How far did you run? Now that’s a question that Jenni Thompson ’02, ’09 used to hear all too frequently, but with her goal of running a road race in each of the 50 states halfway complete, the questions are taking a new form. She now has 25 stories to tell, 25 medals to show off … and 25 more states to go. Now friends and family ask, “When is the next race?”
A math teacher at North Fayette Valley Middle School in rural Elgin, Iowa, Jenni has graduated from Upper Iowa University with a bachelor’s and master’s degrees. The wife to UIU Director of Sports Communication Howie Thompson, she is the mother of twins, Hayden and Addilynn. As a high school athlete at Starmont High School in Arlington, Iowa, she was a hurdler and sprinter on the track team.
While giving praise to her family for supporting her quest and the time it takes to train and compete, Jenni would be the first to tell you that she couldn’t do it on her own — but that’s only half the story. During her time in running shoes she has made new friends and strengthened bonds with old friends, many of whom are alums of Upper Iowa University.
“I couldn’t do any of this without my kids and husband on board,” said Jenni. “Their support gives me the strength to go after such a big challenge. There are so many others that have helped — from running partners, including our dog, Shadow, to driving buddies to my mom, Cheryl Northrop ’90, who has both come to races and taken care of the kids on weekends that I needed Howie with me for longer trips and course support.” said Jenni. “When you are running and the race may be getting to you, there is something about seeing someone you know on the side of the road that provides such a boost, and I can get a licorice or a hug to keep going.”
Jenni has run races with her sister Jill (Northrop) Buchan ’02, Kristin Day ’13, Jeri Jacobson ’15, Paige Dietel ’14, Brittanae Dralle ’16, Tiffany Phillips ’12, former UIU volleyball assistant coach Kasey (Uran) Linde and UIU athletic trainer Rachel Caspers. She has also leaned on alums like Stephen Arneson ’00, who provided lodging and company when Jenni visited the state of Washington to cross off state number 25 this past April.
Jenni recalls the first time she laced up a pair of running shoes for a race after her sister convinced her to run the Dam to Dam in Des Moines.
“Before my first race in Des Moines, it was raining like crazy with a severe thunderstorm warning. I definitely didn’t sleep the night before, but there I stood with my sister at the start line wearing garbage bags and getting soaked,” she smiled. “I think about those things now and laugh. I didn’t think about any of that when we crossed the finish line. I just thought about the accomplishment and that I did it!”
While training for any race takes time and plenty of energy, the training for her three marathons is the toughest. With runs of up to 16 miles on the training calendar, Jenni has to rely on family and friends to be available for water breaks and dog switches during the practice hours.
“I always started with Shadow, and after six or seven miles, my husband and the kids would have an energy source and some water ready for me,” she said. “I’d leave Shadow with them and then go and grab my brother’s (Troy Northrop ’11) dog and run again, drop off the dog and get some water from him, and then finish out my run.”
It’s different for Jenni now with a longer commute to work and a pair of 7 ½-year-olds who are into scouting, athletics and other activities. She can’t just put them in the jogging stroller and take off anymore. Training runs are rarely less than three miles, but not more than 10, and are combined with strength and flexibility workouts.
“I know that the strength and flexibility workouts combined with the runs is the best thing for my body,” explained the avid runner. “I worked out along with running when I started, but my workouts now are much more concentrated on my core with strength and stretching and have helped me build up stamina for my runs. It has resulted in an improvement in both my physical and mental abilities on race day.”
When looking back on the 25 states during the first four and a half years of her quest, Jenni remembers when the quest really began with her third state (Wisconsin).
“I really wanted to do a marathon, so that was the first goal,” she said. “I had heard that less than one percent of the U.S. population will do a marathon in their life and I wanted to be one of those people, so I asked my sister Jill to run the Des Moines Marathon. Then I convinced the assistant volleyball coach at the time, Kasey (Uran) Linde, to run the Twin Cities Marathon with me because I wanted to do it again. After the two marathons, I started to think … ‘Well, I’ve already done two states, maybe I could do the continental 48?” said Jenni.
“But the more people I told about that goal, the more people kept asking why I was leaving off the two best states of Hawaii and Alaska. So I started looking — and Kristin Day was my instructor in a fitness class at Upper Iowa’s Rec Center. She constantly told me I was crazy for running such long distances, but I convinced her to be crazy with me and run the Prairie du Chien Half Marathon for my third state,” she added. “Since that race she has become a great friend of mine and run in nine races with me, and we will run together in Vermont for our tenth together over Memorial Day weekend.”
Of the 25 states completed, the majority of races, 18 to be exact, have been half marathons (13.1 miles). Three were marathons (24.2 miles), one was a 10-miler that ended at the 50-yard line of Soldier Field (home of the NFL Chicago Bears), one was a 10K (6.2 miles) and two were 5Ks (3.1 miles) with her husband and nieces.
This is a quest that goes beyond living a healthy lifestyle and staying in shape. Jenni wants to provide an example of determination and chasing down lofty goals to family and friends. The fact that she gets to share the experience with so many old and new friends with ties to Upper Iowa is icing on the cake.
Looking to the coming months, Jenni already has half marathons lined up in Burlington, Vt., Lake Placid, N.Y., Las Vegas, Nev., and Huntington, W.Va. So if you see Jenni out and about across the country or running around Fayette during your return trips to Upper Iowa, just remember to ask, “Where is the next race?”