One-on-one with Connor Clark '17
Following a senior campaign that included a 4:12.56 mile run that qualified for the Intercollegiate Association of Amateur Athletes of America competition as well as a team award for the greatest improvement throughout one’s college career, Connor Clark ’17 graduated from Dartmouth and headed west to join the University of Oregon’s cross-country team. After participating in the earth science domestic study abroad during his junior fall, Clark retained a semester’s worth of eligibility in NCAA, allowing him to compete as a redshirt senior. He joins a long line of Dartmouth cross-country athletes who have continued their college careers with the Ducks, including Matt Miner ’12, Alexi Pappas ’12, Will Geoghegan ’14 and Tim Gorman ’16.
When did you first start running competitively and what drew you to the sport?
CC: I started in the third grade. I went to a small school in Mill Valley, California. There were only 30 kids per grade and the only team that we had was cross country and track. We had cross country in the fall and track in the spring, so starting in the third grade, everyone in every grade would join the team. I was running really well, starting in the fifth grade. The races were usually around a mile or a mile and a half; it was more learning how to stretch and take care of our bodies. I liked it right away and kept it up through middle school.
In high school, you participated in both track and cross country. How did the two sports differ in terms of training?
CC: In high school, training was almost exactly the same. For cross country in high school, you usually do the 5-kilometer run on trails. I went to high school in the city in San Francisco, so there was a lot of training on trails and in different parks. We would do intervals in cross country where our coach would measure out 400 meters or 800m. On Mondays, we would just do 800m, so we would do a warm-up and we’d go run six of those 800m intervals with some rest in between. With track, the only difference was that we still did those intervals, but it was all on the track.
Why did you choose Dartmouth?
CC: I’ve always valued academics in addition to my running as the two biggest components of being a student or being in school. At my high school, there was definitely an academic pressure to do well and to get into a good school; that’s why I was kind of drawn to the Ivy League where great academics are at the focus, but you can still compete at a high, Division I level without going to a big state school where it is absolutely running first and they pick your major for you.
What was the transition to collegiate track and cross country like, and how is it different from your high school experience?
CC: The biggest thing for me was mileage. Some high school programs you’ll run a lot of miles whether you’re a guy or girl — that’s just part of the training. In my high school program with my coach we did a lot more intensity versus mileage, so we workout two to three times a week doing that interval training. Per week, I was probably only running about 35 miles a week, six days of the week; maybe even less than that. As soon as I got to Dartmouth, some of the lowest mileage guys on the team would run 55 miles a week, and that is pretty standard for any collegiate running on the guys side, Division I at least. I think that was definitely the biggest transition — getting ready for longer weeks and being a little more tired. Also, for cross country you move up from the 5km to the 8km, and that feels like two different worlds. The extra 3km, not quite two miles, added on — that’s just a lot.
I definitely knew that mileage would be jacked up starting in the fall when I entered Dartmouth, and for any cross-country runner, if you don’t run over the summer, you are going to be at a huge disadvantage. In high school, you could get away with that to some extent, but especially in college you have to run over the summer. Knowing I would have to be running 60 to 70 miles a week at Dartmouth, I started in June at 30 miles a week and I increased by five miles every week until I was running 65 miles a week. Doing that was okay, but that was in the summer time when I wasn’t really doing anything. Being a college student, there is obviously academics, racing and doing workouts in the week, and also, like any freshman in college, there is a lot going on — you’re trying to figure stuff out like routines and time management stuff. My freshman year I also had some knee problems about two-thirds into the season. I definitely did not have the season that I wanted that fall — even all of freshman year; I didn’t run that well until the Ivy League Championships in the spring in outdoor track in my freshman year. The biggest part was getting used to the training process, so getting used to more mileage, longer races, sleep is more important and eating healthily. Sometimes people handle the transition really well and have really stellar freshman years, but a lot of times it’s a bumpy transition and takes you awhile to figure things out and it definitely took me a while to get that figured out.
What achievement from your time at Dartmouth are you particularly proud of?
