White Lightning: The Cameron Clayton Interview
It’s safe to say that Cameron Clayton has made an immediate impact on the world of trail and ultrarunning. I mean, this is a guy who hadn’t run an ultra until last September when he showed up and won the Run Rabbit Run 50, breaking the course record while doing so. Since then, it has been something of a whirlwind for the Boulder-based runner: two more podium finishes at TNFEC50 and Lake Sonoma, a call from Greg Vollet that led to him joining the Salomon International Team, and a trip to La Palma to race his first Ultra SkyMarathon when he toed the line at Transvulcania a couple of weeks ago. He is now back home, catching his breath, and taking it all in before tackling his first 100-miler at Western States in a month’s time. We caught up with Cameron to hear his story.
iRunFar: So Cameron, tell us about how it all began. You moved from Reno, to Tennessee, to Colorado, lots of moving. What were you into as a kid and how life was for the mini-you?
Cameron Clayton: I started out as a youngster, as many American kiddos do, taking up football [soccer], learning to ride a bike, playing on my friend’s farm, and catching frogs. I think a couple times my dad would take us out into the dust bins of Nevada and we’d come back with bull snakes or the like. I believe mini-me was a lot like the slightly-larger-than-the-average-distance-runner me is: impatient, competitive, candy-loving, and genuinely interested in people and the curiosities of the world.
As for moving, my Dad was really lucky in the jobs he was offered, so we moved states and went over to Tennessee, right by Memphis. It was a pancake-flat town where I mostly played roller-hockey. Some interesting things happened there, actually. A tornado hit our house right before we were going to move in! It flattened our next door neighbor’s house. There’s this picture of us and there are shingles coming through the roof and then you look over at our neighbor’s, there’s no house! So that was lucky how it worked out. Tennessee was a pretty cool place, really good people, but I’m glad we moved to Colorado.
iRF: How was it moving, though? Things like that are usually a major deal in a kid’s life. Kind of like in the Karate Kid movie, or was it a stress-free experience?
Clayton: I don’t really remember how stressful it really was. Moving probably wasn’t easy for me by any means, but I’ve always been good at making new friends. And being a little kid (six the first time I moved, eight the second), I was even better at making friends. Once I’d made friends, I was home again. School in Tennessee sucked; it was seven to eight-hour days—for a kindergartener—with one 15-minute recess. So moving to Colorado was heaven when all of a sudden you have three times a day to go play tag and sports outside! I’ve also been a very imaginative kid, which I think helped entertain myself and deal with the stresses of moving. So when I got [to Colorado], I made some good friends and I think I could tell that my family settled in. My Dad never mentioned that we were going to move again.
iRF: And you didn’t bring it up?
Clayton: Yeah, so I didn’t bring it up and started enjoying life. I was getting old enough that I could actually start doing a lot of different sports. My year just revolved around different sports and the seasons came and went.
iRF: What sports were you in to? Was running something you found early on, a young speedster, or had you other passions as a kid?
Clayton: Personally, I enjoyed being active, digging holes in sand, pretending I was a Power Ranger, and climbing trees. By the time I moved to Colorado–when I was eight–I was playing football in the fall, skiing in the winter, baseball in the spring, and swimming in the summer. This was the point that I ‘started running.’ The school I moved to had a training program for a local 10k, the Bolder Boulder. I think I took fourth for my age group that year. So every spring I would train six or eight weeks for the BB and that’s how I got my start into running.
Then I ran track in middle and high school, doing well enough to run for CU (Colorado University). As far as being a speedster, I don’t consider myself speedy. I was good, and could run a 5:00 minute/mile by eighth grade, but when you look at how competitive track is, I’m slow. I think at a recent track meet in California, there were 50 guys who broke the equivalent of a 4:00 minute/mile, which is faster than me on my best day. So I wouldn’t even be top 50 at this one meet out in California. No, what I’ve always been best at is going longer than the people around me and wanting more.
iRF: Cool. So did you get into running longer distances, even then?
