Amy Clark stood at the starting line of her first ultra, the McDonald Forest 50K in Corvallis, Ore., not knowing what to expect. She knew she would encounter about 10,000 feet of gain over the course. But she didn’t foresee such a welcoming ultra community.
“I didn't know what to expect, but I had trained pretty hard,” Clark says. “I got out there, and didn't realize it was going to be muddy as well. That was a whole other component. Running up and down steep hills in mud was a little difficult. But the support, and the people out there were amazing.”
Clark recalls a man with whom she ran most of the 2014 race. “His wife had been struggling with cancer, and he had cut back on his ultra running, but he had done the race multiple times,” she says. “We had a nice chat, and the camaraderie of the community was incredible. In a marathon, you don't really talk to people. I was always pretty quiet because I was pushing so hard in marathons. But this was different. It was adventure. It was running. It was nature. It was cool. I was hooked for sure.”
Following in her dad's (running) steps
Her love of ultra running has led Clark to be the editor of Ultrarunning Magazine, a position she has held for a little more than a year. Before that she wrote for the magazine and other running publications. Looking back, she traces her passion for the sport back to her dad, Mike Plenge.
“I started running mostly because I saw my dad doing it,” she says. “My dad was a marathoner. He wanted me to play basketball, but I saw him running and so I started running shorter distances in elementary school.”
Clark juggled both track and basketball while growing up, eventually running cross country in high school and college. After graduating, she ran her first marathon and then sought out bigger goals.
“My goal was to run Boston, and I met that goal in 2008. Which was a big deal for my dad, because he ran Boston as well, exactly 20 years earlier, in 1988.”
She qualified for Boston with a 3:38, her fastest marathon to date. “Just getting that qualifier was the goal. Running Boston was the icing on the cake.”
Clark, her husband, father and other family members all converged on Boston to celebrate her accomplishment.
Unfortunately, Plenge can no longer run but he was there among the cheering spectators.
“He was super proud,” Clark says. “He's always been just a huge supporter of my running, because he knows; he's been there. Now that I'm an ultra runner, he can’t relate as well, but he was actually there at Western States when I finished last summer. He met me at Robie Point. It's always very emotional, because it's our connection to each other. He's always been a huge supporter, and will continue to be.”
The next big thing
After Boston, Clark continued to run marathons and also started her family. But when it came to running, she needed a new challenge. “Marathons aren't doing it anymore. I've got to find something else," she thought. And that’s what brought her to the McDonald Forest 50K, the magazine and last summer, the Western States Endurance Run.
Before she was named editor at Ultraunning Magazine publisher Karl Hoagland offered her the ticket.
“I was beyond grateful,” says Clark, who had paced and crewed for Hoagland at Western States previously. “It was such an amazing experience. It's an opportunity that I didn't think I would get for a really long time.
Clark was inspired to fulfill her obligation and beat the clock to the Placer High School track, which she did.
“When I was given the ticket, I thought, ‘I'm going to do this. There's just no, question. I'm going to get to the finish line, and I'm going to make you guys proud.’ That's what I did. The race experience itself was almost perfect in my eyes, just because the people that I love were there. The people that I care about, my friends, my crew, everybody was there for me, and supporting me, and I couldn't ask for more than that. So, that was the best part. It was an amazing day.”
Discovering her passion
Clark had been writing an online column for the magazine for several years before becoming editor. She took over the magazine at a time when the media has been ostracized, and there’s a lot of uncertainty about the future of print.
“The more I started to run ultras, the more I started to get very passionate about the sport,” she says. “I was really excited about the position and I had some new ideas. The media is ostracized, yes. But the magazine has a very loyal following. I experienced this when visiting races like Western States. The magazine itself is where people go to not only see their results, but also read about what's going on in the sport.”
New things coming from the magazine this year include: a new podcast, wall calendar for subscribers and a training camp with coach Jason Koop (that has unfortunately been cancelled due to the coronavirus).
