Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Interview with Nick Clark

Nick Clark is an elite mountain runner living in Fort Collins, Colorado. Most days, the 37 year-old, who works as a web editor, can be found running the beautiful and challenging trails of nearby Horsetooth Mountain Park and Lory State Park and actively participating in the booming Fort Collins ultrarunning scene. Born in Canterbury, Kent, a historic town in England, Nick excelled at competitive rugby and other teams sports through college, never really feeling pulled to running. But shortly after moving to New York City, he decided to run the 2003 Detroit Marathon, and then he and his family relocated to Colorado in 2006. Though still intrigued by the road marathon, Nick is a self-described "trail running junkie" and has firmly established himself as one of the US's top long-distance mountain specialists.

A member of the Pearl Izumi Ultrarunning Team, Nick exploded onto the scene at the 2010 Western States 100, where he finished fourth overall with a 16:05. But when you look at his 2010 results, it's obvious that Nick was a rising star well before toeing the line at Squaw Valley Ski Resort two Junes ago. Going into Western States, he'd won the Ghost Town 38.5-mile (course record), Bandera 100K (course record), Antelope Island 50K (course record), and Jemez Mountain 50-mile. After his break-out 2010 Western States, Nick went on to win the mountainous Wasatch Front 100-mile, which throws 54,000 feet of combined elevation at you, and finish high in the standings in several other races.

This year, Nick has turned the heat up even higher. After recording a 2:36 at the New Orleans Marathon in February, Nick went on a trail-running rampage, winning and setting a new course record at the brutally hard Jemez 50-Mile in New Mexico (where I first met him) and finishing a strong third at both the Western States 100 and Hardrock 100, run two weeks apart. He then followed up Hardrock with a win at the Speedgoat 50K, a treacherous mountain race in Utah. More recently, Nick uncharacteristically struggled at Utra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, recording a DNF late in the race.

In addition to Pearl Izumi, Nick's sponsors include Smith Optics, High Gear, Atlas Snow-Shoe Company, Nathan, 1st Endurance, Petzl and BodyGlide. You can follow Nick on his excellent, regularly-updated and appropriately-named blog at

Enjoy the interview!

WH: Nick, thanks so much for agreeing to this interview. I've talked with you a few times--first at the Jemez 50-Mile and then at the Leadville Trail Marathon this year--and I have to say you always come across as totally first-class, genuine and friendly. Jemez was a tough race for me and I really appreciated your interest in what went wrong and what I needed to do to get better. So I just want to say thanks for that!

NC: No problem. I'm a running geek so I'm always happy to talk running and especially to help problem-solve. Glad you found some utility in what I had to say.

WH: Now for the stuff that really matters to our readers. You have had yet another awesome year! You ran a 2:36 at the New Orleans Marathon back in February, and then went on a trail running rampage that included a record-setting 8:07:45 at the Jemez 50-Mile in New Mexico, maybe the toughest 50 in the nation; third overall at the Western States 100 with a ridiculous 15:50; third overall at the Hardrock 100 with a 27:43, held two weeks after Western States; and another nice win at the Speedgoat 50K, which you said is the toughest 50K you've ever done. With an incredible spring and summer of racing now behind you, how are you feeling...and what's next?

NC: It's now almost two weeks since UTMB (Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc) and, to be quite honest, I feel really good and actually quite enthused about getting out and enjoying some low-stress running. I figured I'd be ready for a big break after UTMB, but I guess I just love running too much. As far as race plans, I'll do the Silent Trails 10 miler up in Laramie, Wyoming next month, run a few road races, and then maybe think about trying to run a fast late-winter marathon. If I could run under 2:30, I think I'd finally have the whole marathon thing out of my system. I'm not the fastest guy in the world but I enjoy the process of getting into road shape. I'm also thinking very vaguely about The North Face 50-Mile in December, although it would take a big effort to get into competitive shape for that. I'd need to do lots of hilly tempo work, long runs, mile to four-mile repeats, and hill repeats to feel like I could compete. We'll see if I can find the motivation.

For next year, I'll put my name in for Hardrock and wait to see what happens in the lottery there. If I get in, then I'll center my season around that. If not then I may try and earn a Western States spot at one of the Ultra Cup qualifying races, or I may do something else. Leadville definitely has some appeal, UTMB maybe. But, really, it's totally up in the air at this point.

Nick finishing the 2010 Western States 100 with a scorching 15:50.
WH: Every great runner has a few tough races. More recently, you seem to have struggled a bit at Sierre-Zinal and Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, two notable mountain races in Europe. Some folks have said maybe you were tired from the Western States/Hardrock double. In your blog, you said poor communication from race officials was a major factor at UTMB. Looking back on those two events, what do you think was going on?

