Mark Bomba Interview

August 4, 2011 1

© Copyright – 2011 – Athletics Illustrated

Three-time Canadian national champion Mark Bomba joined Trinity Western University as the team’s endurance director in April of 2011.

He was a national champion in both the 10,000 metre and half-marathon distances (in 2005) and in cross-country (2000). Bomba competed in the IAAF World Half Marathon Championships in 2005, the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in 2001 and 2003 and the Chiba Ekiden Relay in 2002 and 2004. He was also the 1993 NAIA (National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics) national champion in the 1500 metre event while competing for Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University.

From the official press release:

“The Trinity Western track and field and cross country teams took a huge leap forward Friday with the announcement that former Canadian champion long-distance runner Mark Bomba will assist the Spartans as the team’s Endurance Director”.

and…

The Trinity Western cross-country and track and field programs just got richer after having secured the coaching services of Mark Bomba,” said Laurier Primeau, the head coach of the Spartans track and field and cross-country teams. “

In my own experience in wanting to develop a deeper understanding of training methodologies, I have had extensive conversations with Bomba about great athletes and coaches from all over the world. His knowledge of the Australian, English and especially New Zealand-based athletes and coaches is deep. Like most of those coaches, he has been nothing but open and willing to share.

The following interview delves into his love for the sport, the lifestyle and the profession. He provides in-depth answers in a way that will provide any reader an excellent perspective on the sport of distance running especially from the collegiate and national levels.

Christopher Kelsall: You recently made the move to Trinity Western University. How has your transition from high school to university coach gone so far?

Mark Bomba: In all honesty I had only been coaching at the high school level for the previous few years – not that long. Before that I was teaching at the elementary level, which meant most of my coaching was working with post-collegiate athletes who were looking for an alternative to their previous programs. Saying that, I was more into the mentoring mode as opposed to actual day-to-day coaching. I did work with a few individual athletes at a time and in many instances, these people were also training partners (a bit like Steve Moneghetti’s role with Lee Troop a few years back, where by all accounts he simply gave Troop training advice).

CK: Do you continue to coach at the post-collegiate level? You do some running with Richard Lee’s group, yes?

MB: I am a firm believer in mentoring as one of the most crucial components of any track and field program and will hopefully have a chance to have some post collegiate athletes come on board. I have always seen a post collegiate program as important to a collegiate program. It’s one of the key areas where TWU being a CIS (Canada’s NCAA equivalent) school has an advantage over an NCAA program. We are allowed to have non-collegiate athletes (whether that be high school or non-collegiate) join in collegiate groups in areas of training that make sense. It’s an advantage I saw when I was at Simon Fraser University where we had non-collegiate international-level athletes train with the up and comers.

CK: For example?

MB: For example Tina Connelly (2000 Olympian) is one of my very best friends and I have already been in contact with her about coming out of retirement to help mentor some of the younger athletes who would like to see how far they can take their own running. Having someone like Tina around helps make my coaching much easier as she has her own style of mentoring and her running wasn’t always as a star in the sport. Her results came about due to dedication, discipline and perseverance and those sorts of values are extremely important to the tone I would like any athlete I work with to have in their own running and as they move further on after their running career ends.

As far as specific non-collegiate athletes I have been in contact with some post collegians about being part of workouts that make sense to their own training. In general post-collegians require a more independent attitude than the collegian and in that respect I may end up working with them more as a sounding board as opposed to more of a coach-like situation. I would also like to add a high school component to the program where the high school athletes get the mentoring of the collegiate and post-collegiate athletes so that once they move beyond grade 12 they are far more prepared to take on the rigors of taking their own training to a more serious level. You can obviously see how I am always trying to create a continuum to all parts of training. If I can help to create an environment of learning and mentoring over a variety of ages then the concept of group dynamics takes care of itself.

In regards to my own training situations with Richard’s group, I haven’t been out with them in over a year. I really only ever dropped in for one session a week (typically longer intervals) due to my own scheduling as my wife and myself were expecting our first born at that time. I was also having chronic Achilles problems that I think stemmed from some compensatory problems in my hip area I had been having since I was hit by a car while out running 2006.

Even when I was training more seriously I generally only joined a group for specific session once per week. I tended to do higher volume and followed a different methodology, more in line with Joe Vigil/Australian coach Nic Bideau, that didn’t allow as much intensity oriented training on a day-to-day basis.

