Mark Buckingham talks racing, learning, coaching, beer and marathons…

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A man ‘in transition’ – but Mark Buckingham still has racing ambitions too…

With the ETU Duathlon European Championships coming up in just over a weeks time, I spoke to a British Elite athlete who will be seeking success in Punta Umbria, Spain – who must have one of the busiest and varied schedules in the sport…

Few members of the British Elite triathlon scene are balancing quite so many roles in the sport at the moment – and certainly none I know, doing so with such a consistent smile on their face – as Mark Buckingham.

Back in 2010, Mark – a former international track runner – joined the British Triathlon squad through the fast-track TriGold scheme, funded by Barrie Wells. Success followed, including an ITU World Cup victory, three ITU Duathlon World Championship Bronze medals, several British Elite Championship titles and a Mixed Relay Triathlon World Championship Bronze too.

Mark Buckingham Palamos ITU Triathlon World Cup 2013

As well as his own racing, Mark has also been for many years a key training partner of Alistair and Jonathan Brownlee, co-founder of Yonda Sports, triathlon commentator (a couple of those times, alongside me!), a World Championship Gold medal-winning Paratriathlon Guide – while currently part of the UK Sport ‘Athlete to Coach’  Programme… with a few Pro IRONMAN 70.3 races thrown into the mix along the way!

Mark Buckingham / Volvo

As if to reinforce that versatility, this past weekend Mark finished in the top-10 at the English National Cross Country Championship – though when I spoke to him recently, he was by his own admission being thrashed by plenty of kids at a recent GoTri event, at the launch of Volvo Sheffield.

Somewhat out of breath from his bike / sprint / star-jumps triathlon… it was probably stating the obvious to ask, is it a busy time?!

“Yes, I am definitely in the middle of spinning all of those different plates! It’s a period of transitioning…”

With so much going on, how was he managing to keep so many of those ‘plates’ spinning, stay focussed and stop them all crashing to the floor?

“For 2020 my key role really is supporting British athletes up to the Olympic Games in Tokyo – and for me, that is mostly training with and helping the Brownlee brothers. ‘Performance Partner’ is my formal role title.”

Beyond 2020, using his experience to help other athletes is the target – how has that been going, and what has he learned along the way so far?

“I’ve also been coaching and working hard on that, aiming to move towards that full-time post Tokyo.

“I definitely seem to learn best and quickest when I experience it first hand. Training before Kona last year with Alistair in Arizona was a great opportunity – you are seeing and feeling first hand fuelling, nutrition, race strategy and more. As well as being a training partner, it was also a great education towards my future coaching ambitions.”

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The learning never stops…. I’m documenting this as I’m on a 18 month long UK Sport Athlete to Coach course that encourages self reflection and story sharing (and also because the videos looks mint here as it’s wall to wall sunshine ☀️) I’ve worked quite closely with the British squad in their prep to Tokyo Olympics and learning about heat prep and ways to limit heat stress and here’s a similar thing. @alistair.brownlee is prepping for the mother of all days in the heat that is the Ironman World Champs in Kona just 3 weeks away. We’ve come out here as a 3 man squad, myself & @gordonleeds are taking it in turns as training partner / waterboy. To live it and feel is important as it can be brutal mid way through a 5 hour session in 40+ degree heat not just physically but it can take you to a dark place mentally. Today was a 4 hour ride (I rode, Bense supported) into a 70min run (Bense ran, i supported). I’m trying to spend as much time as possible learning what I can in endurance sport / triathlon so that one day I can pass this on to a new generation of hitters. Win, Lose or Draw all 3 of us will learn lots from this camp, providing we don’t get lost in the desert 🌵 and die from dehydration. Thanks to @talbotcox for the inspiration to try no-handed cycle filming & @benkanute for his cameo appearance during the long ride.

