Updated: Aug 8
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’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.”
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 “...so 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.”
Kellen had no experience with ultra running. “I knew nothing about the nutrition component or the training. I figured, if I run 10 miles every day until November, I'll be good.” So, in the span of nine months, Kellen’s [running] mileage went from 10 to 15 miles a week in March to attempting a hundred miler in November. He and Sully had some crazy training ideas along the way, like being dropped off in Reading, Pennsylvania at 7pm after work, and running 50 miles back to Norristown, with nothing but a bottle of water and a Snickers bar. And they did it! In hindsight, Kellen concedes “It was probably not a great idea. I was vomiting black stuff afterward. But it was an experience!”
November brought their first SRT attempt; Kellen ran 89 miles; and Sully went 75, shy of their goal by 11 and 25 miles respectively. They went back to the drawing board; Kellen still wasn't convinced that he needed coaching or professional guidance, but he did Google a generic running plan and used it as his bible for the next five months—following it to a tee, regardless of how he felt, or if he was injured. “I was in great shape, but about two weeks out, I developed a knee issue that brought me to a limp every time I started running. I figured taking two weeks off from running before our second attempt at the SRT would do the trick. Eight miles in, my knee flared up and I hobbled along for the next 74 miles on a flared IT band.” Kellen muscled through for 82 miles before tapping out. He took a long break from running after this brutal effort; he and Cass got married. But his running career was just getting started.
“Out of the blue, Sully shot me a text. ‘Hey man, you should run with us in the morning.’ I hadn't run more than like three or four miles at a time since our [second] SRT attempt. But Sully was saying ‘we're gonna do Four Corners; it’ll be great.’ I had no idea what Four Corners was, so I joined them. A mile in I asked, ‘so how far are we going?” Sully’s response of “22 miles” put Kellen in a dark place mentally. But he realized that he’d built up “calluses in his mind” thanks to the distances he’d run in the past; and he drew upon that strength to get off “the struggle bus.” That run had reignited his passion for running.
Kellen crushed Four Corners, and his momentum since then has increased exponentially, leading to an impressive array of accomplishments: the Lost Hills 50K (4th place, 4 hours 26 minutes, 3500’ of ascent); the Big Woods Half Marathon (1st place); a sub-59 minute finish in the 2022 Broad Street Run; the Kuga Trails 50 miler (third place, 8 hours, 26 minutes, with 8000’ of ascent) and, hot off the press as of this writing, 1st place in the 24 hour Loopy Looper, one of the fastest timed and looped endurance events in the country, (setting a course record of 108.75 miles).
Considering the incredible obstacles Kellen has overcome to get to the present, it’s hard to imagine how he'll top his latest achievement. But his opportunity to do so is fast approaching. The stage is already set for Kellen and his EYB teammate, Sully, to duke it out in their attempt to set a world record for number of stairs climbed, miles covered and elevation gained in a 24 hour period at Legacy of Hope’s flagship event, PHL24—a 24 hour stair climb at the Art Museum steps (aka The Rocky Steps) in Philadelphia. This year’s PHL24 starts at 9am, Saturday, September 10th and goes until 9am, Sunday, September 11th, and promises to be packed with excitement. If you're not content to simply cheer Kellen and Sully on, you can climb with them at the PHL24 (registration details here). Or you can support Kellen's effort by donating to Legacy of Hope's Emergency Patient Support Network, to ensure that no cancer patient in Philly goes hungry or loses their home because of their diagnosis.
When asked about his upcoming world record attempt, Kellen reflects: “Getting back to that idea of a calloused mind—I think that's a strength and weakness of mine. I kind of minimize these things that some people consider huge. For example, PHL24 is less than a hundred miles. We’ll have a huge crew of people there, and we'll be surrounded by friends and loved ones; so, in my mind, I just have to keep moving for 24 hours. After my performance at the Loopy Looper I'm super confident. And competing head-to-head with Sully, that’s gonna make things interesting. Neither of us is much of a quitter.” Given their occasionally less than conventional approach to training, it’s safe to say that the PHL24 competition between Kellen and Sully will be more than just “interesting.”
When asked if he has a favorite quote that he leans on for inspiration, Kellen shared this one: ”It's not about what happens to you. It's about how you respond.” `Seems fitting that he finds inspiration in this quote. But what's more impressive that that he's taken that inspiration and embodied it, and seems to be paying it forward as he goes. We can't wait to see where he takes it next!