Mark running the tangents in Berlin
Can you talk to how you got into running marathons?
I did not run in high school. I was not involved in any organized sports in high school. I was a cyclist, a road cyclist, and I worked in a bike shop. Cycling was kind of my thing, but I was never very good at it. I trained a lot though and I think it built a fitness base for me, a cardiovascular base that I’ve carried with me and leaned on heavily at this point my life now that I'm 43.
I spent 20 years between high school and being 38 where I never worked out or participated in any sports at all. I what a lot of people do, I went to college, got fatter, and when I was 38, I had my mid-life crisis. [I] went to my doctor and my cholesterol was off the charts, I was 200 pounds … It was getting time for medicine, and I decided, "It’s time for a lifestyle change."
I knew athletics would be part of that, but it definitely started with diet. I went after cycling a little bit because that was my history and all the gear and complexity and marketing and business of it turned me off. I also did a little running because in gym classes in high school I had some success, I ran some faster times. And I loved it, I caught the bug. It was a great way for me to be competitive because at work we'd hire a lot of new 20-something year-old guys who were running 5ks and when I first started doing them, I was terrible and really slow and I couldn't run a mile. This was, you know, within the last five years. But that competitive spirit and trying to beat those kids really fueled me in my training and I worked really, really hard.
The marathon was something that didn't interest me the first few years because it was so out of reach ... As I built my fitness and my speed, adding distance became more and more of an interest. I think it was three years ago, I went out running and decided to try  a half marathon in training. I was so proud of myself [that I ran] 13.1 miles and then it opened up my mind ... A lot of the runners I know [did] marathons and that's when I started going after marathon training.
I did my first season with a [Hal] Higdon plan, my second season which was last year I did two fall marathons and then this year I did my fourth marathon in the fall. So I've got three years of marathon history as a result.
You've run four marathons, can you tell us about your progression?
2012, was the first summer I trained for a marathon, the [Bank of America] Chicago Marathon, my first one. I think I focused really heavily on the long runs like a lot of people do. I [ran] my 18 miler and really just be wiped out for the weekend from it ... But I had no real coach and I wasn't much of my own coach. I'd read a little bit on a one page blurb online on the Higdon [plan], I printed out some mileage, and then I did all the long stuff on weekends and a little bit of running during the week. My training wasn't phenomenal, but I went out and ran my first race.
My first one was 3:18. I needed 3:15 for my age group for [a] Boston [qualifier] and I missed it because I cramped up at the end ... I didn't have the fitness, and I didn't set my goal well. I learned a lot from it. It humbled me. It certainly humbled me to be limping down Michigan Avenue. It inspired me to go back and train much harder the next year. [I] realized what I was doing wasn't getting me where I wanted to be.
Year two, this is when I really started to progress as a runner, in particular as a distance runner. I got hooked up with [Chicago Endurance Sports], started training with a group, met people who were at my level, and my fitness really took off. My passion for running took off, too. I learned how much more rewarding running with friends and sharing those experiences can be. So when my fall marathon came up last year, I was signed up for Chicago I actually added Fox Valley [Marathon] to the mix because I was hoping it would be early enough to ... use as a Boston qualifier. Of course I missed the cut off, by just a few days . But, I was able to run a 3:03:59 in Fox Valley.
Then, since I was already signed up for Chicago, I learned what it's like to run back to back marathons. I ran that three weeks later and ran 3:03:52. I'll say that experience at Chicago was really vindicating because it really meant a lot to be going fast down Michigan Avenue up that hill after what it had done to me the year before. Having people scream at me to keep going as I limped through the cramps. I learned a lot in that experience about what marathon racing was which is a whole part of this, too. It's not just about fitness and it's not just about preparation and organization and the mind game, it's about what you do on the course and what's reasonable.
This year, I ran a fall marathon in Berlin. I signed up through the lottery last year and got into the Berlin Marathon. So I trained for that this year. My goal definitely was to break 3 hours. That was my goal for sure.
Going into Berlin you had another full year of training, significantly more training than when you had first started training for marathons. Were you trying to sneak in under three hours or did you think you were going to make another pretty big jump?
