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In Philadelphia, a run club helps those recovering from addiction find purpose

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Kellen Matthews was a teenager when he tried opioids and got addicted. When he decided to get sober, he started running, which helped his recovery so much that he started a running group to help other people with all kinds of recovery. Buffy Gorrilla reports from Philadelphia.

BUFFY GORRILLA, BYLINE: Kellen Matthews is smiling, dressed in shorts and a tank with the Recovery Run Club logo printed across the chest.

KELLEN MATTHEWS: We're going to try to stay together the best that we can, obviously to try to keep it super inclusive. You guys ready to rock and roll?

GORRILLA: With a spring in his step, Matthews leads 20 runners of all ages and fitness levels across the Benjamin Franklin Bridge.

MATTHEWS: This is a much bigger crowd than usual.

GORRILLA: Today, the Recovery Run Club group is running from Philadelphia to New Jersey and back - about three miles round trip. The group is friendly. People are managing to chat between breaths on the slow climb. I catch up to Jason Brown.

I'm sorry to interrupt.

Brown is a chef from outside the city. He's enjoying the view of the Delaware River.

JASON BROWN: Nine years ago, I was in Atlantic City. I got arrested with drugs, woke up in jail, came back to Pennsylvania and got a DUI. So I got arrested in two different states in less than 24 hours.

GORRILLA: Brown says that experience was his rock bottom. It was time to get help, and he added running to his recovery.

BROWN: I would plug in my headphones and start rocking out to some music. And it just kind of set me free mentally. I could barely run a lap around the track in high school.

GORRILLA: He put in the miles, starting with a 5K, then a half marathon, and even a marathon. His whole outlook changed.

BROWN: The sense of accomplishment is one of the most amazing feelings on Earth. And I think running became - I don't want to say a distraction, but it became my therapy, where I could run - that runner's high is real. And it's ten times a better high than any drug or drink. And I fell in love with it. And it was an extreme blessing.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Way to work. Let's go. That's what I'm talking about.

GORRILLA: The group arrives in New Jersey. Runners mill about waiting for the rest of the club to finish the first leg.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Woo, work. Go work.

GORRILLA: Creating a space for runners of all abilities is super important to Matthews.

MATTHEWS: Didn't have a great experience with AA and NA, and I wanted an outlet to be able to connect with the recovery community. But I figured the best way to, you know, meet people where they are is to have them come out and move their body and hopefully encourage them to exercise.

GORRILLA: But getting into running was hard. Matthews says his lifestyle of smoking and bad diet did not a runner make, but he tried it anyway, starting slowly. Now Matthews runs almost every day.

MATTHEWS: I believe that everyone has an addiction of some sort. I like to try to focus my time and energy into something that is beneficial, and it makes me feel good.

GORRILLA: He is seven years heroin-free. The running is clearly working. Matthews turns to head back to the group and printed on the back of his running tank are the words, we do recover.

For NPR News, this is Buffy Gorrilla in Philadelphia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Buffy Gorrilla