August 25, 1974 was the first day of cross-country practice at Gordon Tech High School and a young Mark arrived with a plan that did not include a future in marathons. He had his sights set on hockey, and cross-country would be a means to get there. With no particular hockey skills, he planned to wow the hockey coaches with a fitness level they couldn’t pass over.
Meanwhile, cross-country was trial by fire. Mark’s freshmen year, 110 of his peers went out for the team. By the end of the season, there were nine runners. There were no cuts, peers just gave up. Self-attrition. The coach knew this, and knew he would have those nine runners for the next three years.
At the end of the season, Mark asked his cross-country coach if he knew when hockey try-outs were. His coach said Mark had missed them.
I always liked to run, but I liked hockey even better. But, hockey never came, and running never stopped.”
“I always liked to run, but I liked hockey even better,” Mark recalled. “But, hockey never came, and running never stopped.”
Mark was good at it, too. After high school, he went to run at Oakton College. His sophomore year he faced what would become the most impactful race of his life. Qualifying for the national cross-country championship was on the line and he knew going in he would either just make it or just miss it.
The race was in New Mexico and Mark’s dad came with him. Every time Mark would come around the track, he would see his dad cheering him on. On the final straight away, he saw his dad and he was silent. Mark would miss qualifying for the cross-country championships by less than 22 seconds.
After the race, Mark was wrecked. Deflated, depressed. It remains one of the saddest days of his life. But his coach offered him a distraction.
“My coach said, Mark, you missed it, you did your best, but I want you to take the next ten days and run long distance, really long distance,” Mark remembered. “Take three days off, then run the Hinsdale Illinois Marathon.
“Did it get my mind off things? Nah ... Maybe a little.”
On November 17, 1979, Mark ran the Hinsdale Marathon. One of maybe 200 or 300 runners. He ran a 2:49:38 — two hours, 49 minutes and 38 seconds. He beat his previous time — a 3:11:13 — and he was happy, his spirits were, in fact, picking up.
A little over a month later, Mark was with some of his high school teammates, all home and exchanging stories over the holiday break, talking about who was still running, who had “retired.” Mark mentioned off-handedly that he had run a 2:49:38 at the Hinsdale Marathon and, with some laughter, his friends pointed out that he had qualified for the Boston Marathon by exactly 22 seconds.
He went back to school, asked his coach if he really had qualified — and if he could go to the Boston Marathon. “He said, you gotta train like you’ve never trained before,” Mark said.
At 19, Mark ran the first of his 36 — and counting — consecutive Boston Marathons: 2:39:54.
After the race in New Mexico, Mark asked his dad why he had stopped cheering. His dad explained: He lost his voice. He wanted to cheer, but he couldn’t.
“I’m sure that if he didn’t lose his voice, I would have made it,” Mark reflected. “So maybe somebody took away my dad’s voice. If he had yelled and cheered, I would have made the national championships and never went to Hinsdale, never started my Boston Marathon experience.”
Boston opened Mark’s world up to marathons and shaped the course it would take for the next thirty years. He continues to race and started a training program and running camp, writes for running magazines, coaches and gives educational seminars on training and running. In fact, it was at one such seminar that he met his wife, with whom he celebrated his twelfth wedding anniversary in August.
This February, he’ll celebrate another anniversary: 10 years since his open-heart surgery. The cow heart valve that saved his life is commemorated with a cow ornament on his Christmas tree every year. He volunteers as a member of Mended Hearts, giving encouragement and answering the non-medical questions of patients going through heart surgery.
Of even greater impact is the number of runners who have approached Mark to share how his story saved their lives. From before Mark was diagnosed until the day of his procedure, he could run — he felt fine. It was only his annual physical, a tradition he is as committed to as Boston, that revealed his heart condition and led to his life-saving valve replacement. If you’re born with a bad heart, your level of fitness doesn’t matter, only your commitment to your health can make that difference.
“My biggest satisfaction is not running and completing the Boston Marathon less than 11 weeks after open-heart surgery,” Mark said. “It’s that I’ve been very public with what I went through and I’ve helped save other people’s lives. When someone comes up to me and says, Mark, I had the same experience, I would have never known if not for your article, that’s priceless.”
“My father would tell me, if you’ve got something, if you’ve got a gift, that’s wonderful,” Mark continued. “Now make it really special and share it with others.”
Mark keeps his traditions. With his annual physical on the calendar, when he runs the Boston Marathon in April 2016, it will be his tenth with the cow heart valve, 37th overall.