Over the past year I generally did some sessions with the high school kids I coached. It was neat as I would alter workouts where they could keep up with me and I think they found it kind of fun that their teacher/coach was out there going through pain with them. When your coach/teacher is getting ready for a run in minus 10-15 degree Celsius temperature it’s kind of tough to back out of a run. But even then my hip/back problems arose and my Achilles flared up once again. I have been able to see a really good physiotherapist and have new orthotics that allows me to jump in with some of the university guys I am coaching. Since many of the team live outside of town it’s a small group. They just need another training partner, but I also find that some of my best coaching has occurred when I can hop in for the odd harder session or long run. I can listen for breathing, pay attention to their form or simply give advice if I feel they are doing a session improperly. Although I think they hate that I push the pace on the medium paced parts of fartlek runs.

CK: What do you find to be the major differences between the High School and University levels?

MB: The biggest area of difference is dealing with student-athletes who have made a choice to take on the challenge of distance running. In comparison to trying to get a high school kid to believe he has the potential to be a good runner and dealing with the inevitability that they run into competition with other more popular sports; it can be a tough sell. In contrast the university athletes have made that decision that this will be their sport of choice.

In comparing my high school coaching experience to Trinity Western University (TWU) I would suggest that there are more similarities than there are differences. For example the high school I was at had no recent running history, so in coming to a program at TWU (also in its infancy) involves a lot of active recruiting (which our head coach Laurier Primeau generally handles with some input/help from me). Many of the athletes are still learning. Many of the athletes are just beginning their university running careers and don’t have a running background or the knowledge much like many of the high school athletes I have worked with in the past, whether it would be training education, attitude, seriousness and motivation for example. Many of them still need a lot of ‘teaching’. A parallel is that I remember how lacking in the most basic concepts of running I had when I was their age and I treat them that same way that I needed then; that the greatest motivator to get an athlete to do things is to show them why they need to do that training, ala (Arthur) Lydiard.

CK: I understand you are a distance-based coach. Will you find juggling the three seasons of cross-country, indoor and outdoor track a challenge? You must have to make some concessions to the method, yes?

MB: Being a distance-based athlete might be a bit of a misconception in regards to my own training and approach to coaching in general. In my earlier years I was a true blue 800-1500m runner who took the attitude that training like a ‘distance-based’ athlete was overrated. As I still enjoyed challenging myself and that I had never come close to reaching my potential. I then gradually took on a more distance-based approach. But even when I began running more I never forgot my middle distance background. In the end I like to think I can accommodate many types of athletes and that I learned both the good and bad about middle and longer distance running (for example ‘speed is overrated’, but essential, and that first one must lay down a solid aerobic base).

The Educational Process

When I began coaching high school athletes, I began to educate myself on any and all types of training I could find. I was lucky enough that during my collegiate career I had the chance to compete against Adams State College. At that time they were an NAIA school (National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics) and the legendary Joe Vigil was coaching them. I knew his track record in regards to athlete development and was interested in the more specific concepts he was using. I saw ‘Coach V’ a couple of years after I had graduated from Simon Fraser University (SFU) and was able to get a copy of the training book he authored, ‘Road to the Top’. You have to understand that at the time we were all training on the Peter Coe/David Martin model which was outlined in the book, Training Distance Runners. In Vigil’s book, I was able to see a variety of concepts that were completely foreign to the training methods we had been following. In analyzing Vigil’s standard training practises, I found many concepts that made logical sense in comparison to my own understanding of training (that was lacking). Then taking those theories into actual practice on myself, which further proved what people like Vigil had kept (greater emphasis on volume training) saying all along while the rest of us kept on hammering each other into the ground with high-intensity intervals.

Taking in some of those early things that I had learned had a huge impact on my curiosity, in regards to any training paradigms I could find. This led to the beginning of my small (library) collection of literature that I could get my hands on about distance running, specifically like Lydiard, but any type of running and coaching in general, such as studying legendary coaches like John Wooden. It was in analyzing all this ever-increasing information that would creep into my thinking of training from a variety of points of view.

From a distance running perspective I eventually found out that there were no surprises with the majority of highly successful athletes and how they trained. Their training: an emphasis on taking a patient approach, building up their aerobic base, while not ignoring essential speed. There was always a commonality with some variations of ‘tempo’ above and below traditional anaerobic threshold work and long runs mixed in with things like strides. Essentially the training simply gets more specific as it evolves.

The specifics of how you might approach an athlete varies in regards to overall volume, their mental outlook and where they are in their development, but the general principles are etched in stone. Taking the shortcuts of higher intensity work at for example VO2 max pace can lead to short-term successes, but it also leads to a higher chance of injury and plateaus in training over the long haul. I am not the only one to say it, although you’ll hear me saying it over and over…”it ain’t rocket science” at least from a general concept of training.

