Jacob Thomson is good. He's not the absolute best prep harrier in the nation this year, but he's not that far off as shown from the 5th place finish he claimed at the Foot Locker National Cross Country Championships in San Diego, California. The fact that he rose to that point, though, would put him amongst the top three Kentucky preps of all-time by most accounts, but those who have watched him the last four years likely see him as the much more than that. He has revolutionized the sport in the state and brought both attention to his efforts and those that he has drawn to race in the state over the past two years specifically.
As a freshman, he showed great promise and an amazing ability to rise to the occasion as he ran his three fastest times of the XC season in the three biggest races of the year ( 16:14 @ Trinity Invite, 16:32 @ Class A State, and 16:11 @ Foot Locker South). In track, success continued to find him. He posted a 4:20 at the Kentucky Dream Mile and 9:44 for 3200 meters, but he tasted something else there that may have made things different. He ran away from the field at the end of the 1600m at the Class A State Championships to win his first state title and while the 3200m final wasn't as kind to him (9th in 10:28), a star was officially born.
It wasn't the times that were turning heads with Thomson as much as the way that he ran the races he was in. Indoors at the Wildcat Classic in January, Ryan Eaton (Greenwood, KY/University of Louisville) posted a 4:13 for the full mile. How does that relate to Thomson? Well, it was Thomson who pushed to the front early in that race and kept the pace in a race he had no business challenging in. It probably allowed Eaton to save some valuable energy to close the deal, but that wasn't why Thomson did it. Thomson knew one way to race: all-out. He faded to 4:36 in that race and while it was a personal best time, it started to send the message that everyone has now understood about Thomson at this point. He won't back down. No moment is going to scare him off. So, when at Foot Locker in the biggest race of his life, it was no surprise to anyone that he went to the front early and worked at controlling the pace with Sean McGorty (Chantilly, VA). He only knew one way to go about.
It was during his sophomore campaign that Thomson really took off, though, as he dropped 15:17 at the Trinity Invitational to place second behind Chris Walden (Carmel and now Cal) and right in front of Jacob Burcham (Cabell Midland). He followed with a 10th place finish at Great American, but a little more than a week after that, things went south. Thomson got sick and found himself dealing with his first real setback at a totally inopportune time. He was able to complete the in-state season, but he lost the state title to teammate Dominic Perronie and decided to call it a season without another visit to Foot Locker.
His sophomore track season was focused around mostly base training in preparation for achieving a qualifying spot for Foot Locker in the fall, but he did post 4:19 indoors and 4:18 outdoors for the mile before reeling off a solo 9:15 for 3200m, but it might have been the networking that he did throughout this year that changed things not just for him, but in the state of Kentucky. Thomson didn't hide from his competitors, he sought them out and talked openly with them. He wanted to know where they were racing and followed their results. He talked to them about coming to meets in Kentucky where he would be racing and trying to set up some national-caliber races that would help everyone. He started to measure himself against not just the best athletes in the state, but against his competition nationally. He wasn't quite a prodigy on the track, yet, but his focus and training were setting him up for something bigger in the fall.
After taking third at the Trinity Invite and Great American, Thomson turned his attention to getting qualified for San Diego. His 7th place showing was a huge result for a guy who wasn't really on the national radar before that fall and it was a dream realized for someone who represented the entire state of Kentucky and took pride in it. Emma Brink (Sacred Heart Academy) had blazed a trail for the girls just a year before, but it had been several years since a boy had qualified from Kentucky and while there had been some close calls, there was pressure building with every year. Thomson put that on his shoulders and made it known that he was proud to represent the state on the national scene. Finishing 19th at Foot Locker Finals only confirmed that Thomson was moving into the most elite group in the country, but having achieved this first goal, he was hungry for more.
Thomson continued to seek out the best races he could get to, but he took pride in raising the bar in the state of Kentucky and his success was a huge part of what has become a running boom in the state, as well. He didn't shy away from running with anyone who wanted to do some running during the winter. He trained along with Patrick Gregory of Butler HS, a sophomore who had similar aspirations as he did at the same age, and when he raced in state, he took pacing duties both to sharpen himself and because he knew that everyone who showed up to race was there to measure themselves against him. He took pride in offering a product that was so high-quality that it inspired the same competitive attitude in others that he had built in himself. When guys got to race against Thomson, they didn't defer to him for the win, they challenged him as hard and as long as they could until the succumbed to their own fitness limitations. Guys wouldn't back down, though, and suddenly, in a state where breaking 9:40 for 3200m was an exciting achievement, it wasn't just Thomson taking aim at the record books, it was the entire state.
