Great Britain runner Chris Thompson is aiming for a marathon spot at the Tokyo Olympics. But after a disrupted 2020, he has learned to look past performance and appreciate the power of running in all aspects of his life. After a year of unprecedented difficulties, we caught up to find out how he has coped with the extra space of a decimated calendar.
Q&A with Chris Thompson
Chris – you began running at school. Did you enjoy it from the start?
I loved all sports. Both my parents were into sport, too. My dad used to use running as a stress relief. He’d run after work. One night, I went with him. Then it became a bit more regular. He used to sprint away at the end, and I took that as a challenge. It took me a while, but one day I beat him. I spent the whole run conserving energy. I knew the point where he kicked on. And this time, I went with him and edged him at the finish. I was so proud of myself. That’s when the competitive, sporting mentality really came out.
Did you fall in love with the running – or the winning?
It was the friendships. When I started running, I wasn’t the best in my training group. I just enjoyed the camaraderie and hooking up with my friends. I didn’t have this thirst for crossing the line. I had a thirst for doing the best I could and an addiction to pushing my body as hard as I could.
The first time I represented Great Britain, I was only 16. I should have been running in an U17s race. But my coach put me in the U20s race without telling me. I ran the race and came fifth, which meant I was in the GB team for the World Cross Country Championships in Marrakech. On the coach home, one of my mates went to the front and put on a Queen CD. ‘We are the champions’ came blaring out, but everyone started singing ‘Chris is the champion’. It still gives me chills now. I can remember that vividly, but I can’t remember crossing the line. Running was always about friendships.
It sounds like you view running as a competition against yourself?
Definitely. You have to be careful with that mindset though, and make sure it doesn’t tilt into a feeling that you’re never good enough. That’s something I’ve had to learn. I still to this day judge myself on how I turn up, rather than the result around me. That works both ways. I can win and be disappointed, or I can have a bad day on paper and still be very proud of myself.
How do you reflect on your career?
As I’ve got older, I’ve become more reflective. But I have to remind myself there’s still stuff to finish off. There’s part of me I’ve had to leave behind. I’m not the 5K or 10K runner I was. Now I’m a marathon runner. But I look back with a lot of fondness and memories. I feel lucky to have had the career I’ve had. At the same time, there were decisions that stopped me from achieving a lot more than I could have done. I think that’s something everyone grapples with as they get through their 30s. I have to come to peace with it though, because I know that even when I made bad decisions, I was 100% trying to do the best I could in that moment. There’s enough success to be happy with and there are enough frustrations to learn from. If I can be happy with who I am today, I can’t be too sad about how I got here. I got closer to my limits than most people do.
At the London Marathon in October 2020, you were only two minutes off the Olympic qualifying time. Is Tokyo still a target?
The Olympic trials are in March 2021. Tokyo is the aim. We’re moving house at the moment and we have a child due the week before the Olympic trials. If in April I’m sat in a new house with a baby in my arms and an Olympic place booked, I’m going to be over the moon.
Have you given thought to what happens beyond 2021?
I’m going to use this year to be as open-minded as I can. In my pursuit to make the Olympics this year, I could actually end up qualifying for the 2022 World Championships. So in my mind, I’m starting to think about scaling back and looking to the next chapter. But I’m conscious that if I have a good year, I could make a team that’s racing next summer. There’s a lot coming up and I want to put a mark on the marathon that I’m proud of. There are still signs that I’ve got it, and this is probably the most optimal I’ve operated for my age. I’ll never hang up my running shoes, but I know there’ll come a day when I leave elite racing behind.
What’s your relationship with running? Is it still enjoyable?
When I was at the height of my career and I was living in America, everything was about performance. I never took a moment to really think about how cool it was that my job was running. My wife’s a former Olympian. She retired three years ago and now works in marketing. Her retiring made me see the benefits of running in a different way. I appreciate feeling fit. I notice it when I don’t run. I miss the fresh air running through my lungs and brain. I start the day with a run and love that process of getting my body moving and awake.