I think what I learned from the two I ran the year before was that I shouldn't have been able to run a PR at Chicago after what I ran at Fox Valley. I hadn't set my goal high enough. I wanted to run 3:05. I ran it pretty easily at Fox Valley and I ran my last few miles quite fast. Compared to 3:05 pace. I had a lot left in the tank. When I got to Chicago, I didn't even expect to PR there after Fox Valley, I just wanted to run with my friends for the experience. I felt so good, I realized I should go for it and I ran really hard to get those extra 7 seconds off my time. So when it came time for Berlin this year, I felt really confident about breaking three hours. I also felt really scared about aiming too high [thinking back to] going through what I went [through my] first marathon where [I cramped] up ... that experience [was] miserable. I much prefer the positive experience of a negative split. I think psychologically and emotionally and from a pride standpoint that's a race I want to carry with me through the year. That's one of the magic things about the marathon is that you don't get many cracks at it. So a good race experience is something you can ride until your next crack at it and a bad race is something you have to carry.
So what ended up happening in Berlin?
So I got to Berlin and definitely thought I could break three hours. I thought about shooting for a 2:57. My stretch goal that I was marginally confident [I could achieve] would be a 2:55. My training when really well. My race plan ... in Berlin that I executed was to go out reasonably slow, my first 5k was the slowest chunk of the course, then I ran a really steady 6:45 pace through the middle chunk of the course, and then at the last six miles I felt strong and I dropped it down to the low 6:30s and caught up time and ended up with a 2:54:36.
So you hit your moderate stretch goal and took 9.5 minutes off your PR.
I was pleased. I think one of the real differences about Berlin for me this year. Was how much I ran based on feel. Some of that is just where my corral placed me. I wasn't in a sub three hour marathon corral. I was in a 3-3:15 corral so there were lots of people I had to work my way through. I told myself to be patient and to use that to my benefit, to go slow in the beginning, let the crowd thin out, start eating them up, and really lean on that competitive nature that we runners have and say, "I'm going to pass all these people ... I'm going to get my chance because it's an awfully long race." These are races. We all find our race with in the race. We may not be racing for the finish [tape], but we're doing it for some reason and if you can find more and more reasons to do it, it keeps you going to the end and keeps your brain engaged which I think is very important.
Looking ahead, where do you see yourself going? We also had someone request runners speak to the reality of slowing down with age, how do you see this coming into play?
I mentioned earlier that running has been kind of my mid-life crisis and like all mid-life crises, we're running away from old age. I really enjoyed tracking my own progress and the pride of continuing to improve. A big part what I'm doing here is to find out where my limit really is. As I improve year to year, I know [the rate of improvement is] going to slow down. It's going to slow down because physiologically I may not be able to get better and it's going to slow down because I'll get older and who I am is going to change. I wish I knew what lies ahead of me, but the only way I'm going to find out is to continue to train and I can't even speculate.
In terms of goals for your next marathon, what's next? What will you be shooting for?
I am signed up for Boston this year . I'm going to Boston, I'm going to enjoy that experience and I do want to compete in it. But I'm also wary of what it's going to take to train for a spring marathon. I thought about running a spring marathon last year, but my fitness wasn't where I wanted it to be to make it worthwhile. This year being signed up for Boston, I'll be more disciplined about training through the winter. I would love to break three [hours] there and I think if I'm smart there's no reason I shouldn't. But it's a different kind of race. Everything I've said so far is about running on flat courses like Berlin, Chicago, Fox Valley, and that sort of [course]. What do I want to do at Chicago or Berlin next year? I have no idea ... how far I think I can go, but knocking another 10 minutes off my time would be wonderful.
I think we can all agree with that sentiment!
Throughout your marathon career, you've had some pretty lofty goals. What provided the confidence that you could achieve these goals?
I think the hardest thing about marathoning is picking your pace wisely. It's this balance we try to [create] between having too much left at the end and nothing. I struggled tremendously with what was reasonable with my first marathon and all things considered, I came pretty close. I made it 19-20 miles at my goal pace before I really collapsed. Of course those were the hardest six miles that I couldn't do.
