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Profile: Iowa City ultramarathoner applies trail lessons to school administration

New assistant Iowa City High principal trains for 100-mile run

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IOWA CITY — Running on a wooded trail, miles unspooling, Natalee Thompson sorts out the challenges of her job as an educator.

Last year, she was planning curriculum for teaching coaches throughout the Iowa City Community School District. This fall, she’s starting as the new assistant principal at City High, a school of 1,700 students.

“I’ve done many, many long runs on my own without any music,” said Thompson, 39, of Iowa City. “It gives me a lot of opportunity to think things through, especially job related.”

And when Thompson says long runs, she means it. The ultramarathoner — someone who runs longer than the 26.2-mile marathon — is training for her first 100-mile run in October.

She’ll be doing that as she gets used to a new job and helps her children, Truman, 11, and Lucy, 10, start the school year.

Thompson is relatively new to extreme running. Her first half-marathon was the 2012 Run for the Schools in Iowa City.

But Thompson’s husband, Mark, was running ultras, and she decided to try it.

“After the half-marathon, I thought ‘I’m going to do a 50K,’” she recalled.

She signed up for the 2014 Hawkeye 50K at Lake Macbride near Solon and was hooked.

Thompson finished the 2014 Grandma’s Marathon in her hometown of Duluth, Minn., in three hours and 28 minutes, which qualified her to run the prestigious Boston Marathon in 2015.

“It was a great experience, but I missed the uniqueness and camaraderie of the people who run trails a lot,” she said.

Ultras typically are 50K (31 miles), 100K (62 miles), 50 miles or 100 miles. For the 100-mile races, runners run through the day and night, with the goal of finishing in 24 hours.

In June, Thompson completed the Chattanooga Mountains Stage Race, 60 miles over three days.

“The second and third days were a lot of rocks and boulders — very technical,” she said. “I did fall a couple of times and skinned my knees and shoulder. I had the biggest blister of my life. (But) I went with a group of girlfriends and had a blast.”

Her first 100-miler will be the Arkansas Traveller Oct. 1-2 in the Ouachita National Forest near Little Rock.

For her longest training run of 40 miles Aug. 27, Thompson signed up for a Painful Elimination in which runners tackle a 4.25-mile loop each hour. If they finish before the hour, they can rest until the next start, but they have to be ready to run on the hour or be eliminated.

Some runners spend the rest of their training days napping, but Thompson doesn’t want to miss out on family time.

“Usually when I first get back I’m pretty wiped out, but after I get a shower and some food I’m fine,” she said. “But by 8 o’clock (p.m.), I’m ready for bed.”

Thompson’s new job involves more nights and weekends, but as Iowa City high schools start later this year, she’ll still be able to get in her morning runs. She typically gets up between 4 and 4:30 a.m. to complete up to 12 miles before school.

Running ultras has helped Thompson become more resilient, she said. When she was running the Ice Age Trail Run, a 50-miler in Wisconsin, she had ditched her hat, gloves and arm warmers before entering an isolated stretch of trail. Then it started to snow.

“I decided I would just move faster to stay warm,” she said.

Methodical problem solving and serenity will be helpful as a high school administrator, in which a big part of her job is helping special education run smoothly.

“Once you’ve run for 50 miles, everything is a lot easier.”

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