CC: I guess in terms of moments, it’s easy to point to my athletic career. I’d say big milestones for me were my sophomore winter and spring in track, I finally set a personal record in the mile again in my sophomore winter, which I hadn’t done since my junior year in high school. I continued to run really well into the spring. That winter and spring I also made running my focus at Dartmouth, in that every little thing that I did. If I wanted to go out on a certain weekend, even if we didn’t have a race that week, I chose to get better sleep and be more on top of my schoolwork so I could get more sleep. A lot of distance running is doing better at the little things like stretching the extra five or 10 minutes after practice or showing up five to 10 minutes before practice to make sure my hip is nice and loose before I run 10 miles or icing after practice — the little things add up and can have a big difference.
How does the training and camaraderie differ between Dartmouth and Oregon?
CC: First of all, I think Oregon and Dartmouth have very long traditions with distance running. Obviously, Oregon is incredibly well known for its running — Dartmouth too. I chose Dartmouth over any of the other schools I was looking at because of that camaraderie and that tradition, and it is one of the best places in the country to train. A lot of cross-country teams are similar. You have a lot of the same guys on teams and at this level, everyone loves running.
The clear difference is that Oregon is a huge public university where a lot of athletic scholarships are given out. You see that there is a lot more funding that is able to be allocated toward athletics at a public university as opposed to an Ivy League school. Oregon, I think, has fewer varsity sports than Dartmouth, so that programs that we do have here, they make them count. I think the other thing is that the focus on running and being an athlete is much greater than at Dartmouth. The biggest thing that I’m finding is that at Dartmouth, you’re in a fraternity or sorority and you love your academics, and you also play an instrument, or you’re in an a cappella group and you love doing that, or you may be in a certain club on campus, whatever it may be. People at Dartmouth have multiple groups that they identify themselves with, and so far here that’s less prevalent. It makes sense — the commitment to running here at Oregon is much higher. You spend more hours training or putting out more physical or mental effort than at Dartmouth.
About my senior year, I was running about 80 miles a week in the fall cross-country season and more in the 70’s for indoors and outdoors. Here, I’m running the same amount of mileage per week, but the intensity is higher and the workouts are a lot longer. At Dartmouth, we are peaking for the Ivy League Championships — that’s the most important thing. Just making the National Championships as an Ivy League team is rare. The other difference that translates in training is that the National Championships for men goes from 8km to 10km, and the Ivy League Championships is only 8km, and when you’re doing workouts that extra mile and a quarter is a big difference. That’s the biggest difference: Longer workouts and a faster pace, and that definitely takes its toll.
Do you feel extra pressure to perform at a higher level because Oregon is ranked in the NCAA and is a well known running school?
CC: I don’t think so. Definitely the first week of being on campus and showing up to practice, I was like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe I’m here.’ There’s posters of Olympians on the wall or my coach has coached 15 Olympians in the past 10 years. I was definitely a “fanboy” for the first week or so, but then that kind of subsides and you realize “I am in it and I am apart of this.” I’m here to train every single day at a higher intensity. I think the biggest thing that gets rid of that is the confidence in associate head coach Andy Powell. He has been here for awhile and has coached some of the greatest distance runners of our time right now.
What do you plan to do after Oregon? Any plans to continue running competitively?
CC: Right now, it’s to keep running competitively as long as I can. That’s the immediate goal. I think another reason I was drawn here was because, while I only have eligibility in the NCAA for this fall, the coach is going to keep training me and I will probably end up being what is called a volunteer assistant coach for the Oregon team. I can basically hang around and still do workouts and have some access to some of the resources here at Oregon, so that’s at least a year from now. The coach has made that commitment to me for at least this winter and spring. Next year is a little more in limbo, but I’ve got time to figure it out. There are a lot of club teams in Eugene, Oregon and lots of other opportunities to keep running.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Correction Appended (Sept. 25, 2017): The original version of this article incorrectly labeled Clark's hometown as Middle Valley, California instead of Mill Valley, California. This article has been updated to reflect this change.