In My Opinion

Sorensen: NC oncologist Douglas Thompson excited to run in North Pole Marathon

tsorensen@charlotteobserver.comMarch 25, 2014 

— I rarely donate money to the people I write about. Many are professional athletes, and they seem to do all right without it.

But I gave $100 to the American Cancer Society at the behest of Dr. Douglas Thompson. Thompson is an oncologist at Blue Ridge Cancer Center in Valdese, which is about 70 minutes northwest of Charlotte.

Thompson, 46, runs marathons and ultra-marathons, does triathlons and climbs mountains. He’s run 45 marathons and 20 ultra-marathons. He figures he runs 1,200 to 1,300 miles a year, and in the past 12 years he’s run 15,000 miles. That’s a lot of miles. He could run from Valdese to the North Pole and back.

Instead, he’ll fly. On April 9, Thompson will compete in the North Pole Marathon. Once a year, he runs a race to raise money for cancer research. If he asks too many people too many times, doors will close and calls will go unanswered. Since the people who donate come from the same pool, he has to impress them.

The North Pole Marathon ought to impress them.

The first North Pole Marathon was held in 2003. This year there are 45 entrants from 16 countries. Seven entrants are from the U.S. and six are men.

“Only 300 people have ever done it,” Thompson says from his office at the hospital about one mile off I-40. “Not because it’s that difficult but because it’s so expensive. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, and it’s my hobby and I figure you only live once.”

Thompson does not look extreme. He’s pleasant and soft-spoken and has the soothing quality some doctors do. He doesn’t brag about his virtuoso athletic endeavors. I had to look up most of them. He has no visible tattoos. In his office there is neither a snowboard nor a skateboard.

“I love the adventure of an extreme event,” he says. “I don’t feel like it’s dangerous. There’s some risk, of course – things like hypothermia and frostbite.”

Thompson has competed in marathons on six continents and in 37 states. He has registered for a marathon in Cambodia, which will give him all seven continents. He also wants to compete in 50 states before he turns 50.

Thompson is not a speedster. His best marathon time is 3 hours and 53 minutes. Adventure is the allure. His wife and children, 15 and 12, usually accompany him. But the North Pole Marathon is not tourist friendly, and he doesn’t want to pull his kids out of school.

While competing, he’s encountered monkeys and beaches and oppressive heat and waterfalls. He’s run 100 miles in a day.

As an oncologist, he’s seen remarkable recoveries and terrible conclusions. It’s not a job a doctor leaves at the office. But he feels better after he runs than when he started.

When he raises money for research, he feels good, too.

“I treat cancer patients every day, and I see what they go through and I see the difficulties they have,” Thompson says. “Knowing that I can do something to motivate people to donate motivates me to do these races.”

On April 4, Thompson will fly to Oslo, Norway. From Oslo he’ll fly to Svalbard, part of a Norwegian chain of islands near the Arctic Circle. From Svalbard he’ll fly with the other runners on a Russian cargo plane to a temporary Russian base – temporary because of shifting ice – at the North Pole.

Russian, you say?

Thompson smiles.

“They’re researchers,” he says.

The marathoners will stay on cots at the Russian base. Because the race is past the spring solstice, there will be light 24 hours a day. Race temperatures average 20 degrees below zero.

There’s no land; there’s merely ice. Make a wrong turn and it’s not as if there will be a Starbucks barrister to offer directions.

So they’ll make a series of 3-mile circles, almost nine of them, clearing a path through the snow.

Question: How was your April 9?

Thompson: Nothing out of the ordinary except I RAN A RACE AT THE NORTH POLE. How was yours?

Should runners succumb to the cold, a warming hut awaits.

Flesh can’t be exposed. Thompson will cover his body with clothing designed to keep him warm but not hot. He’ll run in shoes with little spikes on the bottom. He’ll wear goggles and a doctor-designed mask called the Cold Avenger. He’ll look like Darth Vader.

Thompson is a serious man with a serious job. But he becomes almost giddy when he talks about running 26.2 miles around the North Pole ice.

“I can’t believe it,” he says. “I signed up six months ago and now it’s just a few weeks away.”

If you’d like to contribute, go to: tinyurl.com/mcnwnjp

Sorensen: 704-358-5119; tsorensen@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @tomsorensen

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