It was a race Maple Ridge’s James Clark wasn’t supposed be in, let alone win.
Last month, the University of Idaho middle distance runner and Thomas Haney secondary grad was forced out of action due to worsening chronic pain in his kidneys.
The problem first arose two years ago, when Clark suffered acute kidney failure following a race in California.
“That evening I had a lot of back pain, and it kept getting worse,” he says.
Doctors took out his appendix, but had no definitive answers for Clark as to what was wrong with him. One theory was rhabdomyolysis, a condition where the body rapidly breaks down, damaged muscle cells, flooding the kidneys with harmful myoglobin protein.
All Clark knew was that his season was ruined.
In time, the pain lessened, and Clark returned to the track with a medical “redshirt,” allowing him an extra year of eligibility in the NCAA.
But after a race in April, the pain returned, forcing Clark back into hospital.
He was just coming off gold- and bronze-medal performances at the Western Athletic Conference NCAA Division 1 Indoor Track Championships in February, helping the University of Idaho Vandals men’s track team to its first-ever team win at the competition.
With the WAC Outdoor Track championships on the horizon in May, Clark says he was looking forward to helping the Vandals vie for their first team win in 10 years at that competition.
“It’s frustrating not knowing what’s going on,” he says. “All I wanted to do was run, but I couldn’t.”
Now facing weeks of bed rest, Clark says he nearly gave up on the rest of his track season.
But after two weeks of bed rest, Clark began to improve, and the pain began to subside. Suddenly, the WAC Outdoor Track championships, which the Vandals were hosting in their new $2 million track stadium, didn’t seem out of the question.
Clark was still in no shape to train, so he could only walk to stay in shape.
Then, on May 9, just two days before the meet, doctors cleared Clark to run. He had just enough time to squeeze in a single hard workout before the competition.
A serious injury, one that he might not recover from, was a very real possibility.
“There was a lot of trepidation going into the race,” says Clark. “But I knew we had a good shot [at the conference title], so we needed everyone to perform.
“I just wanted to do what I could.”
In his preliminary 800-metre race on May 11, Clark hung back in the middle of the pack, taking it easy so as not to tax his kidneys. He cruised to a third-place finish, but that was enough to get him through to the finals later that day.
“I was pretty nervous going into the finals,” he says. “My plan was to let everyone do the work, and wait until the final 100 metres to make my move.”
So Clark hung back, just as he had in the prelims. He slotted in behind the race leader, and let him block the wind. Clark kept pace, and as the leading pack rounded the final corner.
Clark made his move, surging to the front of the pack, while three other runners kept pace, each making moves of their own.
The finish line loomed and Clark, cheered on by the roaring hometown crowd and his teammates, made a final lunge.
“I had no idea if I had won or not,” he says. “It seemed like they [were reviewing the finish] forever.”
When the decision finally came down, it was Clark who was awarded the win, and the crucial 10 points for his team.
His margin of victory was just three one-thousandths of a second over Louisiana Tech’s Alwayne Green. The race is believed to be the closest in conference history, with the top four runners finishing within 0.11 seconds.
“I was blown away that it was that close,” says Clark.
Clark’s gutsy performance helped buoy the Vandals track team as they headed into their last events, says his coach Wayne Phibbs.
“He’s been through so much, and I think anyone else would have quit by now,” he says. “It was only a couple days ago that we decided it was okay for him to run and the text I got from him was, ‘I want to score some points for the team.’”
“Nobody deserves that victory more than James Clark.”
His teammates went on to register win after win, and as the Vandals prepared for the final event of the meet – the 4X400-metre relay – they got word that they had clinched the championship.
“Our guys kept winning and kept racking up those points,” says Clark. “I’m just happy I could contribute.”
Clark’s track season is over now, but thanks to his medical redshirt, he still has one more year of eligibility in the NCAA. This off-season he hopes to find some answers to the problem in his kidneys that has plagued him.
“This was my last race for while, but I’m hoping to be back healthy next season,” he says.