“I used to say that when I stopped running professionally, I’d stop running altogether. Now I’m embarrassed I thought like that. There’s no way I’m giving up that feeling of running.”
I’m transitioning from performance running to health running, and every day I appreciate even more what running brings to my life.
How has the pandemic impacted your attitude towards running?
It’s made things a lot more isolated. My training routine, seeing therapists – that all got taken away. For a while there was no aim or purpose, and I didn’t realize I’d become bogged down in my own little world. Going out for a run actually became difficult because running, for me, had always centered around performance. When I had no reason to go out for a run, it was difficult to get motivated. I was dragging myself out, knowing it was good for my routine and health. But now, more than ever, I feel very lucky that my job is my health. I’ve got friends who haven’t left their homes in months, and I can’t begin to imagine how hard that’s been. So while me and Jemma have been down at times, we’ve also been incredibly grateful to have running.
What did your routine look like in 2020?
When the first lockdown happened, I was bang in the middle of preparing for the Olympic trials. I’d come off the back of one of my best half-marathons in 10 years and I’d flown to Spain to start my Olympic trial preparations. The next thing I knew, I was flying back to the UK and trying not to get stranded. In days it went from full training to nothing. I spent the next six or eight weeks just feeling lost. Slowly, I started to get back running because there was a chance the London Marathon would go ahead in October. That carrot was what I needed. I put my focus into that, because it’s just been about keeping myself sane and keeping in touch with things. I’ve been in this ticking over marathon mode for 10 months. Running has been my therapy.
Routine is big for me. If I don’t have that routine, it knocks me out of whack. I feel groggy. Running helps to structure my days. It’s priceless. If I don’t run, I’m so much less productive in the day. It’s incredible.
How does running benefit your life outside of sport?
Running gives me everything. Mental strength. Resilience. Confidence. Toughness. I’ve had to learn mental skills while competing in adversity. When I was growing up, my sister noticed a massive change in me when I started running. I became much more in control of my emotions. I was more able to be less reactive to things. It put me in control of myself.
It's also helped to organize my thoughts when things aren’t great. When you’re running and you’re really tired, you’re having to find a way to take those negative thoughts and instantly spin them into a positive. That spills into the rest of your life. There are negatives coming at us all the time. If you let the emotion of those things dictate your decision-making, it’s just bad decision after bad decision. But if you’re able to absorb them, control the controllables and ignore the things you can’t control, you can make the best of a situation. Running has given me that understanding.
Do you ever find it hard to get out there?
All the time. But that’s part of what running shows you – that those negative feelings are only superficial. Once you’re out of the door, within a couple of minutes you’re loving it. Every single time. Once it’s done, you never a regret a run. That’s something that just doesn’t exist.
What would you say to someone new to running?
Bring it back to a bite-sized, manageable amount for you. You can set your aims and goals. But then you have to be clever, break them into small steps and tick those off. Ignore the end goal. Just concentrate on that step in front of you. My neighbor lifts very heavy weights. When I came back from a 20-mile run, she said to me ‘I don’t know how you do that’. But I don’t know how she does what she’s doing. We’ve both been on a journey to get where we are. If either one of us started on the other journey, we’d be taking our very first steps. Don’t compare yourself. Don’t focus on the end goal. Just take the next step and see if you can build a little routine. Once you learn what’s on the other side of a run, you know it’s well worth it.
First, it was about friends.
The mates, the good times, the memories, the laughs.
You shaped me in my youth.
Gave me strength. Helped me grow.
Then the flirting became serious.
Stride after stride. Cold, wet race after cold, wet race. Win after win.
As our bond grew, our focus shifted.
Success when the pressure was on.
Stepping up and delivering my best, time after testing time – and forgetting the rest.
You carried me to heights I couldn’t imagine.
National stages. International.
And the ultimate – a home Olympics.
There’s still more to come.
But now I know your true value lies not in the memories, not in the medals, but in today’s moment.
In giving me the gift of good health.
Keeping me sane, offering me structure, carrying me through each day with productivity and purpose.
Now I understand.
This run is dedicated to you.