CK: So having the general principles carved in stone, how do you take the athletes with 3 seasons in front of them and apply the longer-term-vision of Vigil, Wooden or Lydiard without having to make major compromises?

MB: From a training perspective the answer is really quite simple and complex… it all depends on the athlete. For example, the current group at TWU is young, inexperienced and needs to spend more time working on the more aerobic components of training. As well, most tend to be middle distance in their racing focus. Right now I would actually say we will only be having two seasons and that is using XC season to build up their strength side of training where they are weak. That’s not to say I won’t have them ready to run XC, but we won’t have a traditional taper phase during XC season. In that respect we’ll be using XC as their gradual progression to a greater base period of training. For example some of the athletes have already run longer than at any time previously.

As some of the athletes progress over time, cross-country will become more of a focus and we’ll look at a more traditional taper, but even then it all depends on what we decide are the short and long term goals of the athlete.

CK: For example?

MB: For example, if athlete A only wants to have a collegiate career then we’ll go for the attitude that since this is the last XC race they may ever run; then they leave nothing behind. Athlete B may be looking beyond a collegiate career (or making some team next summer) so we alter the program to suit those needs and goals. One may even have athlete C who is looking more at the outdoor season and uses indoors simply as a few test races, while still training heavily.

If one looks at Vigil-trained athletes, he was able to have both short-term goals within the confines of longer-term development. I would argue that this was due in large part to his greater emphasis on a greater volume of training while still using enough quality to achieve some fast times indoors. It also goes to show that anaerobic speed can be overrated if other facets of training used to make up for that lack of hard short intervals.

In using the model of Vigil, Wooden and Lydiard, I think that some people also fail to understand that these coaches educated their athletes as a ways to help them motivate themselves. If the athlete can properly understand the objectives of what they are doing, then they will do it properly. So an athlete coached by one of these men will do what they need to do as opposed to what their ego and pride want them to do in training (for example, hammer recovery day runs and workouts)

CK: What are your thoughts on the National Track League?

MB: Back in the day when I competed at the 1500m distance, we had a model similar to the NTL. It originated with many of the strong clubs in British Columbia (BC) and interestingly enough Doug Clement was one of the major factors in its creation, just like he is with this brand new, NTL.

It’s a great idea, but I’ve also been around long enough to have seen the ebb and flow of the sport. Whether it’s the NTL series, or the series we used to have on the west coast (of Canada) or the series of east coast races.

Someone has thankfully stepped up to the plate.

Meets like the ones at McGill University or in Maine, Boston, and Seattle and so on used to have a nice series of meets that mixed in with the larger meets like Harry Jerome. That’s a huge area where I hope both the US and Canadian national bodies can recognize where they have lost some emerging distance runners.

It’s great to have a Prefontaine meet, but what about some lower level meets that coordinate with the higher-end meets? Stanford does a great job, but once those types of collegiate meets end; it can be tough to find affordable races for those second-tier runners, hence, why over the last few years so many North Americans have headed over to Europe to compete. At one time you could find really good 5000m or 10000m races in June or July. Now there are some good 1500s and the high-end 10000m like Pre this year, but there is little else for those second-tier or developing athletes.

My biggest concern is that some of these events that do pop up are only a bandage solution for the sport. One has to start somewhere, but in the end it appears that it is really only a few hardcore individuals (like Dr. Clement, amongst others) who have the will and ability to make these things work. But Doug just turned 80 and others who have been driving forces, like Gerry Swan, are not getting younger. My understanding is that the Harry Jerome meet here in Vancouver loses money. If it wasn’t for the agreement that the Achilles Society has in place (which took years to get) from the Sun Run, Harry Jerome wouldn’t exist. How can we expect some other meet directors to continue putting their time and reputation on the line if their meets are losing money? It’s such a tough situation, where to make money; you have to spend money especially being in this fringe sport.

Federal Funding

Here in Canada we have a funding model that does not allow our governing body to properly develop athletes. They get funding based upon the highly successful athletes as opposed to developmental athletes, which is really a short-term program. It then becomes incumbent on the more grassroots players to take on that responsibility. But for many of us, track and field isn’t a profession. Saying this is not entirely about pointing fingers, but it’s these issues that arise when our sport is not a mainstream sport. You can’t just throw money into areas that have been mishandled for years. It’s not like the Phoenix Coyotes situation where the NHL can fill in the gaps with the mistakes they made by putting the team there…we just don’t have those resources.

CK: So are you suggesting that the funding model have a complete overhaul and direct available funds to identifying young talent, now that there is competition money available through events like at the National Track League?

