The 27-year old McClay certainly practices what he preaches to his prep athletes as a successful competitive runner in his own right.
The Peachtree Road Race will be the latest challenge for McClay, who will be among the 60,000 participants navigating the 10K (6.2-mile) course that winds its way down Peachtree Road from Lenox Square Mall in Buckhead to Piedmont Park in Midtown Thursday.
For McClay, who will be participating in his 11th consecutive Peachtree, the annual Fourth of July event is as much about the overall experience as it is the competition.
“It’s a fun race,” McClay said. “There’s nothing like seeing the streets lined with people for 6.2 miles. It’s such a fun atmosphere. If you’re a runner in Atlanta, you do Peachtree – it’s just what you do.”
The 2012 Peachtree was a memorable one for McClay, who ran 34 minutes, two seconds – his best time at the race – and broke into the top 100 overall with a 76th-place finish.
He said using a smarter race strategy proved to be the key to last year’s success.
“I’ve gone out too fast before and Peachtree is a dangerous course to do that on,” McClay said. “So, I played it more conservative last year. I just stayed under control and the hills got to me again, but not as bad as in the past. I think my slowest mile last year was 5:45, which wasn’t too bad on that course, with those hills. So, I guess it was running a smarter, more controlled race – especially, since I didn’t [do any speed workouts in training before the race].”
It was also a surprising result for McClay, who has struggled in previous years on the hilly course as with hot summer conditions in some races.
“I’m not good at running hills, so last year was a pretty good race for me and I was happy with it,” McClay said. “Peachtree falls in such a weird time for me. If it’s a hot day, I usually don’t run it well. I can put together an ok race. But, all my best races come in January and February – I just run so much better when it’s cold. That’s just how I am. So, Peachtree is usually not my best type of race.”
In preparation for this year’s race, McClay has been running about 70 miles a week – training six to seven days a week and doing two runs a day three times a week.
The biggest challenge for McClay is balancing his coaching responsibilities at St. Pius – where he led the Golden Lions to the AAA boys’ and girls’ cross country titles last fall and the AAA boys’ track crown this spring – with his own training.
“It’s easier in cross country season,” McClay said. “Because, two or three days a week, the guys are just running and so I will just go for a run with them. It’s easier in the fall, because I can do easy, short, light stuff four or five days a week. The other two days, I do harder stuff and Sunday is my long run.
“During track season, the schedules are so hectic. We had 13 days in March where we had meets – JV meets, varsity meets. I did what I could. But, some weeks, my mileage was 30 miles a week a couple of times and that was not good for me. When I’m doing 50, I feel like I’m hardly doing anything. So, when I was doing 30, that was really tough for me. It is what it is. I train really hard during the winter time. But, track season is really tough.”
McClay will resume his good-natured rivalry at Peachtree with one of his St. Pius runners, Austin Sprague – the AAA state boys’ individual cross country champion and the track title holder in the 1,600 and 3,200-meter runs in that classification.
The teacher finished ahead of the pupil last year, with Sprague running 34:56 to McClay’s 34:02.
“I beat him last year and he keeps claiming I beat him because he was sick,” quipped McClay. “It’s fun. He’s a phenomenal high school runner and I’m just maintaining what I have.”
Sprague said he is looking forward to racing against his coach at Peachtree again.
“We always have a rivalry when it comes to Peachtree,” Sprague said. “I haven’t beaten him at Peachtree, yet – that’s a goal of mine, to beat him this year. But, I love seeing my coach do well, because he always wants me to do well. It’s just one of those friendly rivalries and it’s really cool to go to Peachtree and run together, see who has the better day that day.”
It has been a successful racing year so far for McClay, who won the Critz Tybee Half Marathon in Tybee Island Feb. 2 with a personal-best 1:12:53 and achieved a 10K best of 32:49 at the Charles Harris Run for Leukemia in DeKalb County Feb. 23.
Now, McClay will attempt to better his impressive Peachtree time of a year ago and said he is confident that he has a shot at it.
“It seems like I am running faster on my runs this year than I did last year,” McClay said. “I think I will give [surpassing] the 34:02 a chance. Then again, it’s Peachtree, so you never know. I think I can go 33:30 to 33:45 or something in that range. I don’t anticipate going that much farther without [having done speed] workouts or good weather.”