Ultra running isn’t immune from the world’s move toward immediate news and information. IRunFar, for example, covers top races in real time and provides immediate results and post-race interviews. Still, the magazine’s niche remains popular among ultra runners.
“We are more of a sit down, read the stories, get inspired and learn more about the sport publication,” Clark says. “We're telling the story of the sport, and it’s important to continue. It's impressive that so many people know the magazine, depend on the magazine, and read it from cover to cover. That's what you hear all the time. To continue that legacy is important.”
As an editor and runner myself, I understand the various balances that Clark has to navigate. There are print and digital audiences. A mix of short- and long-form stories. Desires for immediate news and thoughtful feature stories. Just like a good training plan, there is no one-size-fits all for modern journalism.
“I think learning what people are going to benefit most from and what’s relevant, helps guide decisions when it comes to putting content in the magazine.”
For the print magazine, there are space limitations of which Clark has to navigate a balance of race reports, columns, feature stories and more.
“There’s very little wiggle room in an issue,” she says. “Just to find that rhythm, if you will, when putting together an issue, it was a learning process. But I really enjoy it.”
In recent months other media has paid more attention to ultra running. Specifically, The New York Times and Sports Illustrated featured Jim Walmsley in their advance coverage of the Olympic Marathon Trials. It doesn’t change the approach of Ultrarunning Magazine but it helps bring more attention to the niche sport.
“When it comes to our coverage, we feature elites like Jim and Courtney (Dauwalter) all the time,” she says. “So, for them to be covered in the mainstream media, that's awesome. I'm all for ultras getting more fanfare because I think it is an amazing sport. We want to tell stories of the elites, but we also want to feature back-of-the-packers, the mid-packers, and everybody else, because there are so many amazing stories out there.”
Clark and other ambassadors of the sport hope the recent media interest will continue and, with it, usher in more ultra runners. In the past few years, the sport has certainly grown. Many first-time ultra runners were on the same path as Clark — looking for the next challenge after achieving marathon goals.
“It's more mainstream now,” she adds. “You're hearing about 50Ks all over the place. Back when I started, there weren't as many. I think people are trying new things and pushing themselves, and it's exciting to see that more people are out there attempting the next best thing. But it takes time and a lot of work, and I love to see that people are embracing that. I love to see people challenging themselves.”
Women ultra runners
With the sport’s increased popularity, it’s become more challenging to get into coveted races like Western States. And there are concerns about fairness between the genders. Some races, for example, don’t have equitable prize money or elite spots for women.
As the voice of ultra running, what role does the magazine play in advocating for women athletes?
“That's a good question,” Clark says, noting a disparity at a recent 50K where she was among 22 women out of 85 total finishers. “As far as our coverage goes, I try to keep it balanced. We get coverage from races which include photos of both men and women. We publish columns that address issues when it comes to women trying to balance running with life. I see our role as covering the sport equally. I don't think the numbers are as important as keeping balanced coverage.”
And by being inclusive, the magazine is able to inspire the next generation of women ultra runners.
Clark’s first inspiration was her dad but then she found motivation in elite women ultra runners.
“When I got into the sport, I started seeing people like Ann Trason and Pam Smith,” she says. “Pam Smith is actually from Salem, Oregon, which is where I grew up. She was the one that triggered my interest in Western States. How can somebody from Salem, Oregon, win Western States? That's insane. There aren’t many trails there, and I was really inspired by that. I continue to be inspired — the women in the sport are so incredible, humble and amazing. As an editor I get excited about that.”
Name: Amy A. Clark
Hometown: Bend, Ore.
Number of years running: 30ish (started before high school)
How many miles a week do you typically run: 40
Point of pride: Ran the Boston Marathon 20 years after my dad completed it (2008 and 1988).
Favorite race distance: I've run every distance (50K, 50 miles, 100K, 100 miles) and enjoy them all.
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: I usually eat breakfast burritos the day before and the day after a race.
Favorite piece of gear: My hydration pack.
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: Lately, anything by the Avett Bros
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: "Decide what to be and go be it." — Head Full of Doubt, Avett Bros.
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