Clayton: The longer distances were always romantic to me, so when I was 15, I attempted my first ‘long run.’ It was in the middle of the summer, I’d been training very well, doing about eight to 11 miles five days a week, which was a lot for me. I just up and decided to try 21 miles. It was a disaster.
iRF: Ha ha, tell me more about it!
Clayton: The long run did me in, I didn’t do another long run for two years after that thing. It was 96 degrees that day. I remember very well, I started at noon. So my Dad had made this loop that was fourteen miles long and I had gotten ten-and-a-half miles in and I was just like, ‘You know what? Let’s flip, I’ll make it.’ So I get to the point where I’m running on a road and I must have looked so bad because every biker that passed me stops and starts giving me water and asks if I’m okay. All of them!
Then I get to a trail that connects the highway with my hometown that’s three-and-a-half miles long, and I remember coming down the hill on that trail, probably a mile outside of town. But I don’t remember getting into town or anything, I must have had heatstroke at this point. It’s about three hours into my run, I’m delirious. I’ve never done anything like this before!
I passed out in a cafe and luckily one of my friends and his Dad just happened to be stopping in there. So they saw me and eventually took me home, I guess. Next thing I remember, I’m waking up on a beanbag and there’s a burrito waiting for me and I’m like, ‘ohhhhh, so good!’ So, originally, it was going to be a 21-mile run and I think I made it 19 miles before passing out. I hadn’t brought any water with me and I remember there was no water on my skin, it was only salt.
iRF: Wow. So were your parents into sports and the outdoors, too? Did they instil in you a love for the mountains, you think?
Clayton: My parents are into the outdoors. My dad, through university fought fires up in Alaska during the summers and skied during the winters. He was on the US Ski Team for Biathlon. He grew up in Carson City and would venture to Tahoe often, also backpacking by himself in the Sierra Nevada.
My mom spent her first six or seven years in Spain–my grandfather was an ambassador to Spain–so she was into sailing for a little while and played tennis very competitively all throughout her youth. She also had a great love for animals which would drive her to unexpected places. She loves to foster interesting animals. For example we have a newt in our house. It’s really cool, I found it in the basement one day, I was 12 and wanted to keep it as a pet. Here we are almost 13 years down the road and the newt is still alive! We looked it up and we saw that newts can live 40 or 50 years.
More than instilling a love for the mountains, they instilled a love for the outdoors and adventure. I believe that I’m one of the outcasts on the Salomon team from the perspective that I love the ocean just as much as the mountains.
iRF: And your Dad likes to take photos, too, right? He was around the press area at Transvulcania recently.
Clayton: Yeah, he loves it. I am only here because of him, he really supported me throughout and he got me into running and encouraged me to do it throughout high school. He travels a lot for his work so he takes the opportunity wherever I am going to come along and help me out. He crewed at my first three [ultra] races and then for [Transvulcania] there wasn’t too much crewing involved but he did a little bit, too, with the Salomon team.
He’s gotten really into photography over past, say, 15 years, like taking pictures of me when I raced in high school and then he started taking pictures of our whole high school team. Then, in university, of my cross country and track team and now he has just followed me into ultras! You see him and he’s taking pictures of everyone he knows. If he has met someone, then he will take pictures of them. I think at Transvulcania there was, like, 2,000 pictures from the race!
iRF: Ha, great to have him out there for support, though. So did the young Cam always want to be a pro runner or had you other dreams when you were a young lad?
Clayton: From early on, I’ve always had an incredible level of support. So when I ran the mile faster than anyone else in my school, I was encouraged to pursue running. It started small, with doing well in little track races and little road races. The rest simply snowballed from there. America provides a ton of opportunity to develop athletes in whichever sport they choose to pursue. I was no different. I didn’t dream of the future too often, from what I recall. I’ve probably forgotten 99% of the dreams that I’ve had because I have always been captivated by what was in front of my eyes. Except when I was stuck in school, which at that time I probably either dreamed of catching bugs, playing video games, or being an Olympian. That dream did start early.
iRF: So as far as Olympians go, who were your idols back then?
