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A version of this story appeared in the September 2000 issue of Alaska Coast Magazine.
It's been seven months since Anchorage's Chris Clark shocked the running world by becoming the only American woman to qualify for the marathon in the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia.
Clark, who was the 22nd seed entering the U.S. Olympic Trials in Columbia, S.C., in February, won the race and caused a brief media frenzy when people found out her training method -- running on a treadmill because of Anchorage's icy winter streets.
But now, as the Olympics approach, Clark is trying to focus on her training while cutting down on her distractions. Not that any married 37-year-old woman with two young boys and a career as a pathologist at Providence Alaska Medical Center can really cut down on the distractions. The Olympic Marathon will take place Sept. 23 in Sydney (Sept. 22 Alaska time).
"I'm getting pretty excited," Clark said in a telephone interview a few days before winning the women's division of the Alaska 10K Classic (Aug. 5) with a personal-best time of 34 minutes, 26 seconds, good for 10th place overall. "When I first came back to Alaska, there were a lot of interviews and speaking requests. But now I'm trying to cut down on my media time (she's limiting her interviews to five minutes, although this interview did run a little longer) and I've limited my speaking engagements.
"My training is going well, but I'm worried about keeping my focus," she added. "I've basically had to say, 'No,' a lot. I don't have a lot of extra time, and I want to be in the best shape of my life when I get to Sydney."
Clark's training was hampered in June by a case of plantar fasciitis in her left foot, a painful condition that feels similar to a heel spur and sometimes takes months to heal. Clark said the condition worried her earlier in the summer but, as her Alaska 10K Classic performance proved, "I'm finally over that," she said.
The condition, which really is an inflammation of the foot's arch, caused Clark to stop running for two weeks in June, about the time she went to the U.S. Olympic Committee Training Center in San Diego for a long-distance running seminar. While she was there, USA Track and Field doctors looked over her foot. Along with giving her physical therapy, the doctors fitted her with orthotics and told her to change running shoes. In the meantime, Clark stayed in shape by aqua-jogging, swimming, biking and weight training.
Over the past year, Clark has posted some of the best performances of her running career.
She had a personal record when she took third place in the Twin Cities (Minnesota) Marathon in October, plus she set PRs in winning the Olympic Marathon Trials (by seven minutes) in February, the 5-kilometer Alaska Heart Run in April and now the Alaska 10K Classic. She also ran the 25K Old Kent River Bank Run in Grand Rapids, Mich., in May.
Clark's season has not only shocked the running world, which previously hadn't really heard of her, but also her parents, Roy and Jackie Hoth of Billings, Mont., Clark's hometown. Roy Hoth said Clark was serious about everything she did, even as a child, and was already balancing cross country, track, swimming and academics while still getting to bed by 9 p.m. He said there was no pushing Clark, who was always disciplined on her own, but Hoth said the family never expected a national running title.
"I never expected her to succeed like this," Hoth said. "When she was third in Minneapolis, we thought that was great. The Olympics wasn't even a consideration. She wasn't even that outstanding when she was at MSU (Montana State University-Bozeman)."
Clark grew up in Billings, graduating from Billings' West High School in 1980. She didn't start running competitively until her sophomore year in high school (ninth grade was still part of junior high back then). Back then she thought she was a sprinter, Hoth said. She won the state championship in the 880-yard run and took second place in the 440 as a junior. As a senior, she won the state championship in cross-country running and in track placed second in both the 880 and the mile, although in the mile she and the winner both broke the state record with times in the 5:01 range, Hoth said.
"Three weeks later, in the Amateur Athletics Union national championships in San Jose (Calif.), she took third in the 1,500 (meters) with a 4:30," Hoth said.
It wasn't until 1988, when Clark and her then-boyfriend/now-husband John were attending medical school at the University of Washington, that she ran in her first marathon (in Santa Clara, Calif.).
After medical school both Chris and John Clark spent five years completing their respective medical residencies back east, then they moved to John's hometown of Anchorage in July 1993. John Clark is a pulmonologist who works 70 hours a week in the critical care unit at Providence.
In 1995, Clark ran and won the Mayor's Midnight Sun Marathon in Anchorage, a race she's won three times, and she won the 1995 Seattle Marathon. That first Mayor's Marathon victory came in her first marathon since Santa Clara, and she's only run about nine or 10 total in her career, Clark said.
"It's just been in the last five years that I've gotten into the marathon," Clark said. "Almost all of them have been PRs (personal records). I run about one or two a year."
Finding the time necessary to train for a marathon is difficult for Clark, who works 20-30 hours a week in the Providence pathology lab when she's not spending time with husband and her boys, 6-year-old Danny and 10-year-old Matthew. Add in Anchorage's inclement weather -- with snow and ice covering the streets nearly six months of the year -- and Clark spends a lot of time training on her treadmill, waking at 6 a.m. so she can complete her workout before her sons wake up. When she does go to work, she usually works nine or 10 hours at a shot, which Clark said she thinks works well with her busy schedule.
All that time spent on the treadmill -- Clark averages 60-70 miles a week -- attracted a lot of media attention when she won the Olympic Trials marathon. With the snow gone in the summer, Clark has been freed from her treadmill. But she said she never felt like she was a gerbil running in her wheel.
"I enjoyed about 95 percent of it," Clark said of her training. "There are times, even when you're out in the Alaska outdoors, when you don't feel like running. It's not like you spring out of bed every day to run. It's work."
Most top marathon runners average about 100 miles a week, but Clark's limited running time may have kept her fresh for the trials. Hoth, who also runs on a treadmill in Montana, thinks Clark's gerbil-in-a-wheel routine was an unforeseen advantage.
"I think the treadmill worked to her advantage," Hoth said. "She ran almost a perfect pace for the entire race (at the trials, where Clark averaged 5:50 miles). So maybe the treadmill helped. Also, on the treadmill there's more spring than on the roads. I don't think she expected to win in Columbia, but she PR'ed by seven minutes. I've watched her run before, and I always thought she left too much on the table when she was done. She was always the freshest runner at the finish."
Even though she's the only American representative in the Olympic marathon, Clark said she hasn't changed her training routine too much since winning the trials. Her Olympic Trials time of 2:33:31 will be one of the slower qualifying times in the race (31 women in the world have run times faster than it this year, though not all are in the Olympics). So Clark said she'll do the best she can but she's just planning to enjoy the Olympic experience.
"I've got such a busy life, it's real important for me not to tinker with my formula," Clark said. "I'm not setting any time goals (because each marathon is different). How I run is I don't key on other runners, I just try to run even halves (half-miles). I think I'll enjoy the whole experience of participating and being part of the action."