Mark Wieczorek turned some heads at last summer’s Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon, and it wasn’t just the striped V-neck t-shirt and headband he donned while competing in the 800 meters.
The 28-year-old, who lives in Tacoma, Wash., finished seventh in the 800-meter final, crossing the line in a personal best 1:45.62, his first time breaking the 1:46 barrier. The then-unsponsored Wieczorek developed a cult following of fans at the Trials, no doubt a byproduct of his savvy fashion sense and equally adept racing skills.
Now a member of Brooks’ new Seattle-based middle-distance training group, Wieczorek coaches high school cross country at Gig Harbor High School in Washington, where his teams are ranked on both the state and national levels. Wieczroek, a five-time NAIA All-American at Mid America Nazarene University in Kansas, finished fifth in the 800m final at the U.S. Outdoor Championships in 2011, just missing a berth on the world championship team.
We caught up with the former basketball player recently, and got his thoughts on his new training group, coaching high schoolers and what it’s going to take to make a U.S. team.
You’re one of the first members of Brooks’ new Seattle-based middle distance training group. Talk a little bit about the group dynamic. What makes it so special?
It’s awesome. Looking back to high school and college, you don’t really realize what you have. Especially now, coming back and being a high school coach, I have a great group of guys and girls and I just watch the way they enjoy doing things together. They have these Frosty day runs, where they run out and on the way back, 5 minutes before the school they all get a Frosty. It’s fun. I watch the things they do, laughing and joking, the things that they do while they’re running. You miss that stuff. Even though it’s not the same things the high school kids do, I missed just having my five best friends being the guys that I’m training with, going through everything with, and it’s kind of like I’ve got that back now. Between Matt (Scherer) and all the new athletes I’ve gotten to know and meeting up for workouts, it’s awesome to have that back. I love that we’re out there together. It’s really cool.
How important are groups like this for giving guys such as yourself, someone who finished seventh at the Olympic Trials, an opportunity to continue your professional career and try to get to that next level?
It’s super important. It’s those days where you’re tired or you’re sick, anything, you’re kind of broken down or have a bad workout, it’s hard to get yourself out the door. It’s raining, you’re tired, it’s middle of winter, it’s hard to look down the road, go out there and push through that. But, having other athletes around you, who support you, brings that extra dynamic of, “Hey, I’m just enjoying what I’m doing, I’m enjoying going out there, doing my running even though I’m tired because I’m going to go hang out with my friends and this is what I enjoy doing.” It brings something extra to it for me.
In this U.S. right now we’ve got two of the best 800-meter runners in the world, and the depth across the board in every event is getting deeper and deeper every year. What’s it going to take for you to be one of those top-3 guys who makes world championship teams, who makes an Olympic team?
Being healthy. Looking back, even last year, whenever I’d get injured, financially I wasn’t able to do anything about it. If I got sick, I just slept it out in bed and drank a bunch of water until I got better. I got hurt last year from January until…probably through March. I was training through an injury, I couldn’t figure out what it was at the end of February and I just ended up taking two-and-a-half weeks off. My training wasn’t going great and I didn’t have anyone there keeping me on track and man, I almost checked out for the season. At the end of May, I was out on the track, Brie (Felnagle) was about to do a workout, and she asked me what I was going to do and I was like, “What difference does it make? I’ll go help you out with your workout. At least I’ll help you do well.” I was down, I was checked out, my training was kind of sucking and in the end look what I was able to do. Hopefully having the support of the group and just enjoying what I’m doing, hopefully I’ll be able to stay healthy this year and put together a better season.
How fast do you think you can ultimately go in the 800?
That’s a funny question. It’s one of those things, who knows, you know? Honestly, you never know. One of the quotes that Nick Symmonds said at the Trials last year kind of stuck out. He kind of stagnated for a couple years running 1:43 and he was getting a little bit more consistent, then he had a big breakthrough. He said, “I surpassed the limits that I had set for myself. I ran faster than I thought was possible for me.” You know, I thought that was kind of cool. And that’s what the sport is about. I think a lot of people do set limitations on themselves, and while I think that it’s important to have realistic goals, especially time-wise because that dictates your training paces, the volume, everything that you’re doing in training, I think that’s important, but at the same time having realistic goals and setting limitations on yourself are two completely different things. I don’t want to put a cap on things. This is the way I was in college. I ran at a little school and I would run with people, but I was blowing everyone away. I’d step out on the track, and had I known what they had done in races, what they did in training, I would have had no chance. But I just thought, “I’m stepping out on the track, I’m a competitor, let’s have at it.”
It’s good to be naïve every once in a while, right?
It’s so good. I tell my high school kids, “don’t lose that. You guys are on athletic.net all the time doing research. Just go run.” I’ve kind of been trying to get that back, saying, “hey, I don’t care what other people are doing. All that matters is myself. And when it comes time to race I’m going to toe the line and I’m just going to go out and compete. “And I think when you get that mentality of just competing, and not limiting yourself by saying, “Ah well, this guy just ran this time, and I can’t beat this person, and this guy did that workout and I can’t do that.” Stop limiting yourself. You’re a different athlete. Go out there and just race and compete and special things can happen.