By Jonathan Gault
February 26, 2016
When the Oklahoma State men tied the #3 time in NCAA history in the distance medley relay at Saturday’s Alex Wilson Invitational at Notre Dame, they did so not with Chad Noelle, the reigning NCAA 1500 champ, running the anchor leg. Noelle ran the leadoff leg. The guy who anchored OSU to its blazing 9:26.60 win (in a race that produced four of the 12 fastest DMR times in NCAA history) was a guy whose mile PR was only 4:10 as of a month ago and only ran 4:17 last year.
That guy’s name is Josh Thompson. He has come out of nowhere to run 3:58.33 this year for the mile and split 3:57.0 for 1600 on that DMR for OSU. And he’s 5’9″ and can dunk a basketball. Thompson’s rags to riches story is not yet complete, but it certainly is unique.
A year ago, Thompson was at Central Arizona College, a junior college in Coolidge, Ariz. Cowboys coach Dave Smith was there to recruit one of Thompson’s teammates, Apolinar Baltazar, when he stumbled across Thompson, who ran 4:17 in the mile last winter to take second at the NJCAA Championships. Thompson’s high school (1:59/4:27/9:29) and juco (3:57/4:17/8:47/14:47/9:22 steeple) personal bests were not terrific, but Smith did some digging and was intrigued by what he found.
“He’s 5’8″, maybe 5’9″, can run 4:17 in a sit-and-kick race and can also dunk a basketball,” Smith said. “I said WOW. I thought there was some athletic ability there that could be developed.”
Thompson, a 22-year-old sophomore, put together a solid cross country season (10th Big 10s, 13th Midwest Regional, 101st NCAAs) but it’s on the track that he’s really flourished. Thompson debuted at the Texas A&M Team Invitational on January 16, winning his heat in 4:10.59, a seven-second PR. Thompson split 2:56 leading off OSU’s B team DMR at Arkansas two weeks later.
“[After Arkansas], I knew he was ready to go,” Smith said.
Thompson’s next race came at the Husky Classic in Seattle on February 13. Smith begged the meet director to put Thompson in the fast heat, and his pleas were successful. Thompson rewarded his coach’s faith, as he skipped the 4:0xs in their entirety, running 3:58.33, becoming the first Nevada native to break 4:00 in the mile.
“We’ve had 11 sub-4:00 milers in our program since 2009,” Smith said. “You get kind of numb to it. But watching that little dude run 3:58 brings a spark and enthusiasm back to the program. It makes you appreciate how special it really is. I think he might be the only guy in history to be sub-4:00 who’s never run 4:0x or the 1500 equivalent.”
Thompson’s fitness meant that it was essentially a toss-up between him and Noelle for the anchor spot at Alex Wilson. Noelle has better top-end speed, and given that the purpose of the meet was to run a fast NCAA qualifier and not necessarily win the race, Smith let his charges decide which legs to run. Noelle settled on the 1200, believing that his speed advantage over Thompson would benefit the Cowboys more on leadoff rather than on anchor. Clearly, they made the right choice.
Thompson’s NCAA plans are up in the air. Smith said Thompson will run either the DMR or the mile at NCAA indoors but not both (Thompson currently occupies the #16 spot in the NCAA in the mile; 16 men make it to NCAAs). He will also continue to train with OSU’s 5k/10k group, as he has for the entirety of the season.
“Right now it’s working for him,” Smith said. “I don’t want to make any major changes. Tom Farrell trained that way. So did Kirubel Erassa, Shane Moskowitz. German Fernandez, we didn’t do typical middle-distance stuff with him. And they were all sub-4:00 milers. We don’t want to push [Josh] over a cliff with mid-d stuff.”
I caught up with Thompson over the phone on Tuesday afternoon to discuss his breakout season, his basketball days and how he crams all of his mileage into just six days a week (he doesn’t run on Sundays due to his religious beliefs). An edited transcript of our conversation appears below.
Jonathan Gault: You were a 4:10 miler a month ago and now you’ve run 3:58, you anchored the DMR in 3:57 for the #3 time in NCAA history. How did it happen? How did you go from 4:10 to where you are now?
