(07-Apr) -- Mark Conover, the surprise winner of the 1988 USA Olympic Team Trials Men's Marathon, died last night in hospice after a long battle with cancer. He was 61.
PHOTO: Mark Conover in an undated photo (photo courtesy of Cal Poly Athletics)
"Mark crossed the finish line last night at 11:23 p.m.," his wife Kelly wrote on Conover's CaringBridge page. "A champion through it all. His journey ended, but his legacy will continue through us all. Celebrate his life, share your memories of him and honor a life well lived."
On April 24, 1988, Conover lined up for the USA Olympic Team Trials Men's Marathon in Jersey City, N.J. A nine-time All-American at Humboldt State in track and cross country, Conover entered the trials with a personal best of just 2:18:03, yet he won in 2:12:26 after getting away from his last challenger, pre-race favorite Ed Eyestone, with about a mile remaining. He went on to the Seoul Olympic Marathon later that year, but was unable to finish. That would be his only Olympic appearance.
"I believe timing is everything when you're running an important race," Conover told Amby Burfoot at Runner's World in an interview in 2007 where he discussed the 1988 Trials. "I ran too many other races when I was over trained. But at the 1988 Trials, I was fresh and feeling good. Sometimes less is more."
Conover also competed in the 1992 Trials, finishing tenth in 2:18:17, but his running career was interrupted in 1993 when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma. He was treated with chemotherapy, went into remission, and resumed training. In 1995, at the age of 35, he won the USATF Pacific Association 15-K title on June 4, and 13 days later finished 14th at Grandma's Marathon in Duluth in 2:20:35 to qualify for the 1996 Trials. He finished those Trials in 71st place, clocking 2:31:01, and retired from elite running.
Conover went on to become a successful coach at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. He was named Big West Conference Coach of the Year 21 times, and led his Cal Poly team to seven appearances at the NCAA Championships as a full team. In 2020 he was inducted into USATF Pacific Association Hall of Fame.
Cancer would strike Conover again. According to his CaringBridge page, he was diagnosed with Mantle Cell Lymphoma on Christmas Eve in 2018 and quickly began treatment.
"The oncologist said the lymphoma is curable and responds to treatment," his wife Kelly wrote in January, 2019. She continued: "We are doing well and living our lives normally at this point."
Once again, Conover underwent chemotherapy and finished his first round on January 23, 2019. He was treated extensively throughout 2019 (he received a stem cell/bone marrow transplant), and in September of that year he was able to jog up to two miles at a time. In December he had his chemo port removed, an important step in getting back to a normal life.
"Through this port flowed toxic drugs, blood and platelet transfusions, antibiotics, and blood draws," Conover wrote in his journal. "Cherish life. Honor those fighting or who have fought this insidious disease."
Conover's cancer came back as squamous cell carcinoma in 2021, and after a year of fighting it he decided to discontinue treatment and enter hospice.
"Mark has been a warrior and fought like no one else could, but at this point it's time for him to stop treatment and he entered hospice," Kelly wrote three days ago.
The Conovers had three children together, triplets: Audrey and Marley (both daughters), and son Cordell. Cordell was wife Kelly's last name before the couple married.
Comments poured in from Conover's many running friends via his CaringBridge page, including athletes he competed against and coached.
"You have been an amazing inspiration to me and countless others," wrote 1996 5000m Olympian Matt Giusto. "Your resilience and determination over the years have been unwavering and truly remarkable. You've set a new standard for all of us to live by. I'll see you at the top, my brother!"