We chose a location on a random stretch of beach just off the Honoapi‘ilani Highway on Maui — a place where we could pull Claire P. Thomas’ converted Sprinter van through the kiawe trees and onto the sand. The only other people around were a few environmental volunteers taking water samples down the way.
We were shooting Thomas “making breakfast,” and she stood just inside the van holding an egg above a bowl as if about to crack it. As our photographer snapped away, Thomas changed poses: She looked at the egg, then into the distance, then at the egg and then behind me. And then she waved.
A couple stood on the periphery watching the shoot and whispering to each other. It’s not uncommon to have lookie-loos on set, so I didn’t think much of them and turned back to the task at hand, but Thomas was already engaged.
“Hi! I’m Claire!” she called out, hopping down from the van. She and her boyfriend, Jared Connell, shook their hands and the couple talked a million miles a minute: They had been following Thomas for a long time on Instagram and knew she was on Maui, and they wondered whether they would see her while on vacation — and then here she was! If the couple was halfway to the moon to be speaking with Thomas in person, they did a virtual lunar leap when she invited them to take her high-intensity interval training class at Makena CrossFit later that week.
“Bye, Rebecca!” said Thomas as the couple took their leave and she returned to set. “I really hope I see you in class!” For most people, this sort of send-off would be considered neutral politesse at best. But the thing is, Thomas actually meant it. As the saying goes, you should never meet your heroes because chances are they won’t live up to your expectations. But as her serendipitous Maui couple can attest, Thomas is as genuinely nice as she appears on social media — likely because her feed arose from an authentic place.
Thomas was a track star in high school and earned a collegiate scholarship as a heptathlete. However, several bad experiences with university coaches and track teammates threw her off kilter. She lost her confidence, developed an eating disorder and, in the end, made the difficult decision to give up track for good.
For the first time in her athletic life, Thomas was without a coach. She had to learn how to exercise and set goals on her own, and she also had to figure out how to flip the script, training to love her body and not to hate it. Her senior year in college, Thomas became certified as a trainer and decided to chronicle her healthy lifestyle and workouts on social media. “I was literally the last of all my friends who had Instagram,” she says. “I couldn’t have cared less about it.”
Until she did.
“I remember when the first person reached out for help — a stranger,” Thomas says. “She asked me to help her lose 50 pounds! I cried. I could not believe somebody wanted my help. I literally did everything in my power to help this woman. I wrote her a training and nutrition plan and checked in with her every single day. It was instantly fulfilling.”
Inspired, Thomas stepped up her feed frequency. “My intention was to help people — and when I say ‘people,’ it’s that one person, yes — but it was also the person in the mirror,” she says. “That girl who needed somebody, who was lost and afraid and alone. My old self that I was seeing now in others. I know what it’s like to feel like everything is falling apart, and I wanted to help others overcome whatever they were going through.”
Her earnest sincerity and creative training methods earned her followers by the thousands, and today Thomas has more than 1 million loyal fans on Instagram alone.
Her personal training and online coaching began as a side hustle, but in 2018, Thomas left her full-time corporate job, moved back to Portland, Oregon, and turned her passion into her profession. She developed several workout and nutrition programs and sold them as e-books on her website. Success was on her side, but there was still something missing.
“I was living alone in an apartment in Portland and was traveling a lot for work,” she says. “Jared and I were dating long distance and I started to feel homesick, but not in the usual way. I didn’t miss my apartment at all and wasn’t emotionally attached to it. And it dawned on me that home is not a place — home is a feeling.”
Shortly thereafter, she saw a converted VW bus parked on the street and had an idea. “I thought, What if I could create a home where I could wake up every day with a new perspective in a new place?” she says. After researching the logistics and practicalities of living in a vehicle, Thomas decided to go for it. She bought a Sprinter van and found a local company to custom-build “Penny,” her home-to-be, from the inside out.
“Originally, I was going to live in it and travel by myself,” Thomas says. “But when Jared began to work remotely because of COVID, he was able to come with me.” In June 2020, they hit the road together with a plan to visit all 50 states, including Alaska and Hawai‘i. With no definitive timeline and a go-where-the-road-takes-you philosophy, they toured the entire West Coast, as well as Idaho, Utah and Arizona.
Living in a van has its challenges on the best of days, and those were only compounded during the pandemic: For a van-lifer who relies on gyms and the occasional hotel to shower and use the bathroom, the options for free-range travel were suddenly very limited.
“We had planned to visit Hawai‘i at the end of our tour, to go out with a bang, but we figured if we were going to be stuck somewhere, we might as well be on a tropical island!” she says. “We shipped Penny to Maui, and it was the best decision we ever made.”
