Marathon man puts 50,000 miles on his feet Running: Crownsville's Eric Clifton challenges himself by running trail ultramarathons, which exceed the standard 26.2 mile marathon distance and take him over mountains and through forests and amid ice and snow.

November 07, 1996|By Edward Lee | Edward Lee,SUN STAFF

Eric Clifton has put on nearly 50,000 miles -- not on his Nissan Maxima or his motorcycle, but on his feet.

The 38-year-old Crownsville resident is one of the nation's premier trail ultramarathoners, an athlete who runs 100-mile marathons the same way people run to the convenience store to get some milk.

"I've always been interested in challenging myself," said Clifton, a slender, bespectacled man who speaks with a soft Southern drawl.

Clifton has tested himself by winning more than half the 60-plus ultramarathons in which he has competed. In February, he set a trail record in the Rocky Raccoon 100-Mile Trail Race in Texas in 13 hours, 16 minutes 2 seconds.

Four years ago, Ultrarunning magazine named Clifton its male Runner of the Year after he won four 100-mile races.

"That was a pretty impressive feat," said Fred Pilon, editor of the Amherst, Mass.-based publication. "Nobody had ever done it before him, and I don't think anybody has done it since him."

Such accomplishments are further highlighted by the definition of an ultramarathon, which is any race that exceeds the standard marathon distance of 26.2 miles. Ultramarathons can range from 27 miles to a 2,700-mile race around a half-mile block in Queens, N.Y., that has a 47-day time limit, Pilon said.

And trail ultramarathons differ from their cousins in that runners must go over mountains and through creeks and forests to get to the finish line, he said.

Clifton, who is the manager projectionist at Annapolis' Apex Harbor Center Theater, said ultramarathons are often viewed by competitive runners as oddities.

"It's still in the freak show category," he said. "So you don't have the fastest people gravitate to it."

Clifton has been running since he joined his high school track bTC team in Asheboro, N.C. Although his college, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, didn't field running teams, Clifton said, he trained on his own until he ran his first marathon in Greensboro in 1977.

After he competed in more than 50 triathlons and did cycling in the first half of the 1980s, Clifton finished his first ultramarathon in Virginia in 8 hours and 22 minutes in 1986.

Since then, he has run in about 62 marathons, including the Iditasport, a grueling 100 miles over Alaskan tundra in February 1994. Temperatures dipped below zero, and the snow was more than 2 feet high, he recalled. He wore five layers of clothing, two pairs of thermal gloves and specially spiked shoes. And although he won the race almost five hours faster than the runner-up, Clifton could not run for two weeks because of frostbite on his feet.

Using a running journal that he has kept since 1977, Clifton estimates that he has run 49,352 miles. To stay in shape, he runs as much as 60 miles a week and adheres to a diet of potatoes, fruit and yogurt. But he does admit that he has indulged in Mexican food and candy.

His wife of five months, Noni Nierenberg, said she worries about the ultramarathons, but would never try to get her husband to quit. "If anything, I try to encourage him," said Nierenberg, who has run several 50-mile ultramarathons. "He loves it."

Pub Date: 11/07/96

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