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From Port-O-Potty To Podium

Photo: ASI.

Sharon Thompson took an unusual path to victory at the Country Music Half Marathon.

Interview by: Matt Fitzgerald

It was inevitable that the story would become exaggerated. By the time Sharon Thompson received her award for winning last Saturday’s Country Music Half Marathon in Nashville, TN, people were referring to her as “the girl who was in a porto-o-potty when her race started.” For the record, the 30-year-old mother of two from Franklin, TN, was not in a portable toilet when the race started. She was in line for it!

That doesn’t make Thompson’s two-plus-minute margin of victory or her course record time of 1:15:45 any less impressive. After all, she got no warm-up and she still needed to use the bathroom through the entire race! Plus, although Thompson (formerly Dickie) was a three-time All-American at the University of Tennessee, she is inexperienced in road racing and did not realize that the timing chip on her foot allowed her to start the race late without consequence. So she sprinted to the start and then from the start to catch her wave, and still managed to not only finish but win her first half marathon.

We spoke with Thompson about her experience by phone yesterday. What was your goal for this race? Were you hoping to win?

Sharon Thompson: I started training in January. With my first child [Luke, born in June 2007] I trained while I was pregnant with him. I was running all the way up until I was eight months pregnant. In the back of my mind I knew that I was going to train for the Olympic Trials in 2008. Three months after he was born I started training really hard.

With Sienna [Thompson’s second child, now 10 months old] I wasn’t really training for anything and I was really sick while I was pregnant with her, so I didn’t run at all. It was a New Year’s resolution to start running again. One of my girlfriends said, “Why don’t you run the half marathon? I’m going to do it.” I’d never done one, but I said, “Why not?” So I started training for it.

I thought if I could run under 1:30, that would be great. But my husband said, “You can run 1:20.” I really had no idea what shape I was in. I ran a 5K the weekend before, and I ran 16:58, so that’s decent. But I still had no idea what I could do [in a half marathon] until I did it.

I take it you were unaware that the start of the race was moved up by 15 minutes due to the weather forecast, and that’s how things got interesting on race morning.

I was actually late getting to the race anyway because we had to deal with a baby sitter. I hopped out of my car at 6:20 in the morning and started walking through the crowd to the start. I thought I had a good 30 minutes [as the original start time was 7:00]. I thought I would have time to do a little jog and some stretches and strides.

I’m used to going to a track, warming-up, doing drills and strides, and just not having all of that confusion. I didn’t know it was going to be that crazy [nearly 35,000 runners participated in this year’s Country Music Marathon and Half Marathon]. To get from the back of the crowd up to corral 1 was a nightmare. You couldn’t jog. So I was like, you know, I’d better go to the bathroom. So I stood in line at the port-o-potty for a while and stretched a little bit there.

Next thing you know corral 1 was leaving. I asked the woman in front of me, “Did the race just start?” She goes, “Yeah, but that’s corral 1.” I was like, “Great!” So I ran out of the line and I jumped over two fences and got in front of corral 2 and I just started hauling. When I started my watch I was 27 seconds behind the start gun.

I had to have run the first mile under 5:40. I caught up pretty fast. I don’t know why I didn’t take my time. I guess I was just frustrated. I remember passing two girls and then I was pretty close to the time truck. And then I was like, wait a minute: is this the front? So then I slowed down. I was the first girl for a while. Then two marathoners caught up. It was funny because they thought I was a marathoner. The girl that won [Ilsa Paulson] passed me with an Ethiopian girl [Serkalem Abrha] at around four miles and they were like, “Oh my gosh, you’re running the half?” And I’m like, “Yeah, I’m running the half.” So I just stayed with them until they veered off and I finished.

How did you feel the rest of the way?

Surprisingly, I felt good. It was a little long for me. In college I ran the mile, the 3K and the 5K. Then I ran professionally for Nike for a couple of years and I ran the 10K. I remember asking the guy on the lead bike, “How much further?” And he was like, “Two miles!” That’s when it started to get boring and my legs started hurting, because I had no one to run with. I was ready to be done!

Were you surprised that you set a course record?

I didn’t know I set a course record until I went and got my award at the post-race concert. I was really shocked and happy. I was happy to  just finish and get a half marathon under my belt. It was a fun day.

So, you’ve obviously got a knack for this. Are there more half marathons or possibly even a marathon in your future?

Yeah, I would like to do the Chicago Marathon. I’ve never done a marathon.

And did you learn anything from your experience last weekend that you can apply in Chicago?

I told my husband we’re never leaving that close to a race. I’m definitely going to be there two hours before. And I guess race times can move, so I will check several times with other people.