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Open Mic Friday: Meet Half Marathon Maniac Mark

Posted Jun 19 2009 3:45pm


We love runners with passion, especially those who share their enthusiasm with others. 

Today' s guest, Mark Berry is creating a platform for half marathons--training, racing, and promoting the distance.  In this interview, he shares his views and experiences with the distance. A prolific blogger, he' s determined to make his blog a repository for great information and conversation about the half marathon.

And since it is our goal to connect runners with other runners and running information, he is a natural choice for this week' s Open Mic Friday. 

Welcome Mark!

Tell us how you began your passionate pursuit and support of the half marathon distance.

Involvement in running half-marathons was an evolution.  I ran cross-country in high school and when I began running regularly approximately 5 years ago, found that I didn’t enjoy the shorter distances, such as 5 & 10K.  When I ran the Marine Corps Marathon in 2006, I run only a 10K race in preparation – and found that this didn’t adequately prepare me for running a longer distance race.

Each of the past two years, I’ve broaden my racing experience, running everything from 8K to 10K to 15K to 10 mile to 20K to half-marathons.  In the course of that, I learned two things: 1) I enjoyed the longer distances and 2) half-marathons were more readily available to run.  I ran four halfs last year and found that – with effective training, motivation, and continuous learning – I was able to improve my performance race by race. 

This year – as I anticipated my 50th birthday – I decided that I again wanted to attempt a full marathon.  To train for this, I’ve also committed to run 14 half-marathons as well as several other races (15K, 10 mile, 20K and 15 mile).  To run 14 half-marathons in approximately 7 months, I found that I was running races – on an average – every other week (in fact, during one 28 day period, I ran four half-marathons!). 

As I anticipated this level of demands on my not-so-youthful body, I began doing a lot of reading on a variety of subjects specific to half-marathons.  Several friends suggested that I should find a means to share what I was learning; this became the birth of “Half-Marathon Mania” – our blog.  Moderating this became a life in itself – in the first month (February), we have 68 hits and 146 page views – but grew to where in June, we are projecting more than 3000 hits and 5000 page views!  As more runners have logged in, I’ve spent more time – researching, writing articles, and responding to emails from readers.  It’s been a lot of fun and a very gratifying experience.

What do you think is the strongest appeal of the half marathon?

Very simply – it’s a great balance of challenge and attainability.  Unlike it’s bigger brother – the full marathon – it’s something that most runners can train for over a 12 week period – if they’re up for the challenge.  If they enjoy the experience, it’s a distance that they can run again – in most cases – within 1-2 weeks of their last half.

What’s missing in the world of half marathon racing?

The biggest missing piece – to me – is that, with few exceptions, half-marathons are not considered “feature events” at the level of a full marathon.

What’s been your greatest half marathon experience?

Two experiences – for very different reasons.  The first was at this year’s Lincoln (Nebraska) Half-Marathon.  What made it “great” was that the consistency with which I ran – my pacing was solid; there was only 10 seconds difference between my splits the first half of the race vs. the second half and my pacing for each mile was within 10 seconds of my average mile pace.  It was a solid performance.

The second was two weeks later at Papillion (Nebraska) Half-Marathon.  It was not a good race for me – I didn’t feel good and my finish time was more than five minutes slower than my personal best.  However, I had the privilege of pacing a co-worker through miles 2-12, who set a new personal record for themselves.  It was – paradoxically – a great experience; “bad” race in terms of my performance, but “great” race in terms of the outcome for my friend.

If you were talking to a runner considering running a first half marathon, how would you describe the training?  The race experience?

Honestly, I don’t do this.  Everyone’s experience – whether with respect to training or the race experience – is their experience.  I couldn’t adequately – or accurately – represent what someone else’s experience would be. 

Do runners take the taper and recovery of a half marathon as seriously as they should?

I don’t take taper and recovery very seriously.  For most recreational runners, tapering for a half should be nothing more than cutting back mileage 2-3 days before a race and getting more rest during that time.  Folks who spend 2-3 weeks tapering for a half risk compromising their overall training program, ultimately affecting their race performance more than if they hadn’t tapered at all.  After all, it’s not a marathon; in the case of a marathon, my counsel would be very different.

With respect to recovery, my own experience – as well as that of most folks I know – is that recovery from a half marathon can be realized within 2-3 days of completing a half.  For me, after running a half, I usually don’t run later the same day or the following day.  Two days after the race, I can resume my training program full tilt.  However, if I feel I need a little more time, I take it. 

With both tapering and recovery, I’d encourage fellow runners to avoid following a “formula” – do what works for you.  Each of us is different.  For some people, they may need 3-5 days to recover after a race.  For others, they may require no recovery time at all.  “Listen to everything, but do what makes sense for you.”  That’s my counsel.

Do you have a preference for running a standalone half marathon versus a HM that is run in conjunction with a full marathon? Why?

I don’t have a preference.  Approximately 50% of the half-marathons I’ve run have been in conjunction with a full marathon.  What I’d like to see avoided at races is staging halfs, 10Ks and/or 5Ks to start at the same time.  In fact, there should be criminal penalties for race directors who stage half-marathons along with shorter, generally faster paced races and start them at the same time.  A half-marathon and a 10K are fundamentally different races.  If you’re doing two races the same day, stagger the starts.  It will make for a better experience for all runners.  Directors, are you listening???

What is the key to successful training for the half marathon?

