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Back in college at age 35, Baltimore's Stephanie Clarkson makes NAIA cross country nationals

Baltimore resident Stephanie Clarkson, 35, returned to school after a 16-year hiatus to run cross country for Governors State of the NAIA. And Clarkson reached the NAIA nationals, to be held Nov. 19, 2016.
Baltimore resident Stephanie Clarkson, 35, returned to school after a 16-year hiatus to run cross country for Governors State of the NAIA. And Clarkson reached the NAIA nationals, to be held Nov. 19, 2016. (Courtesy of Governors State Athletics)

Possibly the nation's longest commute to school begins as the sun rises over the home of Stephanie Clarkson and husband Dan Gale in Locust Point, because their Southwest Airlines flight out of Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport normally leaves at 6 a.m. They have done it so often, six times now this fall, Gale jokes about being on a first-name basis with a stewardess.

Their plane touches down in Chicago about an hour later, 700 miles from Baltimore. They pick up a rental car, head to the coffee shop near where they used to live in the city, check in to a hotel and wait for the start of Clarkson's practice at the NAIA school with the first-year cross country program.

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Clarkson covers the remaining 30 or so miles to Governors State because she is a recovering knucklehead and a 35-year-old senior set to receive her undergraduate degree this December; because her husband found a job in Baltimore after he'd found Clarkson a way back to a college 5K track; because her new coach wanted another runner in his program, even if it was for just two days every meet week: the day of the race, and the day before. This is how it had to be. All those steps, leading to this.

"I think having a second opportunity to finish something that I'd kind of left untied before, it's always kind of been an embarrassment to me," Clarkson said Wednesday. "I get to kind of rectify that a little bit."

Clarkson and Gale married this past June in the Outer Banks. Among the couple's photos of the day is one shot of Clarkson, in her wedding dress, doing chin-ups. Their wedding party featured a four-time Olympian and another Olympic trialist. Still, Gale — himself a former Division II athlete in the javelin throw — would joke along with his friends: "She's the best athlete out of all us."

They first met nearly three years ago at a Towson men's basketball game, introduced by a mutual friend. They began to talk about track and field, and Gale learned Clarkson's story.

She ran growing up in Geneva, Ohio, fast enough to continue at Division II Ashland. "Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed," she changed her major the same way she ran — quickly, often. Even then, her interest in the Ohio school and athletic competition waned. After two years on the track and cross country teams, Clarkson was academically ineligible, her GPA below 2.0. She dropped out. She moved to Baltimore, and got a job tending bar.

"I was just a knucklehead kid," she said, laughing.

After settling down with Gale, he took a new job in Chicago last year, and they uprooted from Baltimore. Clarkson quit her office job and began to ponder the future. She talked with Gale about never graduating, about disappointing her coach. "I've never had that feeling before," she said, and it had sat there uncomfortably for so long.

When Gale told her she still had college eligibility, Clarkson, he said, laughed at the notion. How silly: She was old enough to coach a team. They looked into the possibility anyway. In October 2015, they emailed local cross country coaches in the NAIA, an athletic association for small- to mid-size institutions, and disclosed two important stats: her age and her personal-record race mark. "Would anyone be interested?" Clarkson wondered.

Most weren't. But a 59-year-old high school special-education teacher and men's and women's cross country coach at Governors State in University Park, Ill., was. Kevin Kredens thought it all "very, very interesting." He called Gale, asking to put him in touch with Clarkson about the partial scholarship he was willing to offer.

"She was just so happy," Kredens recalled. "She loved running. She wanted to go to school, finish her degree."

Clarkson enrolled the next semester. She was academically ineligible to compete — no big deal, since cross country is a fall sport — but could, if she wanted, meet her new, considerably younger teammates. Again she was cautious: "How would I react if I were their age?"

That was a trifling matter. Bigger was Gale's changing employment. Over the summer, he had accepted a job offer. They were returning to Baltimore. Clarkson's cross country career was seemingly over, again, before it could even restart.

Gale, with over a decade of experience in college athletics, wasn't so sure. As luck would have it, her final 15 credits were all online classes. She was not tethered to University Park. An idea came to them. If Clarkson remained enrolled at Governors State … and continued her studies … and flew in for every meet … maybe this would all work out? They'd gotten this far not to try.

"This is the first time we've ever heard of a situation like this," athletic compliance coordinator Daniel Jankowski said, "so we just wanted to double-check and make sure everything was good to go."

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It was. The 35-year-old full-time student living in Baltimore was allowed to run 3.1 miles every few weeks for the Jaguars, returning to college competition for the first time in 16 years.

During a season that once was feared forever lost, competition has seemed to warp her age in some ways, and crystallized it in others. Clarkson's "like a big sister" to her teammates, Kredens said, yet he's old enough that he could be her father. When athletic-department officials request something of her, she'll joke, "Do they accept it on stone tablets? Do they read Roman numerals?" After becoming the first runner in school history to win an individual race last month, she was beset by Snapchatting teammates, which was definitely a first.

But she also has turned back the clock by finding a new gear. Her GPA (3.85) is nearly double what it was at Ashland. There, her best 5K mark was about 20 minutes, 7 seconds. In her victorious Skyhawk Invitational run, she beat out 44 competitors with a time of 18:51.78. "It's just been mind-blowing," Gale said.

Every trip to her bathroom this fall, Clarkson came face to face with her ambition. On a dry-erase board affixed to the mirror, she had written her goal for the year: Qualify for nationals.

At the Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference Athletics championships on Nov. 5, after she finished 10th, after she indeed earned an at-large berth in the upcoming NAIA national championships, she said she broke down and cried.

Clarkson has thought often of her parents' encouragement through her decade and a half of finding her way. With Clarkson's final college race on Nov. 19 and graduation next month, she recited her dad's urging. It has echoed in her mind of late: "You have to finish. You have to finish. You have to finish."

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