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Interview: Mark Menefee

by Kevin Beck


2003 University of Kansas graduate Mark Menefee, who earned All-America honors his senior year by placing 13th in the 5,000 meters at the NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships, recently completed a one-year stint with the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project, a relationship that culminated with Menefee's fifth-place finish at July's Olympic Trials 5,000 meters in Sacramento.

At Kansas, Menefee led the first four miles of the Midwest Regional Cross Country Championship his senior year before fading to eighth. Only recently has Menefee begun to explore his potential in the longer distances, turning in an impressive 28:32.7 at the Stanford Invitational in his 10,000-meter debut in March.

MensRacing.com recently caught up with Menefee in his native state, to which he recently returned in order to begin pursuing goals both within and outside the sport.

MensRacing.com: Rumor has it that you're off to law school, are helping coach at Hutchinson Community College, or both.
Mark Menefee:
Yes to both. I'm currently I'm studying for the law school exam and preparing law school applications. I've also taken a position as assistant cross country coach at Hutchinson under Head Coach Terry Masterson. Things are going well in those areas.

MR: You didn't make the Olympic Team this year, but you certainly made your mark. Were you happy with the results of the final?
I wish I had pushed the pace sooner. The pace slacked significantly at about the 1-1/4 mile mark and this didn't favor my race strategy. Fifth is good, but I would like to have gotten a "B" standard at the Trials, to at least give myself a chance [of going to the Games].

MR: You soloed a 13:38 at the Midwest Distance Solution meet to qualify for the Trials, winning by almost 30 seconds. Could you summarize this experience — mental and physical preparation, execution? More specifically, were you shooting for the "A" standard (13:32) or the "B" (13:48)?
I was confident in my training and I simply knew when I went to the line that I could run under 13:40; this is what we figured I needed to do, so I just had that in my head the whole time. We had a rabbit through the first mile and a half and then I just paid attention to the lap splits. I guess I just knew I could do it. It was a great night to run and I felt solid.

MR: Looking not only at the Trials 5,000m (both your preliminary heat and final) but also at the Midwest Regionals in both XC and track as a senior, it seems that you're frontrunner not necessarily in the classic take-charge-from-the-gun mold, but your heading to the front and pushing the pace when it lags. Does that accurately describe your style?
I try to know what my strengths are going into a race. In Michigan, this is something I believe Keith and Kevin [Hanson] helped me to understand better and take advantage of. So often I know going into a race that I may have to take the lead and push the pace so others don't get too comfortable. I've found more often than not that I can get rid of a lot of people in the pack if I push at the right time. Also, I like to have some control of the pace, which I feel very comfortable with.

MR: Presumably you had grad school plans while still at Kansas. What made you want to pursue your running in a group setting after college? Were you aiming specifically at the 2004 Olympic Trials?
Like a lot of people, I was a little lost as to what I wanted to do after graduating, besides run. Hansons looked like a great opportunity to continue with what I wanted in running at the time, and to be honest, yeah, last year was an Olympic year and that was very much on my mind over the past few years.

MR: With a college PR of 13:52 you were certainly successful, but no more so than a sizable handful of other NCAA athletes are each year. If most of the runners in your performance range kept training and racing seriously after college, the U.S. might soon find itself with a lot more athletes in the Kennedy-Goucher-Broe range. Any thoughts on this?
Unless you're financially set up to take a chance on yourself, it's not a very logical step for many athletes who weren't standouts in college to keep running. There is little money to go around. I was lucky to have the Hansons footing the bill for a year, but I certainly wasn't putting any money into a savings account working as a shoe salesman.

MR: Expanding on this, the fact that the top athletes in the world are knocking off sub-12:50s and sub-27:00s means that in terms of athletic earning potential, there's precious little difference separating the 13:45 collegian from the 13:15 stud he might become with hard work and a bit of luck. With that in mind, it seems fair to say that the singular, shared driving force behind the Hansons members is something familiar to everyone who competes: the basic passion to see how good you can get.
I absolutely agree with that 100%. So much of my motivation comes from seeing how good can I get. If I consistently compared myself to sub-27:00 10K runners, I wouldn't stay motivated for very long. I really focus on improving myself and racing to my training potential. I believe strongly, however, that with the right environment, the right training philosophy, and some talent, American distance runners can compete on a world level.

