Thomas, Healthy Again, Chases Another Title

In the immediate aftermath of hearing words he didn't want to hear, Jack Thomas says his heart sunk.

"Torn labrum." "Surgery." "You can't run for 6-8 months."


This wasn't supposed to happen. This wasn't supposed to be the path the Scott Community High School junior was on. This wasn't supposed to happen just a few months after winning the 2017 class 3A Kansas cross country title, an impressive 11 second win that capped an undefeated season.


No, injuries aren't supposed to happen when you're living your dream. Thomas was still hungry, and he was quickly becoming a dominant force in Kansas distance running. College coaches were ready to pounce on the gutsy junior runner.


But on January 23, 2018, his world was rocked.


"I was doing a tempo run that day, nothing too difficult when I felt a sharp pain and tightness in my right hip," Thomas said. "It didn't hurt too bad while I was running, so I finished the run, hoping that it was nothing too serious.


"I started my cool down jog and my hip started to hurt really bad. I had a pretty bad limp the next day at school, and it was bothering me just to sit on it, so I went to a physical therapist to see if he could tell me what was going on and hopefully get me back to running pain-free relatively quickly."


An MRI confirmed his worst fears. The doctors told Thomas he had a torn labrum - the cartilage that follows the outside rim of the hip socket. With the labrum torn, the ball of the hip joint will grind against the socket joint, causing excruciating pain. Often, surgery is the only way to repair the labrum.


"After a few visits to surgeons were unsuccessful, we decided to get one more opinion from an orthopedic surgeon, Dr. John Xenos of Colorado Orthopaedics (in Lone Tree, just south of Denver), who was recommended to us by another athlete from Garden City who had gone through the same injury," Thomas said.


Xenos looked at Thomas' MRI, and confirmed that he'd need surgery, which would require 6-8 months recovery.


"Initially, after hearing that I needed surgery and the news that I would miss my junior track season and my senior cross country season, I was heartbroken," Thomas said. "Running was one of the most important parts of my life, and still is, and I didn't know what I would do without being able to run and compete in track or cross country.


"Up to the point of the injury, my winter training had been going very well, and I was looking forward to being able to compete for a state championship in the 3200 and 1600 at state track and coming back the next fall to go for another cross country state championship. Hearing that I wouldn't be able to do those things left me broken and wondering why this happened to me. In addition to missing out on a chance to compete for another state championship, I missed out on two of the most important seasons when it comes to college recruiting. College coaches look a lot at junior track and senior cross country seasons when considering athletes, so I was scared that I might not have been able to run at the level I wanted in college."


But Xenos did leave a door open for Thomas to run. He said the injury would not get worse, but Thomas would have to deal with pain in his right hip. So, Thomas decided to give his junior track season a try.


He ran 2:06.9 for 800 meters at the Russell Relays, and 4:53.88 for 1600 at a meet in Ulysses. Good times, but not what he was capable of. Then, he mustered one more effort, running a leg on Scott Community's 4 X 800 meter relay team that won the class 3A state title.


He went from the medal stand in late May to the surgeon's table on June 4. He wore a hip brace for two weeks, and was on crutches for six weeks. He started physical therapy immediately and attacked it with all the fervor that he had shown on the cross country course.


"I ran for the first time outside in early November (2018), and I started with one run outside each week, still doing most of my workouts on a bike and on the treadmill," Thomas said. "Every other week I added one more run outside, and worked my way up to running outside Monday through Saturday at about six months out from surgery."


By the end of January, "I felt like I was back, running without any discomfort."


When track practice started in March, Thomas said he was feeling strong again. The workouts increased. The intensity increased. On March 29, in his first meet back, he jumped straight to the top of the class 3A rankings with a time of 4:33.75 for 1600 meters to win the Ulysses Max Hiebert Invitational.


Just over two weeks later, he clocked 4:21.73 for the fastest 1600 meter time in Kansas - it still stands as of this week - that was also his fastest time ever for the event. Ten days later, he clocked his fastest-ever 3200 meter time, 9:33.38 to win the Vernon Ferguson Invitational in Cheney.


At the same meet, he staged an epic battle in the 1600 meters with Owen Pearce of Kingman, who handed Thomas his first defeat of the season. Pearce, the 2016 class 3A state cross country champion, won the race in 4:21.88, while Thomas clocked 4:22.93. Thomas and Pearce currently sit No. 1 and No. 2 in the state's rankings for 1600 meters.

And college? Yep, that's taken shape too. Thomas said he'll take the next step in his running career at Fort Hays State next fall.


Meanwhile, Thomas was not at all discouraged by his lone defeat this season, knowing that class 3A distance running is loaded.


"After everything I've gone through in the past year, it feels amazing to be back and running faster times than ever," he said. "However, 3A is very strong this year in the distance races, and I know it's going to take everything I have and more to achieve my goals this year. I have a lot of respect for the guys in 3A who are running great times right now as well."


"The goal is always to win state," he continued. "I am excited for the postseason and to compete at the state level again, but right now I'm just trying to focus on training hard and getting faster and stronger with every run, practice, and meet. I have been through a lot, and it's good to be back and running fast, but I still need to focus on the small things and keep putting in the work in order to see the results come May."


Thomas said he's especially grateful to his parents for their support and willingness to do whatever it took for him to get healthy. He said he's also thankful to the numerous doctors and therapists who helped him along the way, as well as his coaches "who helped me make some of the most important decisions of my life," and his friends and teammates.


"So many people have supported me throughout this whole process that I couldn't possibly list them all," he said. "Most of all, I thank God for this gift of running and giving me strength and helping me stay positive during some dark times."  


Beyond running, Thomas said his experience provided him a perspective that will go beyond high school.


"Being out and away from running for such a long time really allowed me to reflect on not just running, but on my life as a whole," he said. "Reevaluating my priorities and thinking about why I love to run was a very important part of the recovery process. I enjoy running, not only because of the competition and the success I've had, but it has brought lifelong friends and relationships that I'll cherish for the rest of my life.


"I'm very thankful to be running again and for everyone who helped me get through what was one of the most difficult times of my life. It doesn't matter whether I'm running competitively or just out for an easy jog; I'm loving every bit of this season, and I'll be forever grateful for the joy running has brought me, no matter how this season ends up going."