Josh Thompson: Well this past cross country season, I’ve been trying to get adjusted to the program here and the coaches have worked really well with me and the team as well. So when I first came back, running that 4:10 was off of winter break, I was just doing a lot of base training. I wasn’t really too worried about my speed. So just being on the team and being around the fast guys on the team and training with them and working with them, they’ve really helped me get a lot faster and improve my confidence a lot. Most of them have helped me stay committed to the program, to be better, because sometimes you might not see the results right then and there. But over time, the results will come. So I think just being in that environment helped me run a bit faster than 4:10.
Is there one specific aspect of your running that you really feel you’ve improved this summer at OSU?
I think my aerobic system has really developed really well. I’ve been putting a lot more mileage in than I had been before. I came into this program with about 60 to 70 miles [per week] and we slowly bumped it up to about 100+ and I can really feel the difference in my breathing and my aerobic system. It’s a lot easier to do certain long-run workouts.
When you ran 3:58 in Seattle, were you going for sub-4:00 in that race?
In the back of my mind, yes, I was going for sub-4:00. I knew I was in the fast heat and I knew that the guys in the heat were really fast, so I just told myself, “Josh, just hang on. Hang on to this pack and they’ll take you through what you need to go through. Just don’t give up.” And it worked out perfectly.
What does it mean to you to be the first sub-4:00 miler from Nevada?
It means a lot coming from my progression from high school to now. I wasn’t extremely good in high school. I wasn’t the top in the nation like some of the other kids, so just being able to work and be dedicated and focused to the sport and to be able to be the first one to go sub-4:00 in the mile means a lot. It keeps me motivated to keep working harder and to stay focused and committed to the sport.
What were your goals coming into this season?
Well in the beginning of the season, my goals were just to score in the Big 12 conference and maybe in the back of the mind it was to make it to nationals. So once I started doing well, I started changing some goals to maybe go to nationals and make it to the final and improve some of my other times in other events, maybe the 5k or 3k. But my main goal was just to score at conference.
Walk me through that DMR from last week. You were in a battle with several other guys on the anchor leg; it was close at the end. What was going through your mind on that last lap?
It was great because my teammates gave me the baton in the perfect position. I was able just to slide into second, stay right behind the guy and just draft off him. The last lap, hearing my teammates screaming for me and the coaches, it was really motivating. I knew the guys behind me had a lot to make up to catch up to us because they were a couple seconds back. So I knew during the last lap, some of them started kicking way too early and I knew they would be tired by the time we got to the turn. So when we got to the turn, I was feeling great. I felt like I had another gear. I was going to wait until we got to the straightaway and just kick. So that’s what I did and it worked out pretty well.
If you could only choose one out of the mile and DMR at NCAAs, which would be your preference? That’s a tough question. The DMR sounds good just because winning as a team is much better than winning by yourself. Being able to celebrate and experience like that with your teammates who have gone through the same work that you’ve gone through is really amazing. Going to the open mile would also be nice because it’s a big achievement for myself and it would be pretty nice to say that I’m one of the top milers in the NCAA. I haven’t made a decision yet, so we’ll see.
You graduated high school in 2011 and were at Central Arizona last year. What happened in the three years in between that?
After high school, I went to a year of college in Arizona and then after that year I left for a two-year mission trip for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. So those two years I was in another country and then I went back to Arizona and that’s when I started an indoor season there. And then I was able to transfer to Oklahoma State.
Where did you go for your mission? What did you do?
I went to Nicaragua. I was in Managua, the capital there, for quite some time and basically what we did is we just went around to doors and people’s houses and preached about Christ.
And were you able to train while you were down there?
No, I wasn’t able to train. I didn’t run at all.
A lot of athletes who are Mormon and who like to run will go to BYU because they have a very strong program traditionally and they are able to incorporate people coming back from the mission well. Did you consider going to BYU out of high school? Why or why not?
Out of high school I didn’t consider it much because I was really slow and I knew they were really good back then. Out of high school I wasn’t really looking too much into running after. But then I got a call from some coach in Arizona and he gave me a chance so I went there.
When I got back, after that year at Central, I was considering BYU. I talked to the coach a little bit but then Oklahoma State called. One of my teammates on the Central Arizona team was going to Oklahoma State. So he was telling me about it, talking to me about the athletes and the program and the coach. I fell in love with it. I thought it would be neat to go to a top-tier program in the NCAA, especially Oklahoma State, when they have such great runners and a great coach.
