It’s the last event of the Olympics and maybe the most demanding, the men’s marathon. The marathon is 26.2 two miles of grueling agony driven by pride for your country and self determination to be one of the best distance runners in the world. While the majority of runners feel fortunate to break four hours in a marathon (top 10% of finishers), the Olympic Marathon winner will finish in approximately two hours and eight minutes! That is a pace of four minutes and fifty three seconds per mile over 26.2 miles, a pace I could not hold for one mile!
Imagine the setting. You are in the lead pack of the marathon and have been running nearly wide open for two hours. Your legs are crying for rest, your heart is about to pound of your chest and your lungs are working so hard you would make the Big Bad Wolf proud with your huffing and puffing, yet your press on. Failure is not option. You have the rest of your life to rest, or at least until the next time you subject yourself to this level of intense pain.
The end is near as you enter Olympic Stadium to the cheers of 100,000 screaming fans waving flags of their native countries! You are exhausted yet you keep running. The pain intensifies and the pace quickens as everyone jockeys for position for a strong finish. This is it, your one shot to bring home Olympic Gold for your nation. You feed off the pain as adrenaline surges through your veins. You pick up the pace, striding out to run even faster. As you round the final turn on the track in Olympic Stadium you see the finish line is just ahead. You push the pace even harder, your body is in a complete anaerobic state yet you feed off the pain and energy of the crowd. Time seems to slow down as you savor the moment, a moment until this point had only been a dream of Olympic Glory. With the grace and speed of a cheetah in full stride your run with everything you have and with one last lunge you have done it, you have just won the Olympic Marathon.
While participating in the Olympics is merely a fantasy for many, for Mark Pepin, a Blythewood native, running for Olympic Gold in the marathon of the 2016 summer games in Rio is not only a dream but a very realistic goal. I had the pleasure to catch up with Mark to talk about his love for running and his goal to represent the USA in 2016 as he “Runs for Rio”.
CV: Tell us a little bit about your background growing up in Blythewood.
MP: I grew up in Blythewood with my two older brothers Paul and Matthew. My dad Paul Pepin is pastor of Crossings Community Church and my mom Brenda was busy raising and home schooling me and my brothers while supporting our church family. I guess you could say I grew up in our Church as the church grew which gave me a strong faith.
CV: Not many people have a realistic chance to qualify for the Olympic Marathon let alone being competitive in local marathons. You have an interesting story to share. How did you develop a love for running?
MP: The sport I loved and played most as a child growing up through high school was soccer. The only reason I took up running, in particular my senior year was to improve as a soccer player. So in the fall of my senior year I joined the cross country team as a way to improve my fitness and get better as a soccer play. In fact that was the ONLY reason I went out for cross country (he says with a grin). It was a rough start. I was terribly out of shape but stuck with it.
When I got to College at Clemson I could not play with my soccer team any longer as logistically it didn’t work so I decided to keep running as a way to stay in shape, get away from school and used it as a way to relax.
CV: You ended up running for the Clemson Cross Country team, pretty impressive for someone who only began running their senior year as a means to improve at another sport. How did this happen?
MP: (Laughing) I don’t really know. My wife would say I never had a hobby, I always had an obsession. I guess it’s just the way I work; I can’t just do something to have fun. I always get competitive and am very much a type “A” personality so it was a natural progression to run competitively for Clemson.
CV: How would you say running has positively impacted your faith and your life?
MP: In terms of my Christian faith, it’s essential; it’s a part of who I am. We all need motivation and as a runner my faith is everything. I just love to get out and run and it’s a time I can pray, think through things and relax. I never run with headphones, it’s just my quite time on the road.
CV: What are some of you best memories or successes as a runner?
MP: Well my first race in college I actually did a marathon. That going big so I thought I would go for it and I trained pretty well for it. The race was the ING Miami Marathon in 2009 (editor’s note: Mark was only 20 entering the marathon in a field with over 4,000 participants.) and ended up doing pretty well. I finished 8th overall and was the first American to finish. I finished in 2:43:17 and honestly didn’t even know what that meant. It was very exciting.
So after that I was like “Cool I can definitely run in college.” So I contacted the coach, started training with them and was able to walk on the team and was able to run for Clemson.
CV: What’s one funny moment you can share with us that happened to you in a race or on a training run?
MP: It’s funny when you are in the lead pack how many things go wrong. You have to figure out all the glitches, etc. For example, I have been misdirected over four times during races the past two years because the bike riders supporting the race leaders often don’t know the course. (Chuckling) I have done 16 mile half marathons, it’s like “what’s going on? Do I really want to do this?”
CV: Most folks have someone they look up to in their sport of choice. Who is someone you look up to from a running perspective?
