The Malta Independent 24 October 2021, Sunday

The astrophysicist in a hurry - an exclusive interview with long-distance athlete Mark Pace

Raymond Scicluna Friday, 29 March 2019, 12:00 Last update: about 4 years ago

The spotlight today is on 28-year-old Mark Pace, a long-distance athlete, loyal to St Patricks AC, son of a former runner Martin Pace, brother of Darrel, 4 years his junior. His mum, Jacqueline and his girlfriend Rossana are his stalwarts.

Mark Pace is an assistant lecturer at MCAST Paola and works within the Institute of Applied Science. He lectures Physics, Science and Mathematics. Having graduated from the University of Malta, with a Bachelor of Science with honours in physics and computer information systems in 2015, he then proceeded to read for a master's degree in Astrophysics within the University of Malta, graduating in 2017. He is currently pondering the decision to continue and read for a doctorate in Astrophysics. Mark studied alternative theories of gravity and applied said gravitational models to exotic types of stars, such as neutron stars and quark stars.

 

1. Mark, sorry for my lack of knowledge in the field, but back to school days, Physics was my Achilles heel. I couldn't grasp the concepts, so you might surmise and rightly so, how can I comprehend Astrophysics! In colloquial terms, could you please explain what Astrophysics is all about and how is this study applied to life?

Thank you very much Ray for the interview, I appreciate the opportunity to give a small expose about my story.

If I was to boil down physics and astrophysics to just a few words I would say the study of how the Universe behaves. The applications in real life may be a little bit of a stretch apart from the nice cool photos we get and computational simulations, but I believe that such a study is important because it is one of the frontiers in mankind's quest for knowledge. I'm someone who is always thirsty to know more. So naturally such a path was very enticing to me.

I believe that in order to understand physics and science all you need to do is just stop and experience the world around you, how your senses interact with nature etc. That is what I find the most fascinating about physics.

2. Mark, you came a long way in athletics and today you are one of the fastest, promising and most consistent long-distance athletes. You keep a low profile, but your results speak for themselves. You caught the eyes of many. From the initial 50mins for 10k in 2010 to the 35.27 of just few weeks ago, from a 20.50 5k to the recent PB of 17:03, a remarkable 1:01:22 in the recent edition of Mdina to Spinola race and last year's Malta half marathon with a respectable 1:21.48. All this makes me speechless! For those with the nitty gritty of athletics, this shows that you are a self-made athlete who managed such results thanks to many factors but surely not because you possess inborn talent. What were the factors for such an incredible improvement in all your races?

It has been a long journey from where I started to where I am today, you are right Ray! However, I still remember the very early days where I used to take longer to prepare for a run than physically running. I remember not even able to cover one kilometre running slowly! But I have had help throughout the way; in the beginning my father used to come jog with me to try and encourage me mentally. As I'm sure many athletes will understand and as my past mentor, past coach and friend Xandru Grech used to say, "it's all in the mind". It was important during the initial stages that I work on my mental resilience. Our bodies are capable of so much more, you just need to convince your mind to do it.

Having a good support team is also important and, coming from a background where my father and other members of my family used to run was a plus. My family understood why I was doing certain things or why was I eating certain meals without me having to explain myself.

The journey has not been all positive however, not many people know that before I had started running, I was going through a rough period in my life. I was basically suffering from mild to moderate depression. You can say that the act of taking myself physically helped my mental health immensely. Running saved my life and gave me the positive outlook I have today. I got into healthier habits and removed the negativity in my life. Running helped me see the positive side of life.

I am lucky enough that I came across many people in my life who provide me with a positive outlook on a daily and they inspire me for greatness. If you cannot find a positive person to look up to then be one yourself, someone might need that compliment or word of encouragement. Every day is a blessing.

3. Mark, it seems to me that you are yet another successful student-athlete who managed to fulfil a dual career path of combining academics with sports. To top it off, your subjects are one of the hardest and yet you kept training, during all your studies from A Levels to the Degree, Master's and hopefully during your PhD studies. This is highly inspiring! Your level of performances went from strength to strength whilst your studies were becoming tougher and tougher. How did you manage all this? You are aware that most of the promising athletes in local athletics stop for several reasons mainly: studies, peer pressure, outings, lack of motivation, hitting the plateau early, relationships, etc... whilst you are still eager to achieve more. From where do you gather such enviable motivation and mental endurance?

