Can kidney donors safely run ultramarathons? I think we can do pretty much whatever we set our minds to do! Since my donation in December of 2017, I’ve run 12 ultras, which I admit was too much. Shortly after my 1-year anniversary, I was toast. I didn’t have the usual spring in my step and wasn’t interested in running. It was time to rest and recharge before resuming serious training.
Whether you have one kidney or two, athletes go through this all the time. Taking time off, rekindling the fire, determining the ‘why’ you train and compete. One reason why I don’t like to take much time off is that It’s so hard to get back into shape. I felt like I was slogging through easy training runs. I stayed with it though because I wanted to be ready in August to start the Leadville Trail 100, aka ‘The Race Across the Sky’, a 100-mile trail running race held in Colorado. Besides the ‘Why?’, many people ask me how I can run 100 miles? The race director says it takes grit, guts, and determination, just as it does to donate a kidney. It takes grit and guts to say yes, I’ll donate a kidney to you. Then determination to follow through all the testing, surgery and recovery. Running 100 miles requires this and a lot of perseverance.
Not having a training plan during the winter helped me recover and get excited again to build up my mileage. I don’t run high mileage anymore anyway, relying on consistency and staying healthy. I compete in 100-mile races just to see if I can finish, not with any thought of winning. If I can average 20-30 miles per week throughout the year, then bump it up in June, July and August, I’m happy. The race in Leadville is run at an average elevation of over 10,000ft with some steep rocky trails. During the summer, I get up in elevation to train and by climbing 14ers. I’m fortunate enough to live near some ski areas so I’ll run up the mountain and back down to increase my VO2, power, and strength.
This year, I included 2 weeks of sauna training into my plan in order to adapt better to hot conditions. Even at altitudes over 10,000ft. the intensity of the sun feels really hot during the day. I did sauna training once before when I was preparing for a race held in July, in Death Valley. It really helped me shock my system into sweating faster, hence cooling quicker. The benefits of heat training have been shown to increase red blood cell development, blood volume, EPO production, plasma volume, increased sweat rate, weight loss, and lower inflammation.
I slowly built up to sitting still for 20-30 minutes, in 160-170 degrees, over the first few days. It takes time for the body to adapt. I wouldn’t recommend doing jumping jacks in a sauna, you wouldn’t last 5 minutes and it would creep out others trying to relax. My feeling is that it’s harder to do sauna training with one kidney vs. two, due to all the blood flow through the one. I had to leave the sauna a few times early because I felt light-headed. Better to be safe than to pass out because of stubbornness.
On race day, I woke up and drank some coffee, ate an egg sandwich and got to the starting line for the 4am shotgun start. At that time, most runners have their pack with enough fluid to get to the first aid station at 13 miles, hat, gloves, headlamp, and rain-jacket. The faster runners aiming to win are minimalists and might carry a water bottle. They take off and I won’t see them until they’re on the way back.
This course is an out and back so it’s fun to see the leaders on the way back and to think what a shmuck you are for being so slow. Drinking mostly water and snacking on bars, occasionally I would add energy powder to get added calories to my water pack and sometimes drink Coke at the aid stations. At 40 miles, my crew and family are all there. They have me sit, change my socks, eat, rub sunscreen on, eat, take a few photos with my sister and other kidney!
This is the last time I’ll see them for 8 hours. In between is a 3,000 ft climb up and back down to a ghost town at 50 miles. We turn around there and climb back up and over. Once back at mile 60, it’s now around 9pm and dark. I put on warmer clothes, headlamp, get some more food and head out again for a night of running, walking, shuffling, tripping and crawling if I have to. Around midnight, it’s really cold. 29-30 degrees and hard to generate any heat. I slam a couple of those Starbucks double shot drinks, warm-up and don’t feel sleepy the rest of the night. I wonder why? 😊 I’m still snacking on different energy bars and gels between aid stations. At the aid stations I’d always grab potatoes, ramen noodles/soup, pickles or sandwiches and this usually keeps my stomach working. Doing an entire race on liquids and gels doesn’t work for me. Ugh!
My wife paced me the last 25 miles and pushed me relentlessly. My pace was about 30 minutes ahead of the cutoffs, so there wasn’t any time to slow down. I think she likes to see me suffer and has the green light to push and say whatever she wants! She finished this race a few years ago much the same way so she was familiar with how deep I had to dig to keep going. I finished the race for the 25th time this year in 29hrs 38minutes.
My other kidney also finished the race! My sister ran the last ½ mile with me. How do you compare running 100 miles to someone that has gone through 3 transplants? A liver transplant in 1990, a kidney transplant in 2002 and another kidney transplant in 2017. She’s the tough one. Having her there with her family was priceless. When I think of her and what she has gone through, I know who the toughest one in the family is.