When The Times-Gazette caught up with 1996 Hillsboro High School graduate Johnny Clemons three years ago, he had just finished running nine marathons – in nine consecutive days – culminating with a run at the Boston Marathon. Now he has reached another milestone.
Recently, Clemons won the Cruel Jewel, a prestigious 106-mile endurance race through the mountains of North Georgia.
That qualified him for the Hardrock 100, which Clemons described as the Olympics of endurance running, that will be contested next summer in the mountains of Colorado.
Clemons never planned to win the Cruel Jewel. He said it just kind of happened.
“When I started I just relaxed and decided I didn’t care what place I came in,” the son of Debra and Jerry “Buzzard” Wilkin said. “I just focused on keeping my heart rate down the first 20 miles and telling myself that I was going to finish. I thought of times of high school wrestling and cutting weight, about my whole past, putting one foot after the other and not giving up, praying, and thanking God for letting me be there. It really took my mind out of my body.”
When he was about 30 miles in, Clemons said it didn’t seem like he’d been running long at all, then about daylight, after his headlight had pretty gone out, he passed the leader. He said he finished 45 to 60 minutes ahead of the runner-up.
But not without some adventure along the way. In the middle of the night he said his headlight almost went out – only giving him a glow similar to what the face of a smart phone gives off – leaving him stumbling over rocks and roots. Along the trail he said he saw two bears, two rattlesnakes, and a copperhead he almost stepped on.
He finished the race in 26.5 hours. When he started the race he weighed 158 pounds. When he finished he weighed 139. Unlike most runners, he did not eat during the race.
He said that on a flat course, like running from Hillsboro to Athens, he could finish in about 16 hours.
According to its website, the Cruel Jewel 100 is a 106-mile foot race deep within the Chattahoochee National Forest of the North Georgia Mountains. It consists of 94 miles of trails, 12 miles of mountain roads, and 20 aid stations.
“Along your journey from Vogel State Park to Blue Ridge, Ga. and back, you will experience tough, and sometimes technical, single track trails, ferns and old growth poplar trees, steep ascents and even steeper descents, an historic steel bridge spanning the Toccoa River, the Dragon’s Spine, lush green hardwood forests, rocks, roots and ridge lines… And as a bonus we have thrown in 33,000 feet of gain and 33,000 feet of loss just to keep it interesting.”
The race started at noon with a heat index in the low 90s. Clemons said he was the only starter without trekking poles. He said that while some wore backpacks, he started with no shirt, and the only things he took with him other than shorts and shoes were a hand-held water bottle, visor and a head lamp in his pocket.
Now a resident of Cleveland, Tenn. with a wife and three kids, Clemons said he has always loved to run. He said that as early as seventh grade he’d sometimes run from his home in Boston to school in Hillsboro, then run back home after school and around the Rocky Fork Lake area.
“My mom told me I was running before I could walk,” said Clemons, who ran track and cross country, wrestled and played golf at HHS. “I just never stopped. That’s part of my sense of purpose in life. If’ I’m healthy and can still do it, why not do it.”
After high school he ran at Ohio University, the University of Rio Grande and Lee University. He said he recorded times of 4:01 in the mile and 1:49 in the 800 meters, and that he was better at the shorter distances. But after college, there weren’t a lot of competitive opportunities at those distances, so he eventually moved on to marathons and beyond.
A health coach who teaches everything about healthy living as his profession, Clemons said it was his nutrition program that made the difference in the Cruel Jewel. He said that while most runners fuel up on carbohydrates, he started eating a high fat diet long before the race – things like nuts, avocados, coconut oil, butters and berries. He said he stayed away from grains, sugar and oxidized oils.
Clemons said that when the 106-mile race was over he felt really good.
“I didn’t lose any energy, which is proof that my nutrition works,” he said. “That night my legs kind of shut down and it was kind of tough for about a week. They were just really sore because of all the climbing.”
Clemons said his goal at the Cruel Jewel was to qualify for the Hardrock 100. But he also has other goals. Since he turned 40 in February, he’s now eligible for masters races at shorter distances. One of his goal is to break 4:10 in the mile.
He also runs with a cross country team that competes in meets just like he did in high school. This fall his team will compete in the Masters Cross Country Nationals in Chattanooga, Tenn.
These days, Clemons said he does as much strength training with weights as he does running. He said he averages running about 80 miles a week, maybe a little more sometimes, or may take some time off from running to recover after a strenuous event.
“The reason I did well at the Cruel Jewel was because I watched my nutrition,” he said. “I trained my body before the race to burn fat so I didn’t have to take in sugar. At my age you really have to train smart to keep healthy.”
Reach Jeff Gilliland at 937-402-2522 or [email protected]