Clayton: Haile Gebrselassie was and still is the man. I was able to work directly with Amy Manson who was a great track runner and a saint for taking me out running here and there, offering me advice at other times. Going into high school, my first coach was Kirk Pfeiffer, who was a phenomenal runner himself. He ran 150 to 200 mile weeks, ran a 2:10 marathon, and held the junior world record in the marathon for a short time. I suppose that I’ve never needed big name idols as the people I’ve had the luck to work with have always been so good.
iRF: Alright, so how do you think the 2013 Cameron measures up to the person you wanted to be back then?
Clayton: To be honest, I think the old me would be pretty really disappointed in what I’ve become. I’m not nearly as successful or fast as I wanted to be. That being said I’ve always dreamed so big. I’ve never wanted to be anything besides the best. I’ve hit a slim percentage of my goals, just never reached any of the dreams I’ve conjured. But don’t worry, I’m incredibly happy where I am and learned to take my goals a little less seriously.
iRF: Growing up in Colorado, you had access to unlimited trails. Was it a case that mountain running was always part of your training?
Clayton: Colorado and all its trails! I would like to say that I spent my summers playing around in the high country and the winters exploring the wintery slopes, but alas it was not so romantic. Most of my training has been in the foothills and suburbia around Boulder. Until the last year, at least three quarters of my running took place on roads, dirt roads, or the track. That being said, I still had my fair share of beautiful running and a plethora of local trails to explore little escapes. I had already explored almost of all of Boulder’s trails by the time I graduated uni, but no mountain journeys until last year.
iRF: So what took you so long to start mountain running? And what was the catalyst that finally did it?
Clayton: College! It kept me from mountain running. You want to be fast? You have to train fast. Thus most of our running was on dirt roads, asphalt, and track. Mark [Wetmore’s] program develops your aerobic capacity by a large amount of quality miles on a surface similar to what you race. In the fall, that’s cross country, but our courses in Colorado are groomed, and are really just glorified grassy road races, and the track for the rest of the year. The catalyst was graduating, and being able to run wherever I wanted. I wanted the mountains.
iRF: Tell us more about Colorado University, your time there, studying and racing?
Clayton: Yeah I raced for Colorado University, at which I spent a luxurious five years to complete my degree. I didn’t want to leave, too good of a life. I had my ups and downs in university, in which I would sum up as satisfactory. I don’t look back on my performance at university with a mountain-full of pride–too many interruptions–but the people I met and travel I had were spectacular. Training there is what has let me jump into ultras with so much success, and if I had not spent my time logging miles, making mistakes, and at the end of the day, putting myself in a grave, I would never have the capacity to race as I do today.
iRF: Cool. Tell me a bit more about that, Cam, about the training, mistakes, ‘graves.’
Clayton: Training, I’ve always been impatient. There were a couple times where I bit off more than I could chew and tried to jump my mileage up too high, too quickly. With 20/20 hindsight, I’m damn sure I could have prevented 98% of my injuries over the last eight years. The worst of it was sciatica that plagued me for two or three years of University. I thought I had good posture. I did not. It took me until this last year to really begin correcting it. I’ve torn a hip flexor, a quad, strained hamstrings, broken my foot, and ruptured a tendon in my ankle. There were definitely moments where it’s been difficult over the past eight years to convince myself that it was worth it.
iRF: So, coming into ultras, you got hooked up with Salomon after a few races. How did that come about? Can you give us the insider’s view?
Clayton: The insider’s view is actually rather short. My roommate, Ted Howard, the guy who got me to race Run Rabbit Run, had said that if you wanted a contract, all you really needed to do was go perform at TNFEC50. So I decided heck, let’s see if I want to continue running for a couple more years and see what this ultra business is all about. While at the race, I guess I made an impression on Greg [Vollet, Salomon team manager] and maybe a little bit with Miguel [Heras] and Francois [d’Haene]. I don’t know what other inner workings went on, but a few weeks after TNF, Greg contacted me and we conversed for a little while. And then as far as I can tell, he decided to take a risk on me. I really hope I’m proving worth that risk, I’m incredibly grateful he took it.
iRF: That’s cool. So who is this friend of yours and how do they know so much about these things?