In the spring of 2012, something crazy happened. Thomson brought the entire state with him as they rewrote the all-time lists both indoors and outdoors. Eight of the top 25 two mile times indoors, seven of the top 25 mile times outdoors, and six of the top ten 3200 meter times outdoors. Now, this isn't to say that this wasn't necessarily the perfect storm, as Gregory and his teammate Tretez Kinnaird (1:49 for 800 meters twice this spring) along with the boys from St. Xavier HS in Louisville were huge factors in all of this, but without Thomson going to the front and committing to challenging himself whenever he raced, the competition isn't assembling to race at this level. Thomson went 4:15 for the mile indoors on top of 4:10 for 1600 and 8:58 for 3200 meters outdoors, but it was his ability to help assemble compelling fields for the races he competed in that helped some many guys reach new heights.
For races like the UK High School Invitational, the KYTRACKXC.com 5k Showdown, and the Eastern Relays, Thomson called in favors from all of the guys he had met along the way to make the races as fast as possible for everyone involved. While several couldn't make it happen at the time he asked, Thomson made sure that those that did make it left knowing they'd been given an opportunity to test themselves at a level they may not have been able to achieve individually. He popped off 14:49 in the 5k and even though Indiana's Connor Sorrells and Ohio's Nick Vogele couldn't make it down for that race, they appreciated the invite enough to make it a point to get to the Eastern Relays. Thomson didn't dissapoint and the stream of runners that followed him across the line solidified the true impact that he has had on the state. Ten guys under 9:20, including Vogele (9:01) and Sorrells (9:02) as well as Gregory and another sophomore (Chase Geary, Muhlenberg County, KY), and an absolute overhaul of the belief about what was attainable within the state. He turned around the next day and while he wasn't able to win the 1600 meters, he didn't shy away from the front either and when the dust had settled, ten more times were posted under 4:18.
When most people think about a runner's legacy, they consider it in terms of times and places, but for Thomson, his will be measured more by the historic races and the number of faces. So many guys have felt that they could be something greater when Thomson was in the race, and for a state that has fallen victim to measuring their best against athletes like Bobby Curtis and Michael Eaton, Thomson was the go-between who took the enormous accomplishments of those two against himself. When he was in the race, guys stopped worrying about who they beat, who would see the results, or even where they finished. They stopped having to ask themselves if they were really capable of achieving the goals that they were setting. Instead, they were free to test the limits of their own endurance and were given free reign to become great. Luckily, and predictably, so many guys took advantage that the nation started to take notice.
Arcadia has been the elite 3200 meter race that athletes have flocked to for years and Thomson went out to experience it last year. He loved the atmosphere and the focus of both the crowd and the field. When Eastern Relays meet director Mike Horan talked with Thomson about doing something similar on the track at the University of Louisville, the enthusiasm came out of both of them and they went to work. Several of Ohio's best came last year, Sorrells represented Indiana in a big way and standouts from West Virginia, Missouri, Illinois, and Tennessee made the trip as well. The 3200 meter and 1600 meter races were huge draws with Thomson, and the rest of the meet has started stepping up to meet the challenge, but this year's version looks to grow even more now that Thomson has stamped his mark on the history books this weekend.
What may be lost in much of this, though, is the personal focus of what Thomson has done. While he didn't match Curtis' 3rd place Foot Locker Finish, he does have Curtis' personal bests lined up in his sights for the spring. The 4:10 he ran for 1600 meters at the Class A State Championships took Curtis' all-class state championships record off the books. He posted two sub-15 minute 5k performances, the second of which earned him runner-up honors at the New Balance Outdoor Nationals behind Jake Leingang (who was 2nd this weekend at Foot Locker). In terms of time standards, still left are Curtis' 4:07 full mile performance (Golden West Invitational 2002) and his 8:48 for 3200 from Arcadia, both of which are now clearly within reach after an amazing calendar year from Thomson. Matching those performances might put him in contention to match Curtis' culminating accomplishment, though, and maybe, just maybe, that national title pursuit is what has fueled everything that Thomson has helped accomplish.
Now, with a 5th place finish under his belt at Foot Locker, Thomson will probably turn his attention first to deciding on a college. It would seem that he would likely already have plenty of offers, but a top five showing at the national championships couldn't have hurt. He's already planning the spring, though, with indoor and outdoor to go before finally finishing his high school career looking to add to his list of eight individual Class A state titles. While there is argument now about where he sits on the all-time list in Kentucky, compared to Bobby Curtis and Michael Eaton, the true effect that Mr. Thomson has had on the state is already being understood. That's what may make his legacy the greatest of all.