Sunday was another early morning with a full day of events at the track. Derek was signed up for two events and the 1500m was scheduled to go off first, around 8:00a.
A track meet is a complicated event when everyone knows what to expect, but when you add in the wide range of athletes competing at the Transplant Games, it gets even more complicated. The events got a late start, but the group organizing the events were able to make up some time by grouping lots of heats together. Shout out to the Salt Lake City Parks and Rec for being so calm and gracious while wrangling some very anxious and confused athletes.
Derek ran his 1500m in a heat that included his age group as well as the 20-29 year olds and the 40-49 year olds. This meant he was fortunate enough to have a young rabbit lead him out and pace him for the whole race. Before the race one guy told Derek, “I sure hope you don’t plan to lap me.” To which Derek replied, “That is 100% my plan.”
The 1500m is the longest track race that the Transplant Games puts on. At the Cleveland Games, I discovered there’s a wide variety of abilities that choose to run this race. Two years ago, I ran a 5:56 and finished in second place – to Andy Wahlstrom, a kidney recipient who finished in 5:35. When the schedule came out for the Salt Lake Games, I immediately looked to see if Andy Wahlstrom was going to show, and saw his name on the heat sheet. I was happy to see there’d be some competition, but also concerned I would lose to him again. He had become my secret nemesis since Cleveland and I wanted to beat him so bad. I knew I was faster than 5:35 after two years of running, but did Andy also get faster?
As I arrived at the track, I kept my eye out for Andy. A fellow 1500m runner recognized me from two years ago, and introduced himself as Anthony. Weirdo me ignored his introduction and immediately said “Are you Andy Wahlstrom? I’ve been stalking your time for the past two years.” That wasn’t a weird way to start a conversation at all, nope. Thankfully, Anthony is good friends with Andy, and made me feel like my question was normal, or at least pretended it was. So, I leaned into my role as Mr. Weird Stalker guy. I told my quick story, and found out that Andy would be arriving late, but would definitely be competing. I felt like I was being set up for a punch line.
As we gathered at the start, Andy was nowhere to be seen. Instead, as Logan mentioned, I was grouped with 20-49 year olds, and I recognized one faster guy from the 5k who was in the 20-29 age group.
The gun went off to start the race, and Mr. Fast and I went out at a decent pace. I was following his lead through 200m, and thought of passing him but then thought better of it. I figured I should sit on his shoulder and, if I was lucky, he’d pull me to a new PR. I kept up with him through laps one and two. At that point, I felt like I was running the same pace and the gap between us magically widened. I couldn’t make up the distance and it continued widening. In my haze of running, I didn’t know whether I got slower or he got faster.
We passed much of the field on the final lap and I put in a good effort to close the gap (which didn’t happen). Mr. Fast finished in 5:17, and I finished in 5:23, successfully earning a gold medal for my age group, a PR for me, and beating the 2016 version of my nemesis! I spoke to Mr. Fast after the race and gave him my perspective of the race. “Did you like my surge on lap 3?” He asked. No, I really didn’t, and honestly felt a little empty because I didn’t get to meet and race Andy Wahlstrom.
The 100m race came soon after and as they lined us up in our age groups I met a guy a few years older than me from Iowa who coached track at my high school in Des Moines (Go RoughRiders!) before he got sick. What are the chances? Freddie is fast. Like, really fast. He’s a heart and kidney recipient and later in the day when I stood on the edge of the track watching him run the 4×100 relay, he destroyed the field in the anchor leg. The group of people standing around me were stunned by his speed. “That’s Freddie,” I said. “He coached track at my high school.”
Freddie nearly died waiting for his transplants. A viral infection was attacking his heart and eventually caused his kidneys to fail. Doctors gave him an artificial heart and put him on dialysis but weren’t optimistic about his chances.
And then they got the call. An organ donor gave him his life back. An organ donor made it possible for him to watch his newborn son grow up and to lay down a scorching time in the 100m. Freddie is 47 years old, had a heart and kidney transplant just four years ago and ran the 100m in 11:51. To put that in perspective, the national high school record for the 100m was set in 2014 and is 10 seconds. Try running a 100m in your late 40s. It feels all kinds of wrong.
Before I watched him run I asked him for some advice since last time I ran the 100m I shredded my quads. He told me to stay on my toes.
As we lined up for the start of my race I looked to my sides and realized I was racing in a full heat of D2 (Division 2 is for athletes who are either living donors or tissue/bone marrow recipients) and one of my competitors was a bona fide triathlete. Leading up to this race I had decided on two goals: 1) Don’t get hurt 2) Don’t come in last place.
