“It took me 10 years to win that thing,” says Jackson. “A couple of years ago, I went to a motivational class for work and we had to write down our goals. I wrote down that I wanted to be the XTERRA World Trail Run Champion and the instructor said I should pick a more realistic goal. I thought, ‘Well, maybe this isn’t the motivational class for me.’”
Rather than believe his instructor, Jackson trained harder. “That guy got me fired up,” says Jackson. “Nothing makes me work harder than someone telling me I can’t do something.”
Clark Jackson had an unlikely start to his running career. He competed well in high school track but wasn’t recruited by any college coaches. He went to Hampton University without a scholarship or a spot on the track team. “One day, after class, I was in my jeans and tee shirt and the men’s track team went running by, and I just decided to join them. The coach took one look at me in my street clothes and he handed me a jersey and said, ‘You’re on the team.’” After the third race, not only was Jackson on the team, but he was also the captain – a role he kept for the rest of his career at Hampton University where he still holds the records in the two and three mile events.
While he’s obviously a natural, Jackson stopped running when he was 28 and didn’t begin again until he was 50. “One day, I went up a flight of stairs and was out of breath,” says Jackson, “So I went to the doctor and he gave me all these prescriptions. I was like, ‘What is all this?’ and the doctor said it was either take the medicine or start exercising. So I started exercising. The only thing I knew how to do was run.”
It turned out that running was enough. Soon after he began running, Jackson found XTERRA and signed up for as many races as he could.
“I pulled out all my old college gear,” says Jackson. “You know, those tube socks with the stripes and those really tight shorts? My sister took one look at me and said, ‘We gotta take you shopping.’ I think I embarrassed the entire family. Maybe my wife burned my old running clothes because I can’t find them any more.”
Jackson fell in love with XTERRA races right from the start. “When you do road races, you want to beat everyone,” he said. “But on the trails, you just want to make it through the race. In XTERRA, I’m not running against the other guy. I’m trying to get the best performance out of myself. So at the end of an XTERRA race, I know I did my best. And your best is always good enough.”
Jackson found the other athletes at XTERRA events to be friendly and helpful. At the end of the XTERRA Trail Run National Championship in Ogden Utah in 2012, he and Champion Max King had a conversation about heat training and salt supplements. “I was trying to keep my blood pressure down by skipping the supplements, but The King told me I couldn’t do that. Max also taught me that in order to get used to the altitude in Utah and heat in Hawaii, I needed to show up to the races earlier. If I focused more on acclimating, I could focus less on recovering.”
Max King’s advice worked, and in 2016, Clark Jackson won his 60-64 age group at the XTERRA Trail Run World Championship. “I sent that old motivational coach an email. And I may have mentioned something about realistic goals.”
Unfortunately, Jackson’s joy was short lived. On the Thursday after the race, while Christmas shopping, Clark Jackson got a phone call from his doctor who told him that he had prostate cancer. "The worst part was that my phone died in the middle of the conversation and I didn’t know how bad the cancer was,” Jackson says. I had to do all my Christmas shopping before I could find out.”
Jackson and his wife kept his diagnosis a secret through the holidays so his family wouldn’t worry. “I didn’t want my kids upset for Christmas." In the meantime, Jackson set up the necessary appointments with his doctor and followed up with radiation therapy.
“Yeah,” Jackson admits. “It was stressful. But I just scheduled more races and trained harder to keep my mind off of it. I signed up for the Fort Eustis 10K Run/Ruck where we had to carry a weighted rucksack like the military. I got second overall and the winning guy was only 27. All the soldiers were breaking down at mile four and I was just getting started.” He adds that the winner of the race wanted a rematch but Jackson had to explain that he couldn’t because he would be coming out of cancer treatment.
Jackson underwent brachytherapy – a type of radiation treatment - but says that he wasn’t worried about the future or his prognosis. “I just focused on getting my mind and body right,” said Jackson. “Some of my friends started a prayer warrior group, so I felt like I was in good hands. They came back and told me everything would be all right, and I said, ‘I know.’ I never got depressed or thought I wouldn’t recover.”
The biggest problem for Clark Jackson is that he’s had to cut his runs short during his treatment. “But it hasn’t slowed me down,” he says. In fact, he just signed up for XTERRA Nationals and XTERRA Worlds in 2017 as well as the Ragnar Relay in Pennsylvania with fellow XTERRA Ambassador Jaclyn Shokey. “Guess what leg she gave me?” Jackson asks and then answers his own question. “Twelve! I said, ‘I’m supposed to be recovering from cancer and you gave me the twelfth leg?’”
But Clark Jackson doesn’t really seem very upset by this. In fact, he’s already planning for the future. “You know what I’m waiting for?” he asks. “I’m waiting for Max King to get old enough, and then we’re going to race.”
Photo courtesy of MyXTERRAPhotos.com