Alyssa Clark conquering mountains, challenging ultras and life
By Henry Howard
I recently caught up with Alyssa Clark, who I last chatted with and interviewed a few years ago when she was on the 10th day of her daily marathon streak that eventually hit 95 straight days. (Here’s the previous interview that her streak and background.)
“Wow, that feels like a lifetime ago,” she says. “I often forget I even did that until I realize, ‘Oh yeah, that time I ran a lot of marathons.’ It honestly was one of the greatest gifts I could have gotten from that time period.”
Clark also relishes the friends she met along the journey and how the record has inspired others. It has been broken by Jacky Hunt-Broersma, and others, including Erchana Murray-Bartlett who now holds the record with 150 straight days of completing the marathon distance.
“It's been so fun to see how many women followed suit with it,” she says. “I loved seeing the evolution, and honestly, some of the women have definitely made me feel like a chump. I thought what I was doing was relatively challenging, but what everyone else has done after that, it's just been awesome. I think that’s the purpose of records — they're meant to be broken. They're meant to push ourselves beyond what we thought we were capable of, and to push each other. And I'm really glad that that was the outcome.”
To say that a lot has changed in her world — and around the planet itself — is an understatement.
Since ending her consecutive marathon streak, Clark has transitioned to performing well at ultras with several victories and a runner-up in one of the world’s toughest mountain races.
‘An enormous aerobic base’
Her daily marathon streak isn’t going to be the best way for most people to increase their fitness enough to compete at a high level. But it certainly worked for Clark.
“Obviously, it was a really challenging time for everyone and really sad in so many ways,” she says. “But I think just getting the space to do a challenge like that helped me build an enormous aerobic base. It just allowed me to learn and adapt, and figure out how I could keep going day after day.”
A daily dose of four hours of aerobic base created a strong base for Clark.
“I think that set the platform that now I do a lot of speed work for ultra running,” she explains. “That base has allowed me to get more specific. It's also allowed my coach to have more fun and to push me to get a metabolic response. Because of the marathons, it just takes a lot more for me to get fatigued, which has its pluses and minuses. It’s really helped in the racing that I do right now.”
Additionally, it has helped strengthen her mental game.
“It made me realize you can always keep going and you can always find a positive,” she says. “I learned the most about adapting a positive mindset and that's been really crucial to my racing now. I really put it together right before Moab last year where I let go of a lot of fear of failing. When I thought, ‘I'm really going to go for it and I'm going to believe in myself,’ that's made a huge difference. And I think the start of that began with those marathons.”
Among her more recent accomplishments were winning the Moab 240 last October, HURT 100-miler in January and the Canyons 100-miler in April. Each is important to her, but she sees Moab as the big breakthrough.
“It was so fun to see the training, practice, hard work, positive mindset all come together and show up,” she says. “HURT is a love story to the place where I found trail running. I have never had a more fun 24 hours and 30-something minutes. I truly had fun and was filled with such love and gratitude the entire race. I did not have a low. I want to go back and try to break 24 at some point, but I also don't know if I can have a more fun day. It was really, really special. It's the first 100 I've ever done. So going back and seeing just how much I had grown as a runner and a person was really special.”
Clark decided the day before Canyons to bump up from the 100K to the 100-miler, which surprised the volunteers.
“No one does that, no one goes up in distance,” she recalls being told. “And I always say 100 miles plus gives me more time to do my work. I like heat, and that worked out really well. It just ended up being a really special day.”
After getting off to a fast start, she wondered if she went out too hard.
“I don't think I should be up here. I probably went out too fast, what's going on?” she recalls thinking. “And then I was changing my mindset — maybe I do belong here. Maybe it is OK for me to be running and maybe I can keep going. That was really a special moment of the thing you least expect becomes the greatest gift you could ask for.”
During her daily marathon streak, Clark regularly took to the roads or the treadmill. Surfaces that didn’t exactly correlate to the courses at Moab and HURT. She didn’t run in high school or college, but played lacrosse and was a cross-country skier.
“I don't run 18-minute 5Ks just out of the blue,” she says noting she PR’d this year with an 18:30. “I just can't compete on more runnable stuff. I have spent a lot of time doing a lot of running, I've focused on it a lot more. Technical gnarly mountain terrain is my home. I will always feel comfortable in that arena. It's where I feel I can put my best foot forward, pun intended or not, because I grew up in Vermont. I grew up on the long trail. I understand that terrain. I grew up bombing down downhills with rocks and trees and roots and mud.”
Faster race courses lay outside her comfort zone, at least at this point, she admits.
“But I've really worked on leaning into that and seeing it as an opportunity to grow, and realizing that if you do the hard work, if you play your cards right, that that's the beautiful thing about ultras — is that the faster person by the book isn't necessarily going to be the winner because there are so many other variables. And that's also why I like the longer distances, because I've learned how to manage those longer variables decently well and so I find even if it's more runnable, I can problem solve. I can be durable. I can get through the longer stuff relatively quickly.”
Home sweet van life
Clark and her husband, Codi (who is on a military dive team that rescues submarines), have been stationed at Naval Base Coronado in California for about five years. It’s perhaps the perfect location for the couple who loves skiing and going to the mountains.
