For national champion distance runner Clayton Young, serving a Spanish-speaking mission in eastern North Carolina presented the young elder/athlete with a dietary yin-yang.
Yes, diving into a plate of Carolina barbecue with a side stack of Mexican tortillas was a not-so-guilty pleasure for a foodie like Young.
But he admits that’s not exactly the optimal meal for an elite college harrier.
When he completed his mission in 2014 and began training with the BYU men’s cross-country team, coaches and teammates good-naturedly relegated him to the team’s “fat camp” — the mythical squad for well-fed returned missionaries.
“When you’re with a bunch of guys, it’s kind of an endearing name,” he said, laughing.
But Young traded fat camp for fast camp a long time ago.
The BYU senior claimed the men’s 10,000-meter title at the recent 2019 NCAA Outdoor Championships in Austin, Texas. Several of his Cougar teammates finished close behind — including Connor McMillan and Conner Mantz, who placed third and fourth, respectively.
When the Church News asked Young how it felt to win one of college racing’s most storied events, the lifelong Latter-day Saint focused his comments on his team.
“A couple of weeks out from the race, I had this overwhelming feeling that one of us would win the title,” he said. “My personal expectations were more focused on the team and scoring points. But I knew that I had a chance to close well.”
Young was also anxious for his final NCAA championships to be his best championships.
“Honestly, I had underperformed at the national championship level, year after year.”
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He’s quick to credit BYU coach Ed Eyestone and his staff for allowing him and the other distance athletes to perform high-volume workouts almost up to championship race day. Finding a training “sweet spot” is always a race prep challenge— and many coaches opt to taper intensity sooner rather than later.
But the sustained hard work, said Young, “definitely kept me focused.”
Success in a 10,000-meter race demands patience and discipline. Start too aggressively, and a runner risks cracking before the finish line. Conversely, a slow start is often impossible to overcome.
Despite the Texas heat and humidity, Young felt fresh throughout the race. He opted to hang near the back of the lead BYU track and field operations director Isaac Wood shouted encouragement.
“I flashed him the BYU hand sign to let him know that I was just chilling — I was fine,” he said.
With about a lap to go, Young overtook Alabama’s Gilbert Kigen for the lead.
“At that point, I was all in.” If his rivals could catch him, so be it. They could not.
“The feeling that overcame me in the last 100 meters was overwhelming, just knowing I was going to be a national champion,” he said.
Coach Eyestone was thrilled to see so many Cougar athletes show well in a big event.
“I often jokingly say that the 10,000 meter is the most exciting race, and tonight it was,” he said.
BYU’s team culture played a pivotal role in Young’s emergence as an elite college runner. As a former BYU track star and a two-time Olympian, Eyestone instills in his athletes a belief that hard work and “consistent competence brings eventual excellence.”
Young feels blessed to compete on a team that helps him simultaneously develop as an athlete and as a Latter-day Saint.
“It’s cool to be part of a team that realizes there is more to life than running,” he said. “But we do love to win, and we do it well.”
Now Young adds his name to a long list of BYU track and field legends.
He discovered a love for distance running while in elementary school in Yakima, Washington. After Young’s family moved to Utah County prior to his freshman year of high school, he began competing for American Fork High School and its elite cross-country program. State championships and an invitation to compete at nearby BYU would follow.
But before joining the Cougars he answered a call to the North Carolina Raleigh Mission. Serving a full-time mission had been a lifelong goal, “but, yes, there was a little bit of anxiety about trying to stay in shape.”
A few of his companions enjoyed running. Others did not. So he opted to place his trust in the Lord. As he learned to say in Spanish: “Que sera, sera”— whatever will be, will be.
“Not only did I fall in love with the Southern hospitality, but also with the Hispanic people that I served.”
Missionary work also taught him lessons in patience, persistence and perspective that serve him well as an elite runner. “I was able to witness people changing their lives,” he said, “but the changes that happen personally on a mission are priceless.”
Returning to optimal fitness wasn’t easy for Young. It rarely is for returned missionaries. BYU All-American distance runner Erica Birk-Jarvis recently told the Church News that getting back in shape after her mission was more difficult than returning to competition after having a baby.
But Young’s journey from “fat club” to national champ was never a solitary one. Besides his Cougar coaches and teammates, he’s also enjoyed the daily support of his wife and fellow returned missionary, Ashley.
The Youngs are parents of a 6-month-old little girl named Lucy.
Young is now focusing on his upcoming professional racing career while continuing his graduate studies in engineering at BYU. He hopes to one day represent Team USA at the Olympics. It’s a busy life, but he makes time to serve in the Church.
“I just recently received a calling as a ministering coordinator in my young-married student ward.”