MB: Once again in a perfect world we’d be able to do it all, but that isn’t realistic. No one is coming out to see some developing athlete place sixth when the world’s number one shot putter is down on the field. The reality is that developing athletes are primarily supported by their clubs. But there also seems to be limited opportunities for those athletes. Things like Canada Games are great, but there is a big gap between that level of competition and the Olympics. Not to harken back to ‘glory days’, but I remember when I was in high school they had an under-23 Espoir team. Even when I was in University one of my teammates, Dan Bertoia, was able to get on a B national team to Scandinavia with Olympians like Art Boileau and Doug Consiglio. The end result was that Dan would win the Canadian championships later that year and eventually earn a bronze medal at the Pan Am Games. More recently I had to help a training partner (Jerry Ziak) and a guy I was coaching (Richard Mosley)  get connections with a guy I know who helps to organize the European tour for New Zealand athletes. Those situations don’t arise anymore at a federal level. It’s all done at the local level and thus one can only expect results that reflect those opportunities. Not everyone has a coach like a Dave Scott-Thomas to show them the way and far too many athletes need to depend on some luck or who they know to get good racing experiences.

The system

My biggest concern in the overall development in the sport is more in the system itself. It’s almost a self-defeating system for an athlete who needs that extra time to develop. There are always exceptions to every rule, but for Athletics Canada to get more funding from the federal government they need to show success at the highest levels. If they have some sub-par successes then they lose funding to some other sport. Long gone is the time when the more ‘fringe’ oriented sports like snowboarding received no financial support. Now they get to compete with the more traditional sports, like Track and Field and everyone is fighting for a shrinking piece of the pie. The reality of this situation makes people at the top more concerned with how they are going to get their budgetary needs met, which in turn means that those less established athletes get less. It’s not that these people are bad or mean, but rather that they need to protect their piece of Sport Canada funding. But I would also argue that there are some top bureaucrats who do a really nice job with helping develop athletes, while still facing budgetary constraints. Here in BC Brian McCalder has been around what seems like forever, and BC Athletics has been hit hard by recent government budgets, but every year BC has funded XC and track teams. Even some of the younger guys, who will eventually take over those positions, like Peter Ogilvie in Alberta are thinking outside the box. It’s pretty tough to have a negative view of leaders in our sport, such as a Brian or Peter who you see out ‘getting their hands dirty’ at some fundraising race or showing up at just about every major event.

CK: Earlier you mentioned the Phoenix Coyotes of the NHL. You grew up playing hockey, yes? How did you come to discover running? How old were you?

MB: If someone had told me 25-plus years ago that I would still be involved in the sport of running today, I would have thought them to be completely off their rocker. Running wasn’t even close to something I wanted to do as a sport. Hockey was and still is my favourite sport to play (although I may get roasted for this one; I don’t care to watch it).

Running was never my first choice as an athlete, but once I realized that no NHL teams were looking for a 130lb defensemen, I knew that the writing was on the wall. But being a ‘good Canadian boy,’ growing up in small towns, I had to at least see how far I could get with hockey.

Running wasn’t really a sport looked highly upon – it wasn’t popular. But before I fully quit hockey, I had the fortune of an unfortunate event happen to me – of severely dislocating my elbow in grade ten. I had shown some promise the previous year, running the blistering time of 4:52 for 1500m during gym class. Once I broke my arm I could no longer play any impact sports for six months. It was then that my high school track coach told me, “Bomba, you no longer have any excuses”.

Where I was really lucky was that we had two good, older female middle-distance runners in our school. One was a 400-800m runner and the other a 1500-3000m runner and they’d find me in the hallways and ask me what I was doing that day. My response was, “I guess catching the bus home”, but they would ask me to help them do workouts. So one day I might train with the 400-800m girl and the next the 1500-3000m runner. It was high school training so it wasn’t that intense, but it kept me motivated to help them out. I still remember doing some workouts with them where I was way ahead and thinking they were trying to be nice to me because I wasn’t that good. It turned out I was simply getting faster.

One day I did a 1500m time trial for my high school coach and when I was done I asked him my time. When he responded with “4:24” I actually didn’t believe him. I thought he was lying, but when I went out and ran my first race of the year and ran 4:10, I realized that I really had improved. It was the immaculate lesson in that I learned there that I actually had some semblance of talent and that the thought occurred that ‘this training thing might actually work’ which would motivate me to go beyond simply looking at the sport as one where we did funny drills and wore little shorts. Even then I continued to play hockey during the winter months, but my eyes were squarely on how far running could take me in the future.

