With a career as long and diverse as that of Chris Thompson, it is hard to know where to begin. Ahead of the London Marathon on Sunday 23 April, Chris sat down with James Rhodes to talk about his career, favourite memories and what the future holds.
Chris Thompson is no stranger to racing. It is 333 months since his first, racing as a fourteen-year-old at the AAAs U20 Championships. Twenty-seven years and 257 races later (thanks Power of 10), his career has been quite a ride.
Much could be mentioned, but some highlights would be remis to ignore. A fine junior career culminated with a European U23 Championship title over 5000m in 2003. Since then, a European silver medal over 10000m (2010), two Olympic appearances and a host of notable road wins have been added to the CV.
The journey to that success has had its fair share of struggle, including injury, illness and administrative error. Speaking at the launch of On’s flagship store in London, the Aldershot, Farnham & District athlete shared tales of his career’s highs, lows and future.
Later this month, Thompson will take to the streets of the capital for his fifth London Marathon. His first, a marathon debut in 2014, remains his fastest. An eleventh-place finish in 2:11:19, his PB for almost seven years.
After serious achilles injury two visits followed in 2016 and 2017, clocking 2:15:05 and 2:24:11 respectively. His most recent appearance, on the COVID-induced closed loop course around St James Park in 2020, finished in 2:13:32.
This year, he faces a strong international field, but the domestic field is particularly noteworthy. Joining Thompson on the elite start line will be nineteen British men, eight with a lifetime best inside 2:13. Emile Cairess will also be making a much anticipated marathon debut. Does such domestic competition provide inspiration?
“Massively. I don’t know who else is running until it comes out, I just know I’m there. I think it’s really exciting that we’ve got Emile, we’ve got Eilish, we’ve got stacked fields. It’s good, it’s healthy. London does a great job every year; they always seem to better themselves, I don’t know how!
I just feel very privileged and honoured to be part of that start list. That’s quite inspiring for me. It’s quite a nice position to not feel any pressure other than, ‘I’m going to go there and try and just mix it with these young kids trying to come through’”.
As well as providing enhanced competition on the day, the emergence of a new generation of marathoners supports a shift in mindset at this stage of his career.
“For a good five or six years, I’ve felt like I’m just this guy stood on a plank, trying to stay on it whilst all these young kids are trying to knock me off. I’m just trying to stay on it, stay balanced, be relevant and still compete with them”.
I’m looking for that final chapter and how I want to finish things off. I’m not for a second going to say this is my last marathon because it’s not, I’m not going into it with that mentality. But, no matter how I perform, there’s not necessarily the expectation. There is however who’s going to take the mantel and be the next sub-2:10 runner. You’ve got Emile doing his debut, you’ve got a lot more of the Brits knocking on that door.
That’s my feeling on it, just trying to stay with them. It sounds a bit defeatist about winning, but winning can come through just trying to stay involved. I’m one of those people that if an opportunity presents itself, I’ll take it”.
Chris spoke of seizing opportunities, what could those look like?
Although 2022 did not go to plan (visa issues meant missing the World Championships and illness scuppered a London Marathon appearance), there were positive signs, including his fastest 10k in five years (28:59). Obviously, next year’s Olympics sits on the mind, but it is not the sole target.
“If I didn’t think I could make the Olympics, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing, but I’m not stupid and won’t build up the pressure. There is a lot of other stuff over the next year or so that would equally make me inspired and happy to run”.
Having ticked off childhood bucket list items of the London Marathon and racing in New York, there are no specific races on the list. Depending on how London goes this may change, with an eye on some speedy courses. Heuston, Berlin and Frankfurt get specific mentions.
“There’s nothing specific that I’d put down as ‘I want to do that’. One thing I haven’t done, and I’m toying with, is going to a road race at any distance that is defined as fast. I’ve never done a road race that is classified as an a-grade, fast as heck, race. Obviously London is not slow, but it’s not the pancake race like some”.
“I’ve always put myself in quite tough races, so part of me thinks it’d be quite fun to pick a distance and see what it’s like to run in super shoes on a really fast course. Just see what the craic is, because it’s the one thing I haven’t done. A lot of my bucket list things are more for when I finish.
I’m just trying to maximise every day. I’m looking at my final chapter as a cliché of going out on my terms”.
