Greatest Athlete #15: Clark never expected a life of running

CLIFF CLARK COURTESY PHOTO | Shelter Island's Cliff Clark (far left, #301) runs in the 1972 Olympic Trials at Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore. Leading the pack (#229) is legendary distance runner Steve Prefontaine. Clark finished six seconds behind Pre in this race.

The walls in Cliff Clark’s second floor office at the South Ferry Company building on Shelter Island are loaded with photographs from his life.

There are the celebrities, like Nicole Kidman, who have stopped in to sign an autograph for the ferry owner on their travels to the island.

Then there are all the photos of the athletes who have run through Clark’s second life as a renowned distance coach.

One photo on the wall might stand out more than others to running fans. It’s a shot Clark was given from the archives of the Eugene Register Guard, a daily newspaper servicing three counties in Oregon. Running slightly in front of the pack in the photo is the great Steve Prefontaine, the legendary distance runner, who put the sport on the map in the United States in the early 1970s while running for the University of Oregon and Team USA.

But Clark didn’t hang that photo because he’s a huge fan of Prefontaine.

The 20 Greatest Athletes in area history is a Times/Review countdown series that will continue over the next 15 days. Each day, a different athlete will be unveiled leading up to the No. 1 athlete of all-time Aug. 17.

That picture hangs on his wall because of someone else who’s in it. Running outside of the pack in the photo, which was taken at the 1972 Olympic Trials, is a tall, slender 27-year-old man from a tiny island that sits between the North and South forks of Long Island.

His name is Cliff Clark.

“He would tell us about his history as a runner, but never to brag,” recalls Janelle Kraus, herself an Olympic Trials competitor from Shelter Island, who learned her craft under the tutelage of Clark. “He would tell us only as a way to motivate us.”

Clark’s story is that good. The kind of tale you read about in a book, or get goose bumps from in a movie.

It’s a saga that could inspire a great distance runner to a personal record. Or a yarn to help a non-runner, like Clark himself once was, discover a passion for the sport.

Clark never much cared for running as a teenager on Shelter Island in the early 1960s. He loved to compete, and baseball and basketball gave him an avenue to unleash his aggression. But running? Well, he simply wasn’t that fast.

“I was so slow in high school,” he recalled in a recent interview at his office. “There’s a story I tell about it …”

Clark was playing in a baseball game when he beat the center fielder with a ball that just kept on rolling.

He saw the ball scoot past the defeated outfielder as he made a turn for second base. The ball didn’t stop until it rolled out to about 400 feet from home plate.

The center fielder took his time getting the ball to the shortstop, who then relayed to third base.

“There I was standing on third with a triple,” he said. “Anybody else would have been sitting on the bench sipping water after legging out a home run. Girls could outrun me. I did not have a lot of leg speed.”

But he could put a leather ball through a round cylinder, 10 feet off the ground, with a great deal of consistency. He was such a good basketball player that by the time he reached the varsity level he was averaging more than 20 points per game for the Indians.

He had found his niche in the sports world, or so he thought.

One day before Clark’s senior year of high school his basketball coach outlined a plan for his team. Nobody was going to shoot hoops on the Shelter Island varsity unless they spent their fall running with the cross country team.

“He wanted us to run cross country to get in shape for basketball,” Clark said.

He ran in two meets that year. Much to his surprise, and the shock of others, Clark placed first in each of the two meets he ran.

Still, he was a basketball player.

When it came time for Clark to decide what school he would attend for college, he settled on Harding University in Arkansas, a school with 1,600 students where his uncle worked as a professor.

Clark chose the school because he believed it gave him the best chance to play basketball at the next level. He quickly found out he was wrong.

A 6-foot-3 walk-on with a thin build, he didn’t have the size to play the forward position and he lacked the quickness to play guard.

Clark projected as the 15th man on a 16-man basketball team when he entered his freshman year.

Once again, at the direction of a coach, he turned to running out of hope that it would improve his quickness.

One day Clark showed up for a run on the Harding track at the same time as the cross country team. Almost completely unaware of what everyone else was doing, he began to run. Little did he realize, he was outpacing the other runners.

“I wasn’t racing anyone in my mind,” he recalled “But I lapped the whole team.”

The school’s cross country coach took notice, and offered Cliff a spot on the team.

“If ever there would be a divine hand in my life, that was it,” Cliff said.

HARDING UNIVERSITY PHOTO | Cliff Clark (top row, second from left) with his 1965 cross country team and his beloved coach R.T. Clark (far right).

R.T. Clark was a research scientist who taught at the school and also helped coach the runners, beginning in Cliff’s sophomore season.

While at Harding, Coach Clark’s finest accomplishment was developing the motion sickness pill NASA used on its Apollo missions. His second finest accomplishment might have been the work he did with his raw runner who showed natural ability but had no formal training.

