MARK COOGAN...a sit-down, beer-drinking, remote-control-in-hand, flag-football-loving, blue-collar, busting-his-ass kind of guy...who just HATES to lose
By MICHAEL SANDROCK
Mark Coogan breaks out from behind a pick and takes a pass at the top of the free-throw circle. He surveys the court, then dekes left, dribbles right, and with a defender's hand in his face, pulls up for a soft 15-foot jumper that nestles through the net.
"Get someone to guard me," he trash-talks to the defender, Kevin, a visitor from Chicago. "You guys from Chicago all play defense like Michael Jordan. Matador defense."
It's a late Saturday afternoon last summer, and Coogan, a die-hard Larry Bird and Boston Celtics fan, was starting his training for the 1995 World Championships the next day. "This is my last day of basketball," he says. "Then I'm starting my serious training." Although he didn't make the finals of the World Championship 5,000m, that training paid off in February with a spot on the US Olympic marathon team. And with a New England work ethic and great natural talent, Coogan has many observers thinking he can battle the best in the running world.
"Mark is the most versatile US runner out there," says Jay Johnson, co-owner of the Boulder Running Company. "There's no one else who can break 4-minutes for the mile and run a top marathon."
How versatile is Coogan? Try this: in addition to making the U.S. Olympic marathon team, he also qualified for the Olympic track trials in the 1500m, 3000m steeplechase, 5000m and 10,000m.
Basketball was Coogan's first love. He grew up in a sports-minded family in Attleboro, MA. He played point guard on the Bishop Feehan Catholic High School basketball team in Attleboro, becoming good enough to receive scholarship offers from several Division II and III schools. Coogan eschewed hoops for a track scholarship, however. "I thought I had more of a future in running," he explains. Under the tutelage of Charles Torpey at the University of Maryland, Coogan developed into a solid, though not spectacular runner.
His breakthrough came when he moved back to Massachusetts after college and began training with distance ace John Gregorek. That's when he met wife, Gwyn, who is one of the nation's best female distance runners. Together, they are the "first couple" of US distance running, fun-loving, charismatic, successful. Gwyn is finishing her doctoral studies in mathematics at the University of Colorado in between taking care of Katrina and training. The Coogans live in a town home in east Boulder - "the poor zip code of town", Mark says - and the couple have a symbiotic relationship, their differing personalities meshing together into a pleasing whole.
"Mark is a sit-down, beer-drinking, remote-control-in-hand, flag-football-loving, blue-collar, busting-his-ass kind of guy," says Catrina Campbell, women's cross country and distance coach at Oklahoma State University. "He's just like Larry Bird, while Gwyn can be more intense. Gwyn used to play lacrosse, and what they have in common is that both them of them are good athletes."
Coogan's athleticism is apparent on the basketball court. On another series of plays, he rejects the 6'2" visitor from Chicago, grabs the ball, dribbles behind his back as he weaves downcourt before dishing to his brother, Tom, a 29 minute 10K runner. Two hours later, the games finished, Mark says, "That was fun." Even now, when he is not playing hoops, Coogan's love of basketball is evident. Coming to his house for a morning run, a visitor finds Mark laying on the floor playing with daughter Katrina while watching a tape of "Larry Bird Retirement Day." "Look at that!" Mark yells after a spectacular Bird pass. "He's got eyes in the back of his head." When Gwyn returns from her run, it's Mark's turn to train. While he changes, Katrina walks around the room, repeating, "Larry Bird, Larry Bird," as Mark has been coaching her."
Things have evened out in the Coogan household. In the last several years, the outgoing and attractive Gwyn was the one getting most of the attention. She made the 1992 Olympic team at 10,000m and won Twin Cities in her marathon debut in the fall of 1995 in a time of 2:32:58. Now Mark has moved to the forefront. He made the US Olympic marathon team, and was one of the favorites to make the 5,000m team. Had he made the track team, he would have given up the spot. "Being an Olympian is so important that I would want someone else to have that experience."
"How did you find our secret hideaway?" Gwyn jokes when American Runner reaches them by telephone in Philadelphia. The Coogans went to Philadelphia for sea level training before the Olympic track trials, where Gwyn was trying to make the 10,000m team for the second time. They arrived just in time for a heat wave, and Mark sounds tired. "I couldn't run 26 miles in weather like this. It's 95 degrees with 95 percent humidity. I could barelywalk." The next day he does 20 miles.
Coogan began shifting to the marathon in 1994. He ran Boston that year "just to see what it was like. And I was fairly happy with 2:13:22. There was definitely room for improvement. Then Bob Wood asked if I'd be interested in running the Pan American Games marathon (in Argentina in March '95). I knew there would be only five or 10 quality guys there versus 30 or so at Boston, so I knew I'd be in the race. The only reason I did it was that I knew it would be hot and hilly, and I wanted to see how I'd do. When that race went well (2nd in 2:15:21), I decided to do the marathon in the trials."
But instead of jumping into heavy marathon training, Coogan spent the spring of 1995 honing his speed, running about 80 miles a week. At the 1995 national track championships, he cranked 13:23.72 for 5K in finishing second to Bob Kennedy. He also clocked 8:20 for two miles. After the World Championships later that summer, Coogan upped his mileage to prepare for the February marathon trials.
