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Tampa runner comes through in the long run

Tampa's Rick Clark says ultra-marathons are not for everybody, and he should know. Clark, 35, is the only Floridian on the newly-formed, seven-member United States 100-kilometer team. He ran with the team last Saturday in the ultra-marathon world championships in Duluth, Minn., and he said it was the experience of a lifetime.

"Finishing that race was the hardest thing I've ever done," Clark said. "It was a situation where there was a head wind, there was freezing drizzle and the terrain was really rough. About halfway through, everything went out the window except just to finish."

Clark was one of 125 finishers in the 200-runner field. That means 75 of the world's top ultra-marathoner didn't finish.

To even make it halfway through an ultra-marathon would be beyond most runners. Local 5K, 10K and 26.2-mile marathons are usually the limit.

Try running 10 consecutive 10-K races. Or try running to Sarasota from Tampa. Some might say a runner would have to be ultra-nuts to try an ultra-marathon.

But others, like Clark, seek greater challenges in the form of longer distances. Much longer distances.

It takes more than endurance and desire to be competitive at the ultra-marathon level. The best ultra-marathoners in the world are in their 40s, Clark said.

"I don't think it's something young runners could start with," Clark said. "You're always thinking. The more experience you have, the more you can overcome the numbness and turn it into strategic thinking."

Experience especially helps over the final 30 kilometers.

"When you hit that 70K mark, you're hurting and you're numb," Clark said. "But you've got to stay on your feet, keep your feet moving. You've got to put the pain in the background.

"That's a mental thing, and the more experience you have, the easier it gets. You have to have a tremendous mental belief in yourself."

Clark has been running for 10 years. He admits his experience in ultra-distances is limited compared to others in the sport, but his times have made the running establishment take notice.

"I started running when I was 25, with races like the Symphony Classic 10K (in Tampa). I never had any coaching, so I made a lot of mistakes in my training," Clark said. "I leveled off in my ability. I burned out a little bit. I came to realize that what I did in training naturally leans toward longer distances. It seemed to me I wasn't the kind of guy who could run fast over short distances, but I could run consistently over long distances."

Clark entered a 12-hour run at the University of South Florida in 1988 and won with 75 miles. Last year he won the Tallahassee Ultra Distance Classic in 7 hours, 21 minutes, the sixth-best time in the nation for 100K in 1989.

"I was looking through an ultra-running magazine last September, and it told about the national team," Clark said. "I knew I could compete with, and run with the guys on the team, but I also knew the team was probably already set."

Clark took a chance and called ultra-running team coordinator Dan Brannon. Brannon told Clark, "Thanks, but no thanks."

"He said the team was chosen already, and they had really been looking for guys with more of a track record than I had," Clark said. "But he called me back a week later and implied that one of the members wouldn't be able to compete. So I was on the team."

Clark finished at Duluth in 8 hours, 44 minutes, more than two hours slower than the winner. Clark faced unfamiliar hilly terrain and bad weather.

"I trained awfully hard for that race. I was in the best shape of my life," Clark said. "But for a kid from here in Pancake Land, it was terrible."

Now comes the truly hard part _ recovery.

"I talked to a guy who said it usually takes him about three weeks to recover fully," Clark said. "That seemed incredible to me. It takes me about two months to be completely over the effects."

Clark said ultra-distrance running is still seeking recognition for its world championships from the International Amateur Athletic Federation.

"The goal is to attain the status of, say, the world championships in cross country," Clark said. "We're trying to get it off the ground."