Interview with Nick Clark – 2010 review and prospects for 2011

I had the great pleasure to spend a few hours with Brit ultra runner, Nick Clark, now based in Fort Collins, Colorado. Nick first introduced me to his local trails on Horsetooth Mountain Open Space, taking me out for an 80 minute run on a glorious clear December day. Luckily for me he was on an easy pace, and conversation kept flowing most of the way round. He has a way of floating effortlessly over the ground on ascents on a technical trail that belies belief! After we returned to his home above the Open Space, we talked about 2010, his best ever year racing ultras, and his plans for 2011:

Terry – 2010 was the year that Nick Clark was recognized as an ultra- running superstar. Did 2010 run out the way you expected, and what was your highlight of the year?

Nick – (Laughs at being described as a superstar) 2010 was definitely a better year than I was expecting, however, I knew after two years of really consistent running after a long injury lay-off in 2007 that I was fit and ready to run some strong races. Going into the Western States 100, I especially felt like I was in great shape, so I was confident. My main goal there, given the depth of the field, was simply to finish in under 17 hours, so to finish just a few minutes north of 16 hours was a pleasant surprise. Finishing less than an hour behind Geoff (Roes) and Tony (Krupicka), and running down Kilian (Jornet) when they were all going at it hammer and tong really helped boost my confidence as well. It’s the biggest 100-miler in the country, so that race was definitely a highlight.

Nick Clark
Nick at Wasatch 100

However, winning the Wasatch 100 was personally much more satisfying, especially coming back from getting lost the way I did. For some reason, the magnitude of the Wasatch course – running across a mountain range – and the beauty of the surroundings really inspired me. I guess I was also a little more enamored of the race, which involved a minimum of BS – no pretense, just a get-out-there-and-get-it-done attitude – so it was a very satisfying way to cap off the season. From a competitive standpoint, it certainly wasn’t Western States, but given that there’s a more than 30-year history of results to challenge yourself against, there was plenty to be chasing. Geoff ran 20.01 his first time out in 2008, so I was definitely shooting for that; I finished in 20.20 after getting lost for 40 minutes, so in my mind I feel like a went a little quicker even if the results say otherwise. Kyle Skaggs had also run around 19.30, so that was another mini target. I’m not sure if I would have dipped under 19:30, but it probably would have been close had I not gotten of course. Anyway, as I say, it was a great experience in a beautiful location, on a challenging course, with great aid stations – so definitely a highlight.

Highlights locally? The growth in the Fort Collins Trail Runners group and the Fort Collins Running Club, both of which I am actively involved with, has been great to see. I moved here direct from NYC 4 years ago, and while it took a little while to plug into the local running community, I have certainly become much more engaged in the last couple of years. I took over the Tortoise and Hare race series three years ago now, and we have recently been seeing record attendance at those with an average of 40-50 members running at each race. More recently, I have become a little more active with the FCTR (Fort Collins Trail Runners) and try to meet up with those guys at least once a week, in addition to getting the ball rolling on the bi-weekly Towers time trials.

Terry – Were you ever a road runner?

Nick – I started out running roads, however, I really haven’t been running all that long. I grew up in Canterbury, Kent (famous as a pilgrimage site, with many historical buildings including the cathedral, and home to one of the oldest schools in England) where I was definitely a team sports guy, playing rugby at a fairly high level – mostly scrum half and fly half – until two years post college. I never ran for the sake of running as I just didn’t enjoy it! The only thing I enjoyed about running was getting ready for rugby.

I always used to watch the London Marathon though with my dad as a kid – it was inspirational and very much a life goal for me (I still haven’t run it, but I will). In my mid 20’s I wasn’t really that active, but once we moved to NYC I decided to get fit, so I trained for and ran the Detroit marathon (2003) in a pretty modest 3.28. Initially, I thought I would be one and done, but of course I got the bug and kept going.

As I got fitter, my marathon times started dropping and I was running comfortably under 3 hours before moving to Colorado in 2006. And then I found the trails, which meant I pretty much completely left the roads behind, at least for training. I am a self-confessed trail junkie, and am very fortunate to live so close to the fantastic trail network up here in Horsetooth Mtn Park and Lory State Park.

Anyway, about the roads, so last October (2009) I was back in the UK for a friend’s wedding, so decided to jump in and run the Dublin Marathon with my brother and finished in 2.43, which relit that flame a bit. After a strong season on the trails and another year of training consistency, I am curious to see what I can push out in February in New Orleans with some specific road training.

