It was Easter Sunday in March 2008, and he was unable to fit into the restaurant booth at a family gathering. Bill Clements was nearly 30 years old, and this was his wakeup call. He had always enjoyed being in nature and the idea that he was physically fit and able to enjoy himself on various outings and adventures, but now, with 250 pounds on his 5 foot 9 inch frame, he knew that something had to change. Two years later Bill completed his first 50k, and now he is a highly accomplished ultrarunner, with amazing races and other huge accomplishments on the trails.
Bill’s story is inspiring and we wanted to learn more.
UR: Bill, what do you think happened on that fateful day back in 2008 that led to you taking a totally new direction in your fitness, and your life?
Bill: It was a culmination of things. When I got home that day and stepped on the scale I couldn’t believe it. I’d gotten into this routine where I just stopped caring. Stopped caring what I looked like, how much I weighed and how my poor life choices were impacting my body. I avoided mirrors, I avoided the scale, I avoided looking down at my stomach. I guess I was always a runner—back then I was running away from reality! But when I forced myself to step on the scale that Easter Sunday, seeing that big 2-5-0 on the screen thrust me back into reality. Mentally I always considered myself slightly overweight. Never obese. I just thought I was a few pounds overweight and it wasn’t anything I couldn’t lose in a few months of focused effort. Now I was obese. All I knew at that time is that I wanted to change the trajectory of where my health was headed and put things in reverse.
UR: What did your friends and family think of this transformation?
Bill: They have been very supportive. It’s always fun to run into someone I haven’t seen in years and watch their jaw drop when they see the change. One of the most rewarding aspects of this transformation is how it has inf luenced others to make similar changes in their lives. Following crewing me at the Leadville 100, my dad, 62, was inspired and committed to walking 100 miles. He now walks 100 miles a month and has kept it up for over a year. I’m so proud of him! He can’t run—but he loves his Hokas! My younger brother and my cousin have now run a half marathon. It makes me happy to see those closest to me staying active and living healthy.
UR: What was your prior life like for you?
Bill: I lived a very sedentary lifestyle. I worked as an IT engineer and spent a lot of time in a cubicle coding and solving problems. After work I’d migrate home and catch up on TV shows and movies. I made no time to be active. Eating was actually one of my favorite activities and meals were always the highlight of my day. On top of that I had some life events (my mother losing her battle to cancer, and a bitter divorce) that in hindsight played a part as well.
UR: What was the biggest key for you?
Bill: Progress was my number one motivator. I tracked everything on a spreadsheet and it was very rewarding to see the numbers drop. I would also take a shirtless picture every few weeks so that I could see the results physically, not just on the scale. It became my new project, my new obsession. I set a goal, which initially was 199 pounds (just wanted to break the 200 barrier). Once I reached 199 I sort of plateaued and lost a little bit of motivation. Even though I had lost 50 pounds, I was still overweight. I was so excited at that weight loss and getting back under 200 it didn’t dawn on me that I was still fat. I wandered aimlessly for a bit, until I found my next motivation: P90X! I was on a business trip and watching late-night infomercials in my hotel room. P90X really caught my attention because there weren’t any gimmicks. There was no “ab rocker” that was going to magically give you a six-pack. It was all push-ups and pull-ups. I couldn’t even do a single pullup. So that became my next goal—to do a pull-up. I was full of excitement and invested in a few dumbbells and a pull-up bar. I stuck to the workouts and committed to them just as I had before with the trusty elliptical machine. Talk about transformation— the pounds just melted off. I could see veins in my arms that I’d never seen before. Before I knew it I was doing not just one pull-up but sets of pull-ups.
UR: What part did running play in your transformation?
Bill: When I tell people of my weight loss and they see the runner I am now, they automatically connect the dots and assume running is what was responsible for my weight loss. However, that actually wasn’t the case for me—I was so heavy when I tried to run I would get severe shin splints and/or knee pain. I would have loved to run; I ran when I was a little kid with my dad. I had fond memories of running. This is why I was anchored to an elliptical machine to burn calories. It was non-impact. Something happened, however, after starting P90X. I got stronger and leaner. When I dropped down to the 180s I went out for a run, and to my surprise, it didn’t hurt. So I went out for another run. And another. I just kept at it because I could. After a few months of consistent running injury-free I set my sites on a marathon. The 2010 Big Sur Marathon became my next goal. Setting, achieving and then resetting goals was driving me.
UR: What was the biggest challenge?
Bill: It was really, really hard initially. But you have to start somewhere. I would start on the elliptical machine and just do 15 minutes. But I was consistent and I would go the gym every single day and slowly worked my way up to 30 minutes, 45 minutes and then an hour. Changing my diet was also tough. I was hungry all the time! After several weeks I sort of fell into a routine though and got used to elliptical, and the dry turkey sandwiches on wheat, and apples, and almonds, and all that healthy crap.
UR: How did it feel as you were able to gain fitness and complete races?
