I recently had the opportunity to interview Mark Shipley who is a running coach based in the Pittsburgh area. In the interest of full disclosure, while I live close to Mark, I’ve never actually seen him run.
But he does.
The reasons I’ve never spotted him are mostly because (unlike me) he has the willpower to get himself out of bed and run during the early morning hours and it’s likely that even his “slow” pace is faster than my mind or body can accept.
I asked Mark questions about his background, recent experiences, and his goals. But, I also asked him whether it was more difficult to coach newer runners than experienced runners. Since I know from my law enforcement background that teaching certain technical/tactical skills (like using a firearm) can be much more difficult to do with someone who has accumulated years of “bad habits”, I expected Mark to respond in a certain way. However, his answer surprised me.
As a bonus: Through this Q&A I was also able to ascertain that Mark will never co-star in a facial grooming commercial with Brett Favre. While this news is a bit disappointing, it’s probably for the best.
Question: I know you started running in your late 20’s, but what made you get into coaching?
I started coaching because I had become a mentor to several runners and enjoyed it. I was learning a great deal about the sport, but by becoming a certified coach, I was able to take that next step. I learned more of the science behind what I was doing as well as some new coaching techniques and philosophies. Then, by becoming a certified coach, I was able to start officially training runners and building training plans for them.
Running Coach – Mark Shipley
(Not actual size)
Do you find it easier to coach experienced runners, or do newer runners tend to have less bad habits that they need to break?
Newer runners are 10 times harder to coach than more experienced runners. Sure, experienced runners have issues about falling back into old patterns, but those are typically easy to break if you can show them improved results with the modifications you’re proposing. Usually there’s someone they know who’s tried something similar, so they’re easier to convince. New runners have to be protected from themselves, and that’s not an easy task.
They want to run everything too hard, and they want to progress too quickly. Their energy and enthusiasm is great, but it also does them a disservice when it comes to their bodies. In most cases, a new runner will show incredible improvement over the first couple months. They’ll go from being winded after a few blocks to breezing through an hour long run. Well, their cardiovascular system has adapted, but their muscles and more importantly their bones have not adapted so quickly. And that’s the rub. Unless you can get them to back off, they tend to get injured from overtraining after several months. That is usually a self-correcting problem though because after injury, they are more apt to ramp up slowly. The more difficult bad habit to break is always running too hard. A newer runner tends to think that in order to run faster, they need to run faster. Seems logical, right? Wrong. It’s counterintuitive, but you must run most of your runs slowly, at conversational pace, in order to progress as a runner. There is a place for fast running, but it’s not every run.
Many distance runners dream about qualifying for, and running in, the Boston Marathon. This past year, you got to live that dream. What was that experience like?
How many books do you want me to write? In a word: “Incredible”. I don’t know how else to describe it. It took me 10+ years of running to qualify and 11 to stand at the start line, but all of that hard work was worth it. There are 2 moments that I distinctly remember from the process. The first was crossing the finish line at the Erie Marathon knowing that I had qualified and that my time would be good enough. There were so many emotions going through me, and I thought about my first marathon where my time was more than 2 hours slower. The other was just before the start of Boston. I was in corral 7 which is below the crest of the hill before the start. Thus, I couldn’t see the start from where I lined up, but as I came over the top of the hill and could see the starting line, I knew that I had “made it.” I had chills and took a moment to take it all in. Then it was go time. I had a mission that day as did the other 36K runners and the hundreds of thousands of spectators. We were taking back the Boston Marathon, and everyone took that job very seriously. I gave it everything I had, and Boston (and the surrounding towns) showed the runners its best side.
I’ve run numerous marathons, large and small, but Boston was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. The crowds, the emotions, the Wellesley girls, Heartbreak Hill, and Boylston St. were beyond belief. I literally was hoping for the end of the Wellesley scream tunnel because the girls were so loud that my right ear was hurting. However, nothing prepared me for the turn onto Boylston. I have never experienced a roar like that before. And then to pass by both bombing sites was so humbling. I took off my visor to wave to the spectators as I approached the finish, and then I put it over my heart at each of the bombing sites. I hadn’t planned any of that, but it just seemed right. Then after crossing the finish line, I have never seen anything like this at any other race. The spectators, volunteers, police, and emergency personnel were all thanking and applauding each other. The people of Boston were thanking the runners for giving them their race back, and the runners were thanking everyone for an amazing experience.
Now we all know that there is a lot of information about running out there on the internet (which, of course, is NEVER wrong), so what are the major advantages of having a running coach?
Every runner is an experiment of one.