Terry – When did you first start running trails, and what turned you on to run off road?

Nick – Arriving here in Fort Collins, Colorado turned me on to trails. What more motivation do you need than to be out here? Between my local trails here at Horsetooth and Lory State Park, I have access to probably 50 miles of dirt.  Bobcat Ridge just down the road has another 20 miles of trails, then there is Blue Sky, Devils Backbone, Indian Summer, Coyote Ridge for another 20 or so – all essentially from my front door. I consider myself very lucky and just love to be out on the trails. And the added bonus is that the trails here are so fantastically runnable – nothing stupid-steep like some of the stuff up the east side of the Front Range in Boulder – but still a great variety of challenging terrain.

Terry – Your Towers handicap sessions are legendary – we ran part of Towers today, and it’s a tough climb – how important has hill work been for you and has anything changed in that department in 2010?

Nick – We typically get anywhere between 20 and 40 runners showing up for the bi-weekly Towers sessions, which has been really encouraging. I set it up as a hard session, so to get that many folk out to bust a lung up a tough hill twice a month is just great. If nothing else, the hill provides good fitness feedback for anyone who wants it. The route doesn’t change – although the conditions obviously do – and there are always lots of runners to help stay motivated as you feel yourself slowly dying as you move on up the hill. The Towers runs start from the Soderberg Trailhead, and start with half a mile of rolling, then 3 miles & 1,600 feet to the summit at approx 7,200 feet. We start runners at staggered intervals based on their previous time or expected time to the summit, with the idea that everyone approaches the summit around the same time. Done at race effort, it’s a punishing run.

Nick Clark ultrarunnerWith regards to my training and hills, I was very much focused on racking vertical this year. If you’re planning to run mountain 100 milers, then there really is no substitute. In the build up to Western States I was hammering away at a couple thousand feet of vert every day in training. If you look at the training of the top five guys at WS this year, you’ll see a very similar training philosophy, centered squarely on vertical gain and descent. Hills build strength and endurance, in addition to callusing the brain. And certainly the mental aspect of super long distance running is key. For shorter races you have to fine tune of course, but stamina for me is built with consistent hill training, and from that platform you can refine for whatever race is the next goal.

Terry – You mentioned as we were running up Towers that you used descending Towers as a key preparation session for WS100. How did this help?

Nick – There are two key elements that you need to train in order to be ready for WS: heat and downhills. The last 20 miles of that course are rolling and very fast, but you have to get there with legs that can still run. You’ve run 18-19,000 feet of vertical descent up to that point, so if you’ve already blown your quads then you’re going to be hiking a whole bunch of stuff that you wish you were running, and running fast. From Foresthill at 62 miles down to the American River on what they call Cal Street (which is buffed out singletrack on the WS Trail) it’s a 16-18 mile stretch of mainly downhill running, which comes on the back of some seriously fast and long descents from Robinson Flat. It’s on Cal Street, famously, that races are won and lost. Your legs are either up to the task or they’re not. I felt great running down to the river this summer, and it was there that I got a lock on 4th place after passing Zach (Miller) and Hal (Koerner), and then after the big climb up from the river to Green Gate, I still had the legs to chase Kilian for third. It was an awesome feeling to be moving that well at the tail end of a 100 miler. I hammered the last 20 miles, and especially the last seven or eight from Highway 49, when I was really smelling Spanish blood. I knew I was closing on Kilian and when I got word at Hwy 49 that he had imploded it was off to the races. However, as soon as I caught him, two or three miles from the finish, he was immediately back into race mode and he managed to outkick me over the last mile after a couple of miles of brutal back and forth. It was a tough end to a great race and I have great respect for Kilian in that he found the gumption to get back in the race after suffering for so long.

Anyway, I used repeats on Towers before WS – 2, 3 or 4 times up at a moderate pace then run hard down. Also Round Mountain, just west of Loveland was another great training hill with 3,000 feet of climb in 4.5 miles. I would run that steady then run back down hard. I ran 15-25,000 feet of vertical gain and vertical descent every week for 3 months @ 100-120 mpw. As far as a training load goes, I tend to find that my fun level is at about 70-80, with the extra 40-50 mpw being more work than play!

Terry – You crossed the finish line at WS100 with your son, Alistair – how does he react to your runs, and is he likely to follow in your footsteps?