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With the transition from athlete to coach underway, one might naturally assume that his own competitive fire has faded. While the next step on his sporting journey is an exciting one, there are still some racing targets of his own… which actually complement that training partner role.

“Yes, I’ve still got racing ambitions of my own. That’s also quite important simply to be able to be of value when training and supporting athletes. I still need that carrot of racing, which enables you to do those ‘bury yourself’ sessions when needed. Without doing that and getting in and staying in that sort of shape, trying to train with and support athletes of the quality of Alistair and Jonny is going to be very difficult… and painful!

“My early season goal is the European Duathlon Championships at the beginning of March – my calendar is mostly dictated by the Brownlee’s schedule, and they will be in Abu Dhabi for the opening WTS event that weekend, so I’m free to race!” [UPDATEAbu Dhabi now postponed]

Fyn ITU Duathlon World Championship - Mark Buckingham
Bronze at the 2018 ITU Duathlon World Championships

While the Brownlee brothers are aiming for Tokyo, there is a chance that Mark could be there in a racing capacity himself, through his role as a Paratriathlon Guide for VI athlete and 2018 World Champion, Dave Ellis.

“The Guiding last year with Dave was fantastic, and another one of those educational things that helps build that rounded knowledge of all of these different aspects within the sport. For 2020, I think any Guide work will be more in a Reserve capacity. Luke Pollard has moved to Loughborough and is training full-time with Dave – he does and will do a great job, and I think between the three of us who were Guiding – myself, Luke and Tim Don – we’ve said that for any race we would all get Dave around within 30 seconds of each other. Luke has committed to that role, and we back the decision fully.”

Dave Ellis and Mark Buckingham - 2018 ITU Paratriathlon World Championships World Triathlon Grand Final Gold Coast
2018 ITU Paratriathlon World Championship Gold Coast

One thing that wasn’t planned – but he ended up winning – was a debut at the marathon, when he won his local Yorkshire Marathon last October in a speedy 2:21:42. Another part of his ‘racing targets’?

“No, the marathon was not planned at all! When I was out in Arizona training with Alistair, we’d done one run of 38km, but then I figured I may as well carry on and do another 4km because I’d never done the distance before. When I got back, not long after the Yorkshire Marathon was practically on my doorstep, so I thought, why not? There was really no proper plan – I even had a curry and a couple of beers the night before – so maybe that was the secret?!”

With that one in the bag – and a move towards coaching over the coming years – could marathon running be the next target, perhaps fitting in more easily with coaching commitments and the need for swimming pools and five hour rides?

“No, it definitely wasn’t part of any grand plan for the future… but then Will Clarke mentioned he was going to do the London Marathon (!), but no, it’s not something I’ll be able to fit in this year.”

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Marathon debut done last week. 2:21:42 It wasn’t really planned, but having done a 35km & 42km session with Alistair in Arizona a few weeks ago I thought it’s now or never. I told about 5 people I was racing the day before and had a curry & two pints the night before which was key, don’t take it too seriously…… The aim was to run 3:22/km (5:25/mile) & have a pop at @mp22run pb of 2:22:15. I drank at every aid station and had 4 gels (carried 2 from the start). Would highly recommend @yorkshiremarathon, the crowds were great, particular highlight going past York Minster and then joining in with the 10 mile race for the last 30 minutes which keeps you motivated as everyone is in the same ‘get me home’ boat. So my advice is if you really want to do a marathon, enter one, find a canal/river path to train on so you can just, well, run. Do 80% of one in training at a solid pace. Tell as few people as possible your doing it, and soak up the experience. YOLO n all that. #marathon #running #holmfirthharriers

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Well, if that does prove to be his one and only marathon, ‘raced one, won one’, would be quite a nice way to finish, wouldn’t it?

“Retire undefeated? You know, that sounds pretty good, doesn’t it… at least that would give me one up on Eliud Kipchoge!”

Mark Buckingham
At the launch of Volvo Sheffield (January 2020) – British Triathlon Official Partners