Greg Thompson - Veteran Pro

Greg Thompson – Veteran Pro

06/01/2011 in General

We are going to jump right in with 5 questions for Greg Thompson, a Californian that migrated to Illinois over the course of two decades of racing pro triathlon and moving into a desk job with triathlon as…well, he’ll tell us.

Andrew – You have raced at the top levels of triathlon since 1992. You have seen and raced Chicago Triathlon as the Chicago Sun Times, Bud Light, Mrs. T’s, Accenture, stand alone Chicago Triathlon, and now Lifetime Chicago Triathlon. This is one of many examples of the quickly maturing sport of triathlon. For you, what has been the biggest change you have seen in the sport since you started?

Greg – I raced exclusively in California until 1995 when I first did Chicago. It was Mrs. T’s then. Although I’ve seen many changes in triathlon, I think Chicago has remained pretty much the same. Big city, lots of people, and always centered in Grant Park. But triathlon has changed. Its much bigger. There was the boom of the 80s when it first started then there was sort of a let down in the mid to late 90s when I was at my best. It seemed races and series were disappearing and if a race did stay, it was eliminating prize money. I don’t know what has made it so big since. I see a combination of things like aggressive expansion of some series, the rising fitness consciousness of the country, and the Web. The web is great because it gave coverage to small, niche sports like triathlon. With mass distribution, traditional media only had room for the big sports. The web brought focused distribution. It used to take four months to find out about race results in far away places. I remember waiting all winter to learn how ITU worlds went in 1993. Now every race, every athlete, can shine instantly on the Web. All this coverage has made the sport more mainstream. 20 years ago it was sort of fringe and people who wore spandex were weird. Most triathletes were young, single males along with a few crazy gals. Now it seems everyone does it. The image has changed. The stories about Dave Scott or Mark Allen or Scott Molina or Mike Pigg used to be about how crazy, fringe, or anti-social they were. Now the top men and women are portrayed as pretty much “normal” people who happen to be extremely gifted. More exposure, more people, has led to more races and money. There are so many races now. I am so frustrated that I can’t even get a little fast again. In 1996 the prize money races I did were St. Anthony’s, Wildflower, Memphis, Chicago, Alcatraz, Schu’s and Big Bear. There might have been a few I missed, but that was pretty much the domestic prize money calendar. And for some of those, winning was barely four figures. Now it seems there are $30k purses every other week (I think in 2011 its every week). There are triathletes everywhere even up in the sticks where I live. Although I am anti-drafting, I’d say the changes have been only positive.

Andrew – That is a lot of great insight on where the sport has come from. With what you have seen the last 20 years, what do you think will happen in the next 5 to 10 years with the WTC, ITU, and now now the creation of all of these newer “niche” series? What is it going to take to make the champions of triathlon household names?

Greg – I am not so good at calling the future. I thought the sport was dead in 1999 after watching the new-USTS struggle. When I heard IM Lake Placid announced, I really thought the event wouldn’t last and domestic IMs were a bad idea in general. But if I have to answer, I do see more fitness and endurance sports getting more attention. 15 years ago there was only 30 minutes per day of tour de france coverage. Now it is 5 hours which is repeated several times a day. Distance runners are also getting more attention. People like Chris Solinsky, Ryan Hall, and Sara Goucher. Triathlon gets its share, too. I don’t think 100 million people will ever watch IM Hawaii on TV like the Super Bowl, but the targeted media does get coverage to the people who want it. I don’t know if all the new races can be sustained. The most popular names in the US still seem to be the Ironman athletes which make the 5150 and the 19.3 seem pretty risky. ITU has been trying to have races in the US for 20 years, but nothing seems to stick. I don’t see that changing anytime soon.
Greg – You are an awesome talent. I think you would have excelled more in the old days before ITU made people crazy fast swimmers and non-drafting races became “sort-of” drafting. Since you have an old-school style, shouldn’t have old-school goals? Hawaii Ironman used to be the only prize in town. Everything else was just practice. I know you love speed, but when are going to do Ironman? Don’t say when you are old like me. You can start to dabble and still keep your speed.

Andrew – Greg, Greg, Greg…I will not use the words never and Ironman Hawaii, but right now it is not on the radar. The simple answer is that I like to race. I can stack 4-6 Olympic distance races in a row on a single peak, and race all of them well. I can race 20 races in a year and the key word in there is race. Looking at most Ironman plans, it would be 2 a year, (1 to qualify and Hawaii) and then a few shorter races, but all in all, it wouldn’t be tooth’n’nail 20 times. I know it can be done, I’ve seen Macca and Crowie both do it…but they are the only ones these days that have had success at all levels (and are, well, old school). Look at Potts, he left the Olympic distance because he felt he was no longer as competitive when he went long.

Like you noted in your review of how the sport has changed, there are a lot of options in addition to the World Triathlon Corp (WTC) Ironman Hawaii…Rev3, Roth, etc. that put on a better, more fair race for less buck. The nail in the coffin, for right now is WTC’s inability to enforce their own rulebook. We as professionals cannot afford to go to races in which rules are not enforced. I have reached out to WTC on multiple occasions since the nightmares of 70.3 Worlds in 2008 & 2009 to help improve the quality of their races, but it has fallen on deaf ears.

The short answer is, when I stop loving racing every weekend. When I no longer want the stress being on the road and racing over 1/2 the year. Then I will settle down and go big.

