As an experienced marathon runner, Mark tried a pretty unique training program for his latest race and it paid huge dividends. Keep reading to find out what changes Mark made and how he continues to improve after 8 years of running marathons.
Mark (far right) and Track and Trough Athletic Union teammates at the 2012 Chicago Half Marathon
Photo Credit: Hoyee Lennington
What is your running background? More specifically, how did you begin running marathons?
I ran cross country and track in junior high and one year of high school track, and during college I did an occasional 5k or 10k, but that was the extent of my competitive running. I always said I'd never do a marathon. Running 26 miles just sounded nuts. My first year out of college, my company launched some sort of healthy living initiative, and as part of that they offered to pay the entry fee for the 2006 Chicago Marathon for anybody who wanted to do it. I had never run longer than 12 miles, but all around me people were signing up and getting all excited, and I just got kind of swept up in it. I went online and found the Hal Higdon novice training program, and that sealed it.
Can you describe your marathon progression?
Going into the first one, I had no idea what I'd be able to run. In my limited running experience I had been decent, I just had never run anywhere close to that distance. I decided that if I qualified for Boston (3:10:59) I'd run it, and if not then that would be the end of my marathon career. The idea of a sub-3 also entered my mind, but that didn't seem realistic. As is the case with many first-timers, I was way too excited and did a very poor job of pacing. I went through the half in 1:27 and felt great all the way to mile 20, and I thought a sub-3 was in the bag. Then I ran into a wall, mainly in the form of calf cramps. I finished in 3:03, and while I was disappointed that I slowed down so much the last few miles, it did qualify me for Boston. Training for that one went extremely well - I increased my mileage, started doing some speed workouts, and going into the race, sub-3 didn't even seem like a good enough goal anymore. I was pretty sure I could run 2:55 or better. Well...it was a total disaster. I don't know exactly what went wrong, but it was awful. I had to completely stop for about 20 minutes just past Heartbreak Hill, had a 51 minute 5k in there, and finished in 3:31. Six weeks later I went to San Diego to try to redeem myself, and that was almost as bad as Boston (3:19, which included walking a good portion of the last 10 miles). It wasn't until my fourth try, in Phoenix in 2009, that I finally cracked the 3 hour barrier. I've now run 14 marathons and my times have been steadily declining, although there have been a few more bumps in the road along the way.
Some of those experiences sound miserable. What kept you going through the bumps and bruises?
I think that what got me running more seriously after my first marathon and what kept me going after the bad ones is all tied together. First, as awful as those two 2008 marathons were, my times at shorter distances were still improving. I felt like I was becoming a better runner, but for whatever reason I just hadn't been able to hold it together for 26 miles. There were definitely days when my confidence wavered, but for the most part I felt like it was a matter of when, not if, I'd be able to break 3. The other, even more important, factor is that I signed up for the Boston Bound program through Fleet Feet to train for that first Boston. Until then, I had always run by myself. After I got into the habit of running with people more often, it became as much a social activity as it was training. Giving it up didn't ever really cross my mind as an option, not because I have such mental toughness that I can will myself through anything, but because going for the Saturday long runs and weeknight workouts was the most convenient way to hang out with my runner friends.
In what ways has your top finishes at the Bowling Green Marathon (1st in 2012 and 2nd in 2013) impacted your approach to the marathon?
That first BG was a total fluke. I was signed up for New York and was packed and ready to go when the news came out on Friday afternoon that the race had been cancelled. I'd had a good training cycle and was all tapered and ready to run, so I scrambled to find a replacement race. Bowling Green still had open registration, was within driving distance, and the weather forecast looked perfect (it's really nice knowing how the weather will be before committing to a marathon) so that's where I landed. It was the first year they held that marathon and the website didn't have much information so I didn't know what I was getting into. I didn't know how big or small it was, if it was hilly or flat, and there were no past results to check and see if I could expect any fast people to show up. It turned out to be a tiny race (66 finishers) and I spent the entire time alone, other than my police escort and bike marshal. That was my first and only (so far) race win at any distance, and it was so much fun that I had to go back the next year to try to defend my title. Since I no longer had a title to defend after the second year, I'm back to picking marathons where I think I'll be able to run a good time and/or places I want to visit. So I guess this was a very long way of saying that Bowling Green really didn't impact my approach to the marathon at all, it was just a fun, unplanned diversion.
Mark en route to his Bowling Green Marathon win in 2012.
Photo Credit: BG Daily News
Your recent 2:41 personal best in Chicago resulted after following a program adapted* from Renato Canova's program for Moses Mosop's debut marathon (a 2:03:06 at the 2011 Boston Marathon). In what ways did following this program prepare you for a breakthrough performance?
It was a lot different than any other training I've done. For the last few years, my marathon build-ups generally averaged about 70 miles a week with a peak around 100, and most weeks would include a tempo run (6-10 miles near half marathon pace) and a speed workout (usually intervals ranging from 400s to 3200s at 5k pace or faster). My easy days were normally 8-12 miles around 7:00 pace. The Canova program significantly increased my mileage and almost entirely eliminated any faster than marathon pace runs. Most of the workouts were at marathon goal pace or slightly slower, and they were almost all very long. Quite a few of them were terrifying to see on the schedule (a ton of credit goes to Anu Parekh, who was also on the Canova plan and dragged me through the whole thing). There were days that were a more obvious sort of scary, like 25 miles at 25 seconds slower than marathon goal pace, and days that were a bit more deceptive, like 8x3k at marathon pace with 1k jogging recovery between each one. That one didn't seem so bad on paper but by the time we finished it ended up being a continuous 23 mile run with over 15 at goal pace. For the 10 weeks leading up to the marathon, I averaged about 95 miles a week and peaked at 115. The easy days were at 7:30-7:45 pace or slower because we were so beat up from the workouts that's all we could manage (and Canova would have told us that we should have been going even slower on those days). All that volume really got us ready for the marathon though. I went through the half in 1:21:07, which would have been a half marathon PR for me not that long ago, and then ran close to a minute negative split. What slowed me down towards the end was my quads cramping a little bit. Aerobically, I felt like I could have kept going all day, and I credit that to Canova. Canova and Anu...who I ran with for 21 miles before he dropped the hammer and finished in 2:40:06.
What's next for you? Will you be following a Canova-style program again?
My next marathon will be the Sugarloaf Marathon in Maine next May, and I haven't decided yet what sort of training I'm going to do. The Canova plan worked, I'm just not sure if my body can handle that many miles again so soon. Sugarloaf might also be a harder place to PR because it's a little bit hilly and it's a smaller race so I may be running by myself for some of it. I may opt for a lower volume training plan in the spring and then get back to Canova for a fall marathon, but I have some time before I have to make that decision.
Thanks to Mark Dolgin for taking the time to participate in this interview, and best wishes to him as he continues his marathon journey at the Sugarloaf Marathon next spring.
*You can learn more about the program Mark and Anu followed by checking out John Davis' post on his site Running Writings. John has conveniently converted Mosop's schedule into relative paces for those wishing to adapt it to their own running.
Thanks for reading!
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