Due to the cost of AirBNBs near such getaways, they decided to enjoy their explorations without an expensive roof over their head.
They started off with a giant tent with a heater. It didn't work out.
Then they tried a teardrop trailer, “which turns out to be horrible at trailheads, take up way too much space,” she says.
After selling it, they bought a truck camper that they used for a few years. “It started out great,” she says.
Until it wasn’t.
In January, they visited Bozeman, Mont., where it was minus 35 degrees. “The truck froze. It was just a mess, and we're like, we're going to go get a van. We're going to be in California for another three years.”
They moved into the van on base with the idea of getting an apartment. After putting it off for a while the van became home.
“We have a nice van and it's great for trail running because you can just head to the trails,” she says. “We were not roughing it, and with the military you have a gym always accessible. We're in it for the foreseeable future, and I think it's a great way to better your relationship. It's been fun getting to see us grow, and you can't stay mad at each other because you really don't have anywhere to go. It's like I'll go sit in the bed and you go sit here. We walk the cats every night. They've certainly traveled all over the place, and so we've just kind of adjusted and are enjoying it and one day, maybe we'll move into an apartment, but for now it's pretty fun.”
‘No meat athlete’
A “no meat athlete,” Clark first embraced a vegetarian diet when she moved to Hawaii in 2015.
“I've just never liked meat,” she says. “I don't like cooking it. I don't like touching it. I don't like killing animals. I've never craved a steak in my life, or a hamburger. So I was that for a year and a half, and then I met my husband. He was a CrossFit paleo type and I didn’t know if it was going to work, so I went back to eating meat.”
Once he deployed, Clark returned to eating vegetarian. In 2020, after living two years in Italy, things changed again.
“We saw the effects of climate change on the glaciers, on what we love to do,” she says. “We talked about it again and went vegetarian in 2020. I've been vegetarian ever since. He eats meat very occasionally because he actually likes it. But I've been vegetarian for over three years now consistently.”
That raises the question of her recovery time when she was eating meat from time to time, compared with now when she is a vegetarian.
“That's a great question. I always find that really hard to answer because it's like the evolution of an athlete. Was I just getting better at being an athlete, or was it the diet? I think it's a combination. I have no interest in going back to it, so it wouldn't really matter to me too much if there were performance differences. I feel like actually one of the things that I do well is recover. I think it's why I can do the longer things, it's why multi-day stuff is super appealing. Recovery has been a pretty solid area of strength for me so that might be because of being a vegetarian.”
Coaching, podcasting and living the dream
Clark has also gone all in on working full-time in the field that is her passion. She coaches, podcasts and handles other duties for Uphill Athlete.
A few years ago, she reached out to the company to see if they would be interested in her experience coaching, running a gym at a military base in Italy and teaching fitness classes. It took a while but when an opening occurred, Clark snapped it up.
“If you're into mountain sports, you know who Steve House is, you know what Uphill Athlete is,” she says. “I've always dreamed of the possibility of being able to run and coach full time and step away from more conventional teaching. I had done a lot with podcasts, and I knew I can do that better, so I wanted the Uphill Athlete podcast. That was the thing I kept saying to them — I can coach and I could also make the podcast better.”
Little did she know that she would also be hosting the podcast, which is intended to educate listeners on topics like strength training for trail runners, nutrition and more.
“It just seemed to work really well that Steve and I have a great partnership and seem to jive well podcasting,” she says. “I am not afraid of public speaking. I really enjoy talking to people. I enjoy hosting. So that ended up working out incredibly well. It's a big part of what I do at Uphill Athlete, bringing guests on, writing the script. I do have a sound editor, thank goodness. That is a lot of work but it’s been really fun.”
Uphill Athlete caters to those who enjoy trail running, mountaineering, alpinism, ski touring and climbing.
“It's always been mountain running,” she explains. “I think that with the group of coaches we have now, we're even more geared toward trail runners and mountain runners, hence why the latest series of the podcast is all about trail running. We have a trail running training group that we had good participation with, we have trail running training plans that we sell, and I coach quite a few trail running athletes. I also coach mountaineers. I coach ski touring athletes. So it's a fun mix, it keeps me on my toes.”
Recently Clark took second place female and seventh overall at Dragon's Back, where she DNF'd a few years ago.
Considered one of the toughest ultras, Dragon’s Back is a six-day stage race in Wales, covering 380K (236 miles) and 17,400 meters (57,087 feet). Clark finished in just under 60 hours total time.
After slaying that monster, Clark has planned out her big challenge for 2024 — the 100-mile/170K at UTMB. Even though she could have run it this year, she took a conscientious approach.
“I used to rush into the next race, and now I'm really careful,” she explains. “I'm not ready yet, and I want to do these races to the best of my ability. So when I do UTMB, I want to do UTMB to the best that I can and really go after the top. First, I wanted to be really prepared for Dragon's Back. UTMB for next year, just another year of experience. And then Tor des Géants, probably, the year after. I try to be really careful and deliberate compared to how I used to be about how I progress in racing and to hopefully set myself up for learning, but also to do the best that I can with my experience.”