Essentially what Coach Clark taught his young prodigy with the same last name was to discover his two strengths and use them to his advantage.

Cliff Clark had endurance. He had mental toughness. If he could find a way to use those two things, he could be great.

And he was.

While he wasn’t fleet of foot, Clark found he could run long distances at a brisk pace. He could be out kicked by the competition, but he boasted a level of endurance most runners he competed with at the collegiate level couldn’t keep up with.

He placed second in the Arkansas Intercollegiate Athletic Conference cross country championship his freshman season, while running in Converse All-Stars and Bermuda shorts, since the school couldn’t afford to by him a complete uniform.

Under Coach Clark’s tutelage, he would end up winning the conference championship each of the next three years and he earned National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics All-American honors during his junior campaign, when he placed 12th at the NAIA national meet in Omaha, Neb.

But it was during the spring track and field season when Clark really made his mark in his years at Harding.

Clark would end up setting the school record in the steeplechase, while earning All-American track honors in 1966.

His performance in cross country and track and field at Harding would earn him a spot in the school’s athletic hall of fame, of which he was inducted in 1976. One year earlier, he was inducted into the NAIA Hall of Fame.

Perhaps his finest race came during his junior season in 1966, when he competed for the NAIA national championship in the steeplechase.

Coach Clark had fallen gravely ill by Cliff’s junior year, but he wasn’t going to miss his prize pupil’s biggest race. So the coach traveled to Sioux Falls, S.D. to see Cliff run.

Just before he was about to run, Cliff looked up at the grandstand and saw Coach Clark sitting near the railing.

“I told him I could never repay him for all that he had done,” Cliff recalled.

His coach leaned in and said softly, “It’s like a relay race. I carried the baton, and now I’m handing it off to you.”

Cliff Clark seized the baton and won the national championship in front of his ailing coach that day.

One month later, R.T. Clark was dead.

Shelter Island, Harding University
CLIFF CLARK COURTESY PHOTO | Cliff Clark with his wife Tish, whom he met while both were students at Harding University in Arkansas.

Cliff wasn’t seeking out his wife Tish the day they met on the Harding campus.

A recent Indiana high school graduate, the future Mrs. Clark was strolling along with her freshman roommate when she first met the young runner. It was the roommate who Cliff had eyes for at the time.

“He started talking to her, but we really ended up hitting it off,” Tish recalled.

Today Cliff looks back on the more than 40 years he’s spent with his wife and realizes just how privileged he is. For anyone to have traveled as much as he has for competitions as an athlete and later a coach, it always helps to have a strong companion along for the journey.

“She’s been with me from our dating in college, through all the running and coaching,” Cliff said. “Without her full support, there is no story about me past college. The coaching and competing post college is a commitment that can only be done by a single person or a blessed person who has a supportive spouse.”

Clark had the latter, and Tish has been by his side every step of the way.

She traveled with him to Merced, Calif. after college, where he was stationed at Castle Air Force Base. Tish began work at Bank of America, while Cliff used whatever spare time he had to work as a volunteer coach with the cross country team at the local high school.

But Clark didn’t just coach while in Merced.

His collegiate record established him on the national scene, and since he was considered a candidate to represent his country internationally during his military service, he was given the freedom to train and travel for competition. So while he spent more than 40 hours per week working as the chief of quality control in the personnel division at the base, he was free to travel for running events without taking leave.

Clark spent the next several years of his life building up his reputation as a national runner while serving as the captain for the U.S. Air Force team.

He found international success running in the military ranks. A scrapbook Tish maintained over the years shows just how good he was, capturing impressive times in races around the country and in Europe. He’d finish fourth in the 10K at the 1971 International Cross Country Championships in Rome. He’d also compete in races in France and Morocco.

By 1972, he’d built up enough success that he was invited to run in the Olympic Trials at Hayward Field in Oregon for both the 5,000-meter and the steeplechase.

He entered the trials with limited expectations in the 5,000, but felt he had a legitimate shot to qualify in the steeplechase.

Twenty-five runners were competing in two qualifying heats at the trials. Finish in the top six of your heat, and you’re in the finals. Finish top four in the finals, you’re heading to Munich as an Olympian.

Clark’s first misstep at the trials came in the qualifying heat of the steeplechase.

Typically his strategy would be not to follow. Instead he’d try to take control of a race with a good pace and then use his great endurance to run the fastest final 800 meters.

But at the trials, he became obsessed with that number four. Knowing that he just needed to place in the top four of the finals, his goal was to stay in third place each race.

If he did that, he’d have some wiggle room behind him to advance.

There was just one problem with that approach.

