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True Grit

John Adamski, Sean Thomson, John McBride aka Team 100 for Natalie. Photo: Bryan Lathrop

When you hear that someone is gearing up to run a 24-hour hundred miler, it’s not unreasonable to assume that that person is a serious runner. Then you come across an outlier like Sean Thomson. Sure, Thomson has two marathons [4:30:00 and 4:15:00 respective finishes] along with a very respectable 1:06:00 Broad Street Run finish under his belt. But when you talk about those experiences with him you quickly learn that he only did them to see if he could. “I just wanted to see how fast I could run. I don’t consider myself a runner.” Oh, he also ran a 100 miler roughly 11 years ago, again, mostly to push his limits but also to raise funds for autism awareness. Now he’s preparing to run his second century, and this time it’s personal.

Earlier this year Thomson’s sister-in-law, Natalie, was diagnosed with breast cancer and her insurance has been putting her through hell. This news, combined with his longtime friend, John Adamski, losing his mother-in-law to cancer was all the spark he needed to commit to running another 100. But the idea of a 24-hour 100 miler didn’t just come out of the blue. Adamski had already been pestering Thomson for several months to run another century prior to the bad news.

Thomson doing work at his home away from home. No Limit Gym. Photo: Bryan Lathrop

Thomson doesn’t consider himself a runner, or even an endurance athlete. But, as owner and coach at No Limit Gym, he’s fit as hell, and willing to put his body on the line for his loved ones; so at 5:00am October 8th, 2022, Thomson, Adamski, and their friend, John McBride will grind through 100 Miles for Natalie—a 24-hour, 100-mile run on a 10 mile loop in Northeast Philadelphia. In addition to raising funds for Thomson’s sister-in-law, the event will honor the memory of Adamksi’s late mother-in-law, Joann Brunkel, by raising funds for Legacy of Hope’s Emergency Patient Support network. Only two of the three have completed 100 milers before—Thomson and Adamski. Thomson shares “It’s been several years since we did our respective 100s. McBride hasn’t done one yet, but he does distance running. I know we can do this. We’re mentally tougher now than we were in our mid twenties, we take better care of ourselves, we have a personal connection to cancer.”

The three of them initially figured 100 Miles for Natalie was going to be a makeshift fundraiser, maybe a GoFundMe page. But after some research, they found Legacy of Hope; “we knew right away this is who we need to link up with. We loved what we saw Legacy of Hope doing, and knew that could help us make a bigger impact; so we reached out to Mike Rowe and set things up.”

The story of how Thomson got his fitness to the point where he can do these challenges is an inspiring one. Hailing from Northeast Philly’s Wissinoming neighborhood, he grew up with a voracious appetite for basketball. He played on the varsity squad all four of his years at North Catholic, and was two years deep as a starter at Manor Junior College, when his hoop dreams shattered, along with his left humerus, in a freak arm-wrestling accident one Christmas night. Nine hours of reconstructive surgery, an 11-inch titanium rod, and nine screws later—along with nearly a year spent regaining full range of motion and strength—Thomson had unknowingly started down a new life path. He was laser focused on rehabilitating his arm so he could rejoin his basketball team. But doubts about whether he’d be able to play again made scholarship money unlikely; and ultimately, he didn’t return. However, his rehab wasn’t a total loss.

Thomson explains that he relentlessly asked his physical therapist questions during rehab. “I wanted to know how the exercises worked, how they correlated with the anatomy and physiology; my physical therapist (PT) told me that I always asked really good questions—that I had a knack for this stuff. She suggested that I become a PT. But I told her I don’t want to be a PT. They have all the patience in the world—watching someone squeeze a ball for three hours. I can’t do that.” What he did do, however, was to follow up on her guidance and enrolled at NPTI (National Personal Trainers Institute), got credits for athletic training and became a certified nutritionist. Soon after, he landed a solid gig at the Aquatic Fitness Center in the Northeast, but quickly tired of working for someone else and decided to go out on his own and start No Limit Gym.

Without a background in business, Thomson went through a lot of trial and error. But he did the work, connected the dots, drew upon his resources and laid a solid foundation for his gym. Critical to that success was a conversation Thomson had with one of his trainers early on, where the two set the goal of outgrowing their 1000 square foot gym space within six months. “Three months later we had over a hundred clients, one-on-one personal trainers and a new location four times the square footage of our original space. We’d started out as a CrossFit gym, eventually dropped the affiliate and rebranded ourselves. The result? A loyal and growing clientele and a dedicated coaching staff that have kept No Limit Gym open for over 11 years now. If it wasn’t for them, we’d never have stayed open.” says Thomson.

Thomson works the ropes. Photo: Bryan Lathrop

Thomson cites Michael Jordan as a singular source of inspiration for guidance both when he was building the foundation for No Limit Gym, and also for 100 Miles for Natalie. “There was no gray area with MJ. He did everything in his power to inspire people to be better than they were. Okay. His thing was, I can’t understand why you guys don’t wanna work as hard as I do. I’m not better than anybody. I just work harder than everybody.” True to that sentiment, No Limit Gym has a 5am “breakfast club'', modeled after Jordan’s efforts to help his teammates dig deeper. “I love his mindset of ‘You’re either gonna put in the work to improve or you're not; I’m no different from you, I just get up earlier and put the extra work in. I stay up later and put the extra work in.’”

Extra work is something Thomson, Adamski and McBride created for themselves when they committed to 100 Miles for Natalie. Barring debilitating physical injury, the challenge is predominantly mental. Thomson shares this vignette about the hardest part of his first 100 mile run:

“It’s the middle of the night, you’re on mile 60, last man standing. Your buddy tapped out at mile 55 with multiple half-dollar-sized blisters on his feet because he could no longer put any weight on them. The other guy is long gone, because he only signed up to run 30. You’ve got a devil on one shoulder and the angel on the other having a heated, Wimbledon style, volley—trying to win the point to sway you to their side. The devil’s saying, “You’ve already run farther than you ever have; you’re the only one left out here…Just stop! Get in the support car and go home and get some rest.” Then the angel chimes in….“ Sean, you’re still on pace. You don’t have to try to keep up with anybody. You don’t have to please anybody. Just go out and do your thing. If you stop right now with nothing physically wrong with you, if you just get in the car and quit, you’re gonna wake up tomorrow with the biggest regrets! Keep going, keep going, keep going!” You find a favorite song in your two hour playlist, and put that sucker on repeat, 20 times in a row. You keep going; you finish. You’re thankful that you ignored the whining little voice in your head telling you “this is too far!””