At this point, West Hall’s Stephen Clark is just counting down the hours until the final and most important cross country race of his high school career.
A late bloomer with a high ceiling as a distance runner, Clark earned a spot in the Class 3A state championship by taking second place at the Region 7-3A meet on Oct. 28 at Unicoi State Park.
After cutting his teeth for two seasons with the Spartans, he’s ready to leave it all on the field, hoping for a top-3 spot in Friday’s race at Carrollton High.
“I’m insanely pumped,” said Clark, whose personal best is a second-place spot and time of 16 minutes, 37 seconds at the Hall County championship in 2021.
This season, Clark has run against some of the state’s most decorated prep runners — both from Hall County and in Region 7-3A — and consistently finished near the top.
Clark has held his own against runners from Chestatee, which will look to defend its Class 4A state championship Friday afternoon.
West Hall’s two-year standout also was able to hang with East Forsyth’s Alex Arrambide, who won region with a time of 16:27 in Helen.
Clark had his first taste of success with an eight-place spot at state in 2020, his first year at West Hall, which planted the seed that his senior season could be special.
And that he has done.
Clark will be running without his teammates at state, after the Spartans failed to finish in the top four in team standings, but will have the full support of their program and coach Bobby Pless.
“He’s a hard worker and achieves all the goals he has set for himself,” said Pless, who also coaches Clark in basketball.
The hilly course in West Georgia for the state championship is not an easy one, filled with challenging hills and a downhill sprint to the finish line.
Still, Clark is shooting for a time under 16:30, which would be a new personal best for the two-year standout who spent his first two years of high school attending Lanier Christian Academy in Flowery Branch.
Based on previous times, the top runner in Class 3A this season is Westminster’s Matthew Fernando, who ran a 16:02 at the Region 5-3A meet in Atlanta.
Arrambide, who represents the first-year program at the school in the Gainesville portion of Forsyth County, goes into state as No. 2.
“My goal is to stay in there and keep up with those top two guys,” Clark said. “Hopefully, I’ll be able to get top three overall.”
To prepare for state, Clark has been diligent about getting in proper mileage, fueling his body with proper nutrition and taking care of his legs with recovery.
His final long race to prepare for state was Monday.
On Tuesday, Clark was soaking in an ‘ice bath’, a large trash can filled with freezing-cold water used to help muscles recover.
Then on Thursday, Clark and Pless will travel down to Carrollton, giving the runner a chance to do a practice run of the course.
On Friday, Clark will be joined by his parents who will be there in time to watch the race.
Once the state championship race begins, it will be sensory overload with hundreds of runners stampeding down the hill from the starting line, then a steady uphill portion that will thin the herd from the front of the pack.
Spectators can hear the sound of footsteps of runners from the starting gun that fades out as runners get more distance.
“The atmosphere at the state meet is incredible,” Clark said. “It’s incredible how many people are out there watching the races.”
Clark was always more drawn to basketball, but is now exploring opportunities to run cross country at the next level.
In college, he plans on majoring in either accounting or pursue a degree in sports medicine.
Since his first taste of success in running the five-kilometer distance, Clark has been meticulous about training.
He keeps detailed notes about his runs and meals.
However, Clark’s training trademark is taking a dip in the painfully-cold water.
That started during the summer, a remedy to cool off immediately on the hottest days.
Since then, Clark’s kept that habit in his training tool box.
“He’ll jump in and spend 10-12 minutes in the ice bath,” Pless said.
All the training has paid huge dividends for Clark.
As a freshman, Clark was happy to crack the 23-minute mark in cross country races.
Then, Clark started to appreciate the adrenaline rush that came with running and clearing his mind.
Now, he’s one of the most consistently-successful runners in Hall County.
A good performance at state would be the icing on the cake.
State meet schedule
9 a.m. Class 2A boys
9:45 a.m. Class 2A girls
10:30 a.m. Class 3A boys
11:15 a.m. Class 3A girls
Noon Class 4A boys
12:45 p.m. Class 4A girls
8 a.m. Class 6A boys
8:45 a.m. Class 6A girls
9:30 a.m. Class 5A boys
10:15 a.m. Class 5A girls
11 a.m. Class A private school boys
11:45 a.m. Class A private school girls
12:30 p.m. Class 7A boys
1:15 p.m. Class 7A girls
2 p.m. Class A public school boys
2:45 p.m. Class A public school girls