Clay Howarth was far back in the pack. His opponents were older, more experienced, more hardened, and he was a 23-year-old taking his first shot at the USATF Mountain Running Championships at Cranmore Mountain in New Hampshire, just months after starting to train specifically for the sport.
"I was freaking out a little bit," Howarth said.
But then the race started going uphill. Howarth's legs, with a thick build more like those of a cyclist than a long-distance runner, started pumping out short, quick strides, and as he started passing people in bunches, his rise to the top rung of the country's mountain running scene began.
Howarth has long been a runner, but his formal career in the sport had a relatively late start. His mother, Melody, would run the Peachtree Road Race in Atlanta, and Clay joined in starting when he was 10. When his brother, Tyler, played baseball, Clay would run over to the playground and back.
Tyler was a particularly strong athlete, one who stood taller than six feet and turned heads in the weight room as a freshman at North Forsyth High School, while Clay was, in his words, “kind of a scrawny little runt.” He could run, though, and Melody Howarth recalled how Tyler would try to get his friends to race Clay.
Tyler Howarth was 15 when he died after being electrocuted in an accident at Lake Lanier. That loss changed something in Clay, he and his mother said.
“I never took sports seriously until after he passed away,” Clay Howarth said. “I think kind of initially it was sort of a coping thing, but it was also, kind of subconsciously, wanting to fill those shoes a little bit.”
It took Howarth a while to settle on running, though. He showed early promise, running a mile in the low five-minute range in middle school, but as a freshman and sophomore at North Forsyth, his sports were basketball and swimming. On the court, Howarth didn’t crack the Raiders’ starting lineup, but he could run suicides and other endurance drills better than anyone else.
Meanwhile, Howarth was putting up solid times in the 5K run his family did to memorialize Tyler, and Brad Kudlas, the Raiders’ cross country coach at the time, helped get Howarth out for cross country as a junior. Howarth’s improvement was swift, as he dropped his 5K time by more than a minute and a half as a freshman and was running in the Foot Locker South Regional by the end of his senior season.
Howarth went on to compete in college for Western Carolina, but his time there was marked by a year lost to injury and lingering discontent when he was healthy.
“Running-wise, I never really felt fulfilled with that,” Howarth said.
But Howarth knew he had a knack for something that runners typically dread – hills. His best 8K race in college came at the Furman Classic, a course that now seems like nothing but back then felt particularly steep. When other runners would slow down as they went uphill, Howarth could zip by unhindered. When he ran on the track, he lamented its flatness.
“I always found myself thinking, ‘Gosh, I wish there was hills on this or something,’ so I could catch up,” Howarth said.
Howarth decided to go to graduate school after graduating from WCU in three years, and he got a scholarship to the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies, bringing him near some of the best hill-running territory in the country. He had considered the idea of giving up running, but by his first fall out West, he was running in the Moab Trail Marathon out in Utah, where he finished with the eighth-best overall time.
He was laid up for part of 2016 with an injury, but by the end of the summer, Howarth was running again, this time with former Berry College runner Patrick Chamberlain as his coach. Chamberlain had first met Howarth when he was working at Baxter’s Multi-Sport (now called Georgia Front Runners) in Gainesville, and the pair would occasionally run together. It was clear then that Howarth had a certain knack for hills.
“It looks fairly effortless,” Chamberlain said of Howarth. “He just kind of flows uphill on the trails, much easier than the rest of us. It’s usually clear that he’s exerting a lot less effort than we are when he’s going uphill.”
Howarth had decided to specialize in mountain running, and for him, the logical next step was to run in the national championship.
“With most anything he does, he doesn’t do it halfway,” Melody Howarth said.
Chamberlain set a training plan that attempted to balance strength and speed – one week, Howarth would be doing interval training on a track, and the next, he could be running up a mountain. Chamberlain could follow Howarth’s times through GPS tracking and see how he was progressing.
“It was always impressive,” Chamberlain said.
The data gathered from workouts and time trials told Chamberlain that Howarth had a chance to make a considerable impact at the national championship race and maybe even make the four-man team that would compete at the world championships.
The 2017 national championship race was held on June 3. Howarth recognized some of his competitors, like Joe Gray, who has for years been the best mountain runner in the country. The course started flat before turning up the mountain, where Howarth could power ahead, shortening his stride and pumping his arms like he was running up stairs. By the end of the first uphill, he was in the top five.
But then the runners had to go back down, and for now, that’s Howarth’s weakness, as he hasn’t yet developed the pure speed needed to dominate those sections. He was 1:14 behind the first-place runner and four seconds back of fifth place through the first five-kilometer loop of the race, but the gap between Howarth and fifth place slipped to 21 seconds by the end of the race.
“That was all in the downhill where he got away from me,” Howarth said.
A sixth-place finish would have been good enough to make the team in past years, but USATF cut the qualifiers down to four runners in 2017. Howarth’s competitiveness doesn’t typically go well with less-than-optimal performances – he called himself a “sore loser” – but there was something different about this particular loss.
“He’s learned to accept (that) even coming in sixth in this race was quite an accomplishment,” Melody Howarth said. “This is one of the first races (where) he was like, ‘Yeah, I did pretty well.’”
Clay Howarth sees this year’s race for what it was: a springboard, a particularly promising introduction to a sport whose best runners peak when they’re considerably older than Howarth’s 23 years. He doesn’t know how much longer he’ll be in Colorado, because his lease is up in July, and he graduated in May and is still looking for a job, maybe something in intelligence with the armed forces.
Wherever Howarth goes, it will be with a feeling of contentedness that he’s long sought, having appeased the gnawing competitiveness that drove and tormented him through his earlier athletic pursuits.
“I like hills,” Howarth said. “It’s not like I hate hills but I’m better than other people, so maybe that’s okay. No, I enjoy it.”