I am aware that many young promising athletes stop training because of various reasons. My answer to this is proper time-management. When I was a student, I used to find it much easier to manage my time and energy.

As an example, during exams season I would normally wake up do my usual routine, start my studies etc, and then I would use my run as an excuse for a break. I would also make use of facilities which were at my disposal such as the student showers at the University or student discounts at the gym and the nearby athletics track.

Most often I would do my run before lectures started. Many University students get to campus early anyway because of parking issues, so why not use that time constructively. I've had friends who slept in the car, or maybe crammed in that last-minute assignment during those early hours. For me that time was time I could spend training and preparing my mind to be fresh and ready to learn.

Athletics never ever diminished my academic performance quite the opposite; in fact, when I took a pause from athletics I noticed a considerable dip in my academic performance so I am an advocate of students and people from any walks of life doing some kind of hobby or physical exercise.

Nowadays with work I must be a little more regimented. I'm very lucky that my job allows me to do some work at home so I can manage my time better. Sometimes one would get urgent matters would require more attention and so on, so I would end up running late at night or having to do it earlier in the morning. However, I make it a point to make time for training, otherwise I feel like something is missing. It is time which I use to think about what needs to be done and how it needs to be done. It refreshes the mind.

I guess the mental strength and resilience comes from the fact that I have built up slowly over the years. Many people think that more training you put in the better, I personally feel that one should opt to train in a smarter way. This ideology is coming from experience because in the past I have tried to increase my running volume considerably, but I found that it did more damage than yielded positive results in the long run, so I opted to stick to what my coaches tell me and trust in the journey rather than try and rush things through.

4. Mark, you were smart enough to venture upon this journey with a vision; coach direction. I can tell from myself, I rarely availed of a coach so even though I might know what it takes to improve, I trained by myself and the results are what they are. You, on the other hand opted for local established and qualified coaches: Xandru Grech, a formidable former middle to long distance runner whose national records still stand and now Ivan Roshnov, the Stakanovist of local athletics, a walking encyclopaedia of local and international athletics. I reckon that most of your improvement is due to their teaching and coaching system. What are your experiences with your coaches? Most of the time, you train with the group, rather than by yourself and then again, it's an advantage to keep your mind more focussed during the entire training session. It's not a secret that training by yourself, there are instances where one can go into the comfort zone, very rarely this can happen to you! What are your views about training with a group rather than by yourself?

Like I previously said I was lucky enough to come across individuals who helped me through my running career. At first, I remember my dad used to help me through means of an off-the-shelf, one-size-fits-all online training plan. It was nothing special but slowly I got used to the discipline required for athletics. I was also a little over-weight when I started my athletics career.

Training alone one would reach a certain plateau of improvements. I realized after the 2013 Malta half marathon that I needed to get some proper guidance. I remember my dad and I had a discussion at length regarding the matter. Many names were put forward and we started a sort-of pros and cons list.

My dad adamantly wanted me to join Ivan's group however I had heard how tough his training may be and I felt as though I was not yet ready to take on athletics so seriously. I have heard a lot about the legendary Ivan Roshnov and how his athletes are some of the best Malta had to offer. I felt that I was not worthy yet.

During this period, I had contacted a good friend of mine Neil Brimmer and asked for his advice on the matter, he was still firmly within the athletics scene and could give me better insight. He mentioned Xandru Grech and how he has a very good training group of athletes who take athletics very seriously. Another positive was that they were my age. That for me was the tipping point and the rest as they say is history. I remember being a little star-struck when I started with Xandru, I had heard the legendary stories of races and knew how much of an amazing athlete he was, still holding the middle-distance national records etc. Then to top it all off I was in a group with athletes who were already very established, the likes of Simon Spiteri, Mona Lisa Camilleri, Matthew Rota, and Andrea with his brother Luke Mizzi were already enough to motivate one. This is also where I followed my father and family's footsteps and joined St. Patricks' A.C.

