Will Clarke is one of the UK’s most impressive triathletes, and he has a few things to say about incompetent referees, motivation and holidays in Greece. Trizone caught up with the British athlete.
School starts Clarke’s journey towards triathlon
“When I was sprinting at school, I started watching the middle distance guys and decided endurance was probably more my game,” Clarke told Trizone. “I started jumping in with them in the 800-1500 metres, and that’s how it stayed throughout high school.”
Modestly, Will Clarke added “my swimming has plateaued since I was about 11 or 12 until now!” On a more serious note though, Clarke remembers his start in triathlon. “When I was 16, I started doing the odd triathlon, junior race. Then I was selected by a World Class Start Program talent spotter,” said Clarke. “They looked after me and helped me have money for things like inner tubes and other stuff like sweets and chocolates,” laughed Clarke.
That talent scout began Clarke’s triathlon journey, and he’s never looked back. “I trained quite hard when I was a junior,” remembers Clarke, “I was third at the World Junior Championships, and second at the European Juniors.”
Will Clarke competed in triathlon at his University where there were plenty of incredible triathletes and swimmers. The squad was training exceptionally hard, with only a few weekly trips to the student union pub, so we’re told.
By the time Clarke was in his third year at University, his focus was solely on triathlon. “I was doing sports science and sports management, but in my last year I was making money off the sport and I’d qualified for the Commonwealth Games.” With his eyes set on his sport, Clarke decided University wasn’t his main focus. “After qualifying for the Commonwealth Games, I found it hard to get back into uni after that. I didn’t finish my degree,” said Clarke.
Is desperation the key to success in triathlon?
Will Clarke may have insight into the key to success in sport; desperation. “In 2010, I no longer had the support of UK triathlon. That was the first time I wasn’t getting financial support for my mortgage and travel and I had to think ‘shi*, what do I do now?’ I was on my own for the first time. I had to be smart and make good decisions,” Clarke told Trizone.
Like almost every professional triathlete, Clarke was at the crossroads of deciding whether pursuing triathlon could be a long term career. “I think you need to have that desperate attitude. It’s something Alistair [Brownlee] has. He’s so competitive and he’s so desperate to do well all the time,” Clarke said of his fellow UK triathlete.
A baby helps and hinders training
While making the most of his period of desperation and amidst the exciting news he had a son on the way, Clarke was picked up by the BMC Etixx team. “As soon as I announced I was going from ITU to long course, I had zero sponsors and it was the year my baby was coming, Freddy. I got a call from Bob de Wolf straight away and he wanted to do some testing and have some chats. It’s been amazing with the team every since.”
Having Freddy was a big shock to the system for my wife and I and it took us a long time to figure it all out. He was a really terrible sleeper and he also had a lot of energy. I think in my first year of long course racing we managed it really well, my wife did all the hard work so I could focus on my job and he wasn’t walking yet so the main damage was loss of sleep.
The following year I cracked. It all got too much for me. Mentally and physically I was completely burnt out and the psychologist that I was working with Rudy told me I needed 10 weeks off to recover otherwise he was afraid my career would be coming to an end. So that put an end to the year.
After taking 13 weeks off at the end of the season, Ben De Wolf encouraged me to team up with Luc Van Lierde. This is where I learnt so much about how to prepare for Ironman and I made a big leap in progress.
Quality not quantity the key to Clarke’s training success
“I’m training less now then I have my whole career, perhaps even 6/7hrs less most weeks. Luc doesn’t think I’m an athlete who needs huge volumes,” said Clarke. Most of my career I trained very hard. I think in the UK we seem to be stuck on the constant high volume, high intensity method, rather then trusting our talent perhaps. Luc Van Lierde is the perfect fit for the UK athlete. “When I started our sessions weren’t ever wiping me out, and there were less of them, but at the start of the season I was racing better than ever. He gives you what you need to improve, he doesn’t just throw everything at you”
Many triathletes complain the time they have with their families is coloured with the haze of exhaustion, and they’re not able to excel in being a parent and partner. Athletes like Clarke with young families need coaches who understand the importance of their other priorities.
“He keeps you happy as you have plenty of time with your family and you’re not completely exhausted all the time” said Clarke of his esteemed coach.
