Marquis Bowden is all in on marathoning
These days, plans are in short supply.
Most plans require you to go outside, or they involve other people, or they require a degree of certainty about the future. Getting on an airplane, attending a concert, even something as mundane as going bowling, all seem out of the question. And as we wrestle with this strange new pandemic-stricken world, those of us who look to the future to conjure stability in the present may find ourselves shit out of luck. Even as things slowly start to reopen around the world, most people seem reluctant to immediately reengage with society as we once knew it.
All of this makes asking someone a question like "do you have any plans for the summer?" or “are you still planning on moving into that apartment in the city?” feel particularly rude, if not downright nasty.
That is, of course, unless you're asking a Big Question About the Future to Marquis Bowden. If you're Marquis this is precisely the time to start making plans, and so it’s also the precise moment to talk about them. To be clear, we're not talking "I'd like to go to the grocery store today," type plans. Nor are we talking about renting-a-beach-house-for-Fourth-of-July type plans. No. We're talking big, life-altering, self-redefining plans. Ones that require time and energy and money and commitment and a million other external variables falling into place. Plans that if you tell people, they might not totally understand.
Audacious plans that might trigger the asker to in turn ask: "Who the hell is Marquis Bowden?"
That’s a valid question, assuming you're not from Los Angeles. So let’s start there: who is Marquis Bowden?
Here's the quick and dirty: Marquis is a 31-year old marathoner. He grew up, and has spent most of his life, in and around Los Angeles. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, he recently lost his job at a small book distribution company. With the last few months putting him on his heels and out of work, Marquis decided to throw himself fully into what, until now, has been just a passion: running.
Got it. Turning to a passion during a period of crisis seems reasonable enough. So what’s Marquis’s big plan? Let’s ask him.
"I never saw this in my future," said Marquis. "With the recent news, I’m going to take a leap of faith. I made the decision to try to become a professional runner. I don’t know how that’s going to transpire but I believe it, humbly, and the only thing I can do now is work hard."
Okay. That is a big plan.
The full story of Marquis the runner starts somewhere around 2017, during his first marathon in Chicago. But the story of Marquis the person, and the story of how he got here, starts much earlier.
Marquis was raised in the Compton/Carson area of South Los Angeles. Between the ages of nine and ten, his mother and stepfather relocated to Arlington, Texas, leaving young Marquis in the care of his grandmother. Under her roof, he grew up playing basketball. This is where we see a pattern begin: a propensity for athletics, a drive to try to reach the pinnacle of his chosen sport, and a penchant for continually hurdling any obstacle in his path.
"That was my dream. My goal," he said. "I wanted to play overseas or, God willing, in the NBA."
In high school he was good, but he still had to write "hundreds of emails" to college coaches around the country asking for the opportunity to try out for their team. The letter writing campaign worked out, but his college basketball career was, as he describes it, "anything but successful." He fought for playing time and made the rounds at a handful of junior colleges around Los Angeles looking for the right fit, the right opportunity, which never really came.
"With the recent news, I’m going to take a leap of faith. I made the decision to try to become a professional runner. I don’t know how that’s going to transpire but I believe it, humbly, and the only thing I can do now is work hard."
Packing up and looking for playing time from college to college, from the outside at least, might seem a little drastic. But Marquis, who is a few years removed from this chapter of his life, offers a level of introspection into his decision making. The process was frustrating, but for Marquis, sports in general, and basketball in particular, were a way for him to find his place in the world. So with each new team, came a fresh opportunity not just to explore the possibilities that basketball can afford a person, but also what it teaches you about yourself.
"I was raised without a father," he elaborates. "A father gives you courage, a father gives you strength. He gives you that grittiness. And I didn’t have that. So I had to find it through sports. I encountered a lot of closed doors. A lot of trials and tribulations. I’ve tried to take that negative energy and turn it into a positive."
And one positive that came from his rocky basketball career was finding running.
"At my last school we got a new coach," he said. "And it seemed like I wasn't really part of the plan, so it became best for me to kind of let go of basketball. And it was tough. It was a dark time for me. At that point, I had a friend that reached out to me. He said 'I have a run group meeting here in downtown LA. Come run with us.'"
That group was one of Los Angeles' OG run crews, Blacklist LA. Every Monday, Marquis would finish basketball practice and drive to Downtown LA from West Covina to run with Blacklist, no easy commute in Los Angeles traffic.
"I was still practicing, but not really playing," he said. "So I would barely sweat in practice, then drive to run with Blacklist. They took me in. As time went on I learned it was an amazing group of people. I developed relationships, friendships, and eventually ended up becoming a pacer."
It was through this group that Marquis was introduced to a staple of the Los Angeles running community, Blue Benadum, which led to him spending his Tuesdays and Thursdays training with Blue’s group, the now defunct Nike Running Club. It didn't take long for Marquis to want to try his hand at racing. His initial idea was a 5k or 10k but Blue convinced him that the real fun was in the marathon.