Andrew – Tell me about your most memorable race. It does not have to be your best performance, but the one that stands out as a personal triumph, it can be due to the events of the race, the coverage you got, or that you were just plain “on” that day?

Greg – Alcatraz 1997. I still have it on VHS tape. I was third to legends Greg Welch and Mike Pigg. There weren’t too many big names or big races back then, so I think it was a bigger deal. Now it seems Alcatraz isn’t too big of a deal. I had a great day. I struggled on the swim, but made it up on the little run to the bikes. I never ran so fast before or since. I don’t know if it was really a full mile, but I did it in 4:30. Welch had the next best split at 4:55. I think the next guy was 5:30. I got on the bike and made up time instantly. There was Frank Shorter (marathon gold medalist) hanging out of a car doing TV commentary. A helicopter was following me. I really think the situation got to my head. It may sound like whining, but I know I had the legs to win. My mind completely failed that day, but 3rd was still great. Simon Whitfield was 7th that year. He looked like he was 12 years old then.

Andrew – You have raced with all of the greats in the young sport of triathlon. You have seen how they interact with others, how they race…Who is the one man you don’t want to see chasing you down when you hit the turnaround on the run? In your opinion, who has been the class act of the sport?

Greg – In recent years, anyone could catch me on the run so I’d be scared of them all. There were a lot of fearsome runners from back in the day, but I think Welch and Mark Allen were the most feared. Spencer Smith of 1993-1995 was the ultimate triathlon beast. I would be scared of him anyday. Class Act? I knew a few. Right off hand I’d say Keith Casserly and Abe Rogers. Keith is an awesome talent. I think he had health issues that prevented him from becoming a star, but he was so kind and humble considering what lied beneath. Abe was the same. I think he almost made the Olympics. Abe enlisted in the army after age 30 and is now on his second tour in Afghanistan.

Andrew – You have a mighty full plate these days. Since you made the return to the pro field in 2006 you have been working a full time engineering job along with playing father, to now a team of five. On top of that, northern Illinois is not exactly like training in California (where Greg grew up) for most of the year. Beyond crediting your incredibly supportive wife, Kristin, what motivates you most to still compete at the pro level and how do you fit in enough training?

Greg – I left my California and triathlon life at the end of 1998. I never intended on coming back. I had a powerful Christian conversion experience that winter. I was feeling all high and mighty and thought triathlon was just too superficial for me to participate in. I still ended up doing 20 minutes workouts here and there just to stay healthy. In 2005 I did the Midwest Indoor Tri Classic and won $500. It was so exciting to win money again and I beat some quality locals. I thought I was back without even training that much, but again I didn’t do well at the local sprint. At the end of that summer my wife drops the bomb that I should enter Chicago as a pro. My internal response cannot be written here since your’s is a tasteful blog. Long story short, my wife won the argument. There I was as cubicle drone toeing up next to recent gold medalist Hamish Carter. I was off the back, but “battled” the top woman most of the run. I had a 3 minute head start, but an accomplishment nonetheless. I tried to get more serious in 2006. I found some low billing money races. I did one in MN and got $500. More importantly, I split a 36 10k. I couldn’t believe it. I did Elkhart Lake Triathlon and got $200. The revelation was that I was getting trips with my family paid for with prize money. We hadn’t traveled anywhere up to that point. Triathlon was a selfish exploit resulting in time with family. I thought I had tricked the “give-take” balance of life. It was awesome. I heard there was a half in West Virginia and I had a good shot at money. My longest ride was 30 and my longest run was 6. I thought no way, but again, my wife won the argument and off we went. It was a tough hilly course. I ended up last pro (but ahead of all AGers) and with $1000. Wow! Then I did Racine. Marcel Vifian was there from back in the day. I knew he was fast. I did a 4:10 half just 5 minutes off my PR from the 90s. Marcel was 3:57 and some kid I hadn’t heard of (DKT) won in 3:50. I also got $650 more dollars. I had over $3000 for the year which about equaled my best. So I was offically thinking I could be fast again. I had done a 4:10 with very little training. I thought sub-4 wasn’t that far away and when I got there I’d be close to the top.

So I thought I could have it all: time with family, the engineering career, and triathlon career. However, that first year turned out to be the best year. What a disappointment. I trained more and just seemed to get slower. Our fourth child was born in 2007, I had what seemed like chronic illness in 08, and I had serious injuries in spring two years in a row (09 and 10). No excuses though. I’ve had some good training blocks, but the speed did not come. I would love to use the Northern Illinois weather as an excuse, but there are too many fast people in Chicagoland and the Midwest so you all mess that all up. Our fifth child was born in late 2010. I had a good summer before then, but didn’t manage any results. I’ll be age-group for 2011. Maybe I can put the crazy ultra-stretch goals away and be more realistic for once. Battling the local age-groupers should be a difficult and enjoyable challenge. There is so much talent in the area and each person has some ability to be admired. My two oldest did two 5Ks with me this year. They really enjoyed it and I enjoyed getting up in the morning to drive to a race with them. As they get older, it’ll be nice to participate in fitness activities with my kids. I’ve got five, so there is bound to be one nut in the bunch.

That is Greg Thompson for you. Thank you for your time and the insight, I have been around the sport for a decade and learned a lot. We look forward to seeing you at the races in 2011 and beyond.

As always, train safe


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