Friday, September 4, 2009

Interview with Rae Clark--Tahoe 72-Mile Run Speed Record Holder

Rae Clark at the California International Marathon (Photo by Chris Hosmer)

Tahoe City, 1982. A group of runners toes the starting line of the Lake Tahoe 72-Mile ultrarunning race in front of the fire station. It is early in the morning, cool, and still a bit dark. The race instructor keeps the directions clear and simple: Take a left turn (on Highway 89 South) and run one lap--Go!

One of the runners at the front of the pack is Auburn's Rae Clark. He knows the course by heart, having run the race--but not won--the previous two years. He is ready and focused. Rae has his mind set on the win and a new course record. Will the third time be a charm?

Mentally, Rae has broken up the race into three pieces--the beginning game, the middle game, and the end game. In the first section, Rae runs smooth and in control. This section contains the steep hills around D.L. Bliss State Park and Emerald Bay, but it is early in the race and these hills don't phase him. He is now running by himself, far ahead of all the other runners.

The second section takes Rae through South Lake Tahoe, where he cranks out 6:15-6:20 minute miles, after which he slowly makes his way to the top of Spooner Grade, a relentless climb around mile 50 (he hits the 50-mile split in around 5:30). On the long climb, Rae feels the first signs of fatigue set in, but he pushes on.

Today will be his day.
Once he makes it over the top of Spooner, he opens it up, hammering the long 10-mile section down to Incline Village. Rae is tired, but does not stop or even slow down. He just puts his head down and grinds out the smaller hills on the final section, speeding up on the downhills.

In the final ten miles, he drops the hammer and he races to the finish, knowing he has left it all on the course. It was a good day. One lap around the lake in 9:06:11--first place and a new course record. It will be a while before the second-place finisher shows up. It will be a lot longer before anyone breaks that time.

27 years later, the record still stands.

Ever since I started running around Lake Tahoe (I ran my first Triple in 2004), I've been wondering about how fast I could make it all around the lake in one go. I've completed the 72-mile race three times now, with a 13:39 as my best time, although that was always part of the Super Triple (which includes running two marathons prior to the start of the 72-miler), so I know I could definitely go faster. The question is how much faster.

Since the Tahoe 72-Mile Ultra was revived in 2006 by Les Wright as part of the Lake Tahoe Marathon week events, nobody has broken 10 hours. The "modern record," if you will, is Oswaldo Lopez's 10:03:48--an amazing time, yet almost an hour slower than Rae's time. Four-time Tahoe Triple winner Sean Meissner has the second fastest time with 10:27 (2006).

Clearly Rae Clark was running at a different level. Even his great 1982 performance in Tahoe pales in comparison to some of his later successes: Rae went on to set the American 100-Mile Road Record (12:12:19) in 1989 and in the following year, he set the American Record for 24 hours on the track (165.3 miles). Just like the 72-mile Tahoe speed record, both of these records are still standing today.

What does it take to run such an amazing time? What are Rae's secrets and how do you train for that? I could not find much on the Internet, so I decided to get a hold of Rae to ask him these questions myself.

Rae is an old-school guy that is not fond of computers and likes to meet people face to face. Needless to say, it took me a while to track him down, but finally, with Tim Twietmeyer's help (Thanks Tim!), I got a hold of him. Apart from being an amazing athlete, of course, I was struck by his generosity and willingness to help other people; without ever having met me, Rae immediately offered advice and gave me a rare insight into his world.

I feel privileged to have talked to him and look forward to meeting him more often. One thing is for sure, it's going to take a lot to break that record and it is probably wise not to even give any serious thought about breaking that record until you can easily run a sub-10 or even a sub-9:30 lap around the lake.

An entire book could easily be written about Rae and his amazing accomplishments, but here, at least, is a small chapter. The following is my interview with Rae about his amazing 72-mile speed record.

Peter Lubbers: What do you do these days, Rae?

Rae Clark: I am a teacher and a coach in the Placer County area and I work a lot with special-needs children. I coach athletes of all levels. Not over the Internet though--just face to face. I still do a lot of bicycling and running. For example, I am a marathon pacer at the California International Marathon. Basically, I just like helping people.

Peter Lubbers: Apart from your success in road and track racing, I see you also raced Western States 100-miler multiple times. Do you prefer the trails or the road?

Rae Clark: Yes, I raced Western States and did OK there, but I have always been a track and road guy, that was my specialty.

