Meet Clayton Young: A Rising Star in American Marathoning and an Olympic Trials Favorite

Young had knee surgery less than a year ago and has bounced back with a vengeance

Clayton Young enters the 2024 US Olympic Marathon Trials as the #2 seed with his 2:08:00 clocking at last year’s Chicago Marathon for 7th place.

Clayton was the 2019 NCAA 10,000m champion in the heat in Texas, but he has experienced ups and downs as a professional. His marathon debut at the 2020 Olympic Marathon Trials was a disappointing 2:29:46 for 136th place. The next year, he won the US 15k championships but only ran 2:16:07 in Chicago in marathon #2. In 2022, he improved to 2:11:51 at Chicago but a knee issue would soon cause him to undergo knee surgery in February 2023, less than a year from the Olympic Trials.

But Clayton bounced back amazingly from the knee surgery and took the rest of 2023 by the horns.

He won the US 8k championships in July, then won the US 20k championships in September, crossing the line together with his training partner Conner Mantz (more on that below). Most impressively, he ran 2:08:00 for 7th place in Chicago to not only get under the Olympic qualifying standard for the US but to become the 7th-fastest American ever on a record-eligible course.

Clayton trains in Provo, Utah, under coach Ed Eyestone as part of the the Run Elite Program alongside US Olympic Marathon Trials #1 seed Conner Mantz. Sam Chelanga, who ran 2:08:50 in Chicago, joined Mantz and Young for this Olympic Marathon Trials buildup as well.

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Clayton spoke to for 23 minutes about his transformation in 2023 and what it would mean to make his first Olympic team.

Highlights of the interview are typed up below. Full video here:

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Podcast Highlights

Clayton Young: Thanks for having me on briefly and painting my story a little bit. It’s had its ups and downs, but we’re trending in the right direction now. (LRC): What happened from, I don’t know, 2019 [onwards]? You’re an NCAA champion, and then you sort of fell off the radar. And then last year I’m like, wait, he’s sticking with Mantz in a lot of these things and then you were right behind him in Chicago. So sort of take us through that.

Conner Mantz (l) and Clayton Young (r) in Chicago (Kevin Morris photo)

Young: Like you said, in 2019, I had a fantastic senior year and that propelled me into being a professional runner and things were looking good, but honestly I probably jumped to the marathon and to those longer distances a little bit too soon and, and should have stuck to the track. And in 2020, the Olympic Trials was my debut marathon. I’d only been training three weeks. I’d had some injuries leading into that build, but I figured that the experience was gonna just pay off in four years, and so I decided still to run it. So I ran 15 miles with a good friend of mine and then really just like packed it in the last 10 miles or so.

I think I will play on that experience come the Trials here in 10 days or so. But yeah, I think things really started to click this last year. I had knee surgery in February [2023]. Probably the lowest part of my career and the sport in general. For me, I just couldn’t figure it out. Ultimately opted to get knee surgery, but, you know, I think having it all taken away just really invigorated me and fired me up to really just enjoy every run, every workout, every lift. Even just being with the boys out on a run every day. Like I just soaked it all up after that and there were zero expectations of me coming back.

My first race back really was the US 8k champs and I knew I was fit and I was fast after training with Conner as he got ready for the 10k track champs. So I just decided to swing for the fences and kind of had a breakthrough starting with the 8k champs, and then the ball just kept rolling. Obviously Conner’s been a big, big, part of my comeback, training with him, having that confidence day in and day out of training with him. You know, I can’t hang every day. I can’t hang most days, but the days I do hang, it brings a lot of confidence and so I’ve had to kind of strike a balance of not comparing myself too much to him, but being grateful for the days that I can hang with him. I think we work well together and we keep each other balanced and focused and, and, we’re looking better than ever going into the Trials.

LRC: A lot of the time, you can train with him and race against each other, and it’s not career-defining. If one of you guys beats the other, like in Chicago, you both hit the standard, so you’re both very happy. But the Olympic Trials marathon, only three people make the team.

It could be you’re battling it out for the third spot. Does that enter your mind at all when you’re doing these workouts?

Clayton Young after Chicago 2023 (Kevin Morris photo)

Yeah, absolutely. I think we do think about that, especially in the later stages of every workout where, we’re visualizing, we’re preparing, we’re looking for the little edge that we can gain to get ready for the race and to beat one another. We’re very competitive athletes.