I immediately saw a considerable gain in performance and then to top it off the following season other established names joined the group; the likes of Dario Mangion, Lara Scerri, and Charmaine Aquilina. The group's dynamics helped a lot, we got-on well together. Training felt enjoyable, the atmosphere was amazing.

As time progressed on Xandru tried to encourage more middle-distance athletics which I consider him a super expert in. I did my best of course but my heart was still set on long-distance athletics. Middle-distance events require a different training regime than long-distance events. For example I noticed that as a body type I could bulk up muscle quite easy which gave me the speed required for middle-distance races but then slowed me down for the long-distance races. Although many people think that it's still running middle-distance and long-distance are different types of sports that require different disciplines and different approaches to training, nutrition etc.

On the fifth season with Xandru I noticed that my performance was lacking. This was not because of the coach or the coaching system, it was because my heart was not set on the type of races. That is where I started to ponder the decision on whether to switch coaches. I thought long and hard about it and when the season ended, I knew that I had needed a change of scenery. It was not an easy decision to say the least.

Ivan's style of training is different than Xandru's of course and I did not want to create any form of friction with anyone. It was certainly not easy telling a mentor and friend that I would like to change coaches.

To this very day I consider the members of the past training team as some of my closest friends and I try my best to meet up now and then whether for an easy run or on a more social note. Of course, I have the utmost respect for Xandru, without him I would not be the athlete I am today. He laid the firm foundations which I could work upon. He gave me the encouragement to push further and faster and not to mention gave me a very positive outlook on life.

Nowadays Ivan has continued Xandru's work and shaped me to be stronger and to run more passionately. Ivan's technique brings out the best of everyone. His sharp mind knows what an athlete is capable of, even if the athlete does not believe it. I find myself thanking him every training session for the invigorating session that he gives me. I can't thank him enough for all the work that he has put in me. Many of these achievements would not have been possible had it been for him.

The team does help a lot, training with amazing people such as the mentioned athletes and nowadays, Luke Micallef, Ryan Mex, John Said, Matthew Cutajar, Kris Balzan, Chris and his wife Lisa Bezzina and upcoming Jake Fenech does help considerably. I am humbled daily by knowing that I am training with some of Malta's best athletes, all of which I consider my closest friends.

We get so much out of the team, there is a strong bond which develops when you train or race with the same people. It is a fraternity which is only shared through the pain one would feel during training and races. That motivates one to push further and faster. Everyone is hungry for more and I have noticed that over the years the level of professionalism in athletics has increased drastically.

5. Mark, not many people know that your aunts, Josephine Cutajar and Mary Falzon, your late uncle Joseph Falzon and your Dad Martin were all into running. On the other hand, your Mum, Jacqueline and your girlfriend Rossana are very supportive in many ways. They both show their understanding and support on social media yet needless to say, they apply it on a daily basis during many important issues such as caring for your diet and cooking, concern about your sleeping hours, understanding your need for training hours etc... How lucky do you consider yourself to be having been surrounded by a family of runners whilst enjoying an understandable Mum and girlfriend who back you all along your journey?

I consider myself very lucky. Athletics seems like a very individualistic and lonely sport and yes true we spend many long hours of training alone. But coming home to a welcoming and warm environment helps immensely. Also  coming from a family background such as my aunts, uncle and dad already into running has helped with the understanding of why I am doing certain things.

My family by which I am including my girlfriend Rossana are my rock, without them I would not have been able to achieve what I have achieved. It is all in the simple things such as a kind word of encouragement or else understanding why I need to sleep early or avoid certain foods etc.

An athlete is a complete person and a good support system is important. I was lucky in the fact that I did not have to explain myself all the time for what I was doing. For example my mother asks me on a daily basis if I would need something special cooked because of training or a race. Our training sessions take place later in the evening and I often find myself eating after 10 PM on session days, my mother tries her best to accommodate for my schedule. Not to mention the laundry, cleaning etc, she is my unsung hero.