Why did I pick a fast pace? Why did think I could qualify for Boston in my first one? I just thought it would be really cool to be able to say. I'll admit that. I certainly had done enough 5ks and I ran a 10k. I did some little things to build some confidence. I will say that continues to be very important to me. I absolutely believe in running races at shorter distances over the course of a training season, to check in with yourself and get a gauge of what level of fitness is reasonable. I certainly did that in my first year and I've done that in all the years since.
Mark builds race day confidence from past race performances
Speaking of racing as a part of training, can you talk about your training and how it's developed over time?
After the first marathon, I really realized I needed to be more serious about my training. I did some reading and I had to become my own coach. Last year and this year, I did the Hanson Marathon Method training plan. This is the flashy thing about Hanson, 16 miles is the longest run that you do. Now, you do many of them. You do three or four of them depending on how you adjust your schedule. [Y]ou do a large quantity of running [outside of long runs]. So I was running six days per week rather than four. It's about building cumulative fatigue.
For a person like me who's trying to break three [hours] and isn't banging out 80 mile weeks. I really believe in the Hanson plan and I think it is really wise because it balances the training for all the things it takes to be a complete runner. You have a speed workout, you have a tempo run that's really focused on doing well [in] your marathon, you have a long run that helps build the mind for the repetition and the hours of running, but then you also have all those recovery runs that are so important for building cumulative fatigue so you're doing all those workouts on tired legs which makes you so much fitter.
I'm a huge believer in the concept of running many days per week and being disciplined and committed to that. When you run those recovery runs Hanson's is very strict about pacing. It's so easy to always want to go fast. The hardest runs are those recovery runs where you can't find anybody to run with and you have to bang out 8 miles at an 8 minute mile or 8:30 pace and you just want to go faster to get them over with, but you do that at the expense of your workouts. ...[T]he number one thing that I really focused on [was] having a plan [then] believing in the plan and not deviating from the plan on the run. Runners are incredibly psychological beasts and we get out with our friends and they say ... do this that or the other thing and you do that at the expense of the rest of your runs during the week if you're not careful. It starts becoming a trend and suddenly you're off the charts. I try to be really, really disciplined about believing in the value of the plan and not in the individual runs.
You mentioned before the benefits of training with a group and finding others with similar goals. Can you talk about finding balance between running with a group and adhering to your plan?
It takes a lot of discipline. For example, I only have one friend who does Hanson's so he and I can buddy up on the long runs and end them short at 16 miles. He's as much a believer as I am so that works well. While the rest of our friends go off and run 18 or 20 or 22, we call it quits at 16 and we don't have the same things to celebrate as they do for their biggest [runs]. But we're in it together, I think that's an important piece to it. I believe in the results, it works for me and my friends don't challenge me on that. The hardest part is just not being a part of the group for those last few miles. It's typically long runs where I train with other people.
My speed work, I tend to have to run a lone a lot just because I work out in the suburbs and most of the folks I run with run downtown or with the Fleet Feet [Racing] team. Getting to the Wednesday night speed workouts is tough. So I'll program out my Garmin with my workout with pace thresholds and I'll go to the trails at Busse Woods near where I work and I'll have my watch be my coach, telling me what to do, and I'll bang out my intervals.
You prepared some thoughts about your running philosophy. Have we touched on most of those points or are there other things that you think about as being very important to your running that we haven't touched on?
I was thinking about the marathon and what makes it special to me. ... I've recognized that there's this balance between these three things: there's your fitness and preparation physically, there's your mental component, and then there's your actual race execution and being ready on race day. I think [for] the marathon because of the nature of the distance and the limited opportunities we have in a racing year to do it. All three of those things come into equal balance. You absolutely need to be fit. You absolutely need to think ahead and have your mind in the right place so you don't make up your own excuses to quit. It's incredible to me how  runners become their own worst enemy; re-planning their race in the starting corral is not okay, we can't do this, people do it all the time. Being ready for race day, making sure everything is in order is a huge logistical challenge between the things your eat, your schedule for waking up, your corral clothing ... what you're going to wear ... and everything else, there's a lot of planning that goes into a marathon. You need to get all of those things right.