Bill: It felt amazing! The Shamrock’n Half Marathon was my first official “race” where I got to pin a bib on, tie a chip to my shoe and take home a race tech shirt. The American Canyon 50k in 2011 was my first ultramarathon. Then things progressed up the ultramarathon hierarchy—a 50 miler (Mokelumne River), a 100k (Miwok), then my first (gulp) 100 (Leadville). Running distances of that magnitude was certainly something I had ever thought I would have been capable of a few years ago.
UR: You have done some epic endurance activities other than just ultra races—can you describe one ?
Bill: There is something magical and fulfilling about adventure running. That is, planning out a route in the wilderness and going out and doing it completely self-supported. No race t-shirt, no chip, no bib. No aid stations, no cheering, no finish chute. Just you and the wilderness. I feel like everything I’ve done up to this point was to prepare me for this type of adventure!
By far my most memorable adventure to date was fast packing the John Muir Trail in 2012 in a week. It was completely self supported (carrying a bear vault and all). Every day was challenging as there were one or two mountain passes that I would have to climb each day. Some nights I would lie there in my tent, exhausted, my legs aching, and thinking to myself, What did I get myself into? But there was no bail-out option.—
UR: Can you describe your experience running across the Big Island of Hawaii with two elite ultrarunners, Jason Schlarb and Julien Chorier, earlier this year?
Bill: I am very thankful to the people at Julbo who made this possible for me, and it was just an awesome opportunity to run with those guys across that island. They are such talented athletes. To prepare for that adventure I did very little research on those guys. All I knew going into that Hawaii trip was that they were elite ultrarunners. I had no idea what races they had won or their running history. I purposely went into it like that so I wouldn’t be overly intimidated when I ran with them. Instead I got to know them a bit first, talking with Jason on the phone a few times before the trip, and then spending the first day with Julien. They are super nice, humble guys. Then I learned Julien had come in second place at Hardrock that year to Kilian Jornet and Jason was the first American finisher at UTMB. One of the things I learned from watching both Julien and Jason run is they are truly one with their bodies. When they run—they flow. On these long stretches of technical downhill, their eyes are ahead of them, not looking down at their feet. They just trust their feet completely without fear of stumbling or rolling an ankle. In my own running I’m so fearful of face planting or rolling an ankle, I’m constantly looking down and watching my footing on the downhills. I tried to trust my feet more and run as they did and that helped my downhill running tremendously. I also learned from Jason how to be more efficient when power-hiking—pushing down on my knees or thighs with my hands, depending on the grade of the hill.
UR: How important are race times and places for you now?
Bill: Like most ultrarunners, when I started out the goal was just to finish. After that you naturally want to get faster and improve your times. I started running consistently in 2010 and have been able to PR each consecutive year. I’d like to keep improving for as long as I can as I get older. I watch guys like Gary Gellin, Rich Hana and Jean Pommier, and they are still winning races and running insane times well into their late 40s and 50s. They really inspire me to keep improving! Although I’ve podiumed a few times I still have yet to get that elusive W. I’d really like to see that someday as well, and it would be super special to get it at American Canyon 50k as that was my very first ultra.
UR: What is your big challenge for this year?
Bill: I would like to do another 100 miler this year, but I haven’t decided what it will be. The next major challenge for me will be the Badwater Salton Sea team race. It is an 81-mile race starting below sea level at the shoreline of the Salton Sea, through the Anza-Borrego Desert and to the top of Palomar Mountain. This summer will be super exciting as well, as I am planning a couple of adventure runs: the wonderland trail, which encircles Mount Rainier, and The Zion Traverse, which runs across Zion National Park West to East.
UR: By charting this new course and transforming your life, how has that affected you in other than physical ways?
Bill: Most of my friends now are part of the running community, and that is a good thing as it helps continue to motivate me and keep me interested in the sport (although I do drink more beer now than I ever have in my life). Career-wise, this transformation has absolutely played a role. I was laid off from my job where I had worked for more than 12 years. But instead of looking at that as a problem I saw it as an opportunity. It was just another challenge to overcome. The confidence I had built from running helped give me the edge I needed to pursue other opportunities and succeed.
UR: How would you advise others facing big life challenges?
Bill: I would tell others you can do more than you think you are capable of doing. Don’t underestimate the power of will. The mind is an incredibly powerful thing, and when you set it towards a goal, it’s amazing what you can achieve. Also, don’t be overwhelmed by the enormity of any one challenge—instead break it down into little chunks and go after those. Conquer one at a time. Before you know it, you will start to see results and be on your way to your goal.
UR: Is there a specific person who has been a big inspiration for you, or whom you admire most?
Bill: There have been many people who have inspired me throughout my journey. Dean Karnazes and his book “UltraMarathon Man” was one of my first inspirations. His journey was incredible and not unlike my own. I could relate to his experiences. Most of my inspiration, however, came from nameless runners that I would talk to in a parking lot or at the festivities following a race. These are the runners who planted the seeds. I was in awe that they could run such distances, and slowly but surely, the idea of doing a race of that distance took root in my mind and soon became reality.