A day in the van life
It sounds romantic: Park somewhere overnight, and wake up with the sunrise to a new view and new places to explore. But in truth, van life took some getting used to. “I was a very routine-oriented person, waking up and going to bed at a certain time,” Thomas says. “So having no structure was a huge challenge for me in the beginning. But now, the uncertainty is my favorite thing about van life. Every day is a new challenge, and I am trying to live in the moment.”
Her current mission is to showcase how to stay fit and healthy on the road. “My niche is that I’m nicheless,” Thomas says. “Because of my athletic background, I train more functionally and do a little bit of everything — bodybuilding, running, CrossFit. The workouts I post are the ones I actually do, and even though I don’t have a set schedule, my training is always balanced.”
Thomas also avails herself of her location to stay active, and a scroll through her IG feed shows her doing push-ups in a snowy Sequoia National Park, planking on the rim of the Grand Canyon, doing pull-ups in the doorway of her van (she had a pull-up bar custom-built) and, most recently, trail running along the Maui coastline.
“We’ve also gone snorkeling, surfing, hiking and stand-up paddleboarding,” she adds. “We love it here so much! Maui has stolen our hearts. We found our people and our community.”
Still, the open road awaits, and by the time this issue hits the stands, Penny and passengers will be back on the mainland and headed east.
“We have no definite plan — we just know we don’t want to be rushed,” Thomas says. “This time in my life — it will be something I can look back on and be proud of. I’ll have so many amazing stories to tell — all the wrong turns that turned out to be right turns — and so many moments to look back on and laugh — or cringe!”
As for her professional trajectory, the future is flexible. “What’s cool is that my career can evolve with me,” she says. “Right now, it’s about staying fit on the road, but in five or 10 years, it might be how to stay fit as a mom or staying fit as a family. I’ll continue to take advantage of all the amazing opportunities I am afforded, and I will always stay true to myself.”
Q&A with Claire
Q | It must be hard living with someone full time in a van.
Yes! Especially since Jared and I went from being in a long-distance relationship to living in a van together. It has been an adjustment, and every single day we are faced with something to overcome, but we love it and it has been a great relationship builder. We don’t spend every single minute in the van, though. A lot of people assume we are on top of each other all day and have no space, but we are always out and about and allow ourselves to have time apart.
Q | Why did you name your van Penny?
I have always had a weird obsession with pennies; they symbolize a lot for me. People throw pennies on the ground and don’t see the value in them, but for me, it’s important to see the value in the little things. The first night Jared and I met, I was wearing a penny ring I bought on a trip with my mom. I told him about its meaning for me, and he pulled out his wallet and showed me a penny he keeps that was given to him at his grandfather’s funeral. (I knew then that we would be together!) So naming the van Penny was only natural. It reminds us to remember our worth, that the little things matter, and that we don’t need a lot to have a lot.
Q | What is one thing you do every single day?
Without fail, I have protein coffee right when I wake up — topped with whipped cream, of course! Life’s too short to skip the whip!
Q | To what do you attribute your success as an influencer?
The word influencer makes me feel weird because we are all influencers, positive or negative. But your goal cannot be to be an influencer; that should not be what drives you. It’s about staying true to who you are and following your heart while taking risks. You will make mistakes, and social media can be exhausting. I just try to remember that it’s about something bigger than myself. To be successful, you must be consistent, genuine and authentically yourself. At the end of the day, followers and numbers don’t matter. I could care less if I have one follower or a million because from the start, my goal was to help that one, single person.
Q | Why did you name your business CPT Fit Co.?
It’s a cool coincidence that my initials CPT — Claire Pamela Thomas — also stand for certified personal trainer and are the abbreviation for “captain.” I want to encourage and inspire people to be their own captain and to become leaders. Rise up by lifting others and expect nothing in return.
Q | What is a typical day like for you?
Every day is a new and unique adventure, but generally speaking, here’s what my day might look like — no matter where in the world we are:
- Wake up before the sun.
- Make the bed and wash my face.
- Drink my protein coffee.
- Watch the sun rise while walking, stretching or writing in my journal.
- Brush my teeth, change and get ready for my day.
- Work time! I answer emails, take and make calls, post on my social platforms, create/edit content, write and design new training programs, do team check-ins, etc.
- Eat breakfast.
- Work out.
- Work again — more of the same.
- Eat lunch and run errands.
- Fun o’clock! Go on a hike or to the beach, play basketball, go sightseeing or try something new.
- Eat dinner.
- Watch the sunset and eat dessert!
- Go to bed. Goodnight!