Meet Elena Clarke, our very own Running Warehouse Merchandising Supervisor, and a UCLA graduate who spent her Bruin years pole vaulting for their track and field team. We had the pleasure of chatting with her about her time as a collegiate track and field athlete.
What first got you involved in pole vaulting?
I used to be a gymnast, but by high school I was already 5’5” with no signs of stopping, and that was already considered too tall for a gymnast (by most standards). A friend a year older than me who had gone through the same decision process told me about Jan Johnson – the 1972 Bronze Medalist – who lived near San Luis Obispo. The first week of summer before high school I went to his house to see what his training ground was like… it was an expansive backyard that included multiple pole vault runways, an outdoor weightlifting area, and different trapeze-like training contraptions. I tried it out and immediately loved it.
What was it like being recruited to a collegiate track and field team? What tips would you give to someone looking to go collegiate?
I started considering the possibility of collegiate pole-vaulting during my junior year of high school. We started taking video of my jumps, which I emailed to coaches with my own personal profile the summer before my senior year. By the fall I was in contact with the coaches of the schools I was most interested in. During my visit to UCLA in January of my senior year, I fell in love with the team, the school, everything, and signed with them a couple weeks later. I would encourage high school athletes not to be discouraged if their junior and senior year seasons don’t go exactly as planned. You never know what a college coach is looking for, and a strong student and supportive teammate with a lot of untapped potential can be really valuable to a team!
How did the training change between high school and college?
The fundamentals didn’t change drastically, but college brought a lot more structure to the training process. While in high school I was more or less free to choose how and when I vaulted, ran workouts, or lifted weights, but at UCLA I had individual coaches for each silo of my training, and their schedules were designed to help me get stronger while preparing to peak at the right time. It was rewarding to see progress, but also took time to transition into a more intensive and rigid training structure.
For those of us who have never pole vaulted before, how would you explain the feeling as you fly through the air?
It’s one of my favorite feelings in the world, not solely for the fleeting rush right as I go over the bar but for everything that comes together to make it possible. I love that each time I take off down the runway, it’s a whole new equation. I factor in the temperature, the wind speed/direction, how quick my legs feel, what length and thickness my pole is… there are so many important things to think about. I love finding the balance between all of these factors every time; it gives me continuous appreciation for the sport.
What is your personal best?
13 feet, 7 inches
Was it difficult to stop pole vaulting when you graduated from UCLA? How have you dealt with the transition?
It was definitely a longer grieving process than I anticipated. I miss the way pole vault combines speed, strength, and grace all into one burst of movement. It’s still a process that I’m sure will evolve throughout the course of my life, but I’ve started to figure out activities that feel like they honor that part of me. I love to run now, partly thanks to the endless motivation and resources here at Running Warehouse. I also rock climb, which reminds me of pole vault since each movement is carefully pieced together like a puzzle. It has been comforting to realize that there will always be new and fun ways to push my body.
Sierra balances an overflowing schedule of work, college, and running, and can relate to any 20-something who’s trying to figure out life. Her running is her kind of self-care – and also the small amount of time that she gets to spend with herself every day, coming before all else (except her dog, Butters).