Catching Up With Mountain Running Alum and Track Star Jeff Thies

Jeff Thies achieved his dream of becoming a professional track runner, experienced its highs and lows, and is ready to chase new dreams beyond the “oval office.” Thies’ running journey is filled with exceptional mentors, camaraderie, and intense training environments that propelled him from being a relatively unknown high school athlete to the top of both the collegiate and post-collegiate track running scene. His story is one of an “underdog” runner who surrounds himself with the best athletes to discover his own limits. Thies has without a doubt given an incredible amount of himself to running and although he claims to have raced in his track spikes for the last time, this twenty-seven year old’s dedicated spirit is sure to remain strong in whatever he chooses to pursue next.

Success in The NCAA and On Trails
Thies made a name for himself as a NCAA Division I collegiate runner at the University of Portland in Oregon. In 2017, Thies was honored as a NCAA Cross Country (XC) All-American for his 14th place finish at the NCAA XC National Championship meet. In Track and Field, he ran one of the fastest 1,500 meter races in his school’s history, 3:40.73, which converts to a sub four-minute mile pace.

Despite being only a school of 4,200 students, The University of Portland, situated along the bluff of Portland’s Willamette River, has built a dynasty of strong runners over the past thirty years. Woody Kincaid (Olympian in the 5,000 and 10,000 meter races at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games), Scott Fauble (top American at the 2019 Boston Marathon) and Nick Hauger (professional runner for the Hoka One One Northern Arizona Elite) are just a handful of the stellar athletes Thies trained with during his time at Portland.

Thies credits much of his success to Portland’s legendary coach, Rob Connor, who led the program to its first Nationals meet in 1993 and has been head coach for over 30 years, “Rob Conner was a huge help for my running career. He cared about each person on the team as an individual first and a runner second. He recognized how athletes need to make the best decisions for themselves and support them in whatever that is. That created an environment where I could learn and grow in the way I needed and become the runner that I was aspiring to be. If I made a mistake, there wasn’t an attitude of blame but of ‘how do I grow from this?’. A coach’s support is so vital to training/racing and finding someone to support you through the ups and downs is essential. When choosing a college to run for, it’s easy to be awestruck by the brand of large divisions such as the PAC-12, but finding the right coach and teammates is really most important.”

Jeff Thies

Photo: Jeff Thies

In addition to his collegiate track and cross country running success, Thies is also an accomplished trail runner. He competed for the United States in both the 2014 Junior World Mountain Running Championship in Casette di Massa, Italy and the 2015 NACAC Mountain Running Championship in North Vancouver, Canada. Read about Thies’ reflections from his experiences representing the US in mountain running.

Thies was amazed by the differences between track/cross country running and mountain running. “In mountain running, there’s a completely different way to push yourself. The pace might be twice as slow as a cross country race and yet you can expect to be working hard the whole time. My mountain running experiences humbled me. I showed up to my first mountain race with a certain arrogance and the idea that since I had proven myself as a competitive runner in college, I was going to be pretty good at mountain running. I was amazed at just how fast some of the best mountain running athletes are. Just because I’m quick on a mile around a track doesn’t mean I can perform well on any surface or distance. I learned that you can’t just show up and do well, you definitely have to prepare specifically for mountain races to excel in them.”

Thies enjoyed mountain running for its unique challenges, “For one, mountain running feels more aerobically demanding than track and cross country. Then there’s also the mental challenge created by the visual of the mountain you have to run up. The views of the course and tough climbs quickly reminds you how you are not more powerful than the mountain. You have to work with the mountain and let it dictate how you get to the top. I enjoy figuring out how to get up the mountain, rather than coming in with the sense that I’m going to conquer the mountain.”

Thies decided to focus most of his running career on the track, but still reflects positively on his times competing in mountain races during college, “The people who compete in mountain running are some of the best in the running community. It’s so uplifting and inviting and I enjoyed being a part of such a special community.”

Jeff Thies

Jeff Thies at the 2015 NACAC Mountain Running Championships in Canada. Photo: Richard Bolt.

Chasing Olympic Dreams
After graduating college in 2018, Thies felt he still had much to prove with his running. During his time at Portland, he developed into a national caliber athlete in his signature events, the 1,500 meters and the One Mile. “In college I never broke the mythical four-minute barrier in the mile. I was very close with the conversion from my 1,500 meter time, but I had to actually prove it to myself and do it in a full mile. I was excited to see how I could challenge myself and what I could accomplish if I fully invested in myself.”

With two years until the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, Thies knew that if he trained properly he could have a shot at not only breaking four minutes in the mile, but also potentially representing the United States in the 1,500 meters. To do this, Thies knew he would need to find the right training environment and surround himself with other fast athletes. In the summer of 2018, he signed a contract with the Tinman Elite based in Boulder, CO. The team was composed of some of the top track and road athletes in the country, including Drew Hunter and Reed Fischer. “I decided to go pro because I knew I could run faster and compete at the next level. With the Olympics two years away, that seemed like a good timeframe to fully invest myself in running and discover what I could do. I never wanted to look back and think, ‘what if?’”

