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Hitting Her Stride

Christine Clifton has come a long way since she began her running career as a freshman at WPI in 1990. Back then she was a talented but undisciplined runner who once skipped a cross country meet to attend a party. Today she is one of the nation's most promising long-distance racers.

By Joan Killough-Miller, Photography by Patrick O'Connor

Five years ago, Christine Clifton (then Christine Junkermann) could hardly finish a marathon. She limped over the finish line of the 1996 Hartford Marathon with a time of 4 hours even. "God, I almost died," she later told Runner's World of her 26.2-mile ordeal. "It was all I could do to walk it in."

Last year, Clifton took the running world by surprise by taking seventh place in the women's division (the second American to finish) in the 2000 Lasalle Bank Chicago Marathon, with a time of 2:32:45. To put that in perspective, Joan Benoit Samuelson's 1985 course record (still the best women's marathon time on any North America race course) is only 11 minutes faster.

"A very impressive debut," said American Track and Field magazine. The Chicago Sun-Times, celebrating a comeback by American long-distance runners, proclaimed: "The one name on everybody's lips was Junkermann."

Today, Clifton is one of America's most promising long-distance runners, training under Dr. Gabriele Rosa, the legendary Italian coach who led Moses Tanui to victory in the 1991 Boston Marathon. Her performance in Chicago--the third-fastest women's marathon time for 2000, and one of the finest debuts by an American marathoner--meets the current Olympic qualifying standard.

Clifton, a Wyoming native who earned a bachelor's degree in chemistry at WPI in 1994, is genuinely awed--even giggly, at times--about her own success. At 29, she knows she's still young for a marathoner and is competing against women who have been running competitively since high school and college. She's also articulate and thoughtful about what it took for someone who didn't take running--or chemistry--very seriously in college to transform herself into an elite athlete with sights set on the world's biggest marathons and the 2004 summer Olympics in Athens.

Brian Savilonis, professor of mechanical engineering and coach of the men's and women's cross country teams, remembers a very different Christine Clifton trying out for track and cross-country as a freshman. "First day of cross-country," he says, "she could not believe we were going to run that far. In her first race she walked some and was far back. So it went through her freshman season, although she was actually running the 3.1-mile course and had earned a team spot by the end of the year."

Though she came to WPI with no cross-country or distance running background, Clifton had a strong high school track record and excelled in the 400- and 800-meter events. Savilonis hoped that Clifton would make All-New England, but a lack of focus and an active social life hindered her success. The strain of balancing academics, track, work and parties--not necessarily in that order--left her too tired to keep up at big meets. "Then she went to a frat party rather than the NEW8 meet--a conflict that nearly tore our friendship apart," Savilonis says. "The team won the first NEW8 championship to be held, but she wasn't part of it."

After graduation Clifton joined Uniroyal Chemical and then began working toward a master's degree in chemical engineering at Yale. In 1997 she left to concentrate on running. "Somehow, I quit grad school even though I wasn't running that well," she admits. "My friends didn't tell me at the time, but everyone thought I was a little crazy." After a pause she adds, "But now they don't think I'm so crazy anymore."

The decision to abandon a promising career for a far-off dream was not difficult. "When I was in grad school I felt dumb and I didn't like it," Clifton says. "But when I ran, I felt great, I felt like I could do anything. At the time I really didn't know where it would take me. All I knew was that I felt great about running."

For a time, Clifton and her former husband, Mark Junkermann--a collegiate steeplechase champion and a two-time Olympic Trials qualifier--operated Marathon Sports in Brookline, Mass., and then Woodbridge Running Company, a specialty runner's shop in Connecticut. Christine worked part time in the store until it became clear that those hours were detracting from her racing. "It's hard to hold down a real job when you're running 70 to 100 miles a week, traveling to races--and trying to get in some naps!" she says. With Mark as her coach, she gave up working and dedicated herself to racing full time.

"Christine who?" was the question posed by sports journalists who saw Clifton emerge out of nowhere in the spring of 1999 and go on to become New England Runner magazine's Overall Female Runner of the Year. At the start of that season she was just beginning to gain some standing as a local runner on the south-central Connecticut circuit. Then came a series of spectacular races that transformed Clifton into a second-tier national-class racer with her own agent and sponsorship from Adidas. By shaving almost four minutes off her time on the 10K race--from a PB (personal best) of 37:25 down to 33:34--Clifton came within 14 seconds of the standard needed to qualify for the 2000 Olympic Trials. That year she outran Olympic medallist Joan Nesbit in another 10K race and clocked one of the nation's top five times on the half-marathon (13.1 miles), finishing in 1:13:35. At the 1999 New Haven 20K Road Race, she placed third in her division, finishing in 1:11:20.

"Christine who?" was the question posed by sports journalists who saw Clifton emerge out of nowhere in the spring of 1999 and go on to become New England Runner magazine's Overall Female Runner of the Year.

