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Running for Time

Thad McLaurin, Greensboro’s own RunnerDude, sets a new course

By Maria Johnson  

Photographs by Mark Wagoner

Greensboro fitness trainer Thad McLaurin sets his high-tech watch before springing into a “me run,” a jaunt just for himself.

Even after 40 years of running, he dislikes the beginning of each trek.

His breath feels ragged. His stride feels choppy. His aches feel achier. Until about mile two, that is, when his body settles into a rhythm, the hitches smooth out, and his mind — giddy on oxygen and adrenaline — is free to fly.

His maroon Sauconys tap the greenway at a brisk clip.


His footfall sounds like a metronome doling out double time, presto to a musician.

The pace is not as snappy as his personal best, but it’s fast enough for him these days.

He slows a smidgen as he climbs “Herbie’s Hill,” an incline behind a local diner. “It’s almost like the smell of bacon is hardening your arteries as you go by,” he jokes with an impish heh-heh-heh that sneaks out every chance it gets.

Spritely at age 59 — he tops out at 5-foot-6 and 147 pounds — he looks a lot younger than his age, but he has logged a lot of miles, figuratively and literally.

Right now his Achilles tendons, taut behind his heels, are unusually tight and sore.

They flared up last summer, and the discomfort lingers.

“I think the medicine I’m on for my cancer is causing a delayed recovery,” he says.



To many in Greensboro, McLaurin is — by nickname and profession — the RunnerDude.

He has introduced thousands to pedestrian success via the free Saturday runs and annual community-wide events organized by his business, RunnerDude Fitness.

Over the past 15 years, hundreds have signed on as private and corporate clients, some in pursuit of serious race craft, some simply looking to lose weight and get healthier.

To them, he’s the the man with the plan, the designer of routes, the counter of reps, the logger of sets.

He’s good at it. He’s been finding pathways for most of his life.

He was an overweight kid. That was hard enough. Plus he was a Methodist preacher’s kid, meaning his father was assigned to a different North Carolina church every five years or so.

He remembers doing the mile run in P.E. class in eighth grade.

“I ran an 18-minute mile wearing plaid stretchy pants,” he says. “They didn’t make anything but plaid pants for overweight kids. It was like, ‘How can we make you stand out even more?’”

A year later, he cut his time in half. He’d lost 40 pounds by doing Weight Watchers with his mom.

“That kinda showed me that I could be physical,” he says.

He ran sporadically in high school, but when he got to college — N.C. State and later UNC-Chapel Hill — he laced up regularly. He shed more weight, becoming downright skinny.

“It was almost like a new experience with a new body,” he says. “That really built my confidence to push myself.”

A job in educational publishing carried him and his young family to Greensboro in 1998.

He was deep into running by then. He’d done his first marathon, the New York City classic, in 1995. He cried when he crossed the finish line.

“I remember thinking, ‘Everyone is going to think I’m an idiot,’ then I looked around, and everyone was doing the same thing,” he says.

Why the tears?

He shrugs and offers a few explanations: Exhaustion, hormones, a sense of accomplishment.

Then another truth, specific to him, surfaces. He grins and jabs a fist into the air.

“It was probably that little fat kid in there going, ‘Yay!’”



He has just passed the halfway point.

Other runners and walkers speak to him with a twinkle of recognition. He’s been a regular on this trail, the A&Y Greenway, for about 25 years.

“Hey,” people say.

“Hey,” he tosses back.

He veers off on a mental detour when he notices a gravel swath that cuts through the Battle of Guilford Courthouse National Military Park.

In 1781, Gen. Nathanael Greene brought his patriots to these woods, where they clashed with the redcoats under British Gen. Charles Cornwallis, he notes.

The first county courthouse was located near the back of the park.

McLaurin, who earned enough college credits for a minor in history, loves stories of what used to be.

It’s one reason he created a favorite community sporting event, Run the ’Boro, in 2016. The free series, spread over every Saturday in May and June, sends runners and walkers on carefully mapped routes through different Greensboro neighborhoods.

The day before each event, McLaurin, a former fifth grade teacher, emails subscribers a newsletter with points of interest.

“It’s kind of a field trip for runners and walkers,” he says,

The event used to bring him business. He has lightened his workload in the past year, but he’s determined to keep Run the ’Boro going for would-be runners who think they’re not athletic enough to join a group.

“A runner is a runner is a runner, no matter what your pace is,” McLaurin insists. “That’s the bedrock of all my programs — that running is for anybody. I want to take the barriers away and make it so anybody can come,” he says.

He swaps nods with a walker on the greenway.

“Good to see you,” the walker says.


A nagging cough set in around Christmas 2022 and wouldn’t leave.

McLaurin video-conferenced with a nurse practitioner, who diagnosed a sinus infection and prescribed an antibiotic. McLaurin finished the pills and felt worse.

Fatigue consumed him. If he climbed the stairs at home, he had to lie down and rest.

A doctor suspected pneumonia and ordered a lung X-ray.

Fuzzy white spots on both lungs earned McLaurin a date with a pulmonologist, who performed a biopsy.

She called a few days later.

“Are you at home?” she asked.

“Yes,” McLaurin said.

“Are you alone?” she asked.

“No,” he said.

She broke the news: stage four lung cancer.

The words kicked him in the gut. He felt his consciousness floating, looking down at himself sitting in his blue leather recliner in the family room.

