Q + A WITH HAZEL CLARK-RILEYinterview by Dave Milner 06.21.09
Hazel Clark-Riley is a 4-time U.S outdoor Champion, two time U.S indoor Champion, and a 3-time Olympian in the 800 meters. She is arguably the most consistent female two-lapper America has produced since her sister-in-law, Jear Miles-Clark, and her older sister, Joetta Clark, before her. Demonstrating great consistency and longevity like her sister and sister-in-law, Hazel has run under 2 minutes for 800 meters during seven of the last 10 outdoor seasons, clocking her PR of 1:57.99 in 2005.
She is coached by her older brother, J.J, who is the head women's coach at University of Tennessee and also the coach of 3-time U.S 1500m champion, Treniere Clement.
Hazel's husband, former high hurdler Wenston Riley (who has a 13.67 PR), proposed right after the 2004 Olympic Trials 800m final. She accepted, and they got married in October 2007 “Peachy” (as her friends call her), Wenston, and toy chihuahua, Pluto, live together in Knoxville. She is currently ranked #14 in the world with a 2:00.09 clocking from last month, and will compete in the U.S Championships in Eugene,OR next week. TR caught up with her over the phone at her home after a run.
TR: You just missed ducking under 2 minutes at the Reebok Grand prix meet in New York. But a 2:00.09 clocking in late-May is a good omen, right? Were you happy.
HC: I wouldn't say I was happy with it. It was okay, though. I've been training through these meets a little more than in previous years.
TR: Were you shocked, though, by Anna Willard's sub-2 victory in that race.
HC: Not really. It made sense that she could break 2:00 based on her other PRs. She's been hitting PRs acroos the board. I believe Jenny Barringer could run a really strong 800 right now too.
TR: In college, you had success at the 1500 as well as the 800. Do you think you'll ever consider moving up to 1500 meters?
HC: No, I don't really think about it. To be honest, I didn't really do any 1500-type training in college. I was just strong. I won't completely rule it out, but right now, I'm focused on the 800.
TR: You only raced twice indoors this year - a low-key 400 at the University of Kentucky, and then the 800 at the Reebok Indoor Games (2nd behind Alice Schmidt in 2:03.19) - and skipped the U.S Indoor Championships? Was that always the plan, or did you have an injury that cut the season short?
HC: Actually, I got sick. I planned to compete at the U.S indoor champs, but got sick right before, and it took a while to get over it. I took it too lightly, and tried to resume training too soon afterwards. But now I really think its gonna work out for me, in terms of being able to peak later in the season. I didn't race at all indoors in 2007 and 2008. I've wanted to race indoors, but things kept coming up. Like in 2008, I had surgery.
TR: In a major championships year like this, is your training designed to peak twice - at the U.S Championships and then again, two months later, at the World Championships? If so, how is your training different in June from your training in August?
HC: We don't peak for the U.S Champs. I'll be a little more rest for Nationals than I was for, say, Prefontaine, but definitely not peaked.
TR: What is a typical track workout for you this time of year?
HC: I do a lot of work ahead of race pace. This morning's workout on the track was 500, 4 x 200, 400, 4 x 200 all at under my PR pace. I've had some really good workouts lately, and I'm very excited. I haven't done workouts this fast, and more importantly this smooth, since 2000.
TR: After clocking 1:59.82 to win the Olympic Trials, last year's Olympic Games, I'm guessing, were pretty disappointing for you, being eliminated in the 1st round heats with a 2:01.59 clocking. What happened in Beijing?
HC: I should have talked to someone after the Olympic Trials, or taken some time to regroup. That run took so much out of me. I went out hard and I forced it. It wasn't smooth, and I've never been so taxed after a race. I didn't even give an intervew after the race.
We tried to go to Europe to race, but I was so tired. I ran a couple of races, but the times were embarrassing. They sent me home from Europe. By the time I go to the Games, I was beyond exhausted. I wanted to go home right after my race, but J.J was there as one of the coaches, and he convinced me to stay. After all, the Olympics is an amazing experience, and you can't take it for granted. The thing I really learned from that season is that you can't force things. Sometimes you've got to let things happen, and trust the training.
TR: You're currently ranked #2 in the U.S (with your 2:00.09 clocking from the Reebok Grand Prix meet), behind Anna Willard, who is not running the 800, and just ahead of Maggie Vessey, who had a breakthrough run at Pre, clocking 2:00.18. Other than Vessey, who do you see as your main rivals at the U.S Championships next week?
HC: I don't see any rivals at the US Champs. I mean, I don't really think about anyone else. I don't really spend much time looking at the lists to see who has run what. I believe ignorance is bliss! If you're going to beat me, you're going beat me running hard all the way. Like in last years' Olympic Trials, I went out hard - and maybe 55-mid was too hard - and I died in the last 50, but I died less than anyone else. It's not a secret, how I race. I've been racing that way for years.
TR: Do you intend to keep through 2012, with a view to making your 4th Olympic team in London?
HC: Yes, definitely. Making a fourth Olympic team would be really exciting. Joetta & Jearl carried on racing at a high level until their late thirties, and Jearl into her forties. I don't know if racing when I'm 40 is in the cards for me. We'll see. I'd like to run the 2012 Games in London, and then have a baby.
TR: Of the top 30 all-time performances in the women's 800m, 20 of those marks, including the current world record of 1:53.28 (by Jarmila Kratochvilova (right)) are by Eastern European runners in the '70s and '80s, many of whom were part of a systematic doping regime. What do you think is the fastest drug-free time ever recorded?
HC: Maria Mutola, and then my sister, Jearl (who holds the U.S record at 1:56.42). Maria and Jearl were both consistent year-in year-out. The runners that are doping tend to be down one year and then way up the next. It makes me angry that there are so many people doping and that those times still count. I know that all the people in my camp do things the right way, and they are my role models. I think it's more important to be able to look yourself in the mirror and know you did all you could do as a clean athlete, that win a gold medal at all costs.
TR: What would you say is your greatest strength as a middle-distance runner? And what is your biggest weakness?
HC: I can carry a lot of pain. I can go out hard, knowing its going to hurt, but I can still run efficiently even when I'm hurting and my body seems to be good at clearing lactic acid. The weaknesses are in my mind. Sometimes, like at Nationals last year, I force things and tighten up.
TR: How often does your chihuahua, Pluto, run with you?
HC: (laughs) He just does my warm-up jog with me before track workouts. I used to run a little further with him, but I heard it was bad for his hips, so I stopped.
TR: For someone that has never raced an 800, try to describe how someone at your level feels, physically and emotionally as the race unfolds.
HC: Well, when you're standing on the line, you feel nervous, queasy almost. Sometimes that uneasiness makes you shake. And then the gun goes off, you take off, and all that unease goes oit of the window, as you focus on the race. The real race starts at 600 meters. Before that, things are controlled, but in that last 200, you're just focusing on your form not breaking down, and just trying to get to the finish line.
TR: If you could offer one pearl of wisdom to an aspiring young 800-meter runner, what would it be?
HC: Run the third 200 hard. Don't back off, expecting to kick it in the last 200. If you run the third 200 well, you'll put yourself in postion to finish well.
TR: Hazel, good luck in Eugene.
HC: Thank you.
DAVE MILNER IS THE EDITOR OF TR AND AN ASSISTANT COACH AT BELMONT UNIVERSITY. ONE OF HIS GOALS IS TO BREAK 2 MINUTES AS A MASTER IN 2011.
Find out more and follow Hazel at tnrunning.com/hazel
You can also follow Hazel on twitter: http://twitter.com/hazelclark154