The Ironmen, champions for life!

At left, Casey Thompson poses with Preston McNurlen (in his running chair) during a marathon in April that ended in Cedar Rapids. At right, the running buddies pose with Megan Clark after a race last year. The men raised money for her cancer fight.

By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger

Paramedic Casey Thompson struggled with his sense of purpose after responding to a call involving his friend and mentor, a sheriff’s deputy who lost his life in the line of duty.

Casey, a member of St. Mary Parish in Sigourney, thrives on helping others but he couldn’t help Keokuk County Sheriff’s Deputy Eric Stein, whose wounds were fatal that April day in 2011.

The paramedic, reserve deputy, husband and father, channeled some of the stress of his emergency work into physical fitness and opened Fountain Fitness in Sigourney.


He told his mom, Jenny Thompson, a special education associate at Sigourney High School, that he’d like to share his love of running and other physical activities with someone who couldn’t do it on his own.

Jenny Thompson had someone in mind. Preston McNurlen, a student with special needs at the high school. Preston’s mom, Sonia McNurlen, worked as his associate. In conversation, the two women discovered a mutual need: Preston needed a friend to do things with and Casey needed to be that friend.

The two became running buddies. Casey, now 37, contributes the muscle power and Preston, now 22, contributes the smiles, whoops and hollers. In the beginning, “When I was running behind him in his running stroller, I just felt like it all had a purpose,” Casey said of his relationship with Preston. “I think it was my way of meeting God half-way. I am a true believer. We can pray … but we have to put the ball in motion.”

Preston depends on a wheelchair for his mobility. “He’s nonverbal to people who don’t know him,” Casey said. “We read his emotions … his whoops, his hollers. He growls at me…. You can tell whether he’s having fun or not. We’ve done races in all seasons. We’ve done some in winter and summer, the high heat, the rain, the cold.”

A family affair

They’ve logged approximately 500 road races over the past six years, by Sonia’s estimates. Their participation is always for a cause — a family whose loved one died in a bicycle accident, someone undergoing cancer treatment, or to support organ donation, for example.

Casey and Preston’s families are their cheerleaders and pit crew. Sonia appreciates that Preston gets another view of life participating in road races with Casey. “I’m not a runner. There’s no way I’d be out there pushing (Preston). I love that he can do that with somebody else. They have a bond; they are good friends. They kind of need each other,” Sonia says.

“Now that they’re running, we do things together as families — we do camping together, we share birthdays. We attend all their events together as families,” Jenny Thompson says. “Casey and his family are real close with Preston and his sister, Madi.” She babysits Casey’s two children, ages 6 and 9.

Last month, Casey and Preston embarked on the most ambitious athletic challenge of their relationship, the Ironman Triathlon in Madison, Wis. The triathlon on Sept. 8 began with a 2.4-mile swim, followed by a 112-mile bicycle ride and ended with a 26.2-mile marathon. Casey trained for the swim on his own. He would pull Preston on a raft in Lake Monona during the event.

Just before 6 a.m. the day of the triathlon, Casey posted an enthusiastic message on Facebook. “Words can’t express the thanks and appreciation to my family, friends, co-workers and community who have supported our journey the past 6 years leading up to today’s IronMan triathlon.”

He advised his followers, “If you fail, you get up … you stick to the plan, the process and you try again. … Be humble, be kind, be thankful, never take more than you give … and above all … help someone else along the way.”

Fourteen hours later, Casey posted a more subdued message. “We encountered a few bike mechanical issues which slowed our time … one of which would not allow me to shift to lower gears. I battled the hills as best as I could. When I stopped to see my family I had a medical event and was transported to the UW (University of Wisconsin Hospital-Madison) by ambulance. I am being treated for low blood sugar and potassium and exhaustion. I am disappointed, but I will be ok … and will be back again to finish what I started.”

“He had exerted himself so much that by the time he got to where we were on the route, he physically collapsed,” Jenny Thompson said. “But he will tell you that he felt like God was bringing him to us.” Casey adds, “I was unresponsive with hypoglycemia and dehydration.”
God leads the way

Jenny Thompson said her son put his head down and sobbed and said, “Mom, I can’t finish. I just can’t.” But then, not fully lucid, he said, “Yes, I can, God will help me.”

Jenny Thompson, a woman of faith and director of religious education at St. Mary-Sigourney, told her son, “but your mom’s not going to let you continue.”

Casey admits that he felt like he let Preston down, but his faith helps him to see how God brings good out of struggle. Preston’s mom says Casey didn’t let her son down. “He got Preston to me safely.”

Preston loves “running” with Casey, Sonia says. A couple of years ago, Casey pushed Preston’s running stroller some 40 miles on the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa. “Someone had taken a picture on the route and (Preston’s) head was turning sideways and looking up and he had the biggest smile on his face and it looked like he was hollering,” Sonia said. “He loves it.”

The running buddies anticipate doing another Ironman, but next time as a part of a team Meanwhile, they are preparing for their next marathon Oct. 20. “We want to make this a movement. It’s not about me helping him. It’s about me helping him help other people,” Casey says. Equally important, “I love him like a brother.”

Preston McNurlen “is a manifestation of Casey’s faith in action,” says Father Charles Fladung, who was pastor of St. Mary Parish in Sigourney before becoming pastor of St. Mary Parish in Solon this year. “It’s really a sign of being an evangelist in action. Whether he calls it that or not, that’s what he is.”

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