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Lincoln County native and Middle Tennessee State University accounting professor Paula Thomas was among the hundreds of runners who competed in the recent Middle Half in Murfreesboro, but it was completion of a half-marathon last month in Chicago that gives her the greatest satisfaction.
Finishing the Chicago Half-Marathon meant she could strike off an ambitious goal from her bucket list — running a 13.1-mile half-marathon — in all 50 states!
“I still really can’t believe it happened,” said the 57-year-old Murfreesboro resident, an avid runner since her 20s. “I’m an accountant and a planner, and it was such a big plan … and to think that it all fell into place, I’m still kind of comprehending.”
What made the accomplishment even sweeter was having the support of friends and family in Chicago who formed “Team Paula.” Six other runners joined her, including two of her three children, while seven other supporters waited at the finish line to cheer them on.
“It was amazing to have that much support,” Thomas said.
Her oldest daughter, Kate, son, Ben, and sister and MTSU alumna, Carol Womack, ran with the group. Youngest daughter, Abby, wasn’t able to run, but designed the T-shirts emblazoned with “Team Paula” on the back, while the front denoted that Chicago was the last stop on the 50-state quest. And, Abby made sure the race announcer knew “Team Paula” had a purpose.
“They made quite a big deal about all of us crossing that finish line. It was really special,” said Thomas, who is married to MTSU management professor Earl Thomas, another Lincoln County native and avid supporter who was in Chicago to help celebrate his wife’s accomplishment.
“I’m just proud of her tenacious determination to accomplish the goals she sets for herself,” Earl Thomas said, adding that the challenge was conquered about three years ahead of schedule.
“She’s got that tenacious personality and is going to accomplish anything she sets her mind on.”
His wife, who’s run about 75 half-marathons total, finished her challenge in a year that saw her first attempt at the Boston Marathon in April marred by the deadly bombing. She was at mile 21 when the blasts occurred near the finish line and was among those runners who didn’t get to finish the race.
“After much, much thought, I’ve decided to go back and tackle Boston again,” she said, adding that about 4,000 runners who didn’t finish the race, but would have based on their times, were given a 10-day window in August to sign up for next year’s race, an opportunity she couldn’t pass up.
With four states left on her challenge after Boston, Thomas’ next half-marathon was in Lincoln, Neb. The race was sponsored by the National Guard and ended inside the University of Nebraska football stadium. Thomas said she wasn’t afraid to run, but the military presence brought out some emotions nonetheless. While the race normally began with cannons being fired, that tradition was set aside out of respect for the Boston victims.
“It was a little hard,” she said. “It was quite emotional.”
But, while she normally would get nervous before races, the Boston experience “put things in perspective” and the pre-race nerves have gone away since. She finished the Chicago Half-Marathon in just over two and a half hours, “one of the slower days” for someone who prefers to be 10 to 15 minutes faster.
But, she said, “It wasn’t about time that day,” she said. “It was just about the experience.”
As she made the final turn toward the finish line in Chicago, she stopped.
“Everyone stopped and asked what’s wrong, and I said I just didn’t know if I could cross that last finish line,” she said, then chuckled. “My son said, ‘You can run and cry at the same time. Let’s go.’ And that’s exactly what we did.”
Now that the challenge has been conquered, what’s next? More running of course.
“There are a few races that I love and would like to go back to,” she said.