Mae Thompson is a fast lady. A fast lady to smile, to laugh, to ask how you are. You see, there’s a lot more to Mae than just ‘Mae who runs track’, and her current relationship with running is a testimony to the fact that being simply ‘Mae’, is perhaps of even greater significance than podiums. 
We sat down, over Zoom, and spoke about identity, doing things that scare us, and the dawn that running promises when things feel dark.
Even before we’d begun, I was drawn to ‘run with Mae’; her greatest hope, now, is that perhaps you will be too.

Running has never been a question for Mae Thompson. She begins by describing how her mother used to take her and her twin sister to the park when she was five and, rather than demanding hours of pushing on the swings, they would instead ‘just run’.
“We would run as fast as we could to the hedge and back. Then we’d do it again, and again, until we were worn out. Running has always been something that I’ve just done; I’ve never been good at organised sports or working with a team.”
Mae reflects that running was certainly for fun at that age, but it was also a way of earning validation for ‘winning’; she was good at it, and it became a way to prove herself. She ran competitively until she was twenty-four, going through the British system of school, then county level competitions, before earning a place at an American college in 2014, which launched her onto the NCAA circuit for four years. It was at this point that running for praise started to become something that she now recognises as quite toxic.
“The system in the US is very performance based: results over everything. I had this relationship with my coach where all I wanted to do was please her, and the only way that I could please her was by running fast.”
This ultimately left Mae feeling disillusioned with running; she was constantly burnt out, nervous ahead of races and not enjoying her training. Like many things with foundations in joy, the joy was quickly sucked out as the sport she loved became more and more competitive. The nature of competition also impacted her relationship with her teammates as each practice and race seemed to be more about who was edging who out instead of uplifting each other.

“It wasn’t a safe or nurturing environment.”

Having walked away from track and field, Mae eventually found her way back to running through social run clubs – a concept she had no idea of in her competition days. It’s a change that she acknowledges it still very much a journey for her, and I suggest that leaving the track might have felt like losing her identity for a time, since so much of who she perceived herself to be was tied up with records and medals. Certainly, in the US, there are many in this position and Mae describes how, from a large pool of students playing college sports at a really high level, only a small percentage then move on to pursue professional careers. Suddenly, this thing that was their whole lives is taken away.
“I wouldn’t say I was depressed but, in that summer that I moved home, I was certainly in crisis. I’ve always been ‘Mae who runs track’ and, without that, I was questioning where I would get my self-worth.”
She knows that she is not alone in feeling this, and, for a few moments, we share our appreciation of the voices, such as Laura Fleshman, that are enabling young women to feel more seen in their struggles with the external pressures of a results-driven culture. That is not to say that the whole of Mae’s own experience was toxic: stepping out of her comfort zone at a relatively early age was a formative one in many ways.

Mae grew up in the suburbs of London, which she identifies as a somewhat sheltered upbringing. She and her twin sister were the only girls of colour in her class. To then go to the US, where most of the other women on her team were black, was transformative.

“Running has taught me everything about life. It sounds cliché but it has: just showing up and getting the work done is going to pay off eventually. Quite literally putting one foot in front of the other is not something that I would necessarily resonate so deeply with if I hadn’t been an athlete.”

It also taught her a lot about balance. To be an athlete she also had to keep her grades up, alongside going to practice every day at 6am, then academic classes followed by the weights room in the evening. Even just listening to her tick off the list is exhausting, andMae identifies that striking that balance also meant realising that you couldn’t go ‘all out’ all of the time. Easy days needed to be easy and physiotherapy was certainly not an optional activity. In respect to having the support that she did in those years to maximise her potential, Mae recognises the privilege of being an athlete and, likewise, the barriers that so many people face on that journey. For all its issues, it’s an experience she wouldn’t take back.
Talk of barriers, brings us to considering issues of inclusion in the running community. Whilst Mae is quick to assert that the amplification of conversations surrounding representation is a step forwards, there is a way to go.

“I never really recognised it growing up doing track and field. At the track there were lots of black women racing. Now, as I’ve started road running and been to a few trail races, I look around and no-one looks like me.”

Access to spaces is not there for everyone yet, and Mae observes that, although she feels comfortable doing these races because she feels comfortable running, for those to whom running has come later in life, to then have the additional hurdle of not feeling that they belong there, is going to make standing on a start line feels even more out of reach. It is certainly not for her to provide answers to these issues, and we discuss how it’s about everyone who has a stake in the game to, at the very least, be open to having discussions about engaging and supporting minority groups, whether that be related to race, gender, disability, sexuality or socio-economic background.