I've also seen that we love to talk with this reverence for the marathon. We love to talk with reverence for times like breaking three [hours], [or] qualifying for Boston. The minute we break one we have a new one. The danger of taking with such reverence to these things is they become scary; we put them on a pedestal. We need to smash through those things. That's what we're going out trying to do. So being our own worst enemy, ... so much of it is right between our ears that's where the race happens. I hugely believe in that. I do a lot on my own to try [to] not let the brain part of it stop me.
Racing in Berlin this year was very stressful for me. I knew I'd have timezone changes and strange foods that might be tempting me, and all these things. I did everything I could to think through it ahead of time and take away my excuses. [For example,] jet lag, it won't matter. I never sleep before a marathon, I don't think anybody does, and I've run lots of good races where I was tired. One night's sleep doesn't matter. Sleep matters cumulatively. I really tried to sit down and imagine the things that could go wrong: "What if it rains?" I love running in the rain. Don't let it freak you out at race day. I think that's part of what makes marathons special is that those things are very threatening if you don't get them right. That's been part of my training, too. It's not just about the fitness piece. The fitness piece is the baseline and then the mental piece is the more subtle and sneaky piece that you've got to get right.
It's taken me a long time to learn those same lessons. Your mental preparation has got to be one of the key components of your racing success.
I make checklists, I think of all the things that can go wrong. Because you're out there suffering on the course and you might have 5 miles to go and you're looking for an excuse. We look for excuses to stop and you've got to remove those excuses, you've got to be prepared ahead of time and make sure they don't become excuses. Because we make bad decision on the race course. We think we're smart, [but] we're not smart.
No, we're glycogen deprived. [Laughter.]
I included "secrets" in the subtitle of the interview series, and I think you've revealed all your secrets, those are the secrets of running a good marathon. Do you have anything you'd like to add?
Where I've been lucky has been in picking my pace. I said earlier, I think that's the hardest thing in stepping up to a marathon if you're a new runner ... or if you're trying to break a goal. You can't set a goal based on what you want. You need to have enough facts on your side to make you believe you can get there.
This year, I wanted to know if I could break three hours. Early on in my training, eight weeks in, ten weeks to go, I ran a half marathon. I ran a time that when you plug it into the McMillan calculator says, "You should be able to break three hours." I did it when I wasn't fully in shape, I hadn't done the peak of my training, I wasn't at my best. I did it on a warm day. I really learned how much better I run when it cools off outside, how much faster and easier things become. It gave me a lot of confidence to know that I should be able to go out and run a sub-three marathon because I had that race in my pocket.
Despite of all that, as I was hitting my taper, I know how crazy we can become in our tapers, I said, "I'm going to throw a 5k in here. I'm as fit as I've ever been." I really wanted to break into the 5-something minute miles in a 5k. I'd run 18:45 5ks, it was really frustrating me. So I ran the Bucktown 5k this year. I crushed it. I built a lot of confidence. I ran 17:36, 5:39 pace. I was thrilled. I hung on to that through my taper. It told me, "It's okay, [you] don't need to be running." That was a real secret for me this year because  I see all of my friends wanting to run more. I'm a big believe in the taper. I think it's an age thing, and this is another secret, I taper really hard.
How do you mean?
So Hanson [program] has a three week taper you do. The first week it's not too severe, but in the last week the intensity is down in all the runs, it's all easy running. I didn't even do that. I did all easy running and very little of it. I did three runs the week before my marathon, including the shakeout the day before. 14 miles before I went to the marathon. Practically nothing. I know a lot of folks wrestle with how much running to do leading up to their race. Most of the folks I know tend to run more than that. But I felt so snappy at the start line, and I think this is part of the things of being an older runner, too, I don't heal up as fast as some of my friends who are younger than me. If my legs are fatigued, one day off might not be enough. I think that worked really well for me.
Special thanks to Mark Sheitler for participating in this interview, and another hearty congratulations on his recent run in Berlin. Mark is a very savvy runner and I look forward to following him in the future.