It’s not just the training load that works for Clarke, but the data-driven precision. “Luc Van Lierde is very strategic and precise,” said Clarke. “We’ll have a steady week, ticking away nice and consistently and then he’ll chuck in one or two big weeks where we get the 200km rides done to overload us. It’s all very measured,” Clarke told Trizone. The English triathlete’s admiration for his coach is apparent. “You can take advice of what he’s doing as he’s been there and done it himself at that very high level,” gushed Clarke about Van Lierde, “He’s won Kona. I just trust him and get on with it,” said Clarke, sounding the epitome of an Englishman.
Taking time off more important than getting worn out
Will Clarke had booked a week off in the middle of the season to go to a friend’s wedding in Santorini. “The trip came at a great time as it was enforced rest.” After Ironman Texas, Clarke had reached a slump. “I felt very tired for a while and that obviously impacts your motivation. I could have pressed on and kept flogging myself like I did in the old days but now it just doesn’t work for me now.”
“By the time I raced in Bolton I felt super fresh, and put my head down and a did a really good race,” Clarke told Trizone. “I think it’s better to be 90 percent fit and fresh and motivated than firing on all cylinders,” said Clarke.
“I’ve always said to myself it’s the most important thing to feel motivated.”
Clarke wants referees to use more discretion
The most passion Clarke summoned was when talking about referees and penalties. “I’ve had a few penalties now. I got a five minute penalty for drafting, as did twenty or so other guys in Kona last year,” said Clarke. “In Texas, I was given a one minute penalty for dropping my energy bar. As if I wanted to drop my nutrition!” Clarke added incredulously. “I pleaded with the guy in the penalty box saying ‘please! You need to use some discretion, I’ve got a kid to feed!’ so 50 seconds into the penalty he realised he was being ridiculous and he let me go.”
Luckily for Clarke, the referee’s leniency allowed him to get back in the pack and resume the race, but he was frustrated again in Bolton. “It was a really tough course, and it’s not the course for drafting, but I got a five minute penalty, there as well which seemed particularly harsh, especially as he wasn’t even following the race’
Clarke may belong to the prestigious BMC Etixx team, but he’s aware of the huge toll a penalty can take on those new to pro racing. “Imagine you spend £5,000+ getting to Kona and everything is going amazingly well for you and for one moment you lose concentration and drift into the draft zone’ If the referee sees that in a race like Kona that’s it, it’s really going to hurt your chances of a result. It’s too harsh I think. Perhaps they need to give you a warning each or perhaps something different level penalties based on the extremity of the offence.
Will wishes referees would watch greater chunks of races before handing out huge penalties, rather than making judgements on just a few short moments.
Moto drafting Clarke’s pet peeve
Clarke is also keen to voice his opinions about the effect of drafting behind motorbikes. “It’s one of the biggest problems facing Professional Triathlon right now. In too many races motorbikes are completely influencing the result and it’s just not fair. You’ve not got a chance against the leader getting motorpaced.” said Clarke.
“The reason these guys are running so fast off the bike is they’re not working any harder than me on the bike. Of course they get off and can run fast,” Clarke told Trizone passionately.
You look at Starky and he’s completely gone when he gets off the bike. That’s what should happen when someone rides sub 4:10. They should be completely cooked.
Despite some frustrations with penalties and drafting, Will Clarke loves his sport and is thrilled with the support of BMC Etixx, Bob and the whole team, and he says he realises he’s one of the lucky ones. “We’re paid a salary, and we have many of our expenses paid for. It alleviates a lot of stress to just get on with my job, train as hard as I can and not be under any financial stress.”
While Clarke may come across as a pretty serious guy, he has his fun. If you scroll through his Instagram feed you’ll find photos of Clarke and a friend in fluffy bathrobes. “It’s called Ragdale Hall Spa, and somehow, they let me and my idiot mates come and use the place for free,” said Clarke laughing. “I invited my friend who has a lot of spare time, so we went down there and played some croquet and hung out in the Spa. I am pretty sure it’s very, very unusual to get two lads rocking up to Ragdale Hall, most of their clientele are groups of women or a mother and daughter treat but it’s still bloody good place to go and freshen up” said Will Clarke.
With impressive Ironman races under his belt for this year, we’ll look forward to seeing how Clarke performs in Kona.
Finally, here’s some tunes that Will enjoys while training and travelling.