MR: Was your overall experience with the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project close to what you expected?
Keith and Kevin Hanson are, bottom line, two of the most knowledgeable and effective coaches out there. If someone enters their program with a desire to get better, they will get better. I was very determined when I arrived in Michigan, and given what the Hansons explained to me about their training methods, I got all I expected.

MR: How many hours a week were you racking up in the store(s)?
Generally, 25 hours a week, which is about the maximum Keith and Kevin would want us to work.

MR: Is the Hansons clientele primarily drawn from your typical running crowd or did a lot of people come in just for the opportunity to talk with some of America's top up-and-coming runners?
I would say that in Michigan, and especially in the Detroit metro area, the Hansons have developed quite a following among both average runners and devotees of the sport. Because of this notoriety, we would often get customers looking not only for product, but also for running advice (on injuries, training, racing, etc.). When everyone working in the store was a professional runner, this worked out well both for customers and for Keith's and Kevin's business.

MR: A lot of people know what the Hansons marathon "specialists" are up to, but not so much so in terms of the track guys. It may be difficult to generalize with regard to your training over the course of a year, but if there were such a thing as a representative week in terms of mileage, double days and workouts, how would it look?
Many of the marathon guys average anywhere from 120 to 140 miles a week during their heaviest training periods. I'd say about 25% of the guys on the team have more of a track focus and are jokingly referred to as the "middle distance squad." During our training periods, we'd average between 90 and 110 miles a week, and I was on the low end of that. My highest mileage week ever was, I believe, 105 miles. I rarely ran under 90, though. Only in the final two or three weeks before the Olympic Trials did my mileage really dip.

As far as workouts, almost everything was focused on improving long-distance strength. We had four or five harder efforts every two weeks, with a focus on long tempo runs or long interval workouts. Almost everything is given in very specific times we were required to hit (e.g., six miles at 4:50 pace is just that, not 4:48 or 4:52), which is good because it teaches pace. Track workouts were also very race-specific, almost always designed to be run right at, or just slower than, race pace.

MR: In your 10,000m debut in April, you ran 28:32, arguably as good a performance as anything you've run over 5,000m. Has this led to any thoughts of moving up to the 10K or beyond? Overstated as the point may often be, you have a marathoner's build.
I was very burned out at the end of the season this year, both mentally and physically. Until recently, I thought I was about ready to hang it up, but you know [it's an] addiction, I guess. I've started training seriously and things are going well so far. Yeah, the 10K is definitely on my mind as far as the [2005] track season goes. I think my training will reflect more of a 10K theme through this next training period, but I don't think I'm done with the 5K. A sub-13:25 would be nice. The thought of it is exciting, but so is the thought of a sub-28:00 10K. The marathon is a different animal and it would take at least another two years for my mileage to reflect serious marathon training, so with law school coming up, I think it would be a difficult event to train for.

MR: Have you communicated at all with top-flight runners who have balanced law school with running, or will you burn that bridge when you get to it?
I have not, but maybe I should.

MR: Given that you're on your own again and — with the Trials behind you and law school ahead — may be dealing with some uncertainty, how has your training changed, if at all, since returning to Kansas?
My training has hardly changed since I arrived home. I think that at this point in the year, there's really very little reason to change what I'd been doing in Michigan, because regardless of what I choose to focus on next season, this [training] provides the absolute best base for a track season. When I start law school, especially during the first year, I would plan to back off of the mileage and intensity for a while so I'm not tired 100% of the time, like I am now.

MR: The 5,000 and 10,000 aren't events in which the US typically sends male runners only a year out of college to the Games. Are you hoping to be at your best in 2008?
I don't know. I'm going to have law school squeezed in between now and then, and that is the priority, so we'll have to see. I also have to have the drive to keep training consistently, which I don't know if I can guarantee over the next four years. I have a lot of things I'd like to do outside of running as well.

MR: How are you enjoying coaching? Is it a good break from putting competitive pressure on yourself or, like a Steve Plasencia or a Robert Gary, do you find it personally motivating?
I actually went to HCC for a year before transferring up to KU to complete my eligibility, so I know the coaching staff from that time and I enjoy working with Coach Masterson. I've never coached before, and I'm excited about the kids we have out this season. It's nice to be in a position of experience, because I know I'm able to help the athletes out a lot and I like that. I'm excited for our next cross country meet and for the rest of the season.

(Interview conducted 10/2/2004, and posted 10/6/2004.)

Mark Menefee pushes the pace in the 5,000m prelims at the 2004 US Olympic Track & Field Trials.
(Photo: Alison Wade/New York Road Runners)
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