Sarasota Accountant Takes Up SEAL’s Call to Action with Cross-Country Charity Run
By Elizabeth L. Brown
SARASOTA (March 18, 2022) – Nels Matson always admired those called to serve in the military. He also thrived at pushing himself to his physical limits and believed joining the U.S. Marines would be the ultimate test of his mettle. So much so that the former collegiate wrestler tried to enlist during his final year at Iowa State University.
But being born with congenital heart defects — despite having successful surgery as a toddler to correct the abnormalities — nixed his chances of ever calling himself a veteran.
Now the altruistic ultrarunner has taken on a different military mission: to help fulfill the final wish of Navy SEAL Chris Campbell, a fallen soldier who sought to have 100,000 people donate to the Wounded Warrior Project in his memory.
Matson believes there’s no better way to help Campbell reach that goal than by pushing himself to his running limits.
Chasing A World Record
The 39-year-old USF Muma College of Business graduate student wants to be the fastest person to trek across America by foot.
He is gunning for Pete Kostelnick’s trans-American running record. In 2016, Kostelnick recorded the fastest run across the U.S. in 42 days, six hours, and 30 minutes. And to create an apples-to-apples comparison, Matson will mirror Kostelnick’s route, starting on the steps of city hall in San Francisco and ending at city hall in the Big Apple.
To train for the endurance feat, Matson is taking a break from his studies in USF’s Weekend Executive Master of Science program in Business Analytics and Information Systems. Matson plans to return to USF in 2023 to finish the final semester.
Before starting the master’s program, Matson took two years of accounting courses at USF’s Sarasota-Manatee campus. He is currently an accountant who runs BoaLytics, an accounting firm for small businesses.
A Final Wish Among Heroes
Matson first heard about Campbell’s story while working as an accountant at Kerkering Barberio. Matson’s coworker and friend, Cindy Campbell, shared a book exchange.
One day she lent him “Among Heroes,” a book that described the story of her younger brother, Chris Campbell. He was a Navy SEAL who served the country for almost 15 years and in 2011, he and other military soldiers were killed in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan.
As Matson listened to the audiobook, he was inspired by Chris’ last wish to have 100,000 unique contributions to the Wounded Warrior Project to help those who made it home.
“I heard that and then I didn’t do anything with that,” he said. “But it wouldn’t leave my head. It was one of those things nagging on me. I knew I could help in some way, but I didn’t know how.”
Then he Googled “the fastest time someone ran across America.”
Matson learned of ultrarunner Kostelnick, a financial analyst and fellow Iowa State alum who grew up 20 miles from Matson’s hometown of Ames, Iowa. The similarities in their backgrounds inspired Matson to attempt to break the running record.
He “grew up close enough to me that I can see how he puts his pants on the same way. I said, ‘This record is something I’m going to try to attain and now I know how I’m going to bridge the awareness of Chris’ mission’,” he said.
Answering A Call to Action
Matson and his team are calling the cause Project Campbell’s Call. The website features blog entries by Cindy Campbell, a route map, and a calendar of pre-event training runs. At last count, the tally of donors was at 30,527 — a third of the way to the finish.
Cindy Campbell will also be part of the road team helping Matson along the way. She hopes the story of her heroic brother and his last request to help 100,000 veteran soldiers will inspire others to contribute.
“Chris started like so many of us. He had hopes and dreams; he failed and succeeded,” she said. “I truly believe that most people are more similar than different. My hope is, during this journey to share my brother’s last request, that will become evident.”
A History of Charity Runs
Matson is no stranger to running or cycling long distances to shine a spotlight on charitable organizations.
He’s cycled across the country twice and completed a multi-state endurance run — all for national and international nonprofits to benefit children with heart ailments.
In 2013, he ran from Bradenton to Washington, D.C. to raise money for Cambodian kids who needed heart surgery. During that charity run, he notably competed with a plush penguin named Diplo strapped to his back and raised enough money for seven surgeries through Hearts Without Boundaries.
“For that event, we had kids who had heart surgeries act as heart diplomats, and we would recognize those kids as we ran through the cities,” he said.
He said he loves to see people come out to cheer for him along the route. “You get to see people up close in all the towns you’re going through. People can connect with what message you’re getting across.”
A Coast-to-Coast Running Plan
The cross-country route will take Matson through about 250 cities. Unfortunately, to have a chance to break the record, there won’t be time to chat with locals.
He and his road team plan to depart from San Francisco on Aug. 30. Matson will have to run about 72 miles per day — which is close to running three marathons each day for 42 consecutive days.
Matson said he and his team set daily benchmarks because thinking about the 3,067-mile challenge all at once is too daunting. On average, he will be running about 15 hours per day.
“You’re aware of the big goal, but if you think too big, you’re overwhelmed by it,” he said.
For his training schedule, Matson logs over 100 miles a week and will compete in select road races as pre-event training runs. In January Matson completed a skydive ultra where he jumped out of a plane before running 100 miles in about 24 hours.
In May, he will enter the KEYS100, a 100-mile ultramarathon from Key Largo to Key West. And in June, he will run in Six Days in the Dome, an endurance event where participants run for six days on an indoor track.
Matson said endurance running is a constant battle of mind over muscle. He doesn’t like to listen to music or audiobooks when he runs because it gets distracting.
“Even though you’re just running, your mind is very active during that time,” he said. “I’m kind of constantly checking in. You start talking to yourself. You also have to do a lot of self-talk to get over it. Your mind starts to tell you a lot of things that you don’t need to hear.”
Getting to the Finish Line
Organizers said any amount donated to the Wounded Warrior Project in memory of Chris Campbell counts toward the goal of 100,000 donors.
“Chris wanted 100,000 people to be thinking about helping our veterans enough to take action,” Matson said. “Think of me as an old-fashioned Greek messenger, running the message from coast to coast.”
Matson said he has resolved to accomplish both feats. Any hesitation on one would tank the other.
“In my mind, I don’t think not breaking the record is an alternative,” he said. “To accomplish that part of it, I can’t have any doubt in my mind. If the record is set, it will help Chris’ mission.”