The first two runners in the steeplechase set out on a blistering pace at the front of the pack, and Clark followed right along with them. Recognizing how quick a pace the frontrunners had set, Clark began to lose some energy. He looked back behind him to see where fourth place was and noticed he was 25 yards ahead of the next closest runner.

“Stupid,” he said. “I was wasting energy.”

The first and second place runners quickly ran out of gas and ended up finishing way off the qualifying time. Cliff also began to fade, and he found himself in eighth place with one lap to go.

He’d end up using every last bit of energy he had that day just to climb back into fourth place.

“I had to sprint to the finish to move on and that’s what I did,” he said. But he’d have four more days to sit around stewing about his tactical error before the finals were run.

Cliff Clark's participant pass for the 1972 Olympic Trials

In the 5,000-meter qualifier, Clark found himself in a heat with legendary runners Gerry Lindgren, Tracy Smith and Steve Prefontaine.

Smith was an Olympian in 1968 and Pre’s star had already begun to rise on the international scene before the ’72 Olympic Trials.

In the qualifying heat, Clark held his own against the stiff competition and came in fifth place with a time of 13:57.6.

He finished six seconds behind the leader Prefontaine and five seconds ahead of not qualifying.

In the finals of the 5,000, Clark remembers holding his own with Prefontaine for the first two miles before he watched along with the more than 12,000 spectators in the stands as the 21-year-old Oregon star turned it on to run a 4:06 final mile en route to a 13:22.8 American record in the event. Prefontaine’s final heat at the ’72 Olympic Trials is considered one of his most legendary performances.

Clark would finish the final heat in ninth place, well out of reach for Munich.

“You don’t tug on Superman’s cape,” he said while telling the story last week, “you don’t spit into the wind and you don’t mess around with Pre.”

“I like to tell people now that I pushed Steve to the national record,” he joked.

Clark never really had much faith that he’d make the Olympics in the 5,000 meter, but he wasn’t going to give up the chance to try.

It did however add to his workload. Instead of needing to be fast twice during the trials, he’d have to run four races.

By the time he got to the finals in the steeplechase, he was pretty low on gas.

Clark’s chances of reaching the Olympics ultimately ended when the runner directly in front of him in the final heat got stuck on a hurdle. Clark had to come to a complete stop, shove the other runner out of the way and continue on.

By the time he got moving again, he was 40 yards behind six other contenders who had moved ahead of him. He’d race his way back to fifth place, but he never reached that magic number four.

“It was too little, too late,” he said.

Clark would end up finishing at 8:36.3. He missed the Olympics by 2.8 seconds.

“It was a very disappointing time,” remembered Tish, who was in the stands that day. “But he had it in perspective. It’s like he tells all his runners: ‘Running is something you do, but it doesn’t define you.’ ”

Clark says his biggest mistake was not hiring a coach prior to the trials. He had coached himself all those years following the death of his college coach, but he realizes now how much a mentor could have helped him.

“If my college coach was with me I wouldn’t have made the mistake I did,” he said.

Clark would continue running for the Air Force, but an inconvenient transfer to a base in Washington, D.C. and chronic hamstring problems slowed him down.

At one point he had his sights set on the 1976 Olympic Trials. Instead he resigned from his military career and packed his bags for a different trip that year.

He headed back home to Shelter Island.

CLIFF CLARK COURTESY PHOTO | Cliff Clark continued competing locally even after his days of international and elite national competitions were over.

It’s been a great life for Cliff Clark, and he wouldn’t dare tell you differently.

The kid who once had his heart set on being a college basketball player only to learn of his limitations, found his true athletic love with distance running. Now 66 years old and still working for the ferry company his family founded nearly 300 years ago, he’s still managed to enjoy a lifetime in the sport.

“It’s such a blessing what this sport has done for me,” he said. “Everyone goes off to college to make a difference.

With whatever you do, you want to see that all of your hard work pays off. I can honestly say I’ve been paid in full for all the work I’ve put in.”

In addition to his coaching, Clark continued to run competitively for many years. At 42 years old he placed second at the Masters Cross Country Championship at Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx.

His best ever Masters time was 15:38 in a 5K, at the time it was four seconds off the fastest ever Masters time in Long Island history.

In 1992 he had what he calls one of his finest experiences, running in the same Shelter Island 10K with four-time Olympian and 1984 silver medalist Grete Waitz.

Clark never really lost that natural talent.

The final time he ever raced competitively was in 2004, when he last ran the 5K on Shelter Island.

The slow kid who once couldn’t leg out a home run in a baseball game — the same man who lacked so much speed growing up that nobody could believe all of his college track success — finished in third place that day.

He was 59 years old.

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What is this 20 Greatest Athletes list?

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No. 19 JoAnna Judge

No. 18 Alicia Conquest

No. 17 Keri Bettenhauser

No. 16 Carl Smith