“I’ve never had a friend like this.” That’s how Dave and Mark describe the journey they have been taking, side-by-side since 2005.
Dave Johnson and Mark Korinek met in 2005 when they brought their kids to a home school worldview class. It’s not surprising they didn’t just hit it off from the start. Mark is an outgoing, fun-loving, pun- weaving sports nut. Dave is a quiet, behind-the-scenes guy with a family whose world orbits around music. You may have to go back to Oscar Madison and Felix Unger to find a more unlikely pair of friends. So how is it 14 years later they could be so tight? Good question.
Running started it. In 2005, with his dad diagnosed with lymphoma and his mother with breast cancer, Dave registered for a fund-raising marathon for cancer research. After raising pledges for the minimum $5000 and beyond, Dave was handed a plane ticket to Alaska to run the race. “There were not a lot of spectators like other marathons, but many of the spectators were holding signs, ‘Thank you! I’m a cancer survivor.’ I was not prepared emotionally for that.’ After the race, Dave was hooked on running.
Mark, at age 45, had running a marathon on his bucket list. Determined that if he could drop 85 pounds off his 45-year-old once-athletic body, and get to 180 pounds and hold it there for a year, he was going to do a marathon. Impressed with Dave’s experience in Alaska, Mark inquired about running with “Dave, the grizzled vet”. Shortly after, they were faithfully running once a week together. They did this for years, building miles and trust. ‘We started out our journey for fitness but faith and friendship kept us consistent.’
Over time the training sessions also became talking sessions. Mark, who talks at 400 words a minute with gusts up to 600, first justified it as a great way to train. “It keeps us from running too fast – to run at a conversational pace.” Our conversations range from deep spiritual struggles, family, work, joys, pain, and many more topics. Over time, Dave, who initially did most of the listening, came to realize that Mark was as good a listener as he was talker. “I have heard most people are not really listening when someone is talking to them – they are thinking about what they are going to say next rather than listening to understand. But Mark is rare. I knew he really heard me from the questions he asked and the insights he had.
On one of these runs, Dave mentioned going to Mayo to give blood, then told Mark the story of giving blood regularly since he was 18. Mark’s ears perked up, because Mark started donating at age 16. Dave was motivated by the example of his blood-giving dad. Mark shared his donation start that he was just trying to get out of a day of intense basketball practice (we told you they were different). He also was humbled seeing his father receiving blood during his cancer treatments from other donors – grateful for others willing to give. Mark (now #2 on Mayo’s all-time blood donor list), learned that day he was running beside a fellow generous donor (now #3 that list). Dave realized something more: “In this world, so many people are takers. That day I discovered Mark was a giver.”
As their training time and miles built, so did the trust.
A rabid, off-the-charts Packer fan from Milwaukee, Mark chose the Green Bay Marathon as his first race after more than two years of running with Dave. His second marathon was
the Twin Cities Marathon with Dave. During the race as a way to practice their faith, they assigned one letter of the alphabet to each of the 26 miles of the race, and during that mile prayed for people with a name beginning with that letter. When asked about the odd letters, Dave gives his trademark sneaky smile and says, “We were creative with adjectives – “…bless X-tremely nice Bill.” They crossed the finish line together. Mark adds, “Other than a few races where we have decided it before the race, we have finished every race together. We pick each other up. It is not about looking good or personal bests. It is about the experience.” After crossing the finish line, these two running buddies were hooked, and dreaming of the next challenge.
That challenge was the Zumbro Endurance Run – a rugged trail race in April where you choose a 17, 50, or 100 mile option. They agreed to test the course with a 17-miler – a race Dave almost didn’t run, having buried his father the day before. But he and Mark ran, and between the scenery and the camaraderie of other runners (one, a hospice nurse they ran with for a several miles), it was a catharsis and a life-changing high. Concluding something worth doing was worth overdoing, they decided they would do 3 laps the next year. That’s 50 miles for two men in their mid-50’s. So why would they attempt such a thing? Together they reply, “Because it’s there.” Dave adds a factor – to push oneself: “You get to the place where you want to check out, to find a shortcut, to quit. You think ‘This really stinks right now, but I’m not going to give up. I’m going to stay in the game.’ So you do the only thing you can do to keep going. You say, ‘Help!’
They trained together intensely, including long Saturday runs of 30+ miles around the entire perimeter of Rochester. At midnight on a frigid, 9 degree April morning, wearing headlamps, Mark and Dave began lap 1 of 3. Contact lens froze to runner’s eyeballs. Drinks and snacks froze. At the end of Lap 2 with severe leg cramps, Dave found himself almost unable to change his spandex (they changed out of sweaty clothes after every lap given the freezing temperatures). Mark and Dave wondered if they could go on but never considered quitting. Both finished. They both dug deep and found both physical and spiritual limits they did not know they had. This was a physical, spiritual, mental and emotional battle they overcame. Trying to stay awake and seeing double while driving home, Mark was already thinking about doing 100. Though they currently don’t have plans for a 100-miler, Dave says he has one marathon left in him – the one on Mark’s bucket list – the Marine Corps Marathon when Mark turns 60.
It would be wrong to conclude these are just two intense, competitive guys looking for the next challenge. Run beside them for a few blocks on a weekly run or a race and you’ll think again. They talk incessantly, covering all topics along with spiritual matters. Plan on a flurry of Mark’s puns. Mark sums up their running conversations this way: “Levity, wisdom, insight, and potty humor.” And prepare yourself for them to break into the chorus of Bon Jovi’s Livin’ On A Prayer just past midpoint of the race.
Together, they have navigated the tough challenges of racing and life, and over the miles they have forged a bond that honestly you can’t miss. When asked what Dave and Mark would say to a guy who said, ‘That’s great for you two, but I think I can run this race alone?’ Dave thinks for a minute before replying. “Well, I guess I’d tell him, ‘Maybe you could. I wouldn’t have said, ‘I need a guy friend in my life.’ But I would also say, ‘Mark and I doing this together has made us and the people around us better for it.’”