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In the last several years, Nicholas Thompson has emerged as one of America’s more interesting runners. While holding down major magazine jobs — first as editor in chief at Wired, now (since December) as CEO of The Atlantic — Thompson has gotten older, busier, and substantially faster in the marathon.
On a brisk Tuesday morning this week in Oregon, Thompson entered the American record books. He raced 50K in 3:04:36 (just under 6:00 pace) to break the age 45–49 record previously held by ultramarathon legend Michael Wardian. See Thompson’s Strava record of his 50K.
Less than five minutes ahead of him, Des Linden established a new world record with her 2:59:54. Afterwards, they celebrated by drinking champagne from their running shoes.
The closed, private race, named the Brooks Row River 50K, was run on a flat 6.55-mile out-and-back asphalt bicycle path through forest near Cottage Grove, OR, 20 miles south of Eugene.
“I’m stoked that Nicholas set a new record, and couldn’t be happier for him,” said Wardian. “But I would definitely like to better the time.”
As his running has improved, Thompson has also been writing more about it. A year-ago piece in Wired ranks among the best-ever running essays. In it, he recalls how he first ran a mile at age five with his father, who grew up in Bacone, Oklahoma. The next year, he watched his dad run 3:01:19 at New York City shortly before his father came out as gay. A self-described “nerdy, pimply” prep schooler, Thompson tried track at 15, performing well before he flopped at Stanford.
In 2005 Thompson ran 2:43 at New York City. The following year he endured several thyroid cancer surgeries, and then recorded another 2:43 in 2007. Over the next decade, he ran many 2:42s to 2:46s. Then came a breakthrough to 2:38 in 2018, and an even more impressive 2:29:13 at the 2019 Chicago Marathon. He was 44, getting faster, and setting big personal bests — with ever-bigger, more stress-filled jobs, and three young children.
We talked with Thompson about his record-breaking 50K race, how he achieved it, and how he fits running into his life.
Podium Runner: How did the race go for you?
Nicholas Thompson: The weather and course were almost ideal. It was about 40 degrees at the start, and we were running through trees to block the wind. I only had one goal — to break the age-group record, 3:06:10, or just under 6:00 minutes per mile. The race was really small with a couple of pace groups, but none for me. I thought I could maybe hang with the 2:35:30 group, but when I hit the mile in 5:51, it felt quick, and my heart rate was too high. I shifted back a little, especially the fourth mile, and then I felt remarkably good through 19 miles or so.
I hit the marathon in 2:35:20, and then just told myself to say close to 6:00s the rest of the way. It didn’t make any difference if I ran 3:03 or 3:04. I was first in the masters division — and last in the division. I just didn’t want to slow down and end up with a 3:07 or something.
PR: What gave you the confidence to redline your pace for 31.1 miles?
NT: My heart rate monitor, and my heart rate. In my last four or five marathons, and on my tempo runs, I’ve come to rely heavily on monitoring heart rate. As long as I was seeing something in the 130s early on, I thought I could hold that pace for three hours. I expected it to creep into the 140s the second half, and maybe to 150 near the end.
Before the race, I was talking with a friend about how hard it was going to get at some point. He said, “When that happens, just think of something harder.” So I spent some time thinking about the 2:29 I ran in 2019, which was harder than the pace I was running in the 50K.
PR: Did you ever in your wildest dreams imagine yourself as an American record holder?
NT: No. It’s surreal. I don’t think I ever had a moment in life where I imagined I could get an American Record. I wasn’t even the best runner in my high school, and I was the worst recruit on a college team I promptly failed off of. And though I, of course, know the 50k for men over 45 is a soft record (it’s a weird distance, and a weird age), I still can’t believe my name is on any chart right below Bill Rodgers and Bernard Lagat.
PR: You were a consistent, veteran marathoner in the low 2:40-range for quite a few years. That’s something very hard to break out of, especially as you’re getting older. But you managed it. How?
NT: I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about that. There may be several primary reasons. First, I got much more focused on getting real coaching advice. Before Steve Finley of the Brooklyn Track Club became my coach, I’d never had anyone who checked on every workout I did.
Second, I think that maybe a key part of aging successfully is doing something new. A new stimulus. I did long runs and tempos and speedwork with Steve, but it was the shorter intervals in particular that opened things up for me. And of course I changed jobs.
Third, psychology has to be a key part of anyone’s running. I had been a good runner in high school, a failure in college, and a 2:43 marathoner at age 30. After that, I think I was mostly content to just maintain my running at that level. Steve taught me a new way of looking at things. When I ran 2:38, I thought, “Wow, I can’t believe I did that.” But he said, “I think you can run faster.” Once I accepted that, it wasn’t so hard to progress to 2:34 and 2:29.
Lastly, I’ve been lucky enough to not get injured. I sleep well, I eat well, and I do an incredible amount of sports with my three kids (ages 12, 10, and 7). We play soccer, we skateboard, we do other stuff, I toss them around a lot. Maybe I found the sweet spot for cross-training and achieving a balanced core.
PR: What are the key workouts in your weekly or monthly rotation?
NT: Every week, I do a long run, a speed workout, and a tempo run, but only one of the three is really hard. If I do a hard long run, for example, my speed and tempo workouts won’t be too hard. I did a range or runs to get ready for the 50K. I had one 30-miler in Brooklyn, about 7:30 pace, mainly to get used to the pounding and taking gels.
I ran a 5K in March in 16:08, which beat my PR of 16:12 from 1992. I’m wondering if anyone else has had that many years between 5K bests. And I did a 1-mile-repeats workout starting at 5:30, and then running 3 seconds faster for each of the following miles for as long as I could keep getting faster. I ended up doing 7 x 1-mile.
PR: At Wired, you had early access to the Nike super shoes, you obviously like your heart rate monitor, you probably use a special-gel … which of these and other newer devices have been the most important for you?
NT: First, heart rate. Second, the shoes. Third, Maurten, which I did use in the 50K. Then compression socks and a Kipchoge shirt, they maybe add a little. The heart rate monitor taught me how to run my tempo workouts and race marathons. The shoes are an immense help. Everything else has just a minor effect.
PR: You had a big job at Wired and then switched to a maybe bigger one at The Atlantic, where you became CEO — the person in charge of the business. How did you keep your running on track, and even build to this first ultramarathon effort?
NT: Running simply doesn’t take that much time. It’s such a great sport that way. At Wired, I was running to and from work as my commute, and it didn’t take much longer than the subway. The pandemic ended that routine of course, but I’d get out to run at 8 a.m. or so before my business day got crazy. Running is much easier to fit in than other sports.
PR: Why do you run?
NT: I just love it. It’s a form of meditation. It’s one of the few times during the day when I can just concentrate on my breathing and my thoughts. It’s very useful to have that kind of meditative time during a work day that can be stressful. I think that the time I spend running helps me do all the other things I love.