1.5 Seconds from the Olympics

Written by Nathan Winfrey in the October 2009 Issue
It was July in Luven, Belgium, and the weather was cooler than the forecast predicted. There was some nice cloud cover and the wind was swirling a bit, but not too much. It was a good day for Marc Thompson to run a four minute mile.

Big for a miler, the 6-foot, 4-inch, 175-pound, 30-year-old science professor stretched out before the race. Thompson’s plan was to run conservatively, lay back and not get caught up in trying to make too many moves and squander energy. He tried not to waste any distance; he stayed near the rails.

Thompson knew he was not on pace to reach his goal, but he put his head down and worked his way up to the shoulder of the lead runner. He crossed the finish line with fragile hope. There was a chance that he’d made it, after years of trying, but he knew he could have run harder.

It would take 20 minutes for the judges to post the times. His wife, Darci, her mother and his mother waited with him during the excruciating silence, as he yearned to break a four minute mile to finally achieve his lifelong goal.

This was one of Thompson’s near countless attempts to break four minutes, a journey riddled with disappointments and tiny victories. A professor at Oklahoma Christian University, Thompson’s life has followed a dual path of athletics and academics. “There’s never been a question of one or the other,” he says. “It was always my goal to do both the best I can, and it’s still that way.”

This is Thompson’s fifth year at OC, teaching general science, astronomy and physics. Two years ago, he became assistant coach of the cross-country program. In January of this year, he became head coach.

Thompson has been running for most of his life. At Edmond Memorial High School, he won the 5-A State cross-country meet three times – his sophomore, junior and senior years. It was the first time anyone in the state had won three years in a row. Placing seventh in the national cross-country meet his senior year opened doors and he was heavily recruited by colleges; however, athletically, college was a disappointment for Thompson. His grueling, 75-mile-a-week running regimen led to an array of injuries including “shin splints,” tendonitis in his knee and hip, and foot problems.

In spite of the setbacks, he had some good times on cross-country races and ran on two national championship teams (track and cross-country). “Deep down, I wanted to come back and run fast, but I’d had so much struggle and heartache about it. I felt very unfulfilled in it. I’d lost how to do it for fun,” Thompson says.

In high school, Thompson ran a 4:08 minute mile. “It was a very good time,” he says. But after college, it appeared his dream of breaking the four-minute mark was impossible. “I had a feeling of unfinished business. As a runner, whatever time you hit kind of labels you for life,” Thompson says. “I quit,” he says. “It took a good three years before I got back into competitive running.”

By 2003, Thompson had finished his masters in physics and had become a high school teacher in Arkansas. He was dating Darci, who lived in Oklahoma, and as their relationship progressed, it made sense for him to return to the state. In 2005, Thompson had to leave a lot of things behind in the move, but running was not going to be one of them.
Thompson got into triathlons, and soon he reached a personal best in the mile run: 4:04 minutes. The improvement was encouraging. “The thrill of continually getting faster is what fueled me,” he says.

In winter 2006, Thompson hit 4:03 minutes, which qualified him for the indoor nationals in Boston. Discouragingly, he didn’t compete very well. “I don’t even remember my place,” he says. The Boston run was Thompson’s first experience competing at such a high level. Thompson was running completely solo at the time. He had no coach or travel support. “It was tough at that time,” Thompson says.

Soon, he and Darci were engaged to be married and he was on the verge of quitting the sport. Thompson didn’t run at all for 4-5 weeks. Frustrated from the national competition, he started thinking he wasn’t cut out for that type of running.

Unexpectedly, a man named Ashley Benjamin came into Thompson’s office and offered coaching services, free of charge. “I really think, if he hadn’t come along at that point, I would have been finished with competitive running,” he says.

Benjamin encouraged Thompson to get married, enjoy the process and then come back and run. “He understood the challenges that I was facing and that it was a different set of challenges from those of the college runner,” Thompson says. “He clued me into the fact that I can live my life and put into running what I can and be satisfied with it.”
After he and Darci got married, Thompson’s training decreased down to an average of 50-60 miles a week. “I’m running 20 miles less than the guys I’m lining up next to, and that’s hard,” he says.

Still, his times improved. He went back to Boston in winter 2007 and finished sixth out of about ten runners. “No huge improvements, but a good season,” he says. Then, in summer 2007, he ran a mile in 4:02.5 minutes. That fall, he won the Tulsa run. “It felt tremendous doing it. I had a really good personal best on the half-marathon distance,” he says.

The next year, Thompson’s goal was to make the Olympic trials. He set some personal bests, but finished 1.5 seconds short of qualifying. “When I didn’t make it, it was a big disappointment,” he says. “Especially when I felt I had the shape and training to make it, but I just never was able to put it together in a race.” Thompson says he thought making it to the Olympic Games as a runner would legitimize the time he’d invested in the sport.

That summer, Thompson went to Europe to compete in a series of track meets across Ireland, England and Belgium. “I think it was a good enough experience that it kept me going for one more year.”

He never felt healthy during the following fall season. His OC head coaching job hit him with an exhausting spring season. “I was overwhelmed,” he says.

When the time for the European track meets rolled around again, Thompson knew the best opportunity for him to improve his time in the mile would be in Belgium. “I started feeling really good and I could tell that I was in the best shape of my life,” he says.

In his first three races in Europe that year, Thompson achieved three personal bests, including a 4:01 mile. “The mile has always been my thing and that 4:01 felt tremendous,” he says. “That was probably the best win of my career.”
Thompson is especially grateful for his wife, and how supportive she is of his athletic aspirations. “She sacrifices for it,” he says. “We have, I think, a great relationship, but it takes a tremendous amount of understanding.”

When he was uncertain if he wanted to go to Europe again this year, she talked him into it. “That was overwhelming to me. It was the first time she encouraged me to do anything in running that I might not have done anyway and I’m very thankful that she did,” he said.

When the judges time came back he had ran 3:59.2. “I felt lighter,” he says. “It felt like a big burden had been lifted. It was just a huge sense of relief. It was a number that I had imagined for years and I almost had a sense
of disbelief.”

With his lifelong running goal now accomplished, Thompson has set his sights on a PhD. As for running, he says, “Probably one more year. I’ve been saying that for a few years now.”
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