It’s widely regarded by runners as the toughest race in all of track. At the very least, it’s the most uncomfortable. The 800m is the longest sprint in the world for distance runners. And historically, it’s a race the United States has excelled in, with a twenty medal haul in the modern Olympiad. That’s twice the count of the next best placing country. But for twenty-four years, not a single American medaled in the 800m at the Olympics. That is until Clayton Murphy, a twenty-one year old from a farm town in Ohio, ran the final in Rio de Janeiro. Clayton raced almost two seconds faster than the time that qualified him to represent Team USA in Rio and secured the Bronze Medal. An incredible performance on the biggest stage in sport. Speaking with Clayton, I wouldn’t know about any of his accolades if I depended on him telling me. When speaking about his “successes” early on in running the 800m, he neglected to tell me about winning Gold at the 2015 Pan American Games, the first American to do so in fifteen years. He didn’t mention the Silver Medal at the North American, Central American and Caribbean Championships. All this from a guy who is supposed to be a miler.
He didn’t even bring up the Bronze medal much either unless directly asked. His thoughts in Rio were revolved around competing to make the final and giving his absolute best effort. Clayton was thoughtful in his reflections and thankful for the tremendous support he’s had. I enjoyed finding out more about his training, nutrition regimen, and how a grounded young man from America’s heartland developed into one of the World’s elite track athletes.
Sean Rigsby (SR): Growing up in a small Ohio town, what would you describe as your early athletic background? Were in you in to team sports? Or did you get into track early on? Did you do anything else physical growing up?
Clayton Murphy (CM): Early on I played soccer. In New Madison, OH we didn’t have a football team, but we did have a basketball team. So I grew into that tradition of playing basketball. But in Junior High I started doing track and cross country as well. My sophomore year of High School I transitioned away from team sports completely into track and cross country.
Aside from those sports, when I was young I used to show pigs. And I think this is where I developed my competitive spirit. I think the individualized nature of showing pigs gave me a competitive nature and sense of pride in what I was doing.
SR: Really? I wondered if you undertook any typical “farmboy” activities being from such a small community and growing up on a farm.
CM: Yeah, we didn’t raise the pigs as much, but we would attend auctions and buy the pigs, then raise them up till the shows at the State fairs and some National shows over the summer. Even when we didn’t have pigs our farm always had something to do with sheep or other cattle around all year.
SR: Since you ran both track and cross country in high school, did you have a preference then or did you enjoy the variety of distance?
CM: In high school I really enjoyed cross country, I think because I missed the team aspect of soccer and basketball. Cross country was the closest thing I had to that. We didn’t pace or train as team, but I liked that I could contribute to team points with how I placed. Even as I got older I think I enjoyed it a lot because it was nice to run outside, do different courses, and see things other than a track.
If you asked me now, I’ve completely fallen in love with track. I don’t miss the long distances. I prefer the speed work and the shorter distance I do on the track. But if you asked me next week if I’d want to do a cross country race or a 5k on the track, I’d probably rather do a 5k on grass.
SR: In college you continued to do a number of events, but it looks like you started to drift towards the 800m?
CM: Yeah, I didn’t fall into the 800m on accident. We started to train it more. Coach said we should do more 800s to focus on the last half of the mile and closing strong.
SR: So it was more of a training tool?
CM: Yeah, when it started. Then I had a couple of successful races. I qualified for NCAA Indoors in the 800m, so we stuck with it and actually kept it for another season outdoors. Then I qualified for USA Outdoors, so we ran it a little more out of NCAA season. That’s when I really had a lot of success with it. I ran three PRs in five days at USA Championships in 2015. I only came in for 4th there, but was lucky to be selected by Team USA for the Pan American Games and the North American, Central American and Caribbean (NACAC) Championships as well. Later I was selected for the IAAF World Championships as well and end up being the top placing American.
I had a lot of success with it, so I don’t know if it was the success that made me gravitate to it or just the race itself. I really enjoyed the toughness of the event so we stuck with it.
SR: It sounds like you enjoy the distance, but success sort of snowballed for you in that direction?
CM: I think it’s easy for anyone to enjoy something they’re having success with. It’s hard to put yourself in the gym or on the track, grinding day in and day out if you’re not seeing some kind of progress or reward for your efforts. I think that’s the first step for me. I see results, I enjoy it, and from there you can only get so far.
