Christine Clark was having trouble holding form at a press conference after winning the U.S. women's Olympic marathon trials in Columbia, S.C., last Saturday. Her arm carriage was dropping, and her son Matthew, 9, motioned for her to hold the microphone higher. "She's not used to it," the young spokesman explained. He men moved a tape recorder closer to the subject and shooed away Danny, 6, apologizing that his younger brother was "very high maintenance."
The celebrity drill is new for Christine, a 37-year-old Anchorage pathologist whose previous athletic high point was a win in the 1999 Lost Lake Breath of Life trail run, a 16-mile climb into the Alaskan wilderness, which is roughly where Clark came from to earn America's lone berth in the women's marathon at the Sydney Games in September. "I'm elated for Kristin," said Joan Samuelson, the '84 Olympic champ, now 42, whose impressive ninth-place finish left her second in the mother-of-two division. "Oh, Christine? Sorry. Christine. What she did was most incredible."
It was also most unfortunate for Libbie Hickman and Kristy Johnston, the only runners in the race who had previously gone under the Olympic A standard of 2:33 set by the International Amateur Athletics Federation. By IAAF rules each country can send as many as three runners to the Games if all have met the A standard during the qualifying period (which extended from Jan. 1,1999, through race day) or a single runner who has met the B standard of 2:45. Because USA Track & Field decided months ago to guarantee the trials winner an Olympic berth, Clark, who had taken the lead from '96 Olympian Anne Marie Lauck at mile 20 and built a lead of more than a minute by mile 24, was effectively running the last two miles to earn berths for Hickman and Johnston. The course's late hills and the 80� heat caused her to slow as she neared the finish. She crossed the line in 2:33:31, a personal best by seven minutes. Johnston was second in 2:35:36 and said the outcome made her "just want to die." Lauck hung on for third, while Hickman faded to eighth.
Christine's husband, John, and their sons left their hotel room, where they'd watched most of the race on television, to greet her at the finish. "She wasn't even this happy when we got married," said John, a pulmonologist she met in medical school at Washington.
Clark owes her belated bloom to her belief that running shouldn't preempt life. She enjoyed only moderate success on the track at Montana State—while earning a biomedical science degree with a 3.99 average. She ran two low-key marathons in 1988 before taking a seven-year hiatus to complete her residency and start a family. She qualified for the '96 Olympic trials, at which she placed 76th and was too intimidated to speak to Samuelson when she saw her. Not until '98 did she take on a full-time coach, who also happens to be named John Clark.
To prepare for the trials, Christine, who works three days a week at the Providence Alaska Medical Center, did a lot of cross-country skiing and ran most of her 60 to 70 miles a week on a home treadmill. She was hardly a favorite to make the team. Last year the Anchorage Daily News ranked her No. 50 on a list of the state's best athletes, one spot behind a snow-machine maker. She doesn't have a passport because she's never been out of the U.S. After arriving in Columbia on Tuesday, Christine spent most of Wednesday at the zoo with her kids, leaving the boys to check out the snakes on their own because, said Matthew, "all girls are scared of them."
Samuelson also hung out with her kids and seemed looser than usual at a Friday press conference. Asked what pick-me-up she planned to carry in her water bottle on race day, Samuelson answered "a genie." She later confessed to a bad case of PMS, which she defined as "premarathon syndrome." In fact, a day earlier she had needed a cortisone shot to ease the pain of a herniated disk. "Running is part of the balance I need in life," said Samuelson, who works part time as an elementary school teacher in Portland, Maine. "When I was injured in college and had more time to study, that's when my grades slipped and I was adrift."
Clark was almost finished scribbling her autograph on shirts and posters at a postrace reception when she was approached by 12-year-old Abby Samuelson, who asked her to sign a T-shirt. "Wow, I need you to sign something for me," Clark said to running's first daughter. Clearly, it was time for the Samuelsons and the Clarks to be introduced.