My father and brother are always there in support and to give a kind word of encouragement when needed. In fact, I discuss many of my sessions and runs with my dad and we do have a little those little squabbles between one another on which races he did a better time, or where I was faster etc. Just some good-natured ribbing between two athletes. I still cherish the first athletics St. Patricks gear which he handed down to me.

My girlfriend is by far way too patient with me, I try and not let athletics stress our relationship as much as I can. Of course, relationships are all about give and take and understanding. I am lucky that I found a girlfriend who understands how important athletics is to me and tries her best to accommodate my busy schedule.

With regards to my aunts and late uncle, I have the utmost respect for what they had achieved and the stories they tell about their athletics days. We are also bonded in a special way because we also share the same coach and also members of the same athletics club. When they used to run, they were under the guidance of Ivan Roshnov as well. They all speak very highly of him and still to this day respect him immensely.

6. Mark, you are an assistant Lecturer at MCAST and you cater for students over 16. From your teaching experience and past students, how many athlete-students did you encounter? Am not referring to just athletics but any type of competitive sports. Is it the norm or still an exception to have students who still combine their passion for sports with studies? Do you think that your studies of Physics, Maths and Science helped you in some way or another to know how your body system reacts to training and if so how?

I have had the pleasure of teaching some great athlete-students, coming from a variety of sports and backgrounds. As an educator yes, I do notice that these athlete-students tend to be within the higher percentile of the class and are excellent well rounders. That is not to say that students who do not participate in any kind of sports are not smart, not at all, just from my observations, students who practise some form of physical exercise as an extra-curricular or even practice an instrument etc, tend to be better learners.

When at times students come up to me to say that they are pausing their extra-curricular activities because of assignments or because of exams I quickly try to discourage them. With careful time management anyone can find an extra 30 minutes for some time to reconnect with oneself. In the long run it helps not only with physical development but also mental development. Not to mention the benefits of the student becoming more disciplined with him/her-self. Perhaps that is the quality which I find the most appealing in athlete-students, that their discipline would be exhibited throughout their studies as well.

With regards to my chosen topics, other than small quick calculations I think the discipline of how to write your equations and calculations has helped. There is an orderly fashion that must be kept in order to understand the problem and tackle it. My chosen topics of physics, mathematics and science have given me this discipline to find order in chaos and perhaps look at problems in a different perspective. I do often connect that to athletics. Weather it's calculating how many minutes per kilometre I should run at, or what heartbeat I should be at etc, science has given me the knowhow on how to properly analyse my performance etc.

We are also living in the age of smart watches and GPS watches. I see these as excellent tools for an athlete and should be utilized. However sometimes I still wonder on how little we know about the human spirit. At times we tend to think that running is all about the mind and legs, however we forget about the heart. I have noticed that when the human heart and spirit are all as one, an athlete would be unstoppable, no weather is too horrid, no terrain is too rough, no time is impossible. Nothing is impossible if you have the right mindset and discipline to achieve it.

7. Mark, I reckon that you like to do things properly and if possible, in an excellent way. I can vouch for this! An interesting quote by Leonardo Da Vinci comes to mind: "Details make perfection, but perfection is not a detail." What details do you think are needed to enhance your performances further? After a decade in running, I believe that athletes may cut time if they are willing to suffer. It is not applicable to all and the sundry, but I think most of times it is. Do you agree that you are achieving much thanks to the willingness to suffer in training?

I totally agree with you that details make perfection. I take it also from a Formula 1 sporting hero of mine Ayrton Senna. Whenever he raced his car, he was very graceful in his style and ability to find time where others could not. He was very focused on the details of the track and specific corners etc.

I try to emulate this into athletics. At times certain races would require some different style of running. For example, the upcoming Dingli 10 race's route is not one which an athlete should focus on running a certain pace, rather one should run that route with one's heart. It all depends on the athlete after all. I've known athletes who like to start at a relatively slower pace and gently increase it, while I've known athletes who like to just gun the pace right from the start and try to hold on. It depends on the person, I guess, and also depends on the race.

