Mark Coogan On Coaching Elle St. Pierre To Gold, Emily Mackay To Bronze At World Indoors

"We got a little lucky. We’ve got great kids. Now, everybody wants to check us at least out. "

We recently had a chance to just catch up with coach Mark Coogan at The TRACK at New Balance on our recent visit to Boston for New Balance Nationals and the NCAA Indoor Championships.

At this year’s World Indoor Championships, he was trackside to watch Elle St. Pierre win gold in the 3000m and Emily Mackay take bronze in the 1500m. St. Pierre's gold was the first by an American woman in the 3000m at the World Indoor Championships. Mackay's medal came in her first appearance at a global championship.

He takes great pride in the fact that he’s been able to help develop their talent coming out of the America East conference to where they're at on the world stage. In our wide-ranging conversation, he discusses what he looks for in athletes coming out of college, how he carefully approaches their training intensity and how his philosophy has changed – or not really with all of these modern advances.

The following interview excerpt has been edited lightly for clarity. You can listen to the full interview with Mark Coogan on the CITIUS MAG Podcast – available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you get your shows.

When do you start recruiting for a runner to join your team? Is there anything in particular that you’re looking for in an athlete?

I think there’s a lot of talent in the schools around New England. New Hampshire or UMass aren’t hopping on planes and going out to Stanford when they used to have all the good meets. My daughter, Katrina, was at Georgetown and they were often going out to Stanford or Mt. SAC. UMass is going to Tufts for like the Snowflake Challenge. There’s no way you can run fast. But I was coaching at Tufts and MIT and these kids were running hard in crappy weather and trying hard. I thought, ‘Let’s give a couple of these kids a try.’ We knew Elle was good because she won NCAA Indoors. We got a little lucky. We’ve got great kids. Now, everybody wants to check us at least out.

Number one, it’s being healthy. I know the UMass, New Hampshire and SUNY Binghampton coaches. The key is having really healthy runners. I think almost everyone on my team, if they didn’t end up being distance runners, would’ve been playing Division III soccer or something. They’re athletic. They’re not fragile little toothpicks – not that there’s anything wrong with being skinny. You’re better off being healthy and athletic. If you’re forcing yourself to be a toothpick, then I think it’s very difficult to maintain it.

What was the biggest difference between coaching college athletes and coaching pros?

I think the four years to get ready for the Olympic Trials is difficult. If you don’t make it, you’re trying to figure out how to justify your running or ‘Was this worth it or not?’ When I made the Olympic team in the marathon, I felt like the weight of the world was lifted off my shoulders because I tried in 1988 and 1992. I was a really good fourth place runner. I could never beat Bob Kennedy or Todd Williams but I was always hanging around before getting dropped. With two miles to go (in the 1996 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials), I knew I was going to make the Olympic team. It was one of the happiest days I’ve ever had. That feeling when you’re running and you get goosebumps when you’re floating down the track – we’ve all had good races like that. If someone doesn’t make the team and they were really close and it was such a dream, that’s hard. That’s harder than ‘Oh, I missed NCAAs by a spot.’ Life is OK after college. Putting four years in or three years in for one race is tricky.

New Balance Boston caught a massive break with COVID. Elle and Heather would not have made the team, if the Olympics were in (2020) the year they were supposed to be. We got that extra year to train, grow and get the team tight. We did some workouts on the track where I told them, ‘You guys are really good.’ We got lucky there.

Emily Mackay and Nikki Hiltz at the 2024 World Indoor Championships. Emily Mackay and Nikki Hiltz at the 2024 World Indoor Championships.

Kevin Morris/@KevMoFoto

Were you surprised by the results by Elle and Emily at the World Indoor Championships?

The goal for Elle was a medal. When Elle races in a championship, I always say, ‘You want to be in the race with 400m to go for a shot at making the team or winning. Just give yourself a shot.’ Because you can’t control what other people are doing and you don’t know how the chips are going to fall. I was really confident she was going to be there with 400m to go. I was just watching her closely. I watched her chop her steps a couple of times and thinking, ‘Gosh. She’s just chomping at the bit.’ I didn’t know she was going to beat (Gudaf) Tsegay because she’s run 14:00. But, (Elle’s) an animal. What she did at Millrose I thought was pretty impressive. Her first race back here (at The TRACK) was leading the whole way. Jess (Hull) is a really good runner and outkicked her but Elle did a lot of the work in that. From not running a track race for like a year and a half to running 8:25 for the first time on the track is pretty cool. I knew she was in good shape but I didn’t know what was going to happen.

Elle lives about four hours from (Boston) so she comes down here. We just workout on Tuesdays and Fridays with a long run on Saturdays. We don’t do anything crazy. She usually comes down on Monday nights and stays at someone’s house on the team, comes to practice and goes back up. It was the end of November and she was getting ready to run that road mile in Hawaii. I said, ‘Let’s just do 2x3K with five minutes rest.’ She said, ‘Alright.’ I suggested we run 72s – that’s 9:00. She ran 8:54. She took five minutes rest and then ran 8:44. I said, ‘That’s great. You go to Hawaii. Have fun. Win the mile.’ I thought for sure she was going to win but she went out there and got a bug and got sick. If I was there, I probably wouldn’t have let her run. She felt guilty because you’re taking someone’s plane ticket and you feel like you have to run. She ran with the group but got outkicked because she didn’t have any strength.

We went to Flagstaff and she’s a really good adapter to altitude. When she comes out of Flag, she’s a real machine. I knew she was going to have good runs and get a medal.

As for Emily, if you’ve watched her race much within the last year, she’s done that [taking it from 400m out]. She’s done that in every single race that she’s run and she’s won most of them. She did that at BU when she ran 8:40. She did that in California when we did that LA meet and they put her in the slow section. She just drilled everybody with 600m to go. We did Adrian Martinez in Concord, Mass. and she was in the 800m. She sat with the group for the first lap and then just crushed everybody in the second lap. Even at the New Balance Indoor Grand Prix, the two Ethiopian women got away and she was in the pack but she just crushed the pack. She devastated the pack over the last 400m. When we were in Scotland, she asked me, ‘Should I just stick to my MO?’’ I said, ‘If you can! I don’t think you can.’ And then she just did it. She’s good.

She’s really special. (New Balance senior director of sports marketing) John (Evans) and I saw her when she was at Binghampton and she didn’t have carbon-plated shoes. She had regular spikes. She made NCAAs. John and I were thinking, ‘Oh, don’t make the final!’ because we wanted her. She came and just fit in with a great personality.

For more from coach Mark Coogan, listen to the full interview on the CITIUS MAG Podcast.

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Kyle Merber

After hanging up his spikes – but never his running shoes – Kyle pivoted to the media side of things, where he shares his enthusiasm, insights, and experiences with subscribers of The Lap Count newsletter, as well as viewers of CITIUS MAG live shows.

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