Nick – Alistair loves to run right now. He does the kids races in town at the local 5ks and whenever we are out on the trails he’ll see a hill and break out the run! Obviously he understands that I like to run – a lot – and so tries to emulate that to an extent, however, I don’t want to be pushing it on him. I think he’ll always enjoy the outdoors – run, climb, hike, whatever it may be – but really the only thing I’ll be encouraging as he gets older is to be active. Whatever shape or form that takes is fine by me.

Terry – With the move of several ultra runners to the Boulder area, how does the Fort Collins community and area compare to Boulder, and do you ever see yourself moving somewhere else to benefit your running?

Nick – Boulder has a far higher concentration of elite level athletes than Fort Collins, which is great, but I really enjoy the community here in Fort Collins and don’t see myself moving away. Besides, Boulder is only an hour away, so if I ever feel the need to get down there and run, it’s not a big deal. I’ve run down there a few times this year, but honestly I much prefer my local trails. In addition, I have a great range of training partners here.

On that note, it’s just as important for me to have slower runners to train with as it is to have faster training partners. Having the company of friends who move at a slower pace disciplines me to run slower and fully recover rather than push harder on what should be easy days. I also have road-focused guys that I train with at the track, which has helped these last couple of months as I try and push to build some speed. There are other guys like Pete Stevenson that will be up for 30 miles out in the wilderness at the drop of a hat, then I have guys like Dakota Jones or Ryan Burch (who is moving back to town in the new year) who I can hook up with for faster trail runs – so really no shortage of great training partners.

Certainly, the community has been huge for me in my training and I’m a big proponent of running with friends. It’s easy to turn the alarm off and roll over at 4:30 in the morning if you’re not meeting anyone, but if you make a date then that’s not going to happen. In the same vein, the Towers challenge has also been very important to me. In addition to being very effective at building community, it has also helped to keep my motivation high for a regular hard hill effort.

Terry – You signed up with Pearl Izumi at the end of 2009. How has your experience been with them so far, and how has working with you and the other members of the ultra team helped shape future PI shoes?

Nick – I have a good relationship with the guys at PI and with Mike Thompson, the shoe guy. He certainly listens to what we have to say, and being a test size I get good opportunity to try new shoes and offer feedback as they go through the prototype phases. The new Peak II is set for May of next year, and I am super excited about that shoe in particular. I have run in a couple of different versions over the last few months, and the current iteration, which is pretty much what will go to market, is a really great trail shoe for racing. It’s a total overhaul of the original Peak with a much tougher upper, drastically improved traction, a lower profile, all while retaining really good foot protection at less than 9oz.  PI has definitely come a long way in shoe development. There will be a strong emphasis for PI on trail shoes for the future – watch this space!

Terry – Looking ahead to 2011, what are your plans for racing next year?

Nick – First objective is speed. I plan to run a marathon in New Orleans in February.  The course is flat, at or below sea level. I am looking to hit low 2.30’s, with 2.2X being the dream scenario. There is a 10 miler in Colorado in January that will be a key indicator of my state of preparation for that marathon. I may also run the Frost Giant 5K and 10K (staggered start times so you can run both) in Estes Park on January 30th.

Then in April I look forward to the American River 50 in California, which is always a competitive race with a good mix of road and trail specialists. The first 27 miles of that one are on flat bike paths, and the leaders usually go through in 2:45 or so. Then the course hits rolling trails, so it’s a real compromise between road and trail and definitely a fast course, with the winner typically going under 6 hours. I figure I should be in good shape for that one with the marathon training in my back pocket, in addition to the endurance and trail focus that I typically have.

I’d like to go back and defend my Jemez 50 title in New Mexico, as I really enjoyed the course and organization there, but I’ll make the call on that a little closer to the date. I am signed up for WS100 in June and look forward to returning and running something in the 15s there, then at the end of August I head out to France to run the UTMB 100 with the Pearl Izumi team, which promises to be a phenomenal experience. In between, there may be a trip to Vermont or to the San Juans, and I’ll no doubt throw in a few of the other shorter local trail and road races that I enjoy doing.

Thanks Nick – we look forward to another great year for racing from the unassuming Brit ultra runner! 2010 was the year that Nick really arrived in the ultra running world – 2011 looks like he’ll be taking it to another level. Congratulations also on the imminent arrival of Nick and Dana’s second child, due in January!

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