There’s no doubt about it. I think we kind of had a good trial run at the US 20k champs. We went 1-2 and I was feeling better than Conner towards the end of that race. And, we ultimately decided to finish together. And I think that really kind of sparked some competitiveness in each of us. We realized, okay, that was fun that one time, but you know, if it really comes down to it at any other race from here on out, we’re gonna go for it. We’re gonna race to the line. And so I think honestly Conner and I’s best race will be working together and keying off each other for the first 24, 25 miles. I think that is in both of our best interests. But you know, as we round that corner with a thousand meters to go, as we head into the home stretch, I think it’s gonna be every man for himself.

And we both know that and we both realize that. And so as long as that expectation is there, I think we’re fine.

A win for Conner is a win for me and vice versa. Like, there’s just so much confidence that comes from watching a teammate succeed and knowing that you’ve done the same training and the same workouts and, and, that you can stick with him and roll with him.

And so honestly, I will be the most happy guy if Conner wins the Trials. And I pray and I hope that I’m coming in right behind him. 14 seconds. If the gap between him and I is 14 seconds like it was in Chicago, I’ll take that hands down. 1-2 would be our goal.

Getting Drubbed in Workouts by Conner

LRC: You said in workouts, you can’t hang with Conner all the time. A workout was posted today on the All-Access YouTube channel. You guys did four by three mile and the last three mile Conner was 15 seconds ahead of you. But the crazy thing to me is you can train with him, get dropped, yet are [only] 13, 14 seconds behind him in the Chicago Marathon. Does that give you confidence? 

I think there’s two things that I think of. One Conner and I’s approach to workouts is a little different. He is a little more aggressive than me. Like I think he would admit that coach will give us paces. You probably saw it in the workout. Coach gave us paces and Conner was going five seconds faster per mile. Like it happened in a workout last week, we were doing an eight mile PMP, predictive marathon pace. So on a tempo run, eight-mile tempo run. And, you know, we wanted to go 4:45 and we ended up going 4:40s. Conner is a very aggressive workout warrior. And that’s what makes him so good is he is grinding in practice as hard as he is on race day, as you’ve seen it on his face.

I have a little bit more of a conservative approach.  I still don’t like to be dropped. I’m still very competitive. But I think I’m a little bit more okay with that was already a phenomenal workout. It was the best workout, it was better than my Chicago four by three mile session.

Like I was just very, I don’t wanna say content, but happy with where we’re at. And yeah, I got dropped and if I can look at it and compare, you know, October Clayton to January Clayton and just see that I’m 15, 20 seconds faster per rep. Like, I’ll take it. Like that’s okay. And so that’s just a difference in Conner. He is a workout king and it really definitely helps him with races. And then the other thing I think about is when it comes to races, I think people translate different from workouts to races and I feel like Conner might be beating me in the workout, but you know, I might be beating him in nutrition or in sauna or in sleep or in the weight room.

Like there’s, there’s so many other factors that people aren’t seeing, that Conner would give me the nod to where I’m pulling him through different sessions in our day, whether that’s in the sauna or in the weight room or, or kind of some other things I listed. And so I really feel like I can make up the gap in other ways and, and I’m slowly closing that gap, I hope. I try not to always defer to Conner, and just think that he’ll always beat me. But, like I said previously, there’s nobody more deserving than Conner. He works so hard for it, and, and his success is my success.

[To learn how Clayton is beating Conner at the sauna, you need to listen to the full interview].

Clayton in Chicago in 2022 (Kevin Morris photo)

LRC: Is there science behind just sitting in the sauna [for heat acclimatization]? Is there science that shows that it helps you even when you’re working out?

Absolutely. There’s tons of science on it and, and it really depends on what you’re targeting. There’s adaptations for heat acclimation, so you know, increasing blood plasma volume, and increasing your heat shock proteins. And that’s specific to heat acclimation.

But then there’s also tons of other recovery benefits like just blood flow in general and increased heart rate, like my heart rate will get up into the 130s and you can essentially count that as a double, right? Like if you’re in there for 30 minutes, like you’re essentially running another workout.

It’s an easy workout, but if more blood flow increases recovery. There’s also some natural, you know, EPO gains that are manifest when you do sauna consistently. So if you can stimulate your body to produce natural EPO, I mean, of course you’d want that right? To be able to increase your red blood cell count and things like that.

So yes, sauna has become a huge part of my training, whether it’s heat acclimation or not. And even just like bulletproofing your immune system. Like I have so much more confidence these next couple weeks because I’ve built up an incredibly strong immune system just by being in the sauna.

