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Cancer as teacher Mark Conover: Marathoner says his battle with Hodgkins disease put winning in perspective.; Olympics


This was more than just about the thrill of victory and, as often is the case with marathoning, the agony of da feet. This was about life -- Mark Conover's life.

Conover, the surprise winner of the 1988 United States Olympic marathon trials, had just finished 10th in the 1992 trials. He might have felt bad about it if he hadn't been feeling so bad.

"I noticed that my health wasn't quite right, but at the time I didn't realize how sick I was," Conover, now 35, said recently.

His condition misdiagnosed as asthma and other respiratory illnesses as far back as January of that year, Conover was found to have Hodgkin's disease in October 1993.

It helped explain what had been bothering him for more than a year. The constant night sweats. The persistent colds. The lack of energy when he trained.

By the time it was discovered, the cancer was in the third of four stages. Conover said that some of the early symptoms may have been camouflaged because he was in such good shape, but there was no reason for it to go untreated for as long as it did.

"The lymph node on my neck was pretty enlarged and the doctor saw a visible sign of what was wrong," recalled Conover, who would undergo six months of chemotherapy. "I'm still a little angry [that it took so long to diagnose]. But it's nothing I can dwell on."

Cancer-free for the past 21 months, Conover is again trying to make the Olympic team. But when he goes to Charlotte, N.C., for Saturday's marathon trials, it will be with a different outlook than he had the first two times.

The blisters and bone spur that forced him out of the Olympic marathon in Seoul eight years ago are a painful memory, but are blurred by what he has gone through since.

The odds of him being among the top three this year are long -- he is ranked 93rd among the 135 entries -- but only a little longer than Conover being alive right now.

"It [the cancer] makes you different," Conover said by phone last week from his home in San Luis Obispo, Calif. "You don't take things for granted. I hate to say this, but a lot of people could use a small dose of cancer to help them appreciate what they have going in their lives."

"At this stage of my life, [making the Olympic team is] probably not as important to me as it was in 1988. I just want to have a solid race to verify my health. A lot depends on what happens on that particular day. There are so many variables involved."

Look at what happened in last weekend's U.S. women's marathon, won by Jennie Spangler. Spangler, who began the race with the 61st best time, won her first marathon in 13 years.

Or look at what happened to Conover eight years ago at the U.S. trials in Jersey City, N.J.

"In the eyes of the so-called experts, he came out of the blue since it was only his second marathon," said Jim Hunt, who has coached Conover since his freshman year at Humboldt State, a Division II school in northwest California known for its top-flight distance runners.

"But he had been working toward it for three or four years. A lot of runners knew about Mark."

Hunt has seen Conover struggle recently to maintain both his mileage (about 90 miles a week) and his intensity. Asked if Conover has a realistic chance to qualify for the Atlanta Olympics, Hunt said: "Being a realistic person, I'd have to say it would be unrealistic.

"But it's something he should do, to come out with the best result he can. We never want to say never. The mind is a strange thing, but I think [the cancer] diminished his physiological ability to rise up. His body went through a severe, severe shock."

Conover has had some decent half-marathon and 10K races, but in the marathons he's run since his illness, he hasn't come close to equalling his winning time of 2:12.28 that helped make him an Olympian. He qualified for the trials with a time of 2:20.35 at a marathon in Duluth, Minn., last June.

Yet all the miles and all the training have allowed Conover to resume a healthy life. Since getting laid off from his job as an assistant city planner in 1992, he has been doing a variety of things. He writes for a California running magazine, coaches other marathoners and is a consultant for a running shoe company. He also became engaged last year.

"I think I will always run to some degree," said Conover, who holds a master's degree in city planning from Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo. "For a while, I was running as a therapy for the way I was feeling. Being as sick as I was, it's given me a whole different attitude toward running. It's sort of a second career."

Olympic profile

Name: Mark Conover

Event: Marathon

Age: 35

Background: NCAA Division II cross-country champion at Humboldt State (Calif.), 1981

Career highlight: Winning the U.S. Olympic marathon trials in 1988

Olympic experience: Forced out of the 1988 Olympic marathon in Seoul by blisters and a heel spur

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