Clayton: Ted is a brilliant man who is very passionate about what he does. He took a year and decided he wanted to run ultras, so he did all his research into the sport and threw himself into it completely. He’s given me all my race tactics and I’ve done all my own training, which has led to some pretty good results. Oddly enough, I think if I had followed a little more of his training philosophy, I would have finished high at Transvulcania. If his heart is anywhere in ultras, it’s in sky racing and that’s what he prepared for. I’m not so bold that I carried out any plan to get a sponsor at TNFEC50. Heck, I didn’t think I was going to finish at 17 miles in. I was like, ‘My calves are torn, I’m not going to walk properly for a while!’ And I didn’t for the month of September. Then I was 32 miles in and my Dad said, ‘The other guys have gone of course and you are now in third!’ And I was like, ‘Arghhh, why couldn’t you just say I was sixth and out of contention?’ So I just grinded, I must have looked so ugly for the last 1o miles.
iRF: And how has it felt to come into the team, is it like you imagined it would be?
Clayton: My imaginings were incredibly short-sighted, to be honest. When Greg offered me a spot, he had said the most important part of the gig was to fit into the Salomon family, and he meant it. He’s assembled this incredible group of people. People, not athletes. Sure, they’re all great athletes, but they’re also so much more than that. I love being around them, and become so damn excited every time I’m about to take off to my next race, because I’m going see them again! I definitely feel like the new kid on the block that stumbled into the pack of cool kids. We probably have too much fun together.
iRF: What do you think you have brought to the family? And, alternatively, what do you think you have learned from the others so far?
Clayton: Blonde hair! And maybe a different point of view. As a track runner and young into the sport, I bring a different philosophy to my training and racing than a lot of other people on the team. That being said, all my teammates have their racing pretty well dialed in, eh? I have fun with the guys, so I hope I mainly just contribute to the overall happiness of everyone. That’s what I try to contribute the most because that’s what I’ve received from all of them. I certainly believe in all of them, I’m pretty sure they can do anything. Maybe I contribute to their confidence as well, something vital to life, I believe.
iRF: You are pretty new to trail and mountain ultras. You’ve had three races in the States before your recent Transvulcania trip, Run Rabbit Run 50 first place, TNFEC50 third place, and Lake Sonoma second place. Not a bad start to your career! How’s it feel?
Clayton: It feels great to start off good at something! I haven’t done that in ages! In the first three races, I definitely had moments in each one where I thought I was going to quit. For TNFEC50, I thought it from mile 13 onwards. You have to be so mentally tough for these races! It’s funny, in every race, there comes a time where I think, ‘Man, it’s going to be great to just finish this thing, regardless of any kind of place.’
iRF: And what about the trail ultra scene? Did you have any preconceptions about what it would be like?
Clayton: Honestly, I had no idea what it would be like! I knew that there was a race, Run Rabbit Run, and that Ted wanted me to do it. I didn’t even do any research into it, to be honest. I didn’t know what the scene was like at all. So I finish the race and Geoff Roes is at the finish line, I guess. I had just broken his course record and because I knew so little I didn’t ever introduce myself! So here I have this amazing athlete, this guy who’s world-renowned, I have no idea who he is and I didn’t go and say hi. Now I’m like, ‘Arghhhh!’ I hope sometime I get a chance to introduce myself properly.
Now I know the scene a bit. I’m still learning a lot about it, about the possibilities and about what all these other runners and outdoor enthusiasts are up to these days. There is a lot of potential and it makes me feel very unimaginative when I compare myself to what they want to do and what they have ideas for.
I was lucky enough to hang out with Kilian [Jornet] for a while, a guy who has done most, if not every, major race there is. For me it’s really exciting to go out there and race and try out all these new explorations. At Transvulcania, that was the first time I ever heard of Diagonale des Fous (100-miler on Reunion island). I was like, ‘Oh, that sounds like an awesome race, maybe next year!’ I’m still learning so much about the sport, the people, and about so much around it.
iRF: Sounds like it’s a pretty inspiring and exciting time for you, Cam, with all these possibilities opening up?