I enjoy the 800m because it’s just such a different event from anything else on the track. It’s such a long sprint. People don’t understand just how long you’re in that zone of complete exhaustion. It’s almost half the race you’re running completely exhausted and you want to quit. I don’t think there’s any race like that in track and field where half the time you want to quit and be done. When you experience that for the first couple times and you push through it, you want to do it over and over again. That’s what I work on: pushing myself farther into that zone.
SR: As an outsider, looking at the 800m, it seems like the most miserable sprint ever.
CM: Yeah, when I see a kid who tells me, “I’m an 800m runner,” I tell them, “Hey, I’d choose the mile or 400m if I were you!” You don’t choose the 800, the 800 chooses you.
SR: At the Olympic Trials and the Olympic Games you hit significant race time PRs. What do you attribute these significant improvements to? Do you have more specific focus on the discipline leading up to the events? Or have some really great training?
CM: I think it was just focusing on the competition level in those races. Those were the best races I’ve had and the highest competition level I’ve ever raced against. I chose to step into that uncomfortable zone and race against the best guys in the world. I wanted to push into those waters and test what I was capable of at that level. I didn’t worry about times or even know how fast I ran during the final in Rio until it appeared on the board. I never thought I’m going to run a certain PR. I wasn’t standing on the line thinking, “Today’s the day I run a PR.” I wanted to run for a medal and put myself in position to be on the podium. I’d rather have a medal than a time.
I think that’s why I hit such big PRs in Championship style racing, because I’m not focused at all on the time, I just want the medal.
SR: That’s an incredible mindset to have as an athlete. What was your Olympic Games experience like? The U.S. media focused mostly on Ryan Lochte and the athlete village conditions instead of the performances. I think a lot of the individual performances got lost in the noise.
CM: For me it was great. I didn’t really deal with any of those negatives. There was some minor housing incidents like bad plumbing. That’ll happen anywhere a building was constructed too quickly. I had no negatives other than the traffic we had to sit in while traveling to venues. But that’s just how Rio is designed. I can’t imagine how bad traffic is going to be when an Olympic sized crowd is hosted in Los Angeles.
I was able to go to both opening and closing ceremonies and take in a lot of events as a spectator. I made a lot of really good friends from other sports and countries. There’s people you’ll meet and have a great time with that you’ll never see again the rest of your life.
SR: You’ve got to be happy with your performance because it was a big PR and you medaled at your first Olympic Games. But did you leave Rio feeling satisfied or hungry?
CM: I definitely left feeling satisfied, but after a little bit of time the hunger was overwhelming.
SR: Do you think Rio elevated what you thought was possible of yourself?
CM: Yeah. I went into Rio with the goal of making the final. And the medal was the icing on that cake. When I got a taste of the icing I said it was time to start setting higher goals. So I set some new goals after Rio and it has pushed me a lot more. It created a new level of hunger and drive to try and break the American Record and go for Gold in 2020.
SR: Now you only want to eat icing.
SR: You train with the Nike Oregon Project now? Can you tell me more about what that’s like?
CM: It’s a group of 7 or 8 of us that train different distances from 800m to the marathon. We have our doctors, PTs, massage therapists, and Alberto Salazar is the head coach. It’s here to provide everything we need to have success.
This sounds bad, but they really cater to you. They do everything the athlete needs, whatever they need to help you progress and find success. It’s something I don’t take for granted and am very thankful I have the opportunity to be a part of. It’s amazing that I can wake up and see a massage therapist or doctor whenever I need it. It’s really nice to have all the resources here and it’s why they produce the best in the world. That’s why I came here. I want to be the best in the world and I knew I needed to make a change to do that.
SR: Do you feel like there’s a team camaraderie having a group of elite runners train together, even though you compete with in different distances?
CM: There is and we’re actually working on doing things to where there’s even more of a team atmosphere. Craig Engles, who runs the 1500m, and I train together the most here. So we push each other a lot back and forth to make international teams.
SR: Do you like living in Oregon?
CM: I like it a lot. It was hard leaving family in Ohio, but I’m liking it out here.
SR: So what does your training look like there? How many training sessions do you do a week? What kind of mileage are you running? Do you run long distances and intervals? And do you train for events other than 800m any more?
CM: For me, the training for the 1500m and 800m is pretty similar. I train more for the 1500m than the 800m still, but I do some 800 specific things. Short rest intervals and speed work for the 800m. But my mileage is around the same whether I’m training 1500m or 800m focus.
My mileage is around 70 miles a week. Really it’s two workout days and a long run day. So three days are really hard, four days are easy. I also lift twice a week. One harder lifting session and one core and maintenance session. Those revolve around when the harder running workouts are. The schedule changes all the time. Even if I’m off or sick one day, the entire program changes around you to make up for that.