NC: I wasn't expecting great things for Sierre-Zinal. My training all spring and summer was focused on the 100-mile distance, which means I was primed to run for a long time at a steady pace. Sierre-Zinal is about power and speed and I simply didn't have that. I was also still a bit fatigued from the Western States/Hardrock double, so it's really no great surprise that I didn't perform that well there. Two weeks later and I was running UTMB, and quite honestly I had very low expectations for that race too. I went out very easy and just plugged along all day. By mile 70, I had worked my way up to seventh from somewhere in the 20s and I legitimately felt like I had a shot at holding that and maybe even sneaking into the top five. I was definitely riding the line though and when I finally found out that we were being re-routed and they were adding a massive descent and climb in addition to mileage, I just fell apart. By the time we were back on course, I had given up mentally which in turn shut my body down. It was a disappointing way to end the summer season for sure, but the whole Switzerland/France running trip was a great experience, so no regrets.
On the communication thing, it was unfortunate and I don't want to make excuses, but it was definitely a major mental blow to learn that I was running all the way down to Martigny and back up over Col de la Forclaz to get to Trient rather than over Bovine, which was the route I was mentally prepared for. The descent to Martigny was crushing, and it was somewhere on the big climb up Col de la Forclaz that I fell apart mentally and gave in. Others got it done under the same circumstances, so definitely no excuse. I was tired going in, and as it turned out, I just didn't have that extra bit in reserve to overcome that last hurdle. Bummer.

Nick at the 2011 Hardrock 100.
WH: One of things I really admire about you is that, like many of us, you have a family and job (as a web editor) and still manage to get in your training in the mountains around Fort Collins, Colorado. Only with you, you somehow manage to run at a super-elite level. How do you do it all?
NC: I'm fortunate to have an understanding wife, a flexible job, and hilly trails out my front door, in addition to help from Pearl Izumi, but it's always a juggling act. I run in the early morning a lot, and can typically find a window during the day to get in a second run, but I still have to prioritize running over other activities at times to get the training done. I'm enjoying it right now and we make it work as a family, but I guess we'll see how sustainable it is to stay competitive from a motivation, age and time standpoint over the next couple of years.
WH: You mentioned possibly going for a 2:30 marathon later this year. You ran that 2:36 in February so you're pretty close. I share your enthusiasm for the process of marathon training--the intervals, tempo runs, etc. But, as you know, it's not easy! Tell me about your marathon training program.
NC: I think I'll need to be a bit more disciplined this time around if I decide to do another marathon. Last year, I managed to get off the trails enough that I was able to get into decent marathon shape, but I was still spending too much time in the hills jogging around. I didn't do nearly enough work at marathon pace in getting ready. I was good at getting out and doing weekly mile repeats at 5K pace - mainly because I enjoyed the group I was working out with - and I was also getting out most Thursdays for hilly road tempo runs where we would go 5 miles easy and then come back at half marathon effort. I will probably do both those workouts again this time around, but will need to get more serious about the long run. Rather than doing my long runs on hilly trail, I'll need to run the roads and look to finish them off with efforts at marathon pace. I will also need to get some long MP interval efforts in: 2x4 mile, 3x3 mile, 2x6, etc. I may actually drop my mileage versus last year too, so I can focus my time and effort on the workouts and recovery rather than the stamina.
WH: When I saw you descending Caballo Mountain at the Jemez 50-mile in May, I quickly realized that you're running on a whole different level than many others. When you get down to it, what drives you and makes you the super-competitive runner that you are? Is it a physical edge, a mental edge, or something else?

NC: I've played sports my whole life, and a lot of it at a reasonably high level, so I guess I just have a strong competitive drive.

WH: Your Western States/Hardrock double was beyond impressive. You finished a strong third in both races, which were separated by just two weeks. And, in the process, you broke Andy Jones-Wilkins' WS100/HR100 double record. Tell me about your recovery strategy in-between those races and how you were able to run so well at Hardrock, which has an insane 67,000 feet of combined elevation change in some of the most rugged backcountry in North America, on legs that should have been toast.

NC: No real recovery strategy other than to take things easy. I didn't run for a week after Western States, and then did some light jogging in the hills in the six days before Hardrock. Given that I was just 13 days removed from Western States going into Hardrock, I put very little pressure on myself to run well, so went in with the mindset that I was just there to have fun and survive. This meant that I went out very conservatively and never really tried to push things, which is probably I really good strategy for the 100-mile distance. I had the same mindset for UTMB and I think it would have paid off if we'd have run the course we were supposed to.

WH: I asked Karl Meltzer the following question and I'd like to ask it of you, too. This year we've seen Salomon Running field a team that has absolutely dominated in major US races and internationally, as well. Kilian Jornet of Spain won Western States. Julien Chorier of France won Hardrock. Ryan Sandes of South Africa won Leadville. And recently Kilian yet again won Mont Blanc. In each race, Team Salomon was there in full force for highly coordinated logistical, crew and pacing support--a level of organization we might expect to see in the Tour de France, not ultrarunning. Is the Salomon model the wave of the future in competitive ultrarunning? And how can US elites, who don't (yet) get such support, funding and logistical organization, compete against the Salomon machine?