And I have this approach now of like, okay, don’t get sick.  But instead it’s like whatever comes, my immune system’s gonna handle it. And, I’m not as afraid of getting ill because of all the preparation I’ve done.

The Taper

LRC: Before we got started with the interview, Jon was asking you about your workouts between now and the Trials. I think people would like to hear them if you wouldn’t mind sharing. Even the recreational marathoner worries what should they do for the taper. So could you talk us through those workouts?

Yeah. [The] taper is a tough, tough, tough beast. Even for a pro there’s a million ways to do it. And it really tests your confidence in your training. It really tests that you don’t have to prove yourself over these next two weeks, you’ve already done the work.

Clayton at 2020 US Olympic Marathon Trials (Kevin Morris photo)

That’s really the key to a good taper is just knowing that you’ve already done the work and now you’re just checking the boxes more or less all the way in. So the workouts – we did two by four mile [on January 23] at just faster than marathon pace. And that was a good session. Best session, two by four mile session I’ve ever done and now we’re kind of at the tipping point.

I always say about 10 days out from a race or from a marathon is where you kind of get diminishing returns. Like I feel like adaptation is about 10 days. So on Thursday [January 25] is kind of our last real hard session. We’ll do 8 x 800 and we’ll start off at probably about 2:08 to 2:10 up here at 4,500 feet of elevation. We’ll get down to probably 2:04 by the end, and we’ll take about two minutes rest, lap, jog.

And then on Saturday [January 27] we’ll do some bottle practice for our last long run. More or less it’ll just be 12, 13 miles at an honest 6:00 pace, nothing crazy, no pickups. And then on Tuesday [January 30], we’ll be doing, our traditional four by mile on the track. And that’s usually right at or just faster than marathon pace, and that’s more to just dial in marathon pace. And we’ll also practice bottles. And so we’ll put [out] bottles and we’ll be grabbing bottles every mile and testing and practicing holding those bottles for as long as possible and getting our gut used to the fluids.

Then Thursday [February 1] next week, two days out from the race, we’ll probably do a couple 400s, maybe a 200, but nothing aggressive. And the mileage, last week (three weeks from the Trials) I hit 100 miles and then this week I’ll hit between 70 and 80, and then next week I’ll hit 40 to 50 going in for the race.

And usually your body feels like garbage and you feel outta whack and you’re missing all your endorphins, but you just gotta trust it and hope that you’ll feel good on race day. And you will.

[For more on whether they adjust paces for altitude listen to the full podcast]

Clayton Gets Emotional When Talking About the Olympic Team

LRC: What would it mean to you to make the Olympic Team?

Oh man? You know, it’s funny, we train out here with [2016 Olympian] Jared Ward and having heard more and more about his experience in Rio and how heartbreaking it was to miss the team in 2020. We often joke, who would be more excited to make the Olympic team, Jared Ward or me? And you know, I think it goes without saying that Jared Ward would be more excited just ’cause he knows how special that was and how hard it was in 2020. And that has made my desire to make the team so much more right? Being surrounded by Jared, by Coach Eyestone, three-time Olympian [Editor’s note: Coach Eyestone only made two Olympics!]. Like, it would mean the world, right? Like it’s what I’ve dreamed about for a long time. And yeah, even more so like, to make it side-by-side with one of my teammates would just be, ah, it’d be incredible. So, it would mean, everything.

[Clayton started to get emotional and tear up a bit near the end of the paragraph above].

LRC: Getting a little emotional talking about is making me [emotional].

Clayton Young and wife Ashley in Chicago (Kevin Morris photo)

Yeah, yeah. You got me, you got me. I wasn’t expecting that. And yeah, I just am reflecting on [everything], even just this build, like everybody that’s been in my corner, it’s unreal how many people have, you know, I’ve had a lot of sacrifice, but man, there’s been so many others that have helped me to get to this point. And I don’t take that as pressure, like I have to make the Olympic team for them because they’ve sacrificed so much. I’m very careful about that, like being almost selfish in my endeavor, just to protect my mental state. But there is something special about running for something beyond yourself and I really find that motivating that last 10k.

And I think, I think it’s even more special just knowing how, how condensed this season of fitness has been. Like, if you think about how I was seriously sidelined a year ago. February is when I got my knee surgery, late February. So to have all of this happen in just a year’s time, it makes it that much more real and emotional to me that, you know. It just, it is just incredible.

Full video below. Join the Supporters Club to get it and our talk with Conner Mantz as a podcast.

More Trials Talk: After Stress Reaction In His Femur, Conner Mantz Ready for Olympic Marathon Trials as #1 Seed

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