Summit for Life Recap: Part 2

Derek: Saturday we thought of taking a trip on the gondola to the top of the mounain for some yoga, but instead we had a leisurely morning with a high protein breakfast in our hotel room: a few eggs, some yogurt, and granola. We roughly planned our trip around the town which was to head in the direction of the John Denver Sanctuary and then return by a different route. Aspen is a small little town, pop. 6728, so it was a quick walk around.

Logan: I think yoga is a good thing, but I just wasn’t into it Saturday morning. I was getting pretty nervous about the hike and I must have subconsciously realized that seeing the top of the mountain might be a little too daunting and might convince me to try and back out. 

D: The remaining morning and early afternoon was more rest and relaxing as we prepared for the night hike. We took a nap, at a little sandwich lunch, wondered what we should wear, and stalled until it was time to get ready. Kathleen was prepared to bring 6 oz of water, whereas Logan and I were prepared to bring 2 liters each. I finally decided that a liter and a half would be plenty and likely on the conservative side. There were numbers to pin, glow sticks to crack, and reflective tape to apply in preparation of the hike.


A little before 4:30, we headed over to the gondola for a picture with other transplant recipients, donors, donor families, and people on the transplant list. We met a couple from Durango who now each have one working kidney, and they were also nervous about the hike. We got to see Chris Klug, and I got interviewed at the start line – they were supposed to be easy questions, but I freeze at such direct questions. I want to thank the guy with a chainsaw who started cutting through the snow and stopped our interview short.

A few seconds before the start of the Recreational race, Logan turned to me with fear in her eyes, and said “Are you sure you want to do this?” and when I confirmed, her response was: “Okay…” with a lot of trepidation and nervousness. But, she was in, and the race was off. It’s a little misnomer to call the earlier group the “recreational race”. It quickly became apparent the front runners of this race were not recreational climbers, but were overzealous athletes that were pushing their times. I hiked the first couple hundred feet with Logan and Kathleen, and when they slowed to a reasonable pace, I continued hiking with the wave of people.

L: As I watched the time tick away on the start clock my heart started pounding. I was glad I’d taken a few puffs from my inhaler, I needed all the lung capacity I could get. I don’t really remember the start, I remember when my lungs started to burn and I realized I was going at a pace that was way beyond my comfort level. The start felt like it was straight up, even though it didn’t look that steep. We reached the crest of the hill and let the crowd pass us so we could catch our breath and establish a more reasonable pace. Our thick hats and extra warm mittens got stashed and we unzipped to try and regulate our temperature. The view from just that first tiny hill was stunning, but we had miles to go before we reached the top. We were officially in last place and we’d only been hiking for 10 minutes.

D: About 15 minutes into the race, I looked up and more than half the starting crowd was ahead of me, and there was a gap opening up. I contemplated crossing the gap and going with the fast people, but I realized that it didn’t matter. My goal of being first across the line in the recreational division was obviously not going to happen, so I stayed with a reasonable hiking pace so I could enjoy the hike. The hike was definitely uphill, and I had considered only stopping every 1000 vertical feet, but I felt like stopping at 700 feet and look back at the town. My race adrenaline had run out.

At about 1000 vertical feet was the first aid station, where I took another convenient break and realized I was at a 30 minute pace – faster than I had expected! After a quick drink of water, it was time to put the left foot in front of the right foot and continue up the hill. It’s a very good thing we didn’t take the gondola in the morning – the second section was the steepest and not very fun. I stopped a bunch of times and kept looking up and thinking there was a small plateau to rest. I realized it was no such thing: instead of rising at a steep incline, the plateau was only a slightly steep incline. Overall, the snow was either hardpack or like corn, and on this section it was very apparent that getting good footholds was important. In addition to the steep sections, lights can be very deceiving at night. What looked like the second aid station turned out to simply be the base of a lift. The aid station was around another corner, up another steep hill and more exercise. At this aid station (about 2000 vertical feet) there was a person ringing a cowbell which is always motivational.

