Smiths Falls lawyer Mike Cliffen has never been one to run from a challenge, and so it made perfect sense that the 63-year-old would find himself participating in the 50-km Calgary Ultramarathon on May 28. He crossed the finish line at a remarkable 5 hours and 12 minutes and took home the gold medal in his masters men age class.
In addition to the daunting length of his run, Cliffen tells Hometown News that Calgary posed a challenge because of altitude. “It easily cuts five percent of aerobic capacity. The course organization was good, but 50 kilometres is a long way, and the body runs out of its stored energy at 38 kilometers. So that last 12 kilometers gets a bit ticklish. It’s not painful, but your legs turn into rocks.”
A former town councillor from 1988-2000, Cliffen says he won’t do another such run. But he has no plans to hang up his sneakers, given a 43-year obsession that began during the early 1970s running boom. Inspired by gold medal marathoner Frank Shorter’s performances in the 1972 and 1976 Olympic Games, Cliffen joined millions who caught the long distance running bug.
“It seemed like everyone was doing it so there must be something to it, and if you didn’t run too fast, it wasn’t too difficult,” he recalls. “I was never terribly athletic in the hands-eye coordination department, so I found this idea of putting one foot in front of the other a fairly easy thing to do. No assembly or instructions or equipment or membership fees required.”
His first major event was the 1978 National Capital Marathon, a 42-km race that began a string of similar runs over the next decade. “Getting under three hours in a marathon is a head turner,” Cliffen explains, adding that “although you’re not winning, you’re in the top ten percent in the field.” During those years, he remembers five runs that he clocked in under two hours and 40 minutes.
“Those were big races with as many as five thousand people and I was coming in around 33rd or 34th, but those days are gone,” Cliffen says. “You can only run one or two quality marathons a year because it takes so much out of you.”
After a stint away from marathon running while he was raising his young family, Cliffen laced up again for longer distances beginning in 2000.
Cliffen continues to run extensively throughout the Smiths Falls area, especially enjoying the quiet and solitude of a three or four hour run that begins with daybreak. Coming across all manner of wildlife – turtles, rabbits, foxes – makes him feel very connected to the local environment.
He’s also done some research into the history of humans’ capacity for the marathon, which many view as an extraordinary commitment only a few can make. Cliffen disagrees, and says that running is innate to the species, going back to the days of hunter-gatherers. “Humans can outrun any animal, not in speed, but in distance, which is how we domesticated so many animals,” he says. “And look at children. When they first get on their feet, they tend to run before they can walk. Running is a natural form of movement.”
Cliffen believes the key to running is finding a proper pace, building up one’s core strength, and finding an enjoyable route. “Most of my running I’m in the same oxygen bounds as if I’m walking,” he says. “I just lope along, I drink from my water bottle, I can take different route through the town or countryside, and it’s the best part of my day.”
This article first appeared in the July issue of Hometown News. Read more of the July issue in our digital version.