FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – During his nine-year career as a professional soccer player, Wells Thompson was the kind of tireless midfielder that pundits and journalists would say “could run all day.”
So for 24 straight hours between May 15 and May 16, that’s exactly what he did.
Thompson, now 36 years old and living with his wife, Daphne, and their three young sons in Raleigh, N.C., began his journey at 4 p.m. on May 15 and didn’t stop running until a little after 4 p.m. on May 16, clocking 100 miles in the process and raising more than $16,000 for a nonprofit called Hydrating Humanity, which provides clean drinking water and hygiene education for the people of Kenya and Tanzania.
Running a distance of 100 miles in 24 hours isn’t just a gargantuan task – most would consider it insane. In fact, Thompson said, several friends reached out to him before his run to express such thoughts.
“I got a lot of messages from people telling me I was an idiot trying to run 100 miles,” Thompson said with a laugh. “Like, ‘you’re going to kill your body, it’s not good for you.’ That sort of thing.”
But to comprehend what would compel Thompson to put his body through that gauntlet, you need to understand him as an athlete – driven to his core and motivated by both physical challenges and doubters. And you need to understand him as a person – compassionate and empathetic, willing to do whatever it takes to provide a semblance of hope to those less fortunate.
Thompson was selected fifth overall in the 2007 MLS SuperDraft by the New England Revolution, and spent the first three years of his career in Foxborough. Atop his list of accomplishments with the Revolution, he scored what proved to be the winning goal in the 2007 U.S. Open Cup Final as the Revs lifted their first-ever major trophy.
He went on to play two-and-half seasons with the Colorado Rapids – winning an MLS Cup title in 2010 – and one-and-a-half years with the Chicago Fire, before heading home to finish his career in the USL with both the Charlotte Eagles and Carolina RailHawks.
But when his playing career ended in 2015, Thompson, like so many former professional athletes, found himself adrift.
“Retirement was really difficult,” Thompson admitted. “I struggled a lot without my identity and who I was. Soccer was the one constant in my life from four years old. When that’s taken from you, it’s a harsh reality.”
Eager to stay involved with the game, Thompson tried coaching, even going so far as to begin his own business running soccer camps in 2011. It’s a path that several former pro athletes take, as sports are often all they really know. But something didn’t feel right.
“I needed to kind of run away from the game and figure out who I was outside of the game,” Thompson said.
That’s when ultramarathons – defined as any race longer than a standard marathon (26.2 miles) – came into Thompson’s life.
“As a pro for nine years I got paid to work out,” said Thompson, who called his introduction to ultramarathons serendipitous. “That was a big part of my life, so I struggled to fill that void when I retired, but ultra running has kind of helped fill it.”
While ultra running is still a relatively new concept for Thompson, charitable work is not. Driven in large part by his family and his Christian faith, he has long been involved in altruistic endeavors, and he was particularly touched during his first-ever trip to Africa in 2007, visiting Kenya and Zimbabwe.
“We were playing soccer on dirt, sandy fields,” said Thompson, who was there on a mission trip. “I was the only one who had shoes, I think. I had cleats on. Goats were crossing the fields and stuff. It really just kind of opens your eyes to, holy cow, not everybody lives like I do.”
Those charitable undertakings and African connections eventually led Thompson to a meeting with Hydrating Humanity while he was playing with Chicago in 2013, and inspired by their work, he took up a place on their board. But he long struggled to conceptualize a way he could really help the cause.
Then, sometime in recent weeks, it clicked. Thompson realized he could mesh two of his biggest passions – ultramarathons and charitable work – and run for the cause.
So run he did.
Prior to running an ultramarathon of 100 miles, a strict training regimen should be followed. That would include consistent three-to-four-hour runs in the woods to adapt to hilly terrain, eventually leading to consecutive 20-mile runs to ensure the body is capable of enduring that type of strain.
Prior to this most recent ultramarathon, Thompson’s longest run was eight miles.
“That’s not a good thing,” Thompson said with a laugh. “I’m going to get hurt if I don’t change that.”
But determined to run and raise funds for Hydrating Humanity, he pressed on. After initially struggling to find a location that would host the run on short notice amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, Thompson was connected with YMCA Camp Harrison, just north of Charlotte.
Thompson, joined by friends and family – all observing North Carolina’s COVID-19 guidelines for safety and social distancing – set up base at the YMCA’s chapel. There, he had enough clothing changes, food, and water to get him through the harrowing 24-hour grind.
The logistics are jarring. Thompson ran a four-and-a-half mile loop around a lake, which he described as “definitely not flat terrain, so not ideal for trying to go long distances.” After each loop, he’d visit the chapel to refill his water, get some food to refuel, and use the facilities when necessary.
He did that 22 times.
“For me, what’s so fascinating about ultra running – which I’d never even heard of until I’d retired – is the fact that we’re capable of so much more than we give ourselves credit for,” Thompson said. “I’m thinking marathon is the (top) echelon, and then you hear about these crazy, crazy people that are running 200-mile races, 300-mile races.”
In this case, Thompson only had to run 100 miles, and he had some company along the way. His brother ran alongside him from midnight to 6 a.m. His wife was there to run a full 26 miles. And several other friends and family helped keep him fed, made sure he took salt tablets to stay hydrated, and even changed his socks for him when he was too exhausted to bend over.
“It’s definitely a team thing,” Thompson said. “I couldn’t have done it without the support of so many people.”
Thompson, despite his lack of a training regimen, completed his 100-mile journey a little more than 24 hours after it began, overcoming pain in his right knee that started to spring up about 12 hours into the race. Still swollen and sensitive days after he’d finished, Thompson said he’d hoped he hadn’t done permanent damage.
That’s the type of experience that would drive most to say, “never again.” But if one thing is clear after listening to Thompson’s story, it’s that he’s different than most.
“Maybe it isn’t good for my body,” Thompson said. “But it’s crazy. It’s so good for my soul.”
The race may be over, but the work continues for Thompson. He began his fundraising efforts a little more than one week before his run, and in that short amount of time still managed to raise more than $16,000, a figure he’s hoping to raise to $20,000 in the coming weeks.
“On average, it costs (Hydrating Humanity) $10,000 to dig a school well,” Thompson said. “That’s their biggest well that will feed 1,000 kids per day, for life. We’re trying to close the gap to get to $20,000 so we can dig two wells.”
Thompson understands that many people aren’t in a position to donate at the moment with COVID-19 wreaking havoc on the economy, so his message is more about providing hope, and reminding people that we’re capable of so much more than we give ourselves credit for – including our capacity for good.
“I think COVID has caused a lot of paralysis where we feel helpless and we can’t really give back. We’re just quarantined in our homes and we can’t do anything,” Thompson said. “I think we can. We just have to get creative. That’s part of our message was trying to encourage people that the work can’t stop just because of COVID – there are ways we can continue to help.
“I just thought it would be a cool opportunity amidst this horrible time to kind of inspire hope, to try to rally people, to bring good and light life to a dark situation.”
For more information on Hydrating Humanity and details on how you can help the cause, visit Run4CleanWater.com.