L: It took us awhile to reach the first aid station, but I was feeling remarkably good. My fitbit is supposed to measure distance as well as vertical feet and I kept looking at the time to see when the competitive racers would be starting. I was worried about getting in their way. At the aid station we drank some water, I ate my rock hard frozen Clif bar and then we started up the ‘Gulch’. It was insanely steep and I was incredibly grateful for the Kahtoola microspikes. My poles could not penetrate most of the hard pack, but the spikes gave me steady footing. I tried to make my breathing as regulated as a metronome to ensure I didn’t over do it. Then…the fast people arrived. And holy cow were they fast. We moved over a little to the right to make room for people skinning and running up the mountain. That proved to be a bad plan as the side was softer snow and made it much more difficult to get good foot purchase. We kept trudging along, people blowing passed us when I heard “Hey! You guys are doing great! How are you feeling?” Chris Klug was running towards me, passed me quickly and said, “Take your time, enjoy it!” And then he was gone. Soon we were all alone again and could see nothing in front of us except for the beam of my headlamp and the occasional light from the moon peeking out from the clouds.

D: A little more resting some nutrition, and upwards once again I went. At this point, the hikers were beginning to thin out. I heard two people behind me conversing, saying that the previous section was the hardest, and: “it’s easier from here.” They also said we were making good time, and the split was 1:13! I was making good time up the hill. The final section was “easier”, but it’s all relative. Logan has a saying about hiking Welch-Dickey, where a part of the hike is “like the matrix” and repeats itself many times. This final hike seemed very similar. Smaller vertical uphills, a turn here and there, followed by more uphills and turns. By this time, it was very dark, and the full moon looked very impressive even hidden behind some clouds. Closer to the top, I stopped and took a long breath and thought how wonderful it was to be alive. Hiking was tiring, but I wanted to enjoy the experience a little longer. In the last 500 vertical feet, I kept having very emotional thoughts and had to swallow my tears because I didn’t know if I could be emotional AND finish – it was one or the other, and I wanted to finish.

At this time, I began to realize the fast people should be coming up from the rear. Looking back, I saw a headlamp moving faster than the others. Sure enough, this “cross country skiier” was going uphill. My competitive side thought it would be a good idea to draft and follow him up the hill. That didn’t last long – I was at a decent jog just trying to keep up with him! And he had been doing this since the beginning! Soon enough, I got passed by a few of the other competitive racers who obviously were in full race mode. I kept expecting to hear/see Chris Klug, but I never saw him on the hike. As I crested the last hill and the hike levelled off, I could hear the finish anouncer say: “These people are finishing in under two hours!” And that’s when I decided I should stop dilly-dallying and make sure I made the time. As I got closer, a competitive racer passed me, and I decided to jog behind him to the finish. It crossed my mind to try to pass him, but I didn’t. A 1:56 finish time was good enough for me! And my attention immediately turned to Logan and Kathleen, and hoped they were well on their way up the mountain.

L: We made it to the second aid station and we were both feeling really beat after the Gulch. We could hear a cowbell and Kathleen made her way to the woman who was cheering us on. She told Kathleen that we had been through the worst of it and that there wasn’t much further to go and that’s when we saw two people coming up behind us. Somehow we weren’t in last place. (We found out later that they had started late.) That didn’t last long and after a sip of water we were off again and the couple that we’d met at the aid station was already gone and we were plunged back into darkness. It became clear that we were all alone in the dark and that we were a little lost. We saw a snowmobile pass and turn left with a passenger on the back. We considered going in that direction, but decided to follow the tracks that I could see with my headlamp. The snowmobile made its way back to us and told us we were doing great and that there wasn’t much further to go. Kathleen asked if he was worried about us, if we needed to leave the course and he said he wasn’t concerned, that he just wanted us to know that we had options. He left, and we were alone again.