Well. I didn’t get hurt and I came in second… to last place. I begged my legs to please go faster, please. But I was at my limit. The winning time in my heat was 13.85 seconds. Woof. My time was 17.96, which if you consider I did very little sprint training leading up to this, is… not too bad. More than anything I was just happy to be walking normally after the race. I decided to be proactive and ice down my legs to prepare for my next race, the 200m.
In between races we hung out with friends. Derek was interviewed by the Chris Klug Foundation and they put together a great little video, take a look!
As he was finishing up this interview and getting ready to race the 800m, the race organizers decided to run the relay events and our scrappy Team New England managed to get four runners, including Derek, to form a team. Watching Derek run a 100m race is a little like watching a freight train try to beat a Ferrari off the line. He is fast and strong, but his body is not built for sprints. It will come as no surprise to any of you that he made it work.
For the 4x100m, my goal was two-fold: 1) Don’t get hurt 2) Don’t drop the baton. As the third leg, you have plenty of time to think about your decisions in life as the baton makes its way to you. As Logan correctly pointed out, I’m not a 100m sprinter. I pick medium-to-long distances because fewer people enter those races. I knew when to receive a baton, but not much else.
As my teammate, Sheree, came down the straightaway, I became antsy to start running. I started my run and realized I was very early. Should I run now? No, wait. Now? No. Let’s jog slowly? Nope. Ok… Now! Am I running too fast? Where’s the baton?
So much happened in those few seconds I was waiting for Sheree and then I magically had the baton in my hand and knew I had to run FAST. I started running and then found another faster pace. It was VERY uncomfortable and I felt like a mis-aligned axle on a car.
Is this the pothole where the car will fall apart? I have no idea what my time was – it could’ve been 10 seconds or 100 seconds, but I felt every step and muscled through it. As I finished my turn, I looked to my teammate – she was in lane 8 instead of lane 7! I wanted to yell out and make things right, but I was also losing steam. Somehow, we met in lane 7.5 and the hand-off was smooth. As smooth as a barreling out-of-control misaligned axle can be when it meets up with a teammate standing still for the hand-off!
Somehow it worked and I remember giving Wendy the baton and following up with a stiff push in the back to start her run like they do in short-track speed skating. I don’t know if it helped, but I like to imagine it did. Our team successfully made all the hand-offs, and now it was up to a final sprint to hold off everyone else. We finished in 2nd place in our division (co-ed team of transplant recipients) and I couldn’t be prouder. I had so much fun running this silly little race!
Immediately after the relay Derek sprinted to the corral to get queued up for the 800m. I chased after him with some electrolytes. He was breathing heavy but still super cheerful which was so impressive to me since his original race day plan did not involve a running a speedy 100m right before an 800m.
By the time the 800m rolled around, I was tired. I ran a 5k the day before (close to a PR), a 1500m in the morning (a PR), and JUST SPRINTED 100m. What better warm-up for my final race? I had high hopes, but also tried to stay realistic; my legs were tired. I could tell myself “leave it all on the track”, but that only works until the muscles stop responding. Two laps of the track and I’d be done.
Andy Wahlstrom was still around and ready to race. I was very excited and had a great conversation with him while we were waiting. As the organizers were telling us to get on the track, I had to tell the volunteers, “We’re having a special moment here.” Andy asked me what I expected my time to be and I said I ran Cleveland in 2:55 and recently ran a 2:36. His response gave me hope: “Under 3?! Oof.” We toed the line to start the race and at this point everyone in the race had become good friends. The race organizer reminded us not to cut anyone off at the start and one of the competitors said, “Don’t worry, Derek will lead us out.” BIG EXPECTATIONS.
The gun went off and I had the inside position. I could feel Andy on my shoulder running extra distance around the corner and I wondered whether he would try going for the lead, or sit on my shoulder. He decided to let me lead and I felt good about this. I could run my own pace and when he started kicking all I had to do was keep pace! As we rounded the other end of the track, The Andy Cheering Squad came alive. A few seconds ago, I didn’t know they existed and now I felt like I was on his home turf! I kept the lead through the first lap (at 1:18) and rounded the corner. My legs started to hurt (as they usually do in this race) and I questioned every life choice leading up to this point. But, I was leading and convinced myself to keep running.
On the straightaway, I heard Andy’s heavy breathing and out of the corner of my eye I could see him as he started to pass me! The Andy Cheering Squad is going wild! I can’t let this happen, I told myself. I asked my sore muscles to push harder and they did what any reasonable muscle would do at that point: NOPE, NOT TODAY. Andy started pulling away. As I rounded the final turn to the straightaway, I gave myself a pep talk: “This is what you’ve been working for, you can reel him back in.” And again my muscles said: “Sorry, no. This is the pace you will be running.” I saw Andy cross the finish line and I finished 7 seconds later in a respectable 2:39. He was doubled over at the finish line and it took him a minute to compose himself.
