Nels Matson will run from San Francisco to New York City in the name of late Navy SEAL Chris Campbell
Nels Matson would not be doing this without a reason.
He never does.
Back in 2013, Matson ran from Bradenton to Washington, D.C., to raise money for medical supplies and surgeries for children in Cambodia. It was a cause that meant a lot to him. It had to be. Matson, at the time a substitute teacher and wrestling coach at Lakewood Ranch High, loves athletics but he was not going to run 1,200 miles just for fun.
It was grueling, Matson said, and harder than he anticipated. But he said it was worth the physical discomfort to raise money for the cause.
That distance seems paltry compared to what Matson, an East County resident, is planning on doing this summer.
Starting Aug. 29, Matson will attempt to break the world record for the fastest cross-country run. He will be running from San Francisco City Hall to New York City Hall, approximately 2,960 miles. The record (42 days, six hours and 30 minutes) for such a run was set by ultramarathon runner Pete Kostelnick in 2016. To break the mark, Matson will need to run approximately 75 miles a day.
Saying that out loud might sound ridiculous but Matson believes it can be done. His training regimen is strong and his cause is stronger.
On Aug. 6, 2011, Navy SEAL Chris Campbell died in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan. He was 36 years old. After he died, his family discovered a note attached to his will. The note stated that his final wish was for 100,000 people to donate to the Wounded Warrior Project in his honor. The amount of the donations didn't matter and it was about people coming together to support the country's veterans. Matson used to work with Campbell's sister, Cindy Campbell, at an accounting firm and heard about Chris Campbell's story through her in June 2019.
The story never left his brain and Campbell's wish remains unfulfilled. More than a decade since Campbell's death, approximately 30,000 people have donated to Wounded Warrior Project in his name. That leaves approximately 70,000 to go. Matson wanted to help reach that number any way he could.
He ruminated on the best way to help — and realized the best way might be by using his body. That's when the idea of the cross-country run was born. In December 2020, Matson emailed Cindy Campbell, asking her what she thought of the idea. She was on board. From there, Matson, Campbell and the rest of the team, which includes Matson's wife, Denise Pizzo-Matson, got to work planning the run, both the trek itself and the journey leading up to it.
That journey includes promotional workouts designed to spread the word and get donations, like the one held April 22-23 at Sarasota's F45 Training gym.
On both days, Matson arrived at the gym around 5 a.m. and hopped on a treadmill. He kept running for 14 hours, only pausing to use the bathroom. Snacks and drinks were consumed on the go. The gym held free exercise classes on both days, an incentive for locals to be a part of what Matson is doing and, hopefully, make a donation.
On Saturday, the gym's patrons were taking pictures with Matson as if he was a celebrity and cheering him on between workouts. That's been a common experience for Matson during this process.
"People keep asking if they can buy me a beer," Matson said. "I'm like, 'I'd rather have you spend that $5 on a donation.'"
Matson said he held the event at F45 because the gym has supported the cause from the beginning. F45's training also focuses on 30-60 second intervals of different exercises instead of having designated arm days, leg days, etc. That idea — ignoring the bigger picture to concentrate on right now —is something that Matson will be doing on his run, focusing on the next day or even the next mile instead of the whole journey. Training in a place with that mindset has helped him prepare mentally, Matson said.
Pizzo-Matson said she is used to her husband bringing her crazy ideas like the 2013 run. She's always supportive, she said, because she knows he's doing it for a good reason. That makes the idea — and any stress it puts on her own life — worth it. This run is no different.
"The story (of Chris Campbell) hit me as an American," Pizzo-Matson said. "We have to do something about this."
To prepare for the run, Matson said he has been throwing himself into as many odd situations as he can, as the biggest obstacle he will face on his journey is the unknown. Anything could go wrong at any time, Matson said. He and his body have to be ready when it does. His practice for this includes competing in the Florida SkyDive Ultra, an annual marathon in Clewiston that tasks people with jumping out of an airplane, then running 100 miles.
All of his decisions will be made with speed in mind. That is why Matson's crew will be driving an RV alongside him, carrying clothes and supplies and serving as a place to sleep. Pizzo-Matson said her husband will need to consume between 10,000 and 14,000 calories a day during the trek to make sure he has the energy to complete it. Much of that will come in the form of shakes, which are easy to consume while moving and can be packed with plenty of nutrients.
Matson's crew has started a website, Project Campbell's Call, that outlines both the cause and Matson's run. It also had a blog written and updated by Cindy Campbell, containing myriad thoughts on her brother and why it matters that his wish is fulfilled. Matson said he hopes that aspect is not lost in the wonder of what he's attempting to do.
"I'm just a messenger," Matson said. "I'm a part of something much bigger."
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