How was this possible? He was a runner. He taught other people how to be healthy. He never smoked, not even a drag in high school.

Later, an oncologist explained that 2 percent of people who develop lung cancer have no known risk factors — a history of smoking or exposure to second-hand smoke, radon, asbestos, airborne toxins, or drinking water tainted by arsenic. Neither did McLaurin have a family legacy of lung cancer, which gives the disease a slight edge.

He was a 2-percenter, sick for no discernible reason.

The outlook was dim. McLaurin read, and tried to forget, the survival statistics.

He wallowed in “Why me?” for a while, then brightened at a bump of relatively good luck.

His cancer had a mutation that made him a candidate for targeted treatment with a drug that could arrest and shrink the cancer. The pills arrived at his home in a biohazard bag last March. He took one a day.

He got immediate relief. His body felt physically lighter. After a month of treatment, he began running again. He started with a half-mile. Every week, he added another half-mile until he reached five to six miles.

That’s what he’s doing today: five miles, starting in the parking lot at Spencer Love Tennis Center, trotting past the Lewis Center, up the A&Y Greenway to Lake Brandt Road, down to Fire Station 41 and back again.



Running has meant so many things to McLaurin.

It started as a way to lose weight, build confidence and calm himself.

He lapped up the self esteem that came with setting time and distance goals, meeting them, upping them again and exceeding them again.

The activity shredded calories and anxiety.

He found another payoff after moving to Greensboro. A guy at church invited him to join a running group.

McLaurin wasn’t interested. His wife, Mitzi, urged him to go.

“She said, ‘Why don’t you go once and be nice, and they’ll probably stop asking you,’” he recalls. “It was hard to put myself out there. I think it came back to being the kid who was overweight and didn’t want to be seen, but the group was very accepting and welcoming. I fit right in.”

The run, a nine-mile out-and-back along the A&Y Greenway, flew by because he was talking to his fellow runners. McLaurin coined a term, “runship,” meaning the friendship that comes from running with others and sharing snippets of life along the way.

He started an online journal, RunnerDude’s Blog, to document the group’s successes.

His web of routes and contacts grew. Those connections were vital after he was laid off from publishing in 2009. He was blogging when it dawned on him: He could turn his passion into his profession.

He started RunnerDude’s Fitness in 2010 and grew the business at a blazing pace.

He organized runs for people of all abilities.

He rented a studio for teaching fitness.

He launched workshops and boot camps.

He birthed Run the ’Boro.

He organized the Canned Cranberry Sauce 10K, a Thanksgiving Day run that has collected tons of food for Greensboro Urban Ministry.

All around Greensboro, he drove his white Toyota pickup truck wrapped with decals advertising his business. Most of the time, he was tending his sweaty flock, toting water-filled coolers to spots along his routes.

The hard-to-miss coolers, labeled with “RunnerDude’s Fitness” in black marker, spawned their own stories.

Of casual walkers taking a bottle and leaving a dollar in the ice.

Of a severely dehydrated man stumbling across the water just in time to save his life. He made a sizable donation to RunnerDude later.

Of a man who tried to sell the water to runners who were registered for a RunnerDude event through downtown.

“He tried to sell our water back to us!” McLaurin says.

He unleashes a heh-heh-heh and shakes his head in wonder.



Herbie’s Hill is tugging at him again, this time on the return leg.

Most people think Greensboro is flat, he says, but this city is full of hills.

His runners tease him about it — “This route is a Thad bit hilly” — but McLaurin loves the climbs. For most of this life, he has been able to top them by dint of fitness and will.

Cancer has changed things.

At the mercy of limited energy, he runs when he is able.

He takes longer to recover.

He can’t do what he used to do, no matter how much he wants to.

It feels like cancer has compressed the aging process, he says.

It’s tough to accept.

So McLaurin has taken the only available path.

He has let go of shaping every route, every step.

More than ever, the route shapes him.

A good run is one he finishes, one that leaves his body feeling good afterward.

His time?

That depends on how you measure time.

Back at his truck, run completed, he consults his runner’s watch.

His average pace was 10:48 a mile.

Ten years ago, he would have averaged about 7:30 a mile.

In 2007, when he pushed himself to go faster and farther than ever, he would have knocked it out in 6:30.

So, yes, he has slowed down a lot, according to the clock.

But he uses other gauges to mark time now.

The number of chocolate-chip pancakes he makes with his two grandsons.

The number of times he stops running to read a historical marker.

The number of times he invites his daughter’s cats to curl up in his lap.

Recently, Mitzi, a school teacher, was surprised to see that McLaurin had bought a set of steps so their Chihuahua mix could climb onto the sofa and join the cuddles without McLaurin having to dump the cats.

Every time Mitzi asks him if he wants to go for a walk with her, he says yes.

He makes her baked oatmeal for breakfast.

McLaurin took up baking as a pastime during COVID. Now, he’s way into it, making a loaf of bread every week.

Knead and wait.

Knead and wait.

The process will not be rushed.

He has taken to writing down his recipes by hand because, he says, looking at someone’s handwriting is a very personal way to remember them.


It feels different now.

Standing here in the parking lot, wearing a T-shirt splotched with sweat, sipping water and joking in the breeze, the RunnerDude has arrived in a place he never saw on his route map.

He is finding peace in slowing down.

Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick.  OH