One of the toughest hurdles for Clifton was learning to get out of her own way and let herself become the runner she was meant to be. A turning point came when she traveled to Korea in April 1999 as an alternate on the U.S Ekiden team. For the first time she lived in close proximity to female champions. "While I was over there, I looked at all the other women and realized that they look just like me!" she says. "I could run the same pace they ran, I could do a workout with them, but they all were running much faster races than I had at that point.

"It was after that trip, about two weeks later, that my 10K time came down to 35 minutes. I think I ran nine personal bests in a row over the summer. I think I just had to come to realize mentally that there wasn't anything different about these women. They were just ordinary people, working hard and doing exactly what I was doing. It was very hard for me to see myself as one of them. Once I got past that mental barrier, I could just let myself perform."

Although her contract with Adidas provided travel expenses to company-sponsored races, as well as all her running gear, racing full time meant just getting by. "I was racing for rent and groceries," Clifton laughs, explaining that depending on prize money for living expenses was more stressful than the races themselves. "My friends from WPI all have amazing careers," she says. "I'm sure they all own their own houses by now. In this country, it's only the people at the very top of my sport who make a great living at it."

The big break came in August 2000, when Clifton was selected as one of a first group of eight American long-distance runners to attend FILA Discovery USA, a high-altitude training camp at Mt. Laguna, in the mountains of southern California. Discovery USA--like its counterpart programs in Kenya and Italy--aims to identify and nurture promising American athletes using the same techniques that Coach Rosa used to develop the raw talents of Elijah Lagat, Joseph Chebet and other East African runners who now dominate the international marathon scene.

Few American runners are given this opportunity to focus on intensive training, free from the pressures and distractions of ordinary life. The Discovery program's sponsor, sports manufacturer FILA, covers all expenses and provides a small stipend. The athletes--selected through extensive physiological and psychological testing, are provided with everything they need--individualized coaching, ample rest, and even massages.

Those grueling workouts--averaging 115 miles a week, on mountain roads--paid off, first at the 2000 Philadelphia Half-Marathon, where Clifton ran a PB of 1:13:23 (7th place), then in Chicago, where she was the first American 22 miles into the race, before exhaustion hit near the end of the course. After recovering from the Chicago Marathon ("It took my body a month and my mind even longer," she notes), Clifton was sent to Kenya to train with FILA's elite international athletes.

In Kenya, Clifton stayed at the home of Moses Tanui in Eldoret, and visited the various high-altitude camps established by Rosa and some of the African runners. Everywhere she went she was amazed by the beauty of the landscape and the passion and support for running shown by the Kenyan people. More than 2,000 children turned out for a local race, many barefoot, with some little girls racing in their best dresses. In their travels, the Discovery athletes were serenaded by local school children and treated to a feast of fresh mutton. The women were presented with handmade gifts, including feather headdresses, beaded neckpieces and shell-decorated halter-tops, and the group was honored with face painting and spear dancing ceremonies.

FILA also sent Clifton to train in St. Moritz in the Swiss Alps, where morning workouts took her to the snow line at 8,900 feet, and to Italy, where she competed in some local events. Her training partners included some of the top Kenyan women: Margaret Okayo, Alice Chlagat, Margaret Otondayong and Nora Moraga.

The spring season brought unexpected challenges for Clifton, including an allergy to the Italian version of ragweed. Blood tests revealed that an infection--possibly a virus or parasite she contracted abroad--was compromising her performance. Although she did not feel sick, Clifton was forced to forgo several promising races until her fitness level improved. She was selected to represent the United States in the women's marathon at the 2001 World Track and Field Championships in Edmonton, Canada, but withdrew from the team to focus her energies on upcoming competitions.

On Labor Day 2001, a faster, stronger, more confident Christine Clifton returned to Connecticut, where her dream began, to run the New Haven 20K Road Race. She placed second in the women's division with a 1:08:24 PB, beating her 1999 record by almost three minutes. Her fine showing is even more noteworthy since this year's 20K also served as the National Championship event for USA Track & Field, the sport's national governing body.

On Nov. 4, Clifton attempted the New York City Marathon, the USATF's National Marathon Championship, but dropped out at the 12-mile mark due to a severe chest cold. If all goes well, watch for her this spring in the elite lineup for the Boston or the London marathon.

Coach Savilonis, who has stayed in touch with Clifton since graduation, has watched her career with pride. "Her progress at WPI was large, although not noticeable to the outside world," he says. "She may not remember running the 5K in 26 minutes as a freshman, then 19 minutes as a senior. She was indeed driven and wanted to put everything into the sport. It just took her a while to put it together."

"I feel like I'm living my dream life right now," Clifton says. "I can go out and run six miles in a row faster than I could run a mile in college. My personal best for a mile at WPI was 5 minutes, 24 seconds, and in New Haven this year, I averaged 5:30 for more than 12 miles. It's pretty cool to keep pushing your body to see what it can do."

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