“We can all work to be more inclusive”, she remarks, “I don’t know how we fix it, but all being more mindful is the first step for sure. Nothing is ever going to be productive without empathy on both sides.”

Engaging with different communities and ways of connecting is in fact perhaps the best way of describing how running now serves Mae, and her face lights up as she talks about the ‘cool things’ she has been involved with recently. One such ‘cool thing’ was a relay along Hadrian’s Wall with a group of other female athletes in an effort to break the individual women’s FKT as a team. The challenge wasn’t so much about the outcome but rather a group of women moving together and thinking about the obstacles to women getting outside and pushing themselves. 
“The main thing that it highlighted to me was women’s safety, which was something I hadn’t thought about before. I was scared int he night portion: I haven’t done much running in the dark by myself or trail running on my own, so both of those things combined were quite overwhelming.”
Mae comments that, living in London, the messaging, both internally and externally, is always one of not running alone at night as a woman. Although, rationally, running along Hadrian’s Wall doesn’t necessarily involve the risks of the city, the voice of doing something that women are ‘not meant to do’ is a real one. To be able to share these issues with other women, whilst gathering new experiences and seeing what her body can do is something that has confirmed for Mae the direction that she now wants her running to take. “Like a vehicle?” I venture, “Something that gets you outside the binaries of goals and is more about connecting with people and experiences?”
“Exactly!” she enthuses, “That really resonates. Nothing connects me to my body more than going out for a run. Even just for five minutes on a day when I’m stressed at my desk. So, yeah, a vehicle for aligning the mind and body.”
It’s truly magic to see the glow that Mae radiates as she envisions this future, and I invite her to propose what she might say to the younger version of herself.

“I think something like: You can do hard things. It’s always super emotional thinking back to my time as an athlete because I don’t think I was ever kind to myself. The root of my hating running was the anxiety before racing. I could be the number one on paper, blowing everyone else out the water but, internally, I thought everyone was better than me.”

From comparing herself to the other girls dressed in lycra at school, who looked so ‘professional’ compared to her comfortable trackies, Mae carried this weight of measuring herself against others into her twenties. She now wishes that she could tell that anxious teenager to have the self-belief to instead weigh her worth by the work she had put in.
“If I had just done that, the whole thing would have been more enjoyable. Even when I was hitting PBs, it was never really a celebration; it was just relief. You can’t really find a picture of me smiling from my time as an athlete. In every photograph of me on the track I looked miserable. When I compare that to when I did my first marathon last year: in every picture I have a massive smile on my face.”
Mae hopes that this approach of embracing the process and having more of a ‘why not?’ mindset will carry into her future challenges and inspire other women to overcome feelings of imposter syndrome or hesitancy to give something a go for fear of not having the right ‘experience’ or ‘qualifications’, whether that be in running or life.

“So many of my friends won’t come for a run with me because they think they might slow me down and that’s so so sad. If you run, you’re a runner.” 

Mae stresses that that is not to put the blame on women or to make sweeping statements about gender but to acknowledge that running should be for everyone and that we should all be rooting for each other. In this she also includes every body.
“We need to have more conversations around eating and not needing to be a certain body type to be a runner. It’s something that I have and still do struggle with. I was told on so many occasions that if I just lost a bit of weight then I’d be faster, that smaller runners are faster. That’s simply not the case. You being a happy, healthy version of yourself is far more important than your size or what you look like.”
Mae is a shining light in sharing her experiences in this area and her own inspiration comes, not just from the gold medals of other competitive women in the sport, such as Alison Felix, but the power of the people around her every day showing up for themselves and inspiring others to do likewise.
“I’ve always had a hard time being proud of myself and it’s the people that can get a PB at Park Run and share that success with others that inspire me.”
Like kindness or gratitude, inspiration is something of a circular economy, I suggest, in the sense that, through sharing, it gets stronger. It’s this more fluid and, arguably, more authentic version of inspiration that now fuels Mae.

“There’s going to be dark times, but then you’ll come into the light. I’m only just learning that you need that pendulum swing: you need the lows to experience the highs.”

She admits that this year has been ‘pretty shit’ with regards to her running due to injury and sickness but remains hopeful that the high that’s coming, is going to be all the higher for it.

“As much as I feel that, as a society, we are in crisis, I really do think that there is hope that we will swing back the other way. Whether that be in politics, the climate or diversity and inclusion: things will change but we’ve got to be willing to drive that forward. Better days are coming.”

Follow: @runwithmae