Talk of the final chapter – Chris will turn 42 in the week of the London Marathon – sees thoughts move to the highlights of the long and varied journey. There are too many to mention all of the successes on the track, roads and cross country. However, three moments at different stages of his career stand out for Chris. Up there is the London Olympics (“a bad running experience but an incredible experience in other ways”). Of course, that day in Kew Gardens sits top of the pile, but there is one track races that sits alongside it.
In May 2010, Thompson headed to California and the Payton Jordan Invitational. Running under the guidance of Mark Rowland after periods of struggle, he delivered a 27:29.61 10,000m. That year led to European Championship silver in Barcelona. It was a race of particular pride.
“There’s moments that stand out, but the two races I go to the most are Kew and Stanford. They give me the most goosebumps and I remember those moments for different reasons.
The way that race made me feel in the moment, it was a personal pride. When you win medals, it’s almost like there is a pressure or an expectation, so there’s a lot of relief in that emotion. But with Payton, it was all me and the emotion of my team, and that made it feel very special. They knew the journey, the pain, the anguish, the fact that I should’ve been out in the rubbish bin.
The two weeks leading into that race I felt in shape and was thinking, ‘don’t throw this away’. I got one last chance to work with Mark [Rowland], and it was my last ever chance, I knew it was, just to keep myself in the sport”.
26 March 2021, British Olympic Marathon Trials. If a race can ever be called a fairytale, this is the one. What unfurled in the grounds of Kew Gardens would not look out of place in a movie. A win to secure a spot at the Tokyo Olympics, a PB, but also the birth of his son Theo a few days earlier. Not only that, it justified the struggle and sacrifice of years past.
Chris’s words say it best.
“Kew will always stand out. The emotion of that race stands out in ways that mean I think I’ll still get a chill thinking about it for the rest of my days. My son will always remind me of it; he’s a living reminder of it. I can’t get away from how awesome that day, that week, was. It’s just ridiculous.
The thing with Kew Gardens and qualifying for Tokyo, it almost justified years of struggle. I felt like a lot of my performances were not because I wasn’t good enough, but because there were so many other things going on in the background. It’s not a case of being addicted to the fight, it just makes me feel alive. To fight for something, even if it doesn’t seem possible.
Kew gave me that justification of sticking with it and now I’m looking for that exit. It’s not about the performance, it’s just about the final chapter of a journey that will bookend my 27 years of running. That’s a long time. I feel that’s started to become my identity in some ways, the defining thing of who I am. The longevity of it, sticking at it and trying to perform to a level for as long as I have done”.
“I may not necessarily have reached the heights I could have done, and certainly the heights that make a lot of athletes very, very relevant. But there’s some real highlights in there, without necessarily an Olympic gold or a World gold. There are moments of ‘what might have been’, but that’s the same for every athlete.
One thing I never did was I never quit on myself. If I’m trying to get a thread of string through a needle, I won’t stop. That’s a stupid example, but I’m one of those annoying people that if I start doing something, I have to complete the challenge, no matter how stupid it is.
To a certain extent, I think that’s what my career has become. It’s almost like, ‘no, you’re not telling me, I’m telling you’. I feel quite excited about the next months and year or so, but whatever comes I’ll find a way to make it an enjoyable experience”.
Chris talks fondly of racing with friends as a youngster, and the nostalgia that comes when taking time to reflect. He is keen to one day write down the memories for personal satisfaction, although it’d make an undoubted popular read. As he says “we all should, as life passes us by”.
He parts with advice for those at the early stages of their running journey, passing on advice he received. It is a lesson applicable to all, including beyond the athletics bubble.
“When Jemma [Simpson, herself a former international athlete] and I got married, one of the best bits of advice we got was to take ten minutes and write down some words with memories of that day. Otherwise, you’ll forget it. They were right, when I look back there are so many things I would never have remembered had I not written it down.
My advice for future athletes is every year, at the end of every summer, write down a handful of things of memories from that year, not necessarily things that get documented like races but moments, because it’s almost impossible to remember otherwise. They’re moments and memories that make us”.
Whatever comes next (further in the future it could include John O’Groats to Lands’ End and the Cape Wrath Trail), it will be a journey worth following.