...Does Not Compute

John Sullivan, ready to go head to head with teammate Kellen Matthews for a world record at this year's PHL24. Photo: Bryan Lathrop

One Monday morning in late April of 2021, during sharing time in a suburban Kindergarten classroom, a little boy proudly exclaimed to his classmates that his father had run 100 miles that weekend. His teacher didn’t press the issue. She just smiled and moved on, figuring his assertion was typical Kindergartner hyperbole. During parent teacher conferences later that week, she told the boy’s parents “Your son thinks very highly of you. He thinks you ran 100 miles last weekend.” The boy’s mother replied “Actually, it was 114.” It’s safe to assume that a “does-not-compute” expression consumed the teacher’s face upon hearing the mother’s confirmation, but that's pretty much the response most people have when they hear about the feats of that little boy’s father, John Sullivan (aka “Sully”).

Sully's prize at the SRT finish line: hugs from his kids and family, including the Kindergartner who rightfully shared his excitement about his father's accomplishment. Photo: Bryan Lathrop

For instance, are you able to compute doing 20,000 burpees in a month? John Sullivan can; in fact, he did, a mere 646 burpees daily—not broken into easy-to-swallow segments of 100 here and 100 there—but consecutively, in one fell swoop, every day, for a month. All because he’d casually mentioned to a friend that he could out burpee a popular YouTuber who’d done 15,000 burpees in a month. “I can do 20…” And he kept his word, even though it meant his vacation would have a much higher than average DBO (daily burpee output).

While 20,000 burpees sounds superhuman and “does not compute” for most of us, it’s just the tip of the iceberg in Sullivan’s world. How about running for 48 miles at night with a buddy, carrying only a snickers bar and 1.5 liters of water each? Or running the entire 114 mile length of the Schuylkill River Trail (SRT) in 26 hours? Or doing a mile’s worth of burpees? Or doing Murph every day for a month, just to see if you could? [Important aside: Murph is a workout named after Navy Seal, Lieutenant Michael Murphy, who was killed in Afghanistan in 2005 trying to save soldiers pinned down by enemy fire. One Murph = a one mile run, 100 pullups, 200 pushups, 300 squats, and another one mile run, all while wearing a 20 pound weight vest.] But for Sully, there’s nothing extraordinary in all of this, “I can do these things because I decided to do it, dedicated myself to it, held myself accountable and got disciplined. That’s really the thing I think most people are lacking.”

Even after completing a grueling 114 miles of the Schulykill River Trail, Sully managed to find a way to outdo himself by sprinting up the Rocky steps at the end. Photo: Bryan Lathrop

Sully completed every one of these seemingly impossible achievements with methodical gusto, and came out the other side looking for more. Pushing physical limits is typical of the challenges he tasks himself with on a regular basis; it reflects a work ethic he attributes to his grandfather. Sully shares, “I remember running with my dad and my grandpa. My grandpa was a Korean war veteran, who ran every day of his life until his body wouldn’t support him anymore. I remember asking him ‘Why?!? You're 70 some years old, why are you still running?!?’ His grandfather’s reply was succinct—‘You have to earn it. I’m not ready to sit down yet, to have a park bench with my name on it. I gotta earn my break, and you do too.’’ Earn your break, became Sully’s mantra; and that mantra became his work ethic, which eventually coalesced into the EYB (Earn Your Break) fitness community.

“EYB is a community first and foremost; we’re focused on charity, and using fitness as a vehicle to do good. We happen to have a thing for doing extreme fitness challenges. So we keep coming up with crazy ideas about how to push ourselves further, always trying to make sure that we’re doing it for the right reasons. That's how we found Legacy of Hope—a friend suggested that we do the PHL24 as a team. We were all in, one upping and pushing each other the entire 24 hours of the climb that first year”—all EYB members donned 20 lb weight vests, just to keep it interesting. PHL24 has been one of EYB’s annual events since.

Sullivan grew up in Northeast Philadelphia. After a brief stint as a theater major at Lafayette College, he served in the Navy for six years, getting chemistry training on the job. After his Navy service, he earned a degree in nuclear engineering. “I’m just a father of three who lives in the suburbs who works a regular job. I have a lot of the same limitations that people use as a reason to not achieve. I say, if you really want to do it, you can do it. I’m living proof. I wasn’t a division one athlete or special forces. In high school I was never the most talented kid on the team, but I was always the best at practice, always working hard, and really good at the wind sprints at the end. I got further through hustle than with talent.”

