fitness each runner displayed throughout the course of Sunday’s 26.2 miles, both believe the race will be a wide open contest worth watching.
“Today proved that we have a lot of guys in very similar fitness,” Fauble said. “We each got to the finish line in a different manner. Shadrack went out fast and then faded a bit. Jared and Chris were steady, and I came in strong at the end. Looking long term, it sure feels like the Olympic trials will be quite the showdown, because here, we had four guys within a minute of each other. It’s exciting. That 2020 competition has all the makings of a really good race.”