Regarding training, yes it does take a certain amount of effort (I don't really like the verb 'to suffer') but I would rather put that extra effort in training than regret not achieving a certain time in a  race. I've tasted that bitter disappointment in the past, it is not nice. As I said earlier it's all in the mind, training is basically just pushing the limit of the so-called pain threshold that someone can sustain for a certain period. The more training the more accustomed you would feel to that pain threshold. However, it's a different kind of pain.

Then there are those times where you are so in tune with your body that you feel no effort or pain whatsoever you are just there moving through the roads or through the track. Time seems to stop, and you just feel like you're flying. That feeling is what we athletes live for. I for one have had many races where I've experienced this and it's such an amazing feeling that I wonder why not everyone runs. I just wish I can articulate it into words to explain to everyone what it feels like. I'm sure many athletes have experienced this, often referred to as the "runner's high".

 

8. Mark, with 150 races banked, you are now well ingrained in the local running community. The long-distance running fora has seen a surge of high presence in mostly all the races which are now organised almost on weekly basis all year round by organisers, MAAA and its affiliated clubs. The latter is mostly the main income for the clubs' existence.  This is highly encouraging in many ways.  Competitiveness has become tougher but healthier. Sponsors are providing quite an experience to the participants and races have become more enjoyable. Social media is helps too. Athletes are improving whilst running enthusiasts are adding to the crowds for races in hundreds. These are promising and healthy times indeed. Race and age category winners are changing most of the time, making races more interesting and less obvious. Do you agree with all this and what do you think can make races better?

I have been around long enough to notice that the level in Malta has certainly increased drastically. Every athlete is giving his or her all at every race. The increase in sponsorships and social media awareness has helped. Running is an inexpensive sport and it's a sport which anyone from any background can do. I believe that it brings people together, it's us against the distance. Everyone would be running for a certain goal be it for charity, for a certain time, or to get healthier etc. All considerable goals in my opinion.

To some extent the increase in athletic events in my opinion is a double-edged sword. Yes, the level of professionalism has increased, and organisers have to meet the athlete's demands because as you rightly said many are club organised events. I'm happy to say that many of the events have become embedded in the running calendar and you cannot consider your athletic season complete without ticking a few of those special races, to each his own of course. The only negative which I feel is unanimous in the running community is that the running calendar is too saturated with races. If, like me, you also do some track races decisions have to be made on which event to attend and which to miss. Many athletes face these difficulties because too many races may lead to a decline in performance or else risk injury. A fine balance has to be found.

However, this may also be a positive because as you rightly said race winners and age category winners change almost with every race. At the start of my running career the races were becoming stale, we would have guessed the result beforehand. Having a nice 'battle' within every section of the race does make it more interesting and, in my view, strengthens not only athletics but also the bond felt between the athletes.

As a running community Malta is quite small but I think this is amazing because we get to know one another deeper. We form bonds between each other, worry when one gets injured. Congratulate each other after a great race or a nice personal best. We are a family.

 

9. Mark, I cannot bid you goodbye without first asking you what your future are pertaining to studies, work, athletics, home and family?

To be honest for now I'm taking life day-by-day. I am very grateful for the strength to be able to run and train, celebrate when I have a great training session or race and learn when I do not. I'm also grateful for the great people what are in my life. I try to stay positive as much as I can and upbeat about life.

Studies are currently on hold as work is keeping me quite busy, however I also needed a mental break from my studies, and I want to be sure that such a path would be what I would like to follow and not something that I am forcing upon myself.

Regarding athletics I hope to continue to work hard and, God willing continue to slowly improve on my times. I wish that one day I would wear that red vest with honour. However, there is more to be achieved before-hand. The future is quite uncertain however I am very excited to find out what is to come.

I would like to publicly thank anyone who has been a part of my journey and anyone who is somehow in contact. I would also like to specially thank my coach, family and St. Patrick's A.C.

 

Mark, I have great respect for an athlete like you and am sure there is more to come. You did it all thanks to your sheer determination, your ambition to perform better, your passion for running, your willingness to suffer and your crave for competition. You are indeed an additional asset to local athletics. Thanks for sharing such an overwhelming positive experience.

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