Doing right by Sullivan clan undoubtedly fuels John's fire. photo: Bryan Lathrop

If you wonder where Sully gets his inspiration, just look at the quotes written on his running shoes. On his left shoe it says “Sullivans don’t quit.” A simple but effective mantra passed on to him by his mother; on his right shoe is something his wife said, “We want you to finish.” which helped him defeat the negative thoughts creeping into his head during the SRT. “Part of me felt selfish for spending that much time training, away from my family. It can make you tap out when you find yourself saying ‘If I quit right now, I can go be with my family.’ But when I look at that shoe and see that it really helps me, because being a good dad, being a good husband, those things are very important to me; so it makes doing these things all more meaningful.”

“In my years of doing this, one of the interesting things I’ve found is that people tend to put limitations on themselves because of who they believe they are. I get frustrated with people who aren’t happy with the way they look, or their fitness level, but who feel they’ve ‘done enough’ because their Fitbit tells them they got their 10,000 steps.” It’s fitting that one of EYB’s core objectives is to help people to stop putting limitations on themselves, “there’s already people out there who put limitations on you because it makes them feel better about themselves. When you learn to unlock competing against yourself, to really hold yourself accountable, that’s when you grow.”

EYB teammates Kellen Matthews and John Sullivan, displaying their typical boundless energy during the 2019 PHL24. Photo: Bryan Lathrop

Considering the scope of Sully’s impressive and growing list of accomplishments, climbing the “Rocky” steps at the Philadelphia Art Museum seems like a piece of cake. But we’re talking about a guy who always finds a way to one up his past achievements. For instance, at last year’s PHL24 he brought a 30 lb log, dubbed “Baby” by those who lovingly hoisted it onto their shoulders as they ascended steps. (He was nice enough to share the joy.) In true Sully fashion, he carried Baby on his shoulders, on top of his weight vest. This might lead you to wonder what’s next? A world record attempt certainly seems like a natural progression here. So he and EYB teammate, Kellen Matthews, will go head-to-head as they attempt to set world records for most vertical feet of ascent, stairs climbed and mileage covered on stairs at Legacy of Hope’s flagship event PHL24—a 24 hour stair climb at the Art Museum steps (aka The Rocky Steps) in Philadelphia.

Sully vs Kellen: a longstanding, good natured rivalry. Photo: Bryan Lathrop

When asked about his world record plans for the PHL24, Sully states “We’re looking at some pace splits based on ultras we’ve done. When running an ultra, you’re using constant forward motion. PHL24 not only has elevation change, but you’re changing direction consistently…not to mention the mental grind of running that distance in such a small area. So my strategy is just motion. When I ran the SRT there was very little time where I wasn’t moving. For PHL24 I don’t plan to sit down, sleep, or to stop moving. I’ll take my meals and drinks on the move, because it all adds up.”

This year’s PHL24 starts at 9am, Saturday, September 10th and goes until 9am, Sunday, September 11th, and promises to be packed with excitement. If you're not content to cheer Sully and Kellen on, you can climb alongside them at the PHL24 (registration details here). Or you can support Sully’s efforts by donating to ensure that no cancer patient in Philly goes hungry or loses their home because of their diagnosis.

"That's a terrible idea, when do we start?" Photo: Bryan Lathrop

While his accomplishments may seem Herculean, Sullivan comes across as a regular, albeit somewhat intense, but down-to-earth guy when you meet him. He’s a fit, fiercely dedicated family man with a chiseled jawline and a robust sense of humor. But the more you talk with him, the more you might pick up a bit of a mad fitness scientist vibe. `No shade intended here, just an honest attempt to characterize Sully’s unbridled enthusiasm for fitness and pushing his physical limits, both of which are perhaps best summed up by the small black and white patch on his weight vest that reads “That’s a terrible idea. When do we start?” We’re hoping his next “terrible idea” gives his son even bigger, better bragging rights the next time he’s asked to share in class.

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