Rae (4th from the right with black cap) at the start of the 1983 Western States 100 (Photo courtesy Western States 100 Archives)

Peter Lubbers: Tell me a little bit more about your 72-mile Tahoe speed record. Was it part of a race?

Rae Clark: I ran the 72-mile record time in 1982. I finished in 9:06:11 (averaging about 7:35 minutes per mile). I ran it as part of a race. In those days (the late seventies, early eighties), the Tahoe 72-Mile Ultra was an annual race that started in front of the Tahoe City fire station and circled around the lake counter-clockwise. It was a fairly small event, but it drew in some pretty good runners like Jim King.

Elevation Profile of the Tahoe 72-Miler

Peter Lubbers: Had you run the race before?

Rae Clark: Yes, I had completed it twice. In 1980, I finished top-five in about 9:37, which was good enough to break Don Choi's existing course record but not good enough to win. In 1981, I led the race for 62 miles until I was passed by Jim King with 10 miles to go. Jim and I went on to finish 1-2, running around 9:30, which prompted me to train even harder for my third try.

When I showed up in 1982, Jim King was not among the starters, but even if he had shown up, I was ready to give him a run for his money. I led the 1982 race from start to finish. Jim and I still joke about that time--if he had not beaten me in '81, I might not have trained as hard as I did.

Peter Lubbers: Did you ever run it again?

Rae Clark: Actually, no, I thought I'd let the record sit for a little while, wait until it was broken to take another shot at it. I love the race and the distance, so I had always expected to come back to it and break 9 hours. Then I started racing in Europe on the national 100K team and I also started focusing on other distances. Even at that time, there were many races to pick from and I simply could not run them all. To my surprise, the record was never broken.

Peter Lubbers: You set the national 100-mile road record in 1989. How would you describe your running shape in 1982?

Rae Clark: In 1982, I was 30 years old and I just started coming into my prime, but I had not peaked yet. In the following years, I gradually became faster. I ran my fastest marathon (2:28) in 1988, and then had my best races in 1989 and 1990 (the 100-mile road record and the 24-hour track record). In the mid-80s I also ran a sub-7 100K and a 5:17 50-mile PR. My marathon time in '82 was somewhere in the 2:35-2:36 range.

Peter Lubbers: So, if you had run Tahoe in the late eighties, you could have easily broken 9 hours?

Rae Clark: Yes, but of course that is just talk and talk is cheap. Talk does not break records; running does. Still, I know for myself that I was a lot faster in '89 and '90. I did not run it then, but I had always thought that a time in the 8:30 range would be a possibility for me.

Peter Lubbers: What was your race strategy?

Rae Clark: Whenever I went for a speed record, my motto was pedal to the metal. I did not want to give a half-hearted effort and then have to come back again--I basically wanted to walk away feeling I had given it my best possible effort. Giving it a 90-95% effort, that was my approach to all of these races and in this particular case (and a few others) it worked out well.

That said, I did have a definite race plan. I divided the race in three stages and ran easy and in control for the first third, harder on the second part, and I really hammered the last third. This race has a lot of hills, so most of the time I would run based on perceived effort. For example, on some of the flat sections in South Lake Tahoe I ran 6:15 miles, then on the hills I would focus on maintaining the same breathing pattern, the same effort. Similar on the downhills, I would speed up a lot, so the pace would vary a lot, but the effort was similar for each stage.

Peter Lubbers: What did you eat and drink?

Rae Clark: In those days, I did not eat all that much during race that would last 12 hours or less. I've never been a big fan of the liquid food like the gels they eat these days. If I ate, I would tend to stick to solid foods, especially boiled potatoes (I like the small red ones) and power bars, which were not too bad those days. I carried a water bottle and a friend of mine drove ahead on a bike and would give me a new water bottle at the different aid stations, so I could just blow right through and not have to slow down.

Peter Lubbers: Did you run the entire way, or did you walk some sections? Did you take breaks?

Rae Clark: I never stopped running. In fact, I never stopped running on any record attempt for that matter. Well, actually, that's not true--I did take a 5-minute break while I set my 24-hour track record. I had a quick leg massage at the 100-mile mark and then went on for another 65 miles. Again, pedal to the metal, all the way.

Peter Lubbers: What was your secret to success? What sort of training did you do to get ready?

Rae Clark: I specifically attribute my success to two things: Strength and Hill training.