Clayton: Yeah, it’s exciting from that aspect and it’s exciting that I can just basically go and attend these kinds of events and sit back and watch. It’s incredible to watch. I’m just as much as a spectator as everyone else is. I don’t consider myself a major player. I just enjoy being there and, so far, everyone I’ve met from reporters to fans to other athletes have been phenomenal. The entire culture and community of this sport is probably the greatest community that I have come to know so far. It makes it fun, it makes you excited.
iRF: Excellent. And you got seventh in your first skyrace at Transvulcania. How was that specific experience, the travel, stardom, the race itself?
Clayton: The experience of Transvulcania was the best experience that I can tie to running in my life. It was so much fun to travel out to La Palma, use my Spanish, and hang out with everyone. The stardom was alright, I’ve never wanted to be famous, just to be surrounded by good people. Luckily the people on La Palma are wonderful so maybe a bit of stardom there is a tiny bit euphoric. For whichever reason, the race, the people, the friends, I’ve returned to the States smiling a little wider than I ever have before.
The race itself made it apparent that I’m woefully unprepared for skyraces at the moment. I guarantee you the other top guys who finished around me have quite a bit more strength in their legs than I do. I was great climbing for the first 3.5 or four hours. But then that last hour of the climb I fell short, unable to maintain any kind of cadence and stride length. Then there’s the realization I need to start practicing my technical descent. I can’t wait for my next one.
iRF: So what is your next on your calendar, Cam?
Clayton: Western States 100 is coming up, in something like 35 days, I think.
iRF: And have you trained specifically for that, longer runs, or are you just doing your usual!?
Clayton: Just doing my usual! I studied molecular and cellular developmental biology in university and I had a fascination with physiology and anatomy so I think I know training very well and how training works from anywhere between the half-mile to 100 miles. Nothing I do majorly in the next 35 days is really going to affect my performance. I’m not going to make any giant jumps in my metabolism or aerobic capacity, but I would like probably to try and improve my strength over the next three months and I will test it out hopefully at Ultraks (a skyrace at the Matterhorn), if everything goes well.
Practicing technical descents and climbing a lot more are my two main goals over the next three months, so when I go over there and get into a race that actually has technical descending again and some really steep climbs, then I want see how well I can hold with the bigger guys in those type of events and see if the type of training I’m doing is correlating to a better performance.
iRF: You seem a pretty confident guy, although you are new to the mountain-running scene. Is it a case of having to prove yourself, you think, or have you simply the self-belief that you can win every race you enter?
Clayton: Now here I am, after basically prattling off about how I’ve failed at almost everything I’ve attempted, and I’m supposed to be a pretty confident guy. Well you are right, I am. I don’t know if I believe myself to be the most talented guy on the start line of each race that I toe. I certainly don’t feel that I have anything to prove to any of my friends or family or any people who doubt what I say or my race strategy. I’m getting really excited now, and losing my train of thought of what I wanted to say.
But to make it simple and clear, I’m here to prove to myself that I’m capable of something that I see as incredible. I’m willing to take huge risks, I’m willing to go out way too hard and blow up spectacularly. What’s the worst that comes from that? A few hours of misery? Posh! I don’t feel alive or excited when I try to play it conservative. Like Western, I’d rather go for 14:00 flat and blow up finishing in 18 hours than go for 15:10. I find it exhilarating to put myself on the line. So why not?
iRF: Why not? Exactly. How are you feeling with regards to WS100, your first 100-miler, with regards to racing that distance and how different it will be to a 50?
Clayton: I feel the same as I did looking at my first 50. Nonchalant. It’s just 100 miles. I’m not going to change my race strategy. I’ve been running at a competitive level for almost 10 years now. This is only 14 to 16 hours more running, I hope. I feel good about doing a 100-miler. It’s the big-boy distance! Supposedly, it levels the playing field or so is being said a lot these days, so it should be a blast to go throw down my best with guys who favor the distance!