NC: I think the whole Salomon thing is a bit overplayed. They have a lot of talented athletes on their books and they are spending a lot of money on them relative to any other company right now. Quite simply, they offer the most attractive package in the business which makes recruiting the best runners (and lots of them) relatively easy. Kilian is in a class of his own right now and would be the odds on favorite at any 100 mile race he enters, but the other guys you mention are no more talented than the top guys over here. Whether or not other companies are interested in replicating this model is hard to say. The North Face (another very well endowed company) seems to be employing a strategy more focused on sponsoring high profile races than in promoting their athletes, while other companies probably don't have the kind of budget in the trail space that Salomon - a trail-focused and market-leading company has. New Balance could certainly compete if they chose to, but they appear to be more focused on a few individuals rather than creating a team vibe. Montrail would probably be the closest model in the United States. They sponsor a lot of good athletes, and have a couple of world-class runners on their books, but they don't have a guy like Greg Vollet at the helm orchestrating things and making sure that runners are getting to big races primed and ready to win. It seems a lot more hands off over there, which is cool. Smaller companies like Sportiva, Inov8 and Pearl Izumi just don't have the budgets that Salomon does when it comes to trail running, so it would be unrealistic to expect those companies to build a program as large, coordinated and focused as the Salomon effort.

WH: Tell me a little about the Fort Collins trail running scene and places you like to run.

NC: We have a very strong and supportive trail running community here in Fort Collins. The group is very active with two regularly scheduled runs a week that typically see a turnout of between 20 and 40 runners, in addition to tons of impromptu runs and social gatherings. We also host a bunch of other fun events too, including the 24 Hours of Towers, Chubby Cheeks Fat Ass (50K), March Mileage Madness, and the Vertical Beer Mile. Group trips to local races and destinations are also popular. A core group of seven or eight people have been instrumental in creating this atmosphere over the last couple of years and from there a strong community has grown. I feel very fortunate to be a part of it.

I do the balance of my running in Horsetooth Mountain Park which is a half mile from my house. Horsetooth is a county park, but it also affords access to Lory State Park. Between the two systems I have miles upon miles of primo mountainous single-track right out my front door. Rocky Mountain National Park is a 45-minute drive and I love to get up there at this time of year for some high-peak action, and then for things in between there are many, many 8-11K peaks within a 30-minute drive. I'm really quite spoiled for choice when it comes to trail access and running partners.

WH: In your judgment, what is the #1 mistake ultrarunners make in their training and racing?

NC: Tough question. Sometimes I tell people that they don't set lofty enough goals, but then I also see a lot of people over-estimating what they are capable of for their current conditioning. As runners, we need to have an organic sense of our abilities and fitness levels and I think a lot of runners over analyze, which is partly a function of all the gadgets that are currently on the market. Running is a very simple sport that has become overly complicated. If you are training to run 100 miles then you need to run a bunch of miles in training. If your focus is a mountainous trail race, then you need to get on hilly trail as much as possible; by contrast, if you are getting ready for a road ultra, then of course your training is going to look a lot more like a marathon training plan might. It's not rocket science. I also think a lot of ultrarunners underestimate the importance of top-end speed. I've run for miles at a time in a race like Western States at low to sub six-minute pace. That has to feel comfortable otherwise you're just digging yourself a grave, and in order for that to feel comfortable, it has to be trained. Mile repeats and longer at 10k-13.1 pace work well for that.

WH: One last question: Is there an ultrarunner out there who you admire the most and, if so, why?

NC: I have admiration for so many people in our sport, which is part of the reason I find it to be such an enjoyable community. It would be hard for me to pick out one particular individual.

WH: Nick, thanks again for your time!

If you liked this interview, you might also like my recent interview with Karl Meltzer!

All rights reserved. No part of this interview may be reproduced or reprinted without the express written consent of Wyatt Hornsby.


  1. Nick - let me help you with that last question. ;)

    Hey solid interview with a solid guy. Nice job Wyatt.

  2. GZ: Thanks for the nice feedback. I love doing these interviews and it's been something I've been wanting to do for a while now. Nick is a great guy and a great runner I very much respect.

    I'm already working on my next interview and have approached a noted road specialist who has excelled in time-based races. I'm hoping he says yes.


  3. Wyatt,

    Great interview!

    Always enjoy reading your blog....keep up the good work....and keep running!

  4. I love these interviews!! Thanks Wyatt!

  5. Great interview... the line that jumped out at me was, "I also think a lot of ultrarunners underestimate the importance of top-end speed." For me that is so true and what I am working on. I like the interview protocol Wyatt, the interviews are great to read!