When Paul Thompson was born, he was diagnosed with spina bifida so severe that doctors told his parents that he would spend his life in a wheelchair. Last December, he completed his 16th half-marathon in San Antonio, in the pouring rain — his fourth of 2017.
A neural tube defect, spina bifida usually involves a portion of the spinal cord and spinal nerves protruding out through an opening in the back. It can be a lifelong and debilitating condition. Just don't tell Paul that.
"I'm very fortunate," he says. "People say they notice I have a limp compared to most people, but I don't notice it. I don't have any idea. That's just the way I've always walked."
It is how he walked at his first job, delivering the evening and Sunday Baltimore Sun for eight years as a kid. It is how he has walked as a groundskeeper at Johns Hopkins Medicine for the last 26 years, cleaning up and fixing problems at Miller Research Building and other buildings around campus. It's how he walks, collecting contributions for the charities he raises money for: the American Diabetes Association, the Juvenile Diabetes Association, the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. And it is how he walks in the countless races and halfmarathons he completes.
People say they notice I have a limp compared to most people, but I don't notice it. I don't have any idea. That's just the way I've always walked.
Every race Paul does is for charity, giving each race its own special meaning for him. In 2007, he won the Johns Hopkins-wide Martin Luther King Jr. Community Service Award after having raised more than $10,000 for a single charity walk for the American Diabetes Association — more than many entire companies whose employees worked together to raise funds. Though no one in his immediate family has diabetes, Paul was, for several years, one of the top fundraisers nationwide for the American Diabetes Association.
Recently, Paul has begun to raise money for the Kennedy Krieger Institute International Center for Spinal Cord Injury, a charity that hits close to home. The center is just next door to Miller Research Building, and Paul sees the children going in and out, many of them confined to wheelchairs. "I have been very lucky," he says. "Very fortunate."
San Antonio is the most recent stop for Paul on a marathon circuit that has hit San Diego, Raleigh, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Orlando and Seattle. "I do go through quite a few shoes," he says. Many of the races are Rock ‘n' Roll Marathons, which seems appropriate for Paul, who is quick to point out that he was born on Aug. 16, 1977 — the day Elvis Presley died.
Paul has also run in the Baltimore Running Festival for seven of the last eight years — only taking off and volunteering instead on a year when he had done the Philadelphia half-marathon a few weeks before. He completed that race on Sept. 16, 2012.
Paul rattles off the date like he is checking his calendar, but he just remembers, like he always does. "I have a pretty good memory," he says modestly.
Dates are not the only numbers he remembers. Paul is not going for speed, but he gives a sly grin when he is asked for his best time. "I don't try and beat my times any more," he says, "but … 3 hours and 31 minutes."
Asked how he trains, he just laughs. "As much as I walk around here, it's easy for me to do it." He is walking miles every day in his job: What better training is there than that?