SR: Usually getting runners in the weight room is like pulling teeth. But you make it happen twice a week. I have to imagine, as an 800m runner, that an average increased power output has got to help?
CM: Most of my weight room work is focused on durability and injury prevention. So that’s goal number one, since we beat up the body so much from running. But the second goal is definitely improving power and speed in ways that is not possible on the track. By no means am I putting up big weight, but we’ll deadlift, back squat, do lunges, and I’ll do a lot of hamstring work to keep them healthy.
SR: You excel in what appears to the outsider, the most difficult race to pace. Go too slow and you'll never make up the time. Go too fast, and you won't be able to finish strong. What sort of strategies help you know how to run just right? Or is this an internal skill you've developed with practice?
CM: I think it has to do with learning your body and learning how you run. Some people will go out fast at the start, others will go slow. We divide the race into two separate 400m segments. A lot people say the ideal race strategy is run a two second fade. So two seconds slower the second lap than the first. Usually I try to run a two second fade, never more than three, and often close to one second. You rarely see an even split. Most of the World and American records, the fastest races, are done with somewhere around a two or three second fade. So that’s something I’ve adopted as my own race strategy. I don’t live or die by it, but I try to find a pace I know I can keep up strong.
SR: With an exertion time of just over 1:40, the human body completely depletes its ability to resupply ATP for fuel and anaerobic failure sets in quickly. Do you feel Xendurance helps you sustain your effort and push when your body would otherwise want to stop?
CM: Yeah, I think it’s helped me a lot over the last six months. Everything starts in practice. The race is only 1:40, but practice is thirty to forty minutes of feeling completely depleted. Actually yesterday at practice, I was feeling exhausted during a span of forty minutes but I was able to keep hitting consistent times with when I was fresh. And that goes back to making sure I’ve fueled by body correctly. If I can maintain that level of intensity for so long during training, that’s going to carry over into race day.
SR: What does your diet and supplement regimen look like currently?
CM: I take Extreme Endurance, Omega+D3, and Immune Boost in the morning and night. Getting sick is one of the worst things because I lose training time, so Immune Boost really helps keep me from wasting time.
I like Fuel 5+ before workouts and take Creatine close to my weight room training. After workouts I’m big on the Vanilla Protein. I’ll probably drink two Protein shakes a day after training. Throughout the day I carry around a hydro-flask and will put Extreme Hydro X in there to make sure I have the electrolytes I need.
My diet isn’t super strict, which people may not expect for a track and field athlete. But honestly if asked 99% of us they’d say we’re expending so many calories and undertaking so much stress that it doesn’t matter if things are perfect. I just try to eat good quality, healthy meals. It might mean I’m eating white rice instead of brown rice, or having white bread instead of whole grain. I just eat whatever tastes good but avoid junk.
My goal is to eat three good meals a day and maybe fit in a snack. I used to be really big on Oreos when I was in college. But now I don’t have junk food any more in my pantry. I’m starting to learn how to cook healthy meals myself, instead of living in a house with five guys like in college where you eat whatever. I can’t even remember the last time I had Oreos now that I think about it and I’m starting to crave them since we’re talking about it.
SR: With all the mileage your body undertakes every week, I can’t imagine that a few Oreos will really be your undoing.
CM: As long as it’s something you’re not doing everyday it really won’t be an issue. Having the foundation of good food and fueling the training ensures that occasionally putting in some junk won’t topple the system.
SR: Tokyo 2020 is approaching. Do you have your eyes set on the top of the podium this time? Any other races or goals that serve as stepping stones for you until then?
CM: I want to be in a position to win the medal first. So I have to focus on giving myself that opportunity by outlining the training cycle and developing a race strategy. If I’m in that final, I want that gold, but I have to make sure I get into the final first.
Leading up to Tokyo is the World Championships in Doha which will be next big meet to prepare for. There are some other races in the Diamond League I’m going to do to get a feel for that circuit in places around the world.
Performance goals wise, I have my eyes set on the American Record in the 800m and pushing that. I think race times and PRs are cool, but ultimately, records get broken. So even if I break it, someone else will come along and break that again. But no one can take my Rio medal away from me, and if I’m lucky enough to win a medal in Tokyo no one will take that one either. So I live more by that.
Fast times are nice, but I want to win big races and bring home medals. That’s what it’s about for me.….
Spoken like a true competitor. If interested in following Clayton’s journey to 2020, you can visit his Athlete Profile and find more details about his social media and the Nike Oregon Project.