How a 38-year-old found the will to become an Olympic runner.
May 15, 2000 -- You might say the odds are stacked against Christine Clark, MD, being an Olympic marathoner. She's 38 years old. She has two energetic, busy children -- 9-year-old Matt and 6-year-old Danny. As a pathologist, she's at the hospital at the crack of dawn. Her husband, also a doctor, works 60 to 70 hours a week. The kicker? Clark lives in Anchorage, Alaska, where the outdoor running season is only five months long.
Those of us who have jobs, young children, or both, know that finding time to maintain even a basic level of fitness can be hard -- so hard, in fact, that vacuuming and hoisting toddlers onto diaper-changing tables begins to feel like a real workout. But Clark, who works at the Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage, has surmounted such obstacles and somehow made time for the biggest challenge of all: This summer, she will run the marathon for the U.S. at the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, Australia.
Surprised? You're not the only one. In February, when Clark won a spot at the Olympics, she left many a shocked, highly ranked contender in her wake. Who was this woman from the great North, whizzing by despite an unconventional training regimen and a host of everyday responsibilities? Clark is one of those rare athletes who manages to be outstanding without devoting her entire mind, body, and spirit to competitive sports. She's a superior runner, but she's also got a life, which can provide great inspiration and valuable lessons to those of us who'd just like to fit a little fitness into our daily grind.
A Lifetime of Fitness
Clark's long been able to juggle a full life and fitness. She got a running scholarship to college and continued to run through medical school, residency, and two pregnancies. While most women find the idea of jogging with 30 pounds of extra weight and a bulging belly a bit daunting, Clark is nonchalant about it. "I did it for the whole nine months," she says casually. "It was really easy."
Still, her first 26.2-miler was only five years ago. She hadn't raced since college, and starting up after so many years wasn't easy, Clark admits. But she was able to squeeze it in.
Squeezing More Training Into Less Time
While most competitive marathoners log 100 or 120 miles a week, Clark puts in just 50 to 70 miles, plus one session of weight training. When the temperature gets Arctic and the roads are slick and icy, Clark simply laces up indoors, bounding along to nowhere for about an hour and a half each day on her treadmill. To stave off boredom, she cues up movies in the television and VCR. And winter isn't all bad, she says; she fits in valuable cross training by cross-country skiing. Sometimes, that means taking her boys along.
Working around the kids' schedule can be a challenge. During the day, they're in school and then day care until 6:30, so when Clark gets off work she can fit in a run before picking them up. In winter, the kids participate in "Junior Nordic," a program that teaches young children to cross-country ski, and again, Clark skis right along with them. During the summer, the boys play soccer, and Clark admits that then the time-juggling gets more problematic. (She can hardly jump onto the field and join in.) Often when she heads outdoors to run, she takes her kids along in a double jogging stroller.
Make Exercise Non-Negotiable at Any Age
As her adaptable training regimen suggests, Clark doesn't let exercise slide because of busy schedules or stress. "It has to be of paramount importance," she says. "Even when I was a resident [read: overworked and exhausted], I made the time to go out and run three times a week, even if it was only for short runs."
She gets laced up for those runs all on her own -- that is, you won't find a nagging personal trainer or a stopwatch-wielding coach masterminding her exercise regime. John Clark (no relation), a local high school cross-country coach and friend, chalks up this kind of self-propelled determination to her age. While Clark's 38 years would seem to be an impediment -- most of her competitors are in their 20s -- it may be one of her greatest advantages. She's focused, John Clark says. "She knows what she wants to do, and she's got the confidence to go out and do it."
The Road to Sydney
On the day of the Women's Olympic Marathon Trials in Columbia, S.C., last February, the thermometer soared to a stifling 84 degrees. The field was packed with runners who had better times and bigger names, including Joan Benoit Samuelson (the 1984 Olympic champion and world-record holder) and Anne Marie Lauck (a two-time Olympian), as well as Kristy Johnson and Libbie Hickman, both of whom had run under the 2:33:30 qualifying time in other marathons.
While the heat seemed to slow these more veteran runners, Clark, who works out on a treadmill in a heated room, did just fine. Somehow, this quirk in her training allowed her to slog through the heat undeterred.
All Eyes on Clark in Sydney
Clark had entered the race hoping to break the top 10, but shocked both herself and the other younger, more experienced runners with her win. "Winning was a dream come true," she says. "It was completely overwhelming and thoroughly wonderful!" After the victory, Clark headed straight back to Alaska and to work. About a month later, she indulged her family with a weeklong trip to Southern California.
She admits that the thought of heading off to Sydney alone a bit daunting. Not that she isn't excited about her Olympic debut. "I never had the conscious goal of going to the Olympics," she says. "But this is an opportunity of a lifetime. And it's an opportunity of a lifetime for my kids, too. Can you imagine being 9 years old and getting to go to the Olympics because your mother is competing?"
In the end, she hopes that her Everywoman Olympic debut will be an inspiration to other women struggling to balance a career, a family, and fitness, and that it will help them realize that many things are possible.
Susan E. Davis is a freelance writer based in Alameda, Calif.
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