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Present at the creation: Cliff Clark and Shelter Island’s tradition of running

As the 45th running of the Island’s greatest sporting event— the 10K — approaches, the Reporter spent some time with one of the Island’s greatest athletes, one who has influenced generations of runners following in his very quick footsteps.

Cliff Clark began his running journey as a young teen at Shelter Island School back in the early 1960s when he was a star player on the school’s basketball team. In the days leading up to his senior year, Mr. Clifford’s coach told the team that if they wanted to continue representing the school on the court then they’d need to run cross country in the fall.

“He wanted us to run cross country to get in shape for basketball,” Mr. Clark said. During his time on the School’s cross country team Mr. Clark ran in two meets; to his and spectators’ astonishment he took first place in both races, Mr. Clark said over coffee at Stars Cafe this week.

After high school, he attended Harding University in Arkansas, in hopes of walking on to the school’s basketball team as a guard. He was turned down because his build wasn’t suited for the position, and because he lacked speed. “The coach called me and said I appreciate your hustle,” Mr. Clark said. “I appreciate your energy. You’re pure shooter. But you’re not a good ball handler.”

Disappointed, though undeterred, Mr. Clark found guidance in a man who stayed beside him through all the trials and tribulations of running, a man who shared the same name as Clifford — Coach Clifford. With his encouragement, the young athlete decided to go out for the university’s track team to increase his speed. On his first day, he remembered, ”I lapped the whole team.”

The first Island 10K was organized by Mr. Clark and two friends, John Fath and John Strode, whom he’d met at college; it took place in August 1980.

Asked about his thoughts on why Shelter Island has such a great tradition of running, he replied, “I think the 10K is right at the center of that. There was no traditional running before 1980. The whole idea of the 10K, in my heart, was to give back to the sport that had been good to me.”

He, John Fath and John Strode created a program where Island residents would “adopt a runner” to stay in their homes for the duration of the Island’s events. “There were people coming from all over the world, Africans, Germans, people from South America and the United States. They were all welcomed into homes, ” he said.

Being an elite runner is sure to come with great moments. Two of those remembered by Mr. Clark were his victory at the National Collegiate Championships in 1966, and when he was the first person to make All-American in any sport in Harding University’s history in 1965.

Mr. Clark also shared his chosen greatest moments of being a running coach. His first example was being able to carry the baton of coaching from his beloved Coach Clifford, who passed away from a heart attack while running with some of his team. During the interview at Stars, Mr. Clark grew teary speaking about his late coach, “He was a legendary guy.”

Another moment of Mr. Clark’s coaching career that shines was the 1972 Merced High School cross country team that he coached and that broke a National High School record. To this day that team is ranked as one of the top 25 high school teams in the United States.

He spoke proudly of another great moment in his coaching career when Janelle Kraus, a runner he mentored and coached, went on to become the state champion. “Janelle was the first state champion I’ve ever coached,” he said.

Running is a large part of Shelter Island’s history, and continues to be a driving force for the community. Despite the celebrated history of the sport, participants in running have decreased in past years. Shelter Island School Athletic Director Todd Gulluscio believes that student numbers in running have begun to dwindle because of the increased interest in other sports, such as baseball.

This past year, he said, there were a total of 27 students who participated in running, 10 in the fall, 10 in the winter, and 7 in the spring.

Mr. Clark offered his own perspective on the topic, as his worry increases about the future of running. “I have very strong feelings on why that is, and I think that our youth is getting too much self-actualization and almost athletic fulfillment from videos and video games,” he said. “I’m concerned, and I believe it influences sports and all our extracurriculars. It’s just too easy, and there’s such a great benefit from failure.”

He believes that over-exposure of technology by the world’s youth is cause for alarm. “It’s abundantly clear that it has become an epidemic,” he said. “And there’s so many exciting graphics, kids can strap on some goggles, and they can just be there. But it doesn’t compare to the real thing.”

This year for the 2024 10K, Mr. Clark will be walking in the 5K portion of the race like he did last year. “It was really neat because my grandson came and was the one who put the medal around my neck at the finish line,” he said.

Before wrapping up the time spent with the Reporter, Mr. Clark wanted to share one final thought of gratitude. “I would just like to say how grateful and proud I am of the team and people that keep the 10K going. It goes beyond what we thought could ever possibly happen. Thank you.”