Canned training plans can be good, but what they can’t do is adapt to your needs. There are times when you need to adjust your training due to injury, how you’re progressing against the plan, or life in general. A plan can’t do that, but a coach can. A good coach will know when to push you and when to pull you back. And say you’re in the middle of a training plan but want to run that awesome race you do every year. Your coach will likely be able to adjust your training schedule to allow you to participate while still keeping you on track for your goal race.
As the father of a young child, how do you balance a career, coaching, running, and parenting?
Very carefully. Honestly, this was a difficult transition, and it took the better part of a year for all of us to figure out what worked and what didn’t. I never used to be a morning runner, but now I get in most of my workweek miles very early in the morning on the treadmill while everyone else in the house is still asleep. And on the weekends, I sometimes start even earlier. I informally lead a group called the “early birds” because we’re typically out running our long runs well before the normal runners show up.
What is the most common mistake you see runners make?
See above re: newer runners. If I have to choose something else it would be comparing yourself to other runners. Be the best runner you can be. That doesn’t mean that you should not try to improve. It only means that you shouldn’t use someone else’s scale. They may improve more or less quickly than you. Learn to listen to your body, and it will guide you.
You’ve been known to display a variety of facial hair styles. Is this a kind of superpower? Do you prefer the Magnum P.I. look for longer races? The George Clooney beard for 5Ks? How does this black magic work?
Black magic. I like it, especially since my beard is going more toward white wizard status now. As all married men know, a happy wife makes for a happy life. Part of keeping my wife happy is me having facial hair. In the 14+ years that we’ve been married, I’ve been clean shaven for probably less than a month total. It doesn’t matter if it’s a goatee (my default) or a full beard. As long as my chin is covered, she’s happy. Over the winter I’ll usually grow a beard for a while until it starts to itch too much. If I’m running a spring marathon or 50K, I will try to hold on until just before the race before shaving. Before any major goal race, I have a superstition where I’ll get my hair cut short. It started out of necessity because of hot weather but has grown into a tradition and now superstition. As an extension of that, I also go with the Rocky IV approach when training through the winter. Think about Rocky training in the harsh Russian winter. He’s out there busting his butt in the freezing cold, rocking the full beard. Then he shows up in the arena, laser focused and with a clean shave. I do the same thing.
It’s more about visualization than anything. I’m switching mindsets from training to game day, and that does it for me. I know it sounds corny, but it actually works for me. I treat goal races as though they are important work trips. I’m all business, and that helps get me into the right mindset. And I may or may not have yelled “Dragoooooooo!!!” at the end of a long, snowy training run in the dead of winter.
As far as running goes, what is your next goal?
My immediate goal is to run well at the NYC Marathon and get my 2016 Boston Qualifier. I’m not in the greatest shape right now, but since I’ll be 40 in 2016, I get an additional 5 minutes of qualifying time, meaning that I only need to run 3:15 or better. Hopefully I can do that. After that, it will be time to get ready for the spring season and the JC Stone 50K and Boston Marathon. For the former, I’m gunning for a podium finish which will be no small feat. For Boston I have a goal, but I’m not yet ready to go public with it. A few of my friends know, but until it gets closer and I get in better shape, it will stay a guarded secret.
Thanks to Mark Shipley for answering my questions. Mark can be reached through his Twitter ID: @TheCranberryKid.
Mark Shipley is a Road Runners Club of America (RRCA) certified coach and currently coaches runners for Mojo Running and Multisport in Seven Fields, PA. After starting running in 2003 to fulfill a bucket list item of completing a marathon, he’s run 19 marathons and 5 ultramarathons. A native of Cumberland, MD, he currently resides in Cranberry Twp, PA with his wife Tracey and daughter Charlotte. He is employed by Inmedius, a Boeing Company, in Ross Twp, PA where he works as a Senior Manager, Software Engineering.
Readers: What are your experiences with using a running coach?
J.J. Hensley is the author of RESOLVE, which is set against the backdrop of the Pittsburgh Marathon, Measure Twice, and other works. Hensley is a former police officer and former Special Agent with the U.S. Secret Service.
An addict is killing Pittsburgh city officials, but Homicide Detective Jackson Channing has his own addiction.
In the Pittsburgh Marathon, more than 18,000 people will participate. 4,500 people will attempt to cover the full 26.2 miles. Over 200 of the participants will quit, realizing it just wasn’t their day. More than 100 will get injured and require medical treatment. One man is going to be murdered. When Dr. Cyprus Keller lines up to start the race, he knows a man is going to die for one simple reason. He’s going to kill him.
And look for my short story FOUR DAYS FOREVER in the LEGACY anthology