Once overweight and at risk for heart disease, Eric Thomas took up running to improve his health. Winning races has just been icing on the cake.
Written by Rosalind Fournier
Eric Thomas was the last person to think he’d ever win a marathon.
When Thomas was in his early 30s, he was overweight and diagnosed as being at risk for heart disease. His doctor gave him a prescription to treat his high cholesterol, but that was about it, he says—so he switched to another doctor, hoping for more guidance.
“The first thing my new doctor said was, ‘Well, you need to start exercising about an hour a day,’” Thomas remembers. “The only thing I could think of at the time was maybe walking, so I started doing that. But it was not really getting the job done.” He tried jogging, too, and he started losing a little weight, “but I wasn’t very consistent.”
A game changer came when Thomas heard about a local group known as Black People Run, Bike, and Swim (BPRBS), which was created with mission of promoting physical activity among African-Americans and trying the tackle disparities in health problems between African-Americans and other communities.
Specifically, Thomas’ interest was piqued when he heard that a BPRBS group was training for their annual 5K. He decided to try and connect with them.
“I ended up going out to one of their group runs,” Thomas says, “and they really encouraged me to continue to come out. I ended up running my first 5K in the fall of 2012, and I was hooked.”
By then, the weight was coming off at a much faster pace. He lost 45 pounds and eventually went off of heart medications. Feeling better than he had in years, he continued training with his new friends from BPRBS, and he ran the Mercedes half-marathon in 2013. “At the time, that was the hardest thing I had done in my life,” Thomas says. “It was an amazing feat for me. When I look back on it, that was also something that kept me going to try and reach the goals that I had set for myself.”
Still, Thomas surprised even himself when he ended up running the full Mercedes Marathon in 2014. “One thing led to another,” he says. “One goal lead to another, and it all started from me just trying to better myself and better my health. And here I am, seven years later and still running.”
In 2017, Thomas and his running team had the honors of becoming the first all-African-American team to win the Mercedes Marathon Relay. “We had all met through running, so when I approached them about running the Mercedes Marathon Relay, they were all for it,” he says. “We did not set out with the goal of being the first all-black men’s team to win; we just felt we had a lot in common, wanted to train together and put on a good race. And we came in first.” They went on to run the Reebok Ragnar Relay together later that year, coming in first in the mixed-open division for the challenging overnight race which stretches from Chattanooga to Nashville.
In the meantime, Thomas decided to turn his passion into a career, and he’s been a certified run coach since 2015. He named his business Fit 2 Finish Strong, or F2FS. “Runners hire me to help them get where they want to be, from running a 5K to a marathon,” he says. “I train them over a period of weeks and months to help them reach their goals and reach the finish line.” F2FS has also created an informal community of runners who cheer one another on. “We encourage each other, train for races throughout the year, and try to keep the active lifestyle going.”
Thomas adds that he’s still a part of Black People Run, Bike, and Swim to this day, because he believes strongly in its mission. “We try to encourage minorities and people in the inner city to get out and to be active and be healthy, because we feel like minorities suffer from health disparities. And I’ve been a living testament for showing that you can actually take charge of your health, and you can change your health for the better. I try to use my story as an example to help others try to improve their health.”
As a certified trainer, Thomas knows a lot more now about the science of good running form, sports nutrition, injury prevention and creating custom training programs. But he says the most important tip he ever learned came when he was just starting out—don’t go it alone.
“Runners like to help people who are newer to the sport,” Thomas says. “And if you run with people who are a little more experienced, most of the time they can advise you on what shoes to purchase, what stores to go to, where to get fitted, and the ins and outs of running. And that’s where the group comes into play.
“My favorite thing about running is the camaraderie,” he adds, “the relationships that I have built within the running community, meeting new people and making new running friends. I have met people all over the country that I probably never would have met, and we all have this one thing in common.”•