Keeping pace with cross country legend and Jefferson coach Dave Thomas isn’t easy.
The alarm rings at 5 a.m. For Dave Thomas, that means it’s time to start running. “In my day, I ran for 100 miles or more every week,” Thomas says. Today, at age 62, it’s closer to 35 miles a week. But he’s not slowing down.
For the last 13 years, Thomas has served as head coach for the men’s and women’s cross-country teams at Jefferson. Seven years ago, he also became coach of the Rams’ men’s and women’s track teams. Now, he’s a full-time employee of the University.
“When you look at Dave Thomas’ career, he and Coach Herb Magee could be mentioned in the same breath when it comes to the impact they’ve had on their sports at Jefferson,” says Tom Shirley, assistant vice president of athletics.
Mentored by Some of the Best
An Olney native, Thomas “got the bug” for running as a student at La Salle College High School, where he was part of the 1972 City Championship cross country team under legendary head coach Tom Donnelly. He then raced for another Philly cross country titan, Jack Saint Clair, at Temple University. “Those two coaches set up my love of the sport,” Thomas says.
Armed with a BS in exercise science, Thomas helped train athletes from the Philadelphia Flyers and 76ers under the tutelage of high-energy entrepreneur Pat Croce. All the while, he kept running. He’s completed 76 marathons (26.2-mile races), including the Boston Marathon 17 consecutive times. He ranked in the top 10 in the U.S. in ultramarathons (races longer than 26.2 miles) in the 1980s.
Teaching Others the Joy of Running
After coaching the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s “Team in Training” amateurs, Thomas came to what was then Philadelphia University in 2004 as assistant cross country coach under Holly Stagliano. He became head coach a year later. “It was the right outlet for my energy level and commitment to running,” Thomas says.
For 14 years, he’s asked the same commitment from his student athletes at Jefferson. “I’m old-school,” Thomas says. “I demand my runners get eight-to-nine hours of sleep a night, eat right and take care of their bodies.”
“He always says ‘live like a clock,’” says Erin Young ’20, who was an NCAA women’s cross country All-East Region honoree last year. “He’s taught me to be more responsible. To not be late. And to not waste any time.”
Thomas teaches runners discipline with weekly training plans. “He gives you word-for-word instructions,” says Greg Dawson ’20, a freshman walk-on who will co-captain this year’s men’s cross country team. “He helped me improve my training and race times dramatically. In high school, I ran 20 to 35 miles a week; now, I run 50 to 65 miles a week.”
I’m old-school. I demand my runners get eight-to-nine hours of sleep a night, eat right and take care of their bodies.
Thomas also stresses academics. “He’ll sit runners out if they’re not achieving academically,” Shirley says. Last year, the men’s squad earned the All-Academic Team Award from the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association with a 3.36 team GPA.
And Thomas shows respect for his team and the sport through his choice of “uniform.” At every meet, he wears a shirt and tie. For CACC Championships, he sports a full suit and a fedora. “It sets a good attitude,” Thomas says. “It shows that this is our business, and we take it seriously.”
Making an Impact Beyond Jefferson
Eight years ago, when his lifelong running “home,” Belmont Plateau inside Fairmount Park, began to show signs of age, Thomas produced a study showing that 80,000 runners use the course each year. He shared it with Fairmount Park Conservancy, which allotted money to make improvements. Thomas redesigned the course and created new markers. “I was out there with my own shovels,” he says.
He helped me improve my training and race times dramatically. In high school, I ran 20 to 35 miles a week; now, I run 50 to 65 miles a week.
—Greg Dawson, Men’s Cross Country Co-Captain
His hard work reaped rewards. In November, Belmont Plateau hosted the NCAA Division II East Region Championship in cross country for the first time since the mid-1980s. Thirty-eight schools from the CACC, Northeast 10 and East Coast conferences competed.
To further the legacy of Philadelphia running, Thomas has created the Belmont Plateau Cross Country Hall of Fame. Right now, it lives on a website, “but I plan to build a wall or monument to mark it,” he says.
Thomas likely will be a hall-of-famer in his own right. But that’s not his motivation. His passion for coaching boils down to his lifelong philosophy of caring for your own body. “Running isn’t just for competition,” he says. “It’s something you can continue your whole life. Helping others do that through coaching at Jefferson keeps me energized.”