MP: It would probably be Roger Bannister the sub four minute mile runner who was a medical student. He was the guy that used what he was passionate about in all different areas. His passion for the human body he used in his training. For me it’s a similar situation. I love research, I love biomechanics and I love running. Ryan Hall, who made the 2012 US Olympic team, is also someone I admire. He is a solid Christian and knows the Lord very well. It’s good to see him at the top of the all the athletes living on his faith.
CV: You and your lovely wife have a baby on the way in March; you are applying to different medical schools and have school, work and life. How is this going to affect your training and preparation to make a run at the US Olympic Marathon team?
MP: It is a huge commitment. I thought it was going to be really tough when I got married and would take all my free time. I will have to use my time more effectively. The same strategies will apply to being a dad. I will have to plan my time and also integrate my family in different aspects of my life like I did when I got married. My wife Sandy would hop on her bike and ride besides me when I would go for a run. We will combine family time with running time.
CV: You have a very lofty goal of making the US Olympic Marathon team that will compete in Rio in 2016, especially taking into account you did not start running competitively until you were in college. Talk to me about this goal.
MP: I think I have a huge advantage in that I have not been tied to any running organization or a sponsor that requires me to run a certain amount races of different lengths every year. Success in larger fields requires specification over a long period of time. I have three years to build a foundation to have one good race that will qualify me. I have the advantage that I am still an unsponsored amateur athlete that gives me so much more flexibility in what I choose to do. I just love running and I can train easily at very high volumes injury free. I also have a coach now at UC Davis (grad school) that is working with me and I train with some really talented runners. It’s a good system for me now.
CV: What does your weekly training volume look like?
MP: Right now I am at 90 miles per week and that will climb to 125 miles per week as I peak for events. I will then taper down (reduce running volume) for the Napa Valley Marathon in March.
CV: How do you hope to do in the Napa Valley Marathon?
MP: (Extremely humbly) I hope to win it. Looking at past results my previous marathon times are fast enough that I feel I can win it. Looks like a solid marathon with a diverse course so I am going for it.
CV: With the success you have had and with the success you will continue to have, sponsors will come calling? Have you thought about how you will handle that?
MP: Not really, it’s something I do need to consider and start thinking about. (Laughing) For one, shoes would be great! With all the miles I put in I easily go through a pair a month! It gets expensive!
CV: Talk about the mental and physical aspects that high volume of mileage has on you. The mental part may be the hardest so how do you keep yourself going when it’s cold, windy, wet or you just don’t feel like running?
MP: (Laughing) I guess my coping mechanism is that I convince myself I don’t have any choice but to run. It doesn’t matter how I feel, I already made the decision to run a long time ago. So I am just going to go do it. I already made the decision so I just lay my clothes out the night before and when I get up I get dressed and go run.
CV: Is there any special equipment you just have to have?
MP: Not really, I am kind of a budget shopper. Nike, Brooks, New Balance, Adidas, I have tried them all. I usually find what’s on sale and if I like them I buy several pair of the as I go through them so quickly. I supposed getting a sponsor will definitely change this and be a big help.
CV: As with any sport there is a LOT that goes into to it from fitness, training, and especially diet. What do you do from a training and nutritional aspect?
MP: My coach at US Davis is a Physiologist and a lot of his research goes into nutrition for endurance athletes. He has been really helpful in helping me figure out what works for me in terms of diet. For me it’s about composition and timing. I never eat before I run in the morning. If you enter into a work out in a Glycogen (sugar) depleted state it significantly impact the outcome of the workout by training your body to burn more fat for fuel. Immediately after I run – within 30 minutes, I eat as much as I can and get ready for the next workout. That is a simple strategy I use to get the most out of each workout.
CV: What advice do you have for anyone who wants to start running or wants to run a half or full marathon?
MP: I would say start slow because I didn’t and got eight of the top ten running injuries. Most people hate running because they try and run too fast for their fitness so start slow and gradually work in more miles and speed as you get more fit. This is the best way to enjoy running.
CV: Do you have any interest in running an Ultra Marathon of 50 or 100 miles?
MP: Maybe. I will do one later but at this point I’m not thinking about it but it is a pretty cool idea to see how far I can run. I did participate in a 200 mile relay and it was fun. I ran 30 miles at night and it was awesome, it was really fun.
In today’s world where athletes put themselves on pedestals, it’s refreshing to see an athlete with exceptional talent be so humble and centered. I for one will be cheering Mark on in his running pursuits but I feel it’s important to note that no matter how his quest for Rio turns out, he is already a winner. Come August of 2016 on the Sunday morning of the men’s Marathon, I for one will intently watch and maybe, just maybe I will see Mark finish the race draped in old Glory not only representing his country but his faith as well.
Here is to being fit for a lifetime!
Chris is a Certified Personal Trainer and exercise and endurance enthusiast. He competes yearly in numerous running races, marathons, ultra marathons, triathlons and other endurance events.