First, strength training is important so that you can keep your running form in the later miles. I feel this is a critical element that is often overlooked. In ultras, it is more important that raw speed. You could run a 2:20 marathon, but that would not necessarily mean that you could do any better in ultra runs [Note: Rae's best marathon time was 2:28]. Upper body and core strength is critically important so that your body does not collapse 40 or 50 miles into the race. The longer you can remain upright and focused the better. You don't have to be a body builder though--Just working out with light weights and your own weight (push-ups and sit-ups) is all you need.

Second, it is important to train in the hills if you're going to run in the hills. I don't mean short hill repeats, but long mountain miles. Tahoe is at altitude, so it is important to get some altitude training in, too. I loved mountain climbing, so I would go for long runs in the mountains. For example, on weekends I would run 30 to 35 miles on the trails in Yosemite. To break it up I would climb Half Dome, or some other mountain. I loved doing that and it gave me the base I needed for the long-distance races.

Peter Lubbers: How many miles did you run per week, leading up to the race.

Rae Clark: I built the mileage up higher and higher over the years. In '82, I would start with a week of 100 or 110 miles and then build up to 140 miles over 4 weeks, put in an easy week, and start all over again. When you put in the high miles in your training, it prepares you well for the later stages of the race.

Later on (in the late eighties), I would routinely run 150 to 160 mile weeks and in the months before I ran my 24-hour record I ran more that 200 miles on several weeks. Racing was almost the easy part then, since I had already done the homework I simply showed up and hammered it out.

It works differently for different people though and I would not recommend running that many miles to everyone. It's very personal. Also, you can't rush this. You must build up your mileage gradually.

Peter Lubbers: What was the hardest part of the race for you?

Rae Clark: Spooner Summit. Mainly, because starting in Tahoe City, you get there around 50 miles, which is a natural point for your body to start aching and slowing down. There is a relentless three or four mile section to the top of Spooner. I kept running, but that was a hard section.

Peter Lubbers: OK, here's a different kind of question--I am 39 years old and I can run a 39-minute 10K, a 2:59 marathon and an 8:34 100K (and like to dream big). Realistically, could I ever get close to or even break your 72-mile time?

Rae Clark: Yes, it's definitely possible. You're probably not going to get a whole lot faster at the 10K distance, but you can greatly improve in the longer distances. If you can shave another 10 minutes off your marathon, it would make a world of difference at the 72-mile distance. You also need to work on upper body and core strength and you're going to have to ramp up the miles. You'll have to do this gradually though, but it is possible. You'd probably have to do this in the next 2 or 3 years, too. I hope you'll give it a try. Treat any race with due respect and you can make it.

Well, I guess that means there is hope for me yet!
Thanks for the interview, Rae! It was great to talk to you.


Gretchen said...

Great interview, Peter and Rae! Very informative, and what an incredible guy.
I loved the opening description of his record-setting run because I could totally picture each part of that race as you described it.
Peter, I love that you like to dream big! Go for it! :)

Alan Fletcher said...

hey peter - let me know when you hit 200 miles in a week and i'll run half of them with you when i'm feeling like a big week..... alan

Peter Lubbers said...

So you'll be joining me at the end of September at the Super Triple, I see. That's great, Alan!

saschasdad said...

Excellent interview! Rae seems like a very geniunely nice guy who's willing to share with others what it took him to get to, and stay at, the top for so long.

Ever since the 72 was started again in 2006, I've thought it should start and finish in Tahoe City. It just makes the most sense to me, and it's cool that that's where it used to be. Also, to get anywhere near the record, or even 9:30ish, I truly believe it needs to be a day race, starting around 5 a.m. That's when I'll be back for it.

One more thing - are you sure Rae hit 50 in a smokin' fast 5:30 (that would have included all of the major hills, and when he was running easier)? If so, then he literally fell apart the final 22.

I hope I get to meet Rae some day. Thanks for the interview, Peter.

Peter Lubbers said...

Thanks Sean.
I'll double check the 5:30 split with Rae and will post an update when I find out.

Chihping Fu 傅治平 (超馬阿爸) said...

Thanks for sharing this great interview. Though far away from my level, it is inspiring and insightful.

Wish you another great run at Lake Tahoe!


Birant said...

I enjoyed reading your interview. What an inspiration this man is! So genuine. Thank you for sharing. Did you take his advice and go for the record? :)

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