CK: Where do you see TWU’s cross-country season going this fall?

MB: As I said earlier we are a young program that is still developing. I have already tried to add some greater volume and more tempo style running to their training so hopefully they’ll see some good progress in the upcoming year. We also have two strong incoming individual freshman in Blair Johnston and Fiona Benson. Blair has shown great potential despite the fact he missed a lot of his high school years. Luckily, Blair had worked with former US national team member Jack Armour in high school and had been doing some online coaching with Jon Brown so he had a good solid idea of training before he joined TWU. Fiona on the other hand was a member of last year’s World Jr. XC team, but even she had a late start in the sport. Although she is from a small town in northern BC she was extremely fortunate in that she ended working with a Coach, Bill Corcoran, who I consider to be the most underrated and least known coaches in Canada. The similarities that both of these athletes have is being very coachable, self-motivated and having an extremely good work ethic. To me these are the greatest factors a distance runner needs to go to the next level.

On Recruiting

CK: You mentioned recruiting. Do you and Laurier Primeau recruit locally or do you look everywhere? There is of course the Lydiard concept that champions are everywhere, they just need to be trained properly.

MB: AT TWU we have a unique recruiting situation. Being a highly academic Christian university, we may end up getting some students not just from ‘outside Canada’, but from all over the world, who wouldn’t consider other Canadian universities. Laurier has an interesting recruiting pipeline to Scotland due to his time spent as head coach for Scottish Athletics.

That doesn’t mean we don’t focus on BC (British Columbia), but we do have an inclination to get interest from outside the province. From my own experiences in lacking a running infrastructure in my hometown (Vernon, BC) and lacking many of the essential components to be a good distance runner immediately out of high school, I am always looking beyond the borders of the Lower Mainland (Greater Vancouver) to those athletes who are the proverbial ‘diamonds in the rough’.

Champions are everywhere

To answer your question about Lydiard’s idea that champions are everywhere, I agree wholeheartedly. I had the ‘fortunately-unfortunate’ experience of living in New Zealand when Arthur Lydiard passed away. Lydiard’s death was of course very sad, but I also had the opportunity to attend his public funeral ceremony. It was very interesting because for all the talk over the years of Lydiard’s emphasis on high mileage, the one common thread was how inspiring he was as a coach and person. Many stories came out about athletes who were ready to quit running and would go to tell Lydiard that they were done. Before the athlete would even get a chance to tell him anything he would go on and on about how if they only ran a bit more or kept up their training they would be so much better. That same athlete would never get a word in edge wise and when Arthur asked them why they would end up going out for a run.

Richard Tayler’s story (1974 Commonwealth Games 10000m champion) came out about how he thought he was big hotshot because he had run his first 100 mile week and when he told Lydiard about his breakthrough, Lydiard’s response would be ‘well guess how good you’ll be when you run 110 miles next week. This went on and on ‘til Tayler hit about 160-plus miles per week. It was then that I realized that Lydiard’s greatest gift may not have been in his idea of 100 plus mile weeks for runners, but in getting athletes to do it and actually believe that if they did it they would be world beaters.

Running’s greater lessons

The idea of a coach forging those sorts of relationships seems to be a theme in any great coach. Because of the way I went about my own coaching education and my emphasis on looking at many sports I looked at coaches who seemed almost bigger than life. Whether it was the eccentric nature of a Percy Cerutty, the energy of a Lydiard, the stern personality of a Vince Lombardi or the father figure nature of a John Wooden they all had a common thread in that their athletes learned far more than simply sport. Instead, they learned, as Bill Bowerman often pointed out, about that strange thing called life, or as they called Joe Vigil’s ideas ‘Vigilosophy’. If anything has truly changed in my outlook in this sport it’s that most athletic careers are simply a small period of time, but it’s those things you learn in such an intense atmosphere that impact the rest of your life.

Even in looking back at my own running I can look back at my current ideals of how to deal with athletes and see the importance of my earlier coaches who added to my running philosophy. Even people like my early high school coaches and the time they put in by simply showing up to sponsor our teams or guys like Mike Van Tighem and Don Bertoia (who I only had limited contact with), but whose supportive attitudes would certainly help me learn to love the sport. Even now I hear myself saying things that my most influential coach Mike Lonergan used to say all the time and how he conducted himself with athletes. In the end it was those types of people who, although I never realized it at the time, would help me to become a better person and adult. If I can have an impact in helping these athletes in any small way to achieve running success that then correlates to their life ten years down the road, then I can walk away feeling very happy with the job I’ve done.

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