Now that David Clark has run 100-mile races through mountains and deserts, it’s hard to picture him during his first weeks of sobriety. To the stunned clerks of a running store, he announced his plans to run a marathon. His basketball shorts had a waist size of 50. He weighed 320 pounds. When he got on a treadmill he could run— for only 15 seconds.
But newly clean from alcohol and painkillers, he hit the gym anyway. After his 15 seconds of running, Clark eventually managed to walk five minutes at a time. It was a start. Gone was the Vicodin, Percocet and codeine chased with 90-proof peppermint schnapps. The next challenge: tackling the food addiction that had him making nightly after-closing visits to McDonald’s for Double Quarter Pounders, a fish sandwich and fries.
How Clark rebounded from his trifecta of addictions, lost 150 pounds and trained for some of the most extreme runs on earth is shared in his engaging book called Out There: A Story of Ultra Recovery. Since it was published in June 2014, Clark’s book has sold well in Amazon’s running, substance abuse and sports biography categories, drawing television and other media attention.
“When Runner’s World magazine came out to do a story, they took a picture of me in those things,” says Clark, 44, of Lafayette, Co., holding up what he calls “my genuine Shaquille O’Neal uniform shorts.” They were the only running garment that fit him, he says, quick to laugh. “I wore them all the time, and I try to have a sense of humor like this throughout the book.”
Funny as that episode may be, other chapters of Clark’s life are unsparing and sad. Clark and his wife divorced about four years ago. Originally the book had ended prior to that, with the account of his first 100-mile ultramarathon. But after his adultery ended what was a crumbling marriage, the couple split. Clark felt he needed to lose the “Rocky” ending for unvarnished truth. Flaws and wrong turns are part of his journey back, he said. Besides, nobody would connect with a story of a faultless addict.
“On the Road” to Addiction Early in Life
Clark was born in Upstate New York and raised unconventionally. His father quit a good job as a factory manager, and his parents took their four sons along as their dad started his own business where restaurants and hotel chains needed him to restore and upholster furniture and booths. His parents also started a food bank when he was 10.
The family was on a “spiritual journey” along the way, in which his parents were questioning and talking with them about whether religion was truth or fantasy. They often slept in campgrounds, with their dad’s truck as the only shelter they owned. They moved around so much that Clark had to get a high school GED so he could attend college and study chemistry and engineering.
When a close friend died of cancer, he was so devastated that he quit school. His parents ended up founding a food bank, and Clark took a job at a mattress store and worked his way up. By age 30, he’d launched his own company, eventually owning a chain of 13 mattress stores.
“If you’d ask me then, I would’ve said, ‘Sure I drink too much, but it’s due to stress on the job, owning all of these stores, but otherwise I’ve got life figured out entirely,” Clark says, laughing. “I would’ve also said, ‘I weigh 320 pounds, I’m addicted to alcohol and painkillers, I’m pre-diabetic, my doctor says I will have a stroke, but yeah — I’ve got life all figured out,’” he says.
Clark had gone to a few Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings, but says they fed his denial. “I’d say, ‘OK, I drink too much, I’m not denying that, but I’m not all [messed] up like you guys,’” he recalls. But he did a good job of hiding the extent of his drinking.
He writes in the book that his selfish behavior made him a terrible husband to his wife Heather, but addiction itself was never broached. When he admitted to his parents and siblings that he had a drinking problem, nobody in the family agreed with him. “Six months sober,” he says, “I’m with my dad somewhere and he says, ‘I sure wish we had some scotch, just for medicinal purposes.’ I’m like, ‘Dad, I’m an alcoholic.’”
Clark’s Breaking Point
His quit date was movie-scene cataclysmic though solitary. He’d “been vomiting blood for years,” he wrote. One morning he awoke, unsure of whether he was alive or dead, every muscle aching, all alone, with the smell of fast food, booze and vomit “oozing from my pores,” he writes in the opening chapter entitled “Help!” of his book.
Clark was 34. He wasn’t sure he’d survive the day. He wasn’t sure if he’d surrendered the idea of living, but he felt something let go. He immediately went to AA meetings, read AA’s Big Book, and didn’t drink or take painkillers again. He was still wolfing down several burgers at a time, but quickly realized he would need to do more than exercise to lose weight.
In that first week, he showed up at the gym in his huge “Shaq shorts,” staying positive, shrugging off the “are you kidding me?” looks as he boarded the treadmill, trotted for mere seconds, then walked and walked. “The whole exercise was to not give in to the negative, and I decided being a fat drunk wasn’t who I was supposed to be,” Clark says. That was in 2005.
Kicking Off the Training Wheels
Clark’s first running effort was a turkey trot barely two months after his sobriety date. At that point, he was still carrying around the equivalent weight of another grown man on his six-foot frame. After 18 months, he ran his first full marathon.
Two years into his sobriety with several marathons completed, an old back injury flared. Running and unaware of the injury eased the pain, but it worsened the condition, forcing him to quit running and have surgery.
“I was still pretty compulsive about running,” Clark says. “I still had it attached to my recovery and thinking I needed it to keep the weight off and stay sober. So first I had to ask myself, ‘So let’s say you can’t run, what does that look like?’” It was a time of reckoning, “when the big piece came together, the last holdout of the old addict. I like to believe that letting go of the running was another surrender — when I knew that if the running went away, I was going to be OK.”
Clark did recover and went on to run in ultramarathons, which are 100 miles or more. Even most ultramarathoners, who run more than 100 miles, don’t try or finish Badwater 135, a 135-mile race that’s considered the toughest foot-course in the world. In 2013, when Clark did the Badwater 135 for the first time, the race started on a hot July morning and crossed Death Valley National Park, finishing at the trailhead of Mount Whitney. This ultramarathon is so grueling that the national park has banished it from the valley in previous years.
Clark has run the Badwater 135 ultramarathon twice. Two weeks after each race, he ran Leadville 100, which is a daunting race through the Colorado Rockies in August.
Why Such Extremes?
Why? Clark gets that a lot — the incredulity, the bewilderment and head-shaking about why anyone would want to run the equivalent of four marathons back-to-back, often uphill. In his book he mentions a few favorite remarks from his past life: “I’d run 100 miles — if someone chased me with a knife,” or “I’m not even comfortable driving 100 miles.”
For Clark, it’s a spiritual experience that tests the strength of his mind as much as his body. It boils down existence to its most basic form: Mindfulness and keeping your thoughts in the moment. You may lose feeling or want to die, but you keep going. Clark once fell asleep while running an ultramarathon. For him it’s akin to addiction recovery: You don’t think you can get through the next hour without using, but you dig deep, and you do.
On March 12, 2015 he attempted to break the 80.5-mile world record for running on a treadmill in 12 hours, achieving 77.15 miles. Three days later, he ran the 26.2-mile L.A. Marathon from Dodger Stadium to the ocean in Santa Monica.
Clark has a fitness gym for aspiring marathon and ultramarathon runners. He feels the running world gave him so much that he tries to give back through a small non-profit, The Superman Project, in which he helps write fitness training plans for people new to addiction recovery.
Clark knows he’s lucky to have a sense of release in sharing his story in a book. He hopes it resonates with others pondering recovery. Readers have included the overweight, the injured, the divorced, and many family members of struggling addicts.
“It’s been kind of profound,” he says. “A lady waited at the finish line of one marathon to tell me that her son died of a heroin overdose, and she said the book helped her understand what he was going through. And a man showed up at my gym to tell me his wife had had surgery, was given painkillers, became addicted and overdosed. These are moments that, if nothing else had happened, would have made the book worthwhile for me.”