Donner Lake Triathlon kick starts competitive racing career |

Donner Lake Triathlon kick starts competitive racing career

When Richard Clark entered the Donner Lake Triathlon for the first time 11 years ago, he barely knew how to swim. He glanced over a blurb in the paper for the race, and thought it sounded like a good opportunity to try out his first swim-bike-run event. He was 50 years old.

“I bought a wetsuit that didn’t fit and I didn’t know how to swim, and I entered,” said Clark.

He came out of the water within 45 seconds of the swim cut-off.

But, he had caught the triathlon bug and after the race he signed up for swimming lessons.

“Swimming is technique. If you try to muscle yourself along with swimming, you’ll just tire yourself out,” he said.

More than a decade later, the part-time Truckee resident has yet to miss the annual Donner Lake event and has become an extremely competitive and accomplished triathlete. After competing in numerous smaller triathlons following the DLT, Clark entered his first iron-man length triathlon – 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and full marathon run – in 1993.

He chose the Vineman in Santa Rosa, but was stifled by the 103-degree heat.

“It was very hot. By the time I got off my bike, I was just shot,” Clark said. After that race, he realized he needed to train more. In 1996, Clark went back and did Vineman again to set a course record in his age group which still stands today.

After his first Vineman in 1993, he started doing some of the more popular Northern California triathlon events, where he continued to place at the top of his age group.

He has completed the ever-famous Hawaiian Ironman every year since 1994 in Kona. The last two years he finished in the top five in his age group, and has been honored on the awards podium.

In 1995, Clark entered the world’s most prestigious trail ultra-marathon, the Western States 100-mile Endurance Run from Squaw Valley to Auburn. It was a difficult year, with an added element of a late snowpack making for the slowest finishing times in history.

“The first 24 miles we were running in the snow,” Clark said. “That was tough, I did a lot of walking at the end of the race.” He finished in 27 hours.

As if ultra-marathons and ironmans weren’t enough, last year Clark qualified for the Ultra Man World Championships also in Kona, Hawaii – a three-day stage triathlon of a 6.2-mile swim, 261-mile bike and 52-mile run. The race circumnavigates the entire island. There were only 35 entrants, and Clark finished first in his age group, seventh overall. He was the second American to finish the race.

These kinds of successes have been the norm throughout his athletic career, a career which didn’t even start until he was almost 40.

He grew up in a small town in Iowa. During high school he played organized baseball and basketball because “that’s what all the guys did.” His school didn’t have track or cross-country.

“I was never considered what you would call an athlete,” said Clark.

And while attending Iowa State University, he was too busy working to pay his way through college to play sports.

It wasn’t until he moved to California with his job that he started running. But that was only 2-3 miles a day for physical fitness. And just before his 40th birthday, Clark vowed to run a marathon. His first was the 1978 San Francisco Marathon, completed just days after his birthday.

His training took a more serious turn when he retired early at the age of 42, something Clark considers as “lucky.”

Typical training nowadays for Clark includes approximately running 40 miles, biking 250 miles, and swimming 7-8 miles a week – at an average of 3.5 hours of rigorous training a day.

He keeps a detailed training log, and figured that last year he averaged 2.5 hours of intensive exercise a day for 365 days.

“When I first started doing it (training), it was fun and good conditioning. And then when I started doing them, I found they were competitive,” said Clark. “There’s only been a few races where I haven’t placed in my age group. And I guess I got bit by the competitive bug.”

At age 61, Clark is tall and lean and barely looks 40. During races, he often cruises by 20 and 30-year old competitors. The way anyone could tell his age is by looking at his leg during a race marked with his age group division.

“I pass a lot of 30-year-olds who are very curious about me,” said Clark.

When he was younger, he said he never imagined he would be an athlete, completing ironmans and ultra-marathons.

“It’s very difficult to imagine yourself doing that. But as you do longer and longer events, you realize it is all training and discipline,” he explained.

And he definitely has discipline.

“If I really feel crappy, I’ll back off. You have to listen to your body. You have to recognize what it’s telling you. One of the real dangers with ultra-sports is overtraining. But I do seldom take a day off when I do absolutely nothing.”

Clark refers to his family as his support pillar. He has two sons, ages 34 and 32 and his wife, Barbara, who is a dietitian.

“Both of my sons and my wife supported me at the Ultra Man – they were my crew,” he said. “My wife travels with me to virtually every race and is my support crew.”

Barbara was there to cheer him across the finish line Sunday at Donner Lake, which he finished in 2:48:01. He finished first in 60-64 age group and 93rd overall. The bike was the hardest part of the race, he said.

“The combination of the elevation and contour of the bike course makes it very tough,” Clark said. He was pleased that they switched the direction of the running course around the lake this year. “The last couple of miles were primarily downhill, which is nice.”

Clark lives in a cabin he helped build in Truckee during the summer and winter, and in Tiburon, Calif. He enjoys cross-country skiing, kayaking, crafts, wood-working and furniture building – when he’s not training.

Clark is a perfect example of his own advise: “It’s never too late to start.”

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