As part of your faith, you don’t run on Sundays. How do you plan your training around that?
Beginning of the season, I talked to Coach about that and he was more than happy to work with me with that because I don’t run on Sundays. We figured out a way to keep my mileage up high but not run on Sundays. I double a lot of the days through the week except for workout days. I’ll run in the morning and then I’ll run in the afternoon. So that’s how we’ve been able to work around that.
When do you do your long runs?
I do my long runs on Wednesdays. I’ll roughly go around 17 to 18 miles.
And do you do those totally or your own? Or do you start with the other guys and add on?
I usually run with some guys and then I add on after. Wednesdays, our team does medium-long runs where we go 12 or 13 so I’ll be with them for like 13 miles and the last five I’ll go on my own.
Have you ever run into problems in high school or college with not being able to run on Sundays, either needing to do a workout or maybe there was a race you couldn’t do?
I haven’t had any issues with racing on Sunday. I don’t know if there are meets that go on Sundays. Sometimes practices fall on Sundays, and I might do them, I might not. But I haven’t really had any issues with racing on Sundays.
So have you had to do practices on Sundays at all? Or have you just not done them when they fall on a Sunday?
In the beginning of the year, it was more of an option. So some Sundays I chose to do it. It happens rarely.
It kind of reminds me of Eric Liddell from Chariots of Fire. I’m wondering if you’re familiar with that story or if you draw inspiration from it?
I [haven’t heard that story but] I’ve heard a lot of stories in my faith or religion about people not playing on Sundays, like basketball and football. And yes, that always helps me a lot, keeps me motivated and strengthens me as well.
Did you think that you’d be able to step up to the Division I level of competition as quickly as you have?
I did not think that I was going to be able to step up to this level of running. I’m always up for challenges, I like a challenge. And being able to run with these runners is amazing. It’s not like everyone else has this opportunity to run with these great athletes. Just being around them helps me to run harder and to stay focus and concentrate. I came in with the mentality that “Yes, I will hang with these guys. I’ll run with them or I’ll slow down and not do well.” But my mentality was stay determined and hang on.
Coach Smith told me that you can dunk a basketball, is that true?
I don’t know if I can dunk one right now. I haven’t played basketball for a while. But a while back I could. On a good day.
How long ago?
When I got back from my mission in 2014. That summer.
When did you dunk for the first time?
When I went to college my first year after high school, I tried out for the men’s basketball team down there. The coach asked if I could be a walk-on and I said yes. So I started training with him and he got me strong. I started a lifting program, I started working on jumping. My freshman year, I was able to barely dunk it. Not consistently, but I guess you could consider it a dunk.
Did you play for them at all? Did you get in games?
I got in a couple games. I didn’t play much. I only got in games when we were up by 40 or down by 40.
And when you got back from your mission, were you back to just solely running or did you play basketball at all?
No, I just wanted to focus on running. I didn’t want to take any chances on injuries playing basketball.
You played basketball in high school too. What position were you?
I would switch off between point guard and shooting guard.
Were your teams successful? How did you do?
We were successful. My senior year, we won state for the 3A division in Nevada.
Did you play a lot?
Yeah, I was a starter. I played most of the game.
When did you start running?
I started running my freshman year of high school.
So was it cross country, then basketball in the winter then outdoor track?
Yeah, that’s how it worked.
Because Nevada, you guys don’t have indoor track, right?
No, I don’t think so.
Looking ahead to the rest of the season, what are your goals, what are you hoping to accomplish?
I haven’t really looked into outdoor too much because I want to keep my focus on indoors and the Big 12 Conference. But again, it would be nice to make it to nationals in outdoor track. But my main goals are to stay positive, stay focused, stay committed to what I’m doing and stay committed to my goals.
One of the things Coach said that he thought helps you is your religious commitment. The not running on Sundays thing forces you to be hyper-focused and very committed to the sport. Do you feel that being a committed follower of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, does that help you in running?
Oh definitely. Growing up, I had the greatest family in the world. We all get along. My parents were really nice and just taught us good principles and good morals- good values. And being able to learn that and to understand it helps me to stay committed to the things that I do instead of giving up or trying something and giving up because it was too hard.