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Brain Calluses

Updated: Aug 8, 2022

Kellen Matthews-Thompson in peak form, ready set a world record at the PHL24. Photo: Bryan Lathrop

These days it feels like our senses are being bombarded non-stop with noise; so when we encounter a clear signal it’s more than refreshing, especially when that signal conveys the power of will and discipline over adversity. That’s the undeniable message you get from Kellen Matthews-Thompson. Upon first meeting Kellen, you’re likely to be overwhelmed by how fit and friendly this 30 year old upstate New York native is. Diesel is another apt descriptor for Kellen, who, as a member of the group Earn Your Break (EYB), is heavily involved in the ultra and running communities in Philadelphia and surrounding areas. Nowadays he’s pretty much the epitome of health and fitness; you’re likely to see him on social media with his wife, Cass, as they make their way around Philly. But if you’d met Kellen about five years ago, you’d scarcely have recognized him. He was a gaunt shadow of the man he has become, at rock bottom in a grueling battle with heroin addiction. Through grit, discipline, and the good fortune of having loved ones who didn’t give up on him, he has reinvented himself over the course of five years. Kellen is an unrivaled example of what can be achieved when you put your mind to something—having extracted himself from the hopelessness of addiction, to achieving seemingly impossible physical challenges, and then using his accomplishments to help others in need.

Kellen circa 2017 in the depths of addiction.

Kellen’s addiction started with prescription painkillers when he was 14 years old. By sophomore year in high school, he had a legitimate opioid habit. He managed to graduate but, in his words, “opioids had their hooks in me, even though I wasn't yet at a point yet where it was a problem. My family members didn’t even know.”

After graduating high school, Kellen joined the masons' union, which held promise for a bright future and solid career path. But he was still experimenting with drugs. His painkiller addiction became a heroin addiction; and by age 19, he went to rehab for the first time. His family had given him an ultimatum: “either you’re going to get help, or you're going to be on the street.” Kellen chose the latter, because, “I thought I knew it all; but I soon learned that it wasn't as easy as I thought it would be.”

He admits, the only reason he went to rehab was because his family wanted him to go; not because he was interested in getting clean. Not surprisingly, he relapsed at the tail end of a 90 day treatment program in Florida. “I was a thousand miles from home and the treatment center said, ‘Either you go start another 90 days of inpatient rehab—or you’re out.’ Again, because I thought I knew it all, I told them, ‘I'm outta here!’”

This led to a year of bouncing between various halfway houses in Florida, until Kellen got a lucky break when a friend offered a place to stay at her family’s home in Virginia—“we can help you get clean.” For seven days, Kellen detoxed on a couch in the basement at his friend’s home. Soon after, he entered a Suboxone maintenance program. Suboxone is a drug that helps opiate addicts avoid withdrawal, with the downside that the patient becomes dependent on the treatment. He rode the Suboxone train for nearly two years, and it made him feel almost normal. He had a job (working with the same company for whom he works now) and everything was going well. His company transferred him to a position in Philadelphia, where he continued to show up at work, despite drifting back into a daily drug habit. His addiction worsened—its peaks and valleys growing progressively more extreme. He’d do better for a couple months, then backslide. His bosses expressed their concern for him—but they didn’t know the scope of the problem, because, as Kellen recalls, “I would only tell people bits and pieces of my situation, to paint the picture that I wanted everybody to see.”

2017 marked rock bottom for Kellen. By this point, his sole focus was using. He had stopped paying rent and was living on the edge, “I was just digging myself deeper and deeper and deeper into this hole. I had a really heavy dependency—I was shooting 12 bags of heroin at a time; some people shoot one bag and die. I was very, very sick.”

The critical moment in his journey occurred when he traveled to Baltimore to visit Cass (now his wife). “I was putting on this show for her to make her think that everything was good, but she knew something was up. “I’d had a really bad weekend—`spent my whole paycheck on drugs and I was really scared for the upcoming week… In my head, it was the end of the road. I couldn't tell my family that I’d relapsed, again; I couldn't break my mom's heart (even though she knew what was going on); and I definitely didn't want to break the news to Cass. My plan was to jump off the I-95 bridge where it crosses the Susquehanna river when I drove back to Philly. I didn't see any other way out. The mountain was just too big to climb. Fortunately, on my drive to Philly, Cass called and said; ‘honestly, what's going on here?!? Something's going on. What is up?!?’” That’s when Kellen came clean with her. She convinced him that they “could do this—get this figured out together.”

Everyone's rock bottom is different. Some people die before they bottom out. Kellen shares “Mine was the point where I was given the ultimatum by a higher power—either you're gonna change some things, or you're going to die. That’s when I “surrendered” and came clean with everybody. I called up my bosses—whom I still work for now—and let them know the whole story. They were incredibly supportive; they totally had my back and jumped through all kinds of hoops to get me into a treatment facility.”

Once I got clean and had some time away from drugs, things started to click. I told myself, “I'm gonna run a mile every day—because some people in treatment said something about runner’s high being so good. When I heard that, I was like, oh this is it! When I got out, I ran a mile every morning. I was going to the gym also. That became my outlet.”

Kellen, rocking the weighted vest that was instrumental in connecting him with John Sullivan. Photo: Bryan Lathrop

After he’d started running, he quit smoking, and started eating better. “I basically stopped putting bad stuff into my body.” His newfound discipline started a chain reaction which led to a clearer mind, progression in his training, and branching into CrossFit. “I bought a weighted vest. I was fascinated with all this stuff—the vest, doing Murph, all of it. One Saturday morning, John Sullivan (Sully) saw me at the gym working out with my weighted vest on and was like ‘Hey man, you wanna hang out?’ And the rest is history.”

“We did a run in the Wissahickon, which opened my eyes to trail running. I fell in love with it…couldn't get enough. Our group (EYB) was getting out early every Saturday morning, hitting the trails—headlamps and trail shoes. It was new and exciting, and my love for it just snowballed.” Then the pandemic hit, and all the gyms were closed “ I leaned into running. Not more than two months later Sully was in my ear saying, ‘Hey, what do you think about trying to run a hundred miles?’ [along the Schuylkill River Trail (SRT)] I was just like, sure, let's give it a shot.”