We were getting a little delirious at that point, complaining about how everyone had lied to us. “It’s no big deal!” “You guys will be fine!” “Just take your time, drink lots of water.” LIES! I wasn’t feeling great, but I was also not a fan of giving up so we trudged on until we met up with Tony. Tony is the manager of the Ace Hardware store in town. His brother Michael Wells was the guy we saw going up the mountain on the back of a snowmobile. He’d pulled a muscle on the hike and had to bag it. Tony had done the hike with Michael before and decided to finish alone. I was so glad we met up with him. Kathleen was able to shoot the breeze with him and I was left alone in my head to focus on getting through the last part of the hike. They stayed well in front of me, and Tony checked up on me from time to time to make sure I was ok. Finally we reached the flat finish, Derek came out to greet us and because my dear husband knows me so well, he left me alone and talked to Kathleen and Tony. 

I was looking straight down, laboring with each footstep, remembering how hard it was to walk those first few days after surgery. How hard it was to watch Derek as he deteriorated in the hospital. My face was burning up and I was about to fall apart. I crossed the finish and Derek wrapped me in a bear hug and I sobbed the tears of an exhausted hiker who was just so glad that her husband was not only alive but had kicked the mountain’s ass. I was also a little ashamed that I was in last place…but that’s just because of the annoying competitive voice in my head.

D: It was a tiring hike, but the difficulty has faded in my mind already. I remember the start, some stops and steep sections, but most importantly, stopping to enjoy the moon and crossing the finish line! I had hoped to finish between 1:48 (stretch goal) to 2:30, and I finished close to my stretch goal AND got to enjoy the hike! I went inside to the party, where most of the 400 racers had already finished. I found Chris Klug, and wanted to let him know that I finished. I nudged him on the shoulder, and we started talking like we were old pals.

“Hey – how did you do?”

Me: “I felt great. I finished in under two hours!”

“Congratulations! That’s awesome!”

I was feeling really good about my finish, but when I realized an Olympic athlete was honestly impressed with my effort, it was a little extra special. As I said yesterday, he’s one of the few people in the world that can relate to the struggles of transplant recovery, and someone I’ve looked up to since first seeing his picture in the Lahey Hospital waiting room. So, although there were 200+ people that finished ahead of me, I felt like I was #1 in my own category.

He then asked, “How do you say your last name, because I want to say it right.” I answered and he followed with: “Make sure you and Logan stay to the very end, because we have something very special to present to you.” I gave him a knowing wink, and left to wait for Logan and Kathleen to finish. The award ceremony started before they made it to the top, but we were able to take our seats right before the final award of the night was given out. Chris Klug announced “We have one more special award tonight: The Michael Wells Inspirational Award. This person had a transplant six months ago, and it was his dream to make it out here and compete in the Summit For Life.” At this point, Logan looked to me and her jaw dropped. The altitude had gotten to her, and she started to cry. {Yes. Yes. It was the altitude. That’s right.} Chris called up all the former winners, including Michael Wells (whose brother finished with Logan and Kathleen) and then called me up on stage. I was handed the trophy: a carved bear, and Chris proceeded to ask a question about how I felt after the hike. All I could really blurt out was “It is awesome. Life is great.” There’s really nothing more I could add. Life is great, and there’s nothing that compares to it. Chris told me that we could hang onto the award for the evening.”Treat it like the Stanley Cup, go wild with it.” After the long hike, all we could really muster was falling asleep with the trophy. The next morning, we made sure to leave the Michael Wells Inspirational Award with a YakTrak hat, and a dogtag from Gilford, NH that I found in my bag from an earlier hike.

It’s really hard to describe what a great time we had over the whole weekend. Chris Klug, and all the people involved with the Chris Klug Foundation made our time in Aspen so special. Chris is such an amazing person and influential in the community, but also very empathetic. On our return trip home, we also received an email from him thanking us for travelling to Aspen. When I responded and thanked him for the experience, he emailed again and thanked us again and asked us to stay in touch. We will!

Now, Logan and I have a case of Miss-the-Fun-itis on our return home to real life and back to the cubicle factory.

6 Replies to “Summit for Life Recap: Part 2”

  1. Whew! What an adventure so well told! I plan to re-read (savor) it and the images several times. Proud we are! Thanks for sharing so vividly with candor.

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