I immediately gave him a bear hug, congratulated him on his run, and told him how much he inspired me. He responded with, “I had the advantage of altitude training in Colorado.” It was a simple response, but I realized that 1) he had pushed me to do extraordinary things over the past two years and 2) telling him how he’s influenced my training made him run harder in the race.
In the video above, there’s a clip of Logan and I talking to Andy after the race. It turns out Andy didn’t make the 1500m because he arrived just as we were finishing the race. His experience in track race scheduling has NEVER had the 1500m race first. That’s forgivable and I was happy I could still race him in the 800m. He turned out to be a very nice guy.
After Cleveland, I used to tell people that I earned silver in the 1500m, “but it was to a kidney recipient” as a jab and an excuse. This time, I know I earned a silver medal, and the gold medal deservedly went to Andy, who I will be training to beat at the next Transplant Games in New Jersey, 2020.
Organ recipients at the Transplant Games have a multitude of shared experiences. We’ve all had a doctor tell us that an organ from a recently deceased person will function better than the one currently keeping us alive. We have twice daily pill reminders for the rest of our lives that we’ve received this amazing gift of life and should make it the best life possible. The Transplant Games are the one place where I know I’m running against people who are just like me, people who have received transplants. When I race a 5k or a 10k at home, I might be running against a transplant recipient, but I can usually tell myself: I’m the only liver recipient in my age group and believe it.
Now, imagine a stranger coming up to you and saying, “I met you once and you’ve inspired me to train for two years to get better.” That’s what I said to Andy and it’s the best compliment I can give. I hope that some folks I ran with this year are inspired to better their times because of what they saw me do.
After Derek’s last race it was time for my 200m. When I arrived at the corral I noticed a lot of my friends from the morning 100m race had bowed out, leaving only three of us. One was the woman I just barely out touched in the 50yd breast stroke, a heart valve recipient and the owner of a crossfit gym (!). The other woman I competed against was a former Marine and living kidney donor.
I decided to bring Melvin along for the 200m to help calm me down and to prevent me from taking the race too seriously and it was a great decision. I took off at the gun and immediately felt my quads and remembered what Freddie, my fellow Iowan and high school track coach said: stay on your toes. I adjusted my gait so I was pushed forward onto my toes and it helped! As I made my way down the straight away, our new friend and teammate Sheree started chanting: MELVIN! MELVIN! MELVIN! And soon enough the whole crowd joined in. I even managed to make an effort to really kick at the end, but both of my bad ass competitors beat me handily. When I crossed the finish line the three of us (and Melvin) hugged and laughed and cried. There’s a lot of crying at the Transplant Games. They’re mostly tears of joy, but they are also a release valve, a way to let go of some of the stress and pain and trauma each of us endured in our respective transplant experiences.
In my mind I have always imagined myself as fast, but I have never actually been fast. I was a mediocre sprinter on my junior high track team and a slow sprinter on my JV High School swim team. When I played soccer, I usually took the center forward position and rarely found myself in a situation in which I would need to get from one end of the field to the other ahead of someone else. Somehow I made it through 44 years on this earth thinking the only thing preventing me from being fast was truly believing I was fast.
Somehow, finally, I came to the conclusion that I am not even remotely fast, I am slow. When I ran the 100m and the 200m I watched as the women ahead of me pulled away, while I willed my muscles to respond, to suddenly work in a way they hadn’t been trained for. The only response was a twinge of pain, a message from my body to my brain that my legs were at their limit.
This year I had more competition than I did in Cleveland. More living donors and tissue recipients signed up to compete than ever before. D2 athletes are vastly outnumbered by the D1 athletes at the Transplant Games, but we are growing in number. Our mission at the games is to show people that donating an organ or receiving donated tissue doesn’t hold us back, and in many ways makes us stronger. I gave Derek part of my liver in an effort to save his life, but I think the opportunity to donate that piece of liver saved mine. Without the Transplant Games I’m not sure I would have been inspired to start swimming laps again, or to teach myself to run.
I joked with Derek after the 100m that maybe everyone else would drop out of the 200m because it was so late in the day and they’d be tired and then maybe I could medal. And he reminded me that showing up is a pretty important part of any competition. I got third place in the 200m because I showed up to the last race of the day, after waiting around at a hot, sunny track all day and letting my muscles stiffen up. Three of us showed up to race, and I ran as hard as I could to prove to myself I earned that bronze.
Thanks to all of you for following us on this adventure. It’s exciting to be able to share our triumphs with you and we both hope we made you all proud.