During his time with the Tinman Elite, Thies achieved new personal bests in a variety of track distances: 1,500 meters, 3:39.30, 5,000 meters, 13:38.00, and also achieved his goal of breaking the four minute mile with a time of 3:58.07. With such immediate success on the professional running scene, Thies knew he had a real shot at making the Olympic team.

The professional running life was also a unique experience and not what one might expect. In contrast to professional basketball or baseball players, professional runners don’t make enough off of their winnings and contracts alone to support themselves and their lifestyle. “The entire time that I was racing and competing professionally, I was working anywhere from 20 to 30 hours a week at the recreation center in Boulder, CO. This was the only way I could pay my bills, fly to races, and cover all of the expenses that come with competing. In college, your team pays for everything, but the minute you graduate the responsibility is on you. You have to find flights, lodging, etc. for races and I learned just how much cost goes into competing and training!”

Although the professional running life was not one of glamor and large cash prizes, Thies found enjoyment in living a simple life dedicated to training and being a part of the running community, “The thing that I enjoyed most was the experiences at meets and getting to connect with fans of the sport and people excited about racing and running. Getting to experience the running community in so many different places was great. It’s about finding places you’d never get to discover and running is such a special way to build community. I wanted to celebrate that throughout my professional running career.”

Jeff Thies

Photo: Jeff Thies

Dragonfly Drama
In the months leading up to the end of the qualifying period for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Thies had still narrowly missed the qualification mark in the 1,500 meters. His fastest time, 3:39.30, was a second and a half below the mark. Thies had one more chance to qualify at the Stumptown Twilight Invitational, in his college town of Portland, OR. Two years of dedicated training and racing had led him to this final meet. This would be his last opportunity to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics.

Thies felt pressure to perform and needed every advantage he could get. He made the decision to wear a pair of Nike’s track running “supershoes,” The Nike ZoomX Dragonfly. In the past year, this shoe had proven itself to be superior to any track running spike on the market. This shoe had been worn throughout 2020 by many of the world’s top performing track athletes including Joshua Cheptegei, who took down Kenenisa Bekele’s long standing world records in both the 5000 meters (2004) and 10,000 meters (2005).

[PROTIP: If you’re curious about how much of a difference a shoe can make in an athletes’ performance, read my article “Are Carbon Plates the Key to Trail Running Supershoes?”]

Thies knew that wearing the Dragonflies would come at a cost. The Tinman Elite had signed a contract with Adidas and competing in any athletic apparel other than Adidas in a race would cost him his sponsorship. Since this was Thies’ last shot to make the Olympics, he decided it was worth it to wear the Dragonflies and put it all on the line. All he needed was to run one and a half seconds faster. “I was very content with my decision to wear Dragonflies and I knew it was going to break the contract I had signed. I knew I wasn’t going to be allowed to train with the team, but after two years of training for the Olympics and taking a gamble on myself as a runner, I knew I needed to take this gamble too.”

Unfortunately for Thies, he did not meet the mark in the race, even with the “supershoes.” He was also kicked off of the Tinman Elite team and chose to end his professional track running career. “Looking back on the experience of trying to make the Olympics, I think about how much time and energy I put into this one final race. There was a lot more stress and anxiety in this environment than enjoyment. I lost sight of how incredible it was to run in all of these great venues and all the amazing people I met along the way. I lost track of the whole experience of why I wanted to be a professional runner. Now, I don’t find myself with many aspirations to continue running on the track in the 1,500 meters or mile. The mental and physical energy it takes to try and do that on your own is huge.”

Jeff Thies

Jeff Thies with his teammates at the 2014 World Mountain Running Championships in Italy. Photo: Richard Bolt.

New Perspectives On Life and Running
Although Thies has finished his competitive track career, he is far from finished running. Thies looks forward to broadening his life beyond just training and reconnecting with running in new ways. “I want to spend time enjoying the sport that I’ve been a part of for the last fifteen years of my life. I want to keep surrounding myself with the special community that is the running community. I’ve enjoyed my opportunity to race professionally, but it’s demanding. It’s a lot emotionally and mentally and I’m content and looking forward to enjoying my life. I finally get the opportunities to do things I was never allowed to do as a professional athlete such as to go skiing here in Colorado with my girlfriend and enjoying the outdoor hiking scene. It’s been nice to let other things take value in my life as opposed to when your life is so focused on one thing.”

Thies still reflects positively about his time on the Tinman Elite and his relationships with the athletes. “Sometimes I think about how fun it would be to train with my Tinman teammates and the environment they’ve created. I’m still super close with them and love to support them and see them run well.”

Living the professional running life is something Thies will always be grateful for, and he can look back on his career without regrets. Although the Olympics were not in his cards, Thies had an incredible professional track career in the past two years that earned him a spot in the exclusive sub-four minute mile club (only 1,663 athletes have achieved this feat in running history). He is motivated to let running bring meaning to his life in new ways, beyond the extreme regimens and restrictions of the elite track running lifestyle, and is excited to see what else besides a runner he may become.

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