Jude Thomas is ready for the big leagues
I heard about Ipswich’s Jude Thomas long before I met him. I knew about some of the things he’d done in athletics before I even knew what he looked like.
Here’s the summary. In June 2021 he broke the Australian Parkrun record, running a 14:02 5km in Kedron, Queensland. One day, when Jude makes a list of his career accomplishments, this won’t crack the top 50, but it’s a nice marker of his talent at the age of 19.
At the national 3000m championships at Box Hill in 2021, Thomas broke a more meaningful record: he smashed Ryan Gregson’s U20 3,000m record by over five seconds, running a 7:52.11. He also won the U20 national titles in the 1,500m and 5,000m in 2021, proving his dominance and firmly marking himself as a name to watch.
TL;DR: the kid can run. In a world where sports fans love comparing up-and-comers to established stars, it’s not completely unreasonable to say Jude could follow in the footsteps of Ryan Gregson or Stewy McSweyn. It’s not silly, either, to suggest he could eclipse them, such is his talent.
“My whole focus for the last few years was just school and running. I never went to any parties … I actually just had my first proper beer up at Falls Creek. It’s a bit symbolic, maybe.”
But before we get into all that, let’s go back to the start. Thomas didn’t have the same introduction to running as a lot of people who have made a career out of it. It’s not quite accurate to say he was ‘late to the sport’, but he didn’t take the Little Aths route – instead, he found running through Parkrun when he was in Year 7.
“Dad was a runner – he did epic ultramarathons, he still does occasionally. He was doing some 100k races, desert races and stuff like that. So, he was doing Parkrun most weeks and he started trying to drag me along. He couldn’t get me out of bed; I reckon in a whole year he got me to go maybe five times.
“Dad still goes to Parkrun a lot. I go when I’m home – it’s a 7am start in Ipswich and it can get quite hot by then. Our local has an athletics track right next to it, so I’ll be on the track at 5:30am doing a session and then we’ll do Parkrun as a cool down.
“I really like it. I enjoy the community and social aspect of it.”
But that initial foray into running didn’t quite stick. Thomas says he was always an energetic and fit kid but didn’t think much of running after those first few Parkruns. In high school, however, he naturally gravitated towards a group of kids who were signed up for athletics. The rest, as they say, is history. By Year 9 he was making state teams in Queensland and, by the start of 2018, Thomas was making choices that would affect his future path in life.
“It was probably the start of 2018 when I committed to training properly. I said to myself in January that year that it was time to take it more seriously and see where it led me.
“In the end it got quite hard managing school and running – I was catching the bus to and from school, so I was out the door at 7am and not home until 4.30pm, and then trying to run 1–2 hours a day depending on which day of the week it is.
“My whole focus for the last few years was just school and running. I never went to any parties; I was just so focused on running. I was never one to have a heap of mates at school, just because I prioritised running – I do keep in touch with a couple of people from school but not a lot.”
When Thomas says he prioritised running, he means it.
“I actually just had my first proper beer up at Falls Creek. It’s a bit symbolic, maybe – my first time up at Falls Creek, my first time properly meeting a lot of the guys here, and my first beer.”
If Thomas feels out of place amongst the nation’s best, he doesn’t look it. Long and lean, with broad shoulders, he leads with his chest and has a naturally efficient turnover. Gifted enough at the U20 level to dominate from 1,500 to 5,000m, he knows the step up to the senior ranks will have its own challenges. His immediate goals are based on running times, rather than making teams.
“I'm really keen to see what I can do this year. In the 1,500m I'd like to break 3:40 this season [his current PB is 3:42.95] – ideally before Nationals because it can be hard to get times racing in Queensland. There’s more opportunity to race deeper fields in Melbourne or Sydney, which help you run a faster time.
“My other goal for this season is to break 13:40 in the 5,000m [current PB 13:53.25] – I’m planning to head over to Adelaide for a quick 5,000m there in February, so we’ll see.”
One thing that struck me about Thomas is how hard he works. Not just in his training sessions but generally. Thomas was born and raised in Ipswich, a large suburban hub around 40 kilometres west of Brisbane. It’s an area known for producing elite sporting talent, but it’s also borderline inhospitable for young running talent.
“Running can be tough at home. It might be 30 degrees and 90% humidity at six in the morning, so you have to always be prepared – you need to plan runs around where you can get water. We do a lot of our running up here at 5am.
“When I was 17 and first got my licence, I would leave home at 3:30am or 4am to drive somewhere to go for a run. I look back at that now and can’t believe what I was doing or that I never got myself into any strife. Thankfully, with Dad being an ultrarunner and a workaholic he understands my commitment to running – my whole family is very supportive.”
But it’s not just running that fills Thomas’s days. Like most 19-year-olds, he’s eager to make his own way in the world, and that includes being independent and having a job. Or, in Thomas’s case, three jobs.
“Obviously I’m prioritising running right now and I’m learning how tricky it is to juggle everything. I work maybe 30 hours a week – it is nice to be able to work and put some money away and earn some independence. On top of that, I’m in the gym a couple of times per week and then trying to run 13–14 hours.”
On gym work, it’s something Thomas added to his arsenal after an injury scare in August of 2021; as he grows and learns more about his running, he’s continually trying to add the missing pieces. A commitment to professionalism is something that sticks out in my conversations with Jude – the sacrifice of his teenage years, the getting up early to train when no one is around, the adding puzzle pieces of his own accord. It all points to someone trying to walk in the footsteps of those at the top.
I ask him, then, if he’s inspired by guys such as Stewy McSweyn, Jack Rayner and Ryan Gregson.
“In some ways, yes. I watch all of their races. Every Diamond League or European race I will wake up to watch, even if it’s 2am. I’ll watch every heat of a championship; I’ll watch every race any of those guys do.
“But I’m also inspired by the guys I run with. A lot of the guys I run with are older, like between 30 and 50 years old. They work full time, they run 150km a week, and they have families and other commitments.
“These guys are the hardest working runners in Australia. A mate of mine, Paul Shard, is a full-time tradie and he runs ultramarathons – he once ran a 500km race. I do some running with Clay Dawson, who’s the Australian 100km Champion; he’s a teacher with a family and he still fits in the time to train.
“If this all ended someday and I was just a guy working a full-time job and running like those guys do, I’d still be very happy.”
Somehow, I think Jude Thomas is a long way from needing to get a full-time job.