Meet Our UK Kidney Donor Athlete, Josh Neal!

In 2018, it became apparent that a family member was in need of a new kidney. As soon as I heard, I put myself forward to donate my spare one for her. After just over a year of being poked and prodded, the big day came and I became a kidney donor athlete! 

Before I even decided to donate, I was quite an active person. I was training in the gym 3-4 times a week and running just as much. In 2017, I had completed my first ultramarathon, running 100km from London to Brighton in the UK. I was also moonlighting as a personal trainer as well as working full time as an architect.  

I was able to still continue with my training whilst I was undergoing all the required tests. This process took just over a year (all completed by the NHS). It turned out that I wasn’t a compatible match for my cousin-in-law who needed the kidney and so as a pair, we went into the donor pool with the hope of being paired with at least one other couple. Because this process took quite a while, and because we didn’t match up with another pair in our first entry into the donor pool, I decided that I would start training for my second ultramarathon, running 145 miles from Birmingham to London in the UK.  Then, of course, in December of 2019, we were matched with 2 other couples with planned surgery in January 2020. The ultramarathon I had entered was to be held in May 2020 and so I decided that I wouldn’t be able to comfortably complete the run and so I canceled my place. As it turned out, I wouldn’t have been able to do the run anyway! Silly pandemic!  

After surgery, I was advised that I would be off work for 6-8 weeks and to have no exercise for at least 12 weeks. Needless to say, I was worried about the amount of time off training. The first few weeks weren’t a problem without training, it was tough enough walking about. As the weeks went on, I was feeling the need to train again and figured that I’d try a short run. After 10 weeks of recovery, I went for a run of 2.25 miles, taking it slow. My son came along on his bike too! I didn’t experience any pain but I did get discomfort in my abdomen from trunk rotation. I decided to keep running each week, increasing the distance gradually. The discomfort disappeared by my third run. A few weeks after my first run, I started strength training with bodyweight exercises. I tried doing press ups but I didn’t have the proper core strength and I ended up hurting my back. After resting, I took this even slower. 

Now, 6 months on from surgery, I am running twice a week, one short fast run and one slow long run and I am now doing a hybrid strength routine with bodyweight and kettlebell exercises 3 times a week. I’m not back to full fitness but I am well on my way. I didn’t fully appreciate the loss of core strength that I’ve experienced and having to regress bodyweight exercises further than I expected. But this was only a minor setback to what I’ve experienced with running.  

Over the 6 months my long runs have got up to 20 miles. I did plan to run a full marathon,  but I had to cut it short. Although I had packed over 2000 kcals of energy bars and drinks, I ended up suffering from Hyponatremia (a shortage of electrolytes) and I was also well on my way to being over hydrated. This is a very dangerous place to be! My hands and arms became swollen and I started feeling very sick and disoriented. I stopped to consider my options and saw a bus coming that would take me home. Needless to say, I bit the bullet and got on.  

Before, I never really had to put much thought into my hydration on long distance runs but even now I can start to feel signs of something not being quite right on runs as short as 10 miles. This is an area which I’m really going to have to focus on. I feel that I can’t process the water I drink quickly enough, hence over-hydration, and I’m still not taking on enough electrolytes. I really need to get this right as one of my long term goals is to run the Badwater 135 (135 miles through Death Valley in July)! 

Since my donation, in everyday life I feel exactly the same physically. I probably drink a bit more water and go to the toilet a little more often but that’s it. When training, I feel less fit and strong but that’s expected after having 10 weeks off. With running, I always take water with me now and I always take food and electrolytes on any run over 10km (6 miles). Previously, I wouldn’t take water on anything less than half a marathon, and would take food for anything over a full marathon.

Another thing which I’m having to do more of since donating is stretching and performing Myofascia Release. I think this is largely due to my recovery time where I was sitting or laying down a lot more. Some of my muscles became tight and have pulled me out of balance. This should only be a temporary thing, although performing both of these regularly goes a long way with an active lifestyle!  

I feel a lot happier with myself for donating a kidney. Not only have I helped someone very dear to my wife and myself, but I was also able to allow 2 other people to get a much needed kidney. In the UK, I will never know where my kidney went but the improvement to my cousin-in-law was pretty much instant. She’s doing a whole lot better for which I’m truly pleased. And with the global pandemic, I’m even more glad I donated when I did. Without the kidney, my cousin-in-law was having to go to hospital four times a week for dialysis. That alone would have put her at a much greater risk of contracting Coronavirus. I just can’t wait to give her a hug!  

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