The women's race came first. The most poignant moment of those marathon trials came when Gwyn finished fourth, just missing a spot on the team. Despite her disappointment, she commented almost tearfully to a captivated TV audience, "My job now is get Mark on the team."
Before the men's trial, Coogan ran a nine-mile tempo run down the Diagonal Highway outside of Boulder, passing 10K in 29 flat. After a 13:49 5K by himself indoors in Boston, he knew he was ready for the 26 miler. He hung with the pack until he, Kempainen and Brantly were the only ones left. The key move of the race came at 24 miles. Coogan was running just behind Kempainen on the left side of the road. As Coogan explains, "Bob and Keith's drinks were on the left, mine were on the right." Moving across the road to get his drink, Coogan ran an extra 20 or 30 feet . That's when the wily Kempainen made his move.
"My lack of experience hurt me. I was still feeling fairly decent. I couldn't make a move at that point, but I could hang on. Bob surged, then ran through that water stop. That's when he started throwing up. I was thinking, 'should I go after him or not?' Again, it was a lack of experience. I never ran out of gas. When Bob was throwing up, I was thinking, 'this guy is unbelievable. I've thrown up in a cross country race before, but not at 24 miles in a marathon. Bob really ran great."
So did Coogan. "It was a feeling like breaking 4 minutes for the mile," he recalls.
Coogan refuses to be put in a box when asked whether he is a marathoner or a 5K runner. "I'm a distance runner, and I want to be the best I can be. I don't want to get stuck in the marathon. I'm just running. I don't want to get stuck in one event."
Coogan especially didn't want to get stuck in the steeple, which isn't considered a glamour event when it comes to getting into road races, he discovered. "A few years ago, I ran 8:20 something in the steeple but couldn't get a ticket to Tulsa (a 15K road race). I had to drive from Boulder to Tulsa twice, while Gwyn flew. I'd tell her, 'I'll meet you there tonight.' I'd drive by myself while Gwyn took a plane. That's when I said, I have to try to be as good as I can in a lot of things.'"
Coogan can fly to races now, and after the marathon trials he's finding he and Gwyn are more and more in demand. This late May day, the Coogans are traveling from Philadelphia to Hartford to be the guests of honor at the Hartford Marathon, then continuing on to Massachusetts. "There are a lot more demands on our time now," Mark says.
Both Mark and Gwyn are charismatic speakers whose appeal goes beyond the hard-core running crowd. One of their speaking engagements after the marathon trials was at Camp Falcon, a kind of boot-camp for juvenile delinquents in Golden, CO. "It's the last chance for these kids before going to jail," Mark says. Coogan's message that day to the troubled youths sums up his philosophy of running. "I told them that you can fail and mess up, as long as you get back on the horse and try to improve."
That's exactly what Coogan has done in his running career. He made it to the Olympic trials in both 1988 (in the steeplechase) and 1992 (in the steeple and the 5000m and 10,000m). "In '88, I was just happy to be there. In 1992, I thought I had a chance to make the Olympic team, but tore my hamstring. That was hard. It was a major setback, and I was discouraged and angry. I told myself then, I'd give myself four more years and train hard. And I plugged along for four years. I reached my goals. What I told the kids basically was that you can have setbacks and failure and still reach for something."
The youth at Camp Falcon responded to Mark's message. At the end of the bootcamp, they were required to do a four-mile fitness run. "That was the longest most of them had ever run, and when they realized I ran 26 miles, I gained their respect."
Coogan has also gained the respect of many of those in running.
"Most people would have taken a position on the Pan American Games marathon team just for the stipend. Mark Coogan took the position, trained hard, and came back with the silver medal. This is just one indication of a solid performer," says Paul Christman, editor of Running Stats.
Not surprisngly, Coogan is now bursting with confidence. "I'm going to Atlanta trying to get a medal. I'll put myself in a position to make sure that I give myself a shot. I'm not going to go out in 50th place and hope the others fade. I want to be in the group where the medal comes from. I haven't talked with Bob (Kempainen) or Keith (Brantly) about strategy. I'm not worrying about what those guys will do, and I hope they are not worrying about me."
Says Catrina Campbell, "Kempainen, Coogan, Bob Kennedy and Todd Williams. They are the genre of US runner who is not afraid of hard work or of encountering failure at times. They want to win. There are two kinds of people in the world; those who like to win and those who hate to lose. I think you'll see in Atlanta that Mark Coogan is one of those who hates to lose."
No matter how he does in the Olympic Games, Coogan will be back plugging away on the trails and the track. He likes training hard and competing hard. "After the Olympics, I'll run cross country in the fall, and run nationals in December." After a pause, he adds, "You know, if I wasn't racing competitively, I don't think I would be running at all. I'd probably be down at the YMCA men's league, playing ball."
Probably playing all five positions.
Michael Sandrock is a basketball-playing journalist living in Boulder. He is the author of Running with the Legends, published this spring by Human Kinetics.