February 28, 2013

Like an old friend

For Thompson, return to serious running has been full of rewards

By Chris Whitfield

— Dean Thompson developed a passion for distance running when he first tried it in high school.

Life and marriage and family and career, however, tend to cut back on the time one can devote to a sport that demands commitment and perseverance. So for Thompson, running became less of a priority over the years.

But the Cohutta resident has caught a second wind in his 40s. With his sons older — one is already out of the house and the other is a senior at the Northwest Georgia College and Career Academy — Thompson has regained his passion.

“When you have kids, they become your priority,” said Thompson, 47, who is a division manager for Shaw Industries. “Between coaching ball and all of the other things that come along with being a dad, there isn’t a whole lot of time for a lot of other things.”

About the time his oldest son Matthew — now 21 — was 14, Thompson reclaimed his old love as he was reminded of what running did for him.

“I have always been a competitive person in everything that I do,” Thompson said. “Running is that outlet for me, and I love the feeling of racing and pushing yourself.”

Very few others have been able to push him.

Over the past few years, Thompson has been one of the area’s elite runners, winning the first two Dalton Red Carpet Half Marathons and seemingly always finishing in the top three of any of the area’s 5K road races. Last year he finished 316th out of more than 22,000 runners in the Boston Marathon. And earlier this month he won the 16th Annual Bi-Lo Myrtle Beach Marathon in just his fifth race at that distance.

“I’ve been very blessed by the Lord to have the health that I have, and my competitive nature drives me to push myself,” Thompson said.

His friends and running buddies appreciate that competitive fire.

“We live a few houses away from each other, and no matter when I go to the track, he is always there,” said Run For God founder Mitchell Hollis. “We have youth groups that we work with, and he is always there to encourage our younger runners.

“A lot of people run for enjoyment, but Dean runs at a whole different level. There are a lot of runners in the area who look up to him, and he is always the first one to deflect praise.”

Thompson began running when he was a sophomore at Riverdale High School, just south of Atlanta, and by the time he was a senior, he was the school’s first “triple crown” winner. He captured the individual title in the 1982 Georgia High School Association Class 4A boys cross country state meet and won the mile and 2-mile races at the 1983 GHSA Class 4A boys track and field state meet.

After graduating from college, he moved to Dalton in 1988, and that was when life got in the way of his running. He still was able to find time to train — thanks to understanding and support from his wife Debbie, he said — but it wasn’t at the level that he was used to.

He slowly built his way back to his competitive times as his kids got older and older. He ran for enjoyment and for some time by himself. Some people ride motorcycles down an open stretch of highway.

Thompson ran down the highway, but he always had someone to talk to.

“You asked about the solitude, and that is a big thing for me as well,” he said. “Religion is very important to me, and God and I have had some very long conversations on runs to figure a lot of things out. It gives you time to think because it is just you and your thoughts when you are out somewhere training and running.”

His love of running hadn’t changed, and it reignited his passion for competition as well. But there were some things he had to adjust.

“There is a big difference from running when you are 19 and running after the age of 40,” Thompson said. “I had to relearn a lot of things, and you have to listen to your body a lot more. When I was younger if I got tendonitis, if I gave my body a little time, I could get over it rather quickly. Now, if I get tendonitis, it takes a year to get over.”

Even when battling some of the nagging complications of age and running, Thomp-son has been successful. Heading into the Myrtle Beach Marathon, his previous best time was 2 hours, 48 minutes on the same course in 2011. He came into this year’s race with a head cold and was also worried because his calf had seriously cramped earlier in the week on a run.

But Thompson was strong enough to shatter his personal best by nearly nine minutes in the win, finishing in 2:39.15.

“It’s funny, because I think that marathons are the only distance in which I can still set a personal best,” Thompson said.

For Thompson, though, his personal best isn’t about times or victories. He wants to use his running as a platform for more. He is working closer with the Run For God ministry — he smacks his head and asks, “Why didn’t I think of that?” concerning the combination of physical and spiritual instruction — and he has been approached to be a speaker for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

Hollis said Thompson is the perfect encourager.

“He is obviously at the top of his game, but he is a humble guy,” Hollis said. “He is always there to encourage people. He is always willing to give back to the sport. He has been a big supporter of our ministry.

“Just his whole demeanor and lifestyle is pointing people to Christ — and most people that run at that level, there is an arrogance there, but not with Dean.”