So in the fall of 2017, with a little more than a year of running under his legs, he laced up for the Chicago Marathon and took off like a bat out of hell. Through 15 miles, he was on 2:45 pace, but ended up with some debilitating cramping that left him lying prone somewhere on the streets of Chicago with one of his friends massaging out his ailing legs. Despite limping home to a 3:09 finish, memories of that race are some of his most cherished.
"Pretty much every race I’ve run something sticks with me," Marquis said. "But nothing has been like the Chicago Marathon 2017. It’s so beautiful. A beautiful race."
Fast forward to March of this year. Coronavirus is starting to take hold around the world. Wuhan reached what would become its peak caseload a few weeks prior; passengers finally disembarked the Diamond Princess in Japan; and marathons in Paris and Tokyo were cancelled or stripped of nearly all participants and spectators.
The threat, however, hadn't fully reached the states yet. And so in the wee hours of March 8th 2020, Marquis and almost 30,000 other participants squeezed into their corrals in the dimly lit parking lot of Dodger Stadium eyeing all the glitz, glamor, pain and suffering the Los Angeles Marathon had to offer.
For Marquis, the race was actually part of a broader plan: treat it like a workout, his coach Omar Gonzalez told him, the goal race was still a few weeks away at the 124th Boston Marathon. The prescription was 20 easy, then let 'er rip the last 10k.
Three years removed from his first marathon, Marquis was now the proud owner of a PR set at the 2019 Chicago Marathon: 2:51. Despite Los Angeles being more of a tune-up workout than a race, he ended up running a 10-minute PR of 2:41. Three days later the Boston Marathon was postponed. Eight weeks after that, it was cancelled altogether.
"LA turned out to be the biggest blessing in disguise in a way," he said.
It was a confidence-boosting PR set in the middle of a training block that set into motion a new, much grander goal: become a professional runner and run an Olympic Trials Qualifier by 2024.
"The spark was always there," Marquis said. "But with the recent result in LA and the pandemic kind of changing everything in my life, it kind of ignited my fire to go for it."
Back in Huntington Beach, Marquis is on the hunt for another job, waiting to hear back on his application for unemployment, and clicking off steady 70-mile weeks following a brief hiatus from training after the Boston Marathon was postponed back in March. It's these stressful, yet quieter times, that have allowed Marquis to try to figure out his next steps.
"It's been tough," he says about the last few months. "But you know someone is being affected harder than I am, so I’m just trying to smile and keep putting the pieces together."
As far as his running goes, those pieces are part of a broader 4-year puzzle. Figuring out how to become a full-time sponsored athlete is one of those pieces--especially in a sport that has very little money to begin with. The other piece, and this might be the more important one, is the corresponding results and times that warrant an endorsement to begin with. It's something he's acknowledged won't come overnight. But there are benchmarks. At Boston this year he was hoping to break 2:40; in 2021 the goal is 2:35. "I have two opportunities each year, I just want to break it down, enjoy the process, love the process and know it’s not going to be easy whatsoever."
The process was something brought up by both Marquis and his coach, Omar Gonzalez. Although they've only been working together for less than a year, the results they've produced have been encouraging, enough so that when the window for qualification opens, both feel running the requisite time to be invited to the 2024 Olympic Trials is well within reach.
"He's good. He's fast. He has great form. Mentally he's there," Omar says. "He's ready to take the next step. But I'd be doing him a disservice if I changed his training and geared it towards running a 2:19. He's just not there yet."
"I love this sport, I respect it," says Marquis. "And I don't want to skip any steps. I know I'm coming in on the backside of this, some people have been doing this their entire lives."
Even the ones that have been doing this their entire lives often aren't in a position to train full-time. Nowhere is that more clear than the recent US Olympic Marathon Trials. Molly Seidel, the women's runner-up, was still working at a coffee shop part time while training for her eventual Olympic berth. It's an unfortunate reality of the sport, one that Omar would like to change and feels like Marquis is ready to challenge.
"Marquis is personable, humble, gets along with a lot of people in the running community," Omar says. "From a marketing standpoint, he's very marketable. He would be able to bridge the gap between professional runners and social running. And that's what could make him a professional runner--and what should change with professional running in general--is finding people that can relate the masses to the communities."
If endorsement deals are about visibility and marketability, then signing someone with as big of a footprint as Marquis has in Los Angeles seems like a no-brainer. Change comes slow, however, and for Marquis, running in pursuit of the little money that it could potentially bring into his life isn't high on his priority list. If you haven't picked up on it by now, he's not really looking for much outside of representing the sport, his community, and his family as best as possible. As they say, whatever happens, happens.
"I don’t really run for myself. I'd say it's 80% for my grandmother. The other 20%--I run for my family. I run for the city of LA. I run for the people that believe in me. And encourage me. It’s also for my future. I want to have a family one day. Those are all the things that get me out the door every single day."
"Running fell in my lap," Marquis says. "I strived so hard for basketball, and look where it landed me: in this direction with running. So there’s something good to come from it, no matter what. Whether I’ll be able to accomplish it or not, I believe in it."