Triathlete Swims, Bikes and Runs His Way to Fitness
By LAURIE LYNN FISCHER
If people were cars, he'd be an all-terrain vehicle.
A triathlon combines three sports: swimming, biking and running. Lake Placid's annual Ironman event is an on-road triathlon. Clark is an off-road triathlete. He rides and strides through rugged terrain. During a typical race, he swims up to a mile in open water, bikes 12 to 20 miles, and runs between 5 and 10 kilometers on trails.
Each year, Clark travels all over the Northeast to vie for the regional title. Each year, he accumulates more points than anyone else in his age division.
That gives him the right to take part in nationals at Lake Tahoe, Nevada, and Ogden, Utah. This year, for the first time, Clark went all the way to the world championship in Hawaii.
"It's a good excuse, really, to do a little traveling and see some nice places," says Clark. "It makes you feel like you're young again, and you're able to kind of have fun, like riding a bike was when you were a kid."
Born in Texas, Clark moved to Troy at 16, when his father landed a job at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Clark dropped out of Troy High School senior year and got his diploma through an equivalency program.
He packed boxes for the United Parcel Service and then back-packed around Latin America for a year. When he came home, he returned to academia.
In 1978, he earned a bachelor's degree in Spanish and English at SUNY Potsdam.
Two years later, after obtaining a master's degree in nonfiction writing from SUNY Albany, he went to work for General Electric in Niskayuna as a technical writer and editor.
Today, Clark is a systems analyst with GE Global Research. This Clark doesn't duck into phone booths to change into Superman. But he does convert from computer nerd into all-around athlete every day at lunchtime.
He either works out on the equipment at the company fitness center or heads outside to run, bike or cross-country ski. Winter weekends find him cycling with friends across frozen lakes or cross-country skiing by night.
During the summer, he swims and cycles on weekends. Sometimes, he mountain bikes at night and completes Tuesday-night training triathlons at Crystal Lake in Averill Park with the Capital District Triathlon Club (www.cdtriclub.org).
Q: How come you threw yourself into training? Did you have some sort of midlife crisis?
A: It was probably just the relief of having finally gotten out of college in my late 40s.
Q: How did you get into the sport in the first place?
A: My three brothers and my sister also have done triathlons. They live around the country. My youngest brother, who lives in Portland, Oregon, got us started in Grafton State Park in 2001. There's some sibling rivalry. We kind of egged each other on. In 2004, we all qualified for the nationals in Tahoe -- my daughter, too. I was one of the last siblings to take it up, but I'm the one who has persisted the longest. Last year, I think I was the only one who did any triathlons.
Q: How has your life changed since you became a triathlete?
A: There was this guy -- Robert Hutchins. He was president of the University of Chicago. He said, "Whenever I get the urge to exercise, I lie down until the feeling passes away." I was like him. I didn't run at all. I hated running. That was really a great discovery -- that I could be a runner. That's probably my best part of the triathlon, as far as being as good as some of the other people. I'm also in much better shape now. What I feel is the ability to sustain, to do things for a long time. I can endure hiking for a number of hours with pretty good intensity. I can keep up with some of the younger guys mountain biking. That feels pretty good.
Q: What about winning? How does that feel?
A: I enjoy it. It's a great kick.
Q: What's it like at the national and world championships?
A: I'm kind of near the back of the pack for the big races. I'm really just a fairly average triathlete among the people there. There are professionals who earn some prize money. It's an honor to be on the same course with them. They often finish the race in 2 1/2 hours. My time is more like four or five hours.
Q: What's the farthest you've made it in competition so far?
A: This year, I did the World Championship in Maui, Hawaii. There were 11 people in my age group. I came in 10th, but it was great. You got to swim in the ocean, then bike up the side of a volcano and then run along the beach through some treacherous lava formations where the lava goes into the ocean along the beach. It was like an obstacle course. It was like a moon landscape -- all rough and jagged.
Q: You've participated in both on- and off-road triathlons. Why do you prefer the off-road events?
A: It's always a challenge because the trails are in different condition. You really have to watch your step so you don't trip over the rocks and roots. One we did in Vermont at Sugarbush, for probably the first 15 minutes, no one could ride their bike, not even the pros. It was just pushing your bike up a steep, muddy hill. There was even snow on the trails in one of the races that I did. That was at Lake Tahoe, Nevada. We swam in Lake Tahoe. The water temperature was in the mid-50s. Even with a wetsuit, it was very cold. The scariest downhill part was straight down a fire road. It must have dropped like 1,000 feet over a couple miles. That got pretty fast.
Q: It sounds grueling. What's the appeal?
A: You really feel totally involved in it. It's exhilarating, from the beginning through the end. Being outdoors is also key. Especially when you're on trails and in the woods, you're in a beautiful location. It gets you out of doors in all kinds of weather and involved with other people who like doing that kind of thing. It's the kind of bonding that athletes, I think, naturally have when you've put in the hard work. You respect each other for being able to go the distance.
Q: How do you cope with the pain?
A: I guess I'm a little bit masochistic. You have to suffer through a few hours of hard labor. You just enjoy being able to endure it to the point where you finish. Then it's like the guy who's beating his head against a wall. It feels so good when you quit, it's a relief to be able to finish anything like that.
Tips from a triathlete:
Have some goals that you feel like you want to be prepared for, like doing a race. It's something that keeps me challenged to work out, because I know that I have something to look forward to. It's a good motivator.
Find ways to be outdoors. Compared to working indoors, it's much more gratifying. Don't run on the treadmill. Ski or snowshoe. Swimming in a lake is much more fun than swimming in a pool, where you're just going back and forth, counting your laps.
What's helpful for me is being able to take a break in the middle of the work day, and do that consistently.
Don't just do one sport. Mix it up. It gives you some alternatives in your training. For instance, if you turn an ankle while you're training, you can still swim.
If you want to succeed, then it pays to pick races where you have fewer people in your age group, so you have less competition.
Enjoy the moment when you're training.
Prepare yourself, or else you'll have a hard time finishing the race.
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