61 … and Crushing It

Cliff Onthank has no secrets.
No secret diet. No secret training schedule.
If anything, the man is an open book when it comes to his incredible 40-year winning streak in various sports locally and overseas.
Many know Cliff as the cross-country ski king, a sport he embraced in the 1970s after a debilitating condition affected his Achilles tendon and forced him to stop running.
Beyond the snow, the chiropractor finds his way to cycling podiums as well.
What gets Onthank to the winner’s circle is a simple mix of interval training and discipline, plain and simple.
“You just have to get out there,” said Onthank, who trains with a loyal cadre that includes his brother Tim.
Critical to Onthank’s success through the years have been three things: his brother/training partners, interval training, and pre-race rituals.
Three days a week Onthank stretches out and uses light weights. The other four days are for skiing, cycling, or surfskiing (hybrid kayak) on the bay.
“It’s got to be fun to be sustainable,” said Onthank, who has won the Vasa 27-kilometer race six times and won bronze in the Masters World Cup relay team in 2010.
In addition to fun, Onthank says it’s all about commitment and not giving up.
“There’s no new science; the way you train is cut and dry,” he said. “It all comes down to intervals.”
Onthanks decades of training have boiled down to two elements:
    •    Slow and long on one day
    •    Short and fast on the next day
The intervals on the short and fast days are broken down into seconds (12 second sprits, 10 second rests) or minutes (10 minute sprints; 10 minutes rests.)
“This system works the anaerobic and aerobic systems,” he said. “Everyone puts their names on it, but it all boils down to what I just told you.”
Onthank’s dedication to interval training is backed by science: Intervals are proven to build speed and endurance.
Rituals also play into his success: Coffee, bananas and an energy bar are his pre-race go-tos.
He also never fails to get a massage on Thursday and take a day off on Friday.
And though kids decades younger than he are taking the big trophies home, Onthank says he’s just happy to be competing and winning his age group.
“I am overjoyed that I am capable of doing what I’m doing through my years of discipline and training,” said Onthank, whose now puts in about 10 hours of training a week versus double that several years ago.
Call it what you will, Onthank’s formula continues to win him hardware.
“Last year I was tickled pink to be second on the [Vasa] podium,” he said. “It’s nice to look around and think, ‘I’m doing okay.’”