There are several keys:
•    Set a realistic goal.  For most – if it’s their first half – finishing (vs. a set time) is a great goal.  Make it challenging without being overwhelming.  Running – and racing – is supposed to be fulfilling, not demoralizing.
•    Commit the time to train – or don’t race.  People who cut corners in training and then expect to have a good race experience rarely do – and their performance tends to discourage them from continuing their pursuit.  If you can’t commit the time to train, do something else – half-marathons are challenging.  I wouldn’t want to do one without having a solid base.
•    Balance running and rest.  As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to listen to my body.  Although I follow a running plan, I don’t allow the plan to override what my body is telling me.  If I’m sore or fatigued, I adjust.  If I feel good, I may run faster or longer.  Learn to listen to your body; it will tell you what you can do.

What is one key message you wish you could get through the heads of half marathoners?

If I have a “message”, it’s “Thank God every time you run that you have the capability to do so and use your running to celebrate the glory of the world He has created.”  There are so many people who are unable to do what even a mediocre runner can.  Every time I run, I thank God for allowing me to have the capabilities to enjoy life and find fulfillment through doing something most seek to avoid. 

I have pet peeves I’d challenge other runners to avoid, such as 1) don’t run 3-4 abreast during races, totally oblivious to the fact that you’re “blocking” other runners and 2) leave the iPod at home (I know that I’ve now alienated 50% of readers!) and enjoy the experience of racing – the sights, sounds, and conversations with other runners.  Otherwise, I don’t have a singular message.

Any quirky running traits?

Now you’re getting personal!  Because I know you won’t share this with anyone (except thousands of potential readers!), I can share with you a few “rituals” that I embrace.  They include:
•    I never run “naked” – I always wear my Polar RS800SD and its heart rate monitor.  If I go out for a run and the battery is low, I go home and change the battery.  I don’t run without it.
•    I always chew gum when I run (but never chew gum otherwise).  Chewing gum helps me to feel less thirsty.  There’s probably no “science” to this, but it works for me.
•    Before every half-marathon, I eat 13 dark chocolate-covered espresso beans.  Why?  I remember reading in Dean Karnazes’ book, “50/50 – Secrets I Learned Running 50 Marathons in 50 Days” that he loved these and found that the caffeine served as a stimulant.  I ate 13 before a race this past Spring when I realized a new personal record and – from that point forward – have continued the “ritual”.

What have you not done with your running that you’re still looking forward to?

There are a couple of things I want to do.  One is running another full marathon.  I’m registered to run the Marine Corps Marathon in October of this year.  I don’t know if I’ll be able to qualify for Boston; currently, my extrapolated full marathon time (based on my best half-marathon) is 3:49:00 and I need a 3:35:00 to qualify for Boston.  Whether I qualify or not, I’m looking forward to another shot at MCM.  It was the motivation for running 14 half-marathons this summer – refining my racing in the shorter distance to optimize my performance at MCM.  A second is running a trail half or full marathon.  I’m running a 15 mile trail race in July (“Psyco Psummer” 15 mile in Kansas City, KS), which will be my first trail race since high school.

Non-running interests?

Really, I don’t have many other hobbies – running takes a fair amount of my free time.  Being married with two very engaged children, I have things I’d like to have time to do more – golfing and playing my drums being at the top of the list. 

Greatest running moment?

Running the Marine Corps Marathon in 2006.  What was exceptional about the experience wasn’t my race; it was the race of so many runners I met during the course of the race.  Whether the runner who had lost a leg in Iraq and was running his first full marathon, the runner – who I met at the expo – who was paralyzed from the waist down after being shot in Afghanistan and completing his third full marathon in a wheelchair, or the two soldiers who ran the marathon, carrying 30+ pound field packs of fellow soldiers who had been killed in Iraq, it was a privilege to run MCM with people of such character and to use the race to raise more than $5000 for the Armed Forces Foundation, an organization that provides support to families of wounded and disabled service people.

Most embarrassing running moment?

I always wear black running shorts when I race.  No particular reason; I just always have.  Until last week’s half-marathon in Kearney, Nebraska.  For some reason, as I prepped, I decided to wear a pair of light blue running shorts.  It was a hot, humid day and as I ran, I noticed that the sweat line forming – quite visibly – on my shorts gave the appearance that I had missed one too many porta-potties.  I learned my lesson – back to black shorts!

If money could buy you a running dream, what would it be?

Wow, I’ve never thought about that.  I’d love to run a race with my daughters, Hannah & Gracie.  They’ve both participated in “Girls on the Run”.  I’ve had the opportunity to run one “fun run” with Gracie, but would love to see them become really more committed to running.  I’d love to see my wife, Carolyn, complete a sanctioned race.  Although she works out religiously, she doesn’t see herself as a “runner”.  If I could “buy” anything, it would be for her to see herself not through the lens of how she grew up seeing herself, but how she is today – a very disciplined, determined athlete.

Best running advice you’ve ever been given?

“Don’t allow the objective to eclipse the adventure.”  I’ve learned that running is not an “event” or a “destination” – it’s a journey or an adventure.

Finally, what are your goals for your half marathon blog?

I hope that “Half-Marathon Mania” gives fellow runners a resource for meaningful running information and encourages them to become “students” of running.  I really enjoy running, but I also enjoy learning about running.  That’s the focus of the site.  I’m gratified that even one other person finds it valuable.

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