Stories compiled, edited, and rewritten by CC Cunningham, blog writer and Program Manager for the Chris Klug Foundation.
Last month, the Chris Klug Foundation (CKF) hosted our 13th annual Summit for Life, a nighttime uphill race on Aspen Mountain. Participants began at the base of Aspen Mountain and climbed 3,267 vertical feet—over 2.5 miles—to reach the top. Racers hiked up the mountain at their own pace, using climbing skins, snowshoes, or microspikes. Summit for Life is our biggest fundraiser of the year and all funds raised go towards CKF’s programs, which promote and educate on the importance of organ and tissue donation. We had the highest number of Summit for Life registrations ever this year (over 500!), making this our most successful year to date.
Among the 503 participants this year, 174 of those individuals were directly affected by organ donation—whether through receiving an organ transplant, donating an organ altruistically, or being a relative of an organ donor. Three of these individuals share their own experiences participating in Summit for Life: racing up Aspen Mountain, at night, in support of organ and tissue donation.
Steve Ast – Heart Transplant Recipient
In December 2017, 14 months after my heart transplant, I participated in my first Summit for Life event. I was naive and excited to participate, hoping my body would allow me to complete the nighttime uphill race. Both my wife, Becky, and I had a nagging thought that this was going to be too much for me. Although I wasn’t the fastest (but not the slowest!), I thankfully finished the race that year. Completing my first Summit for Life race was physically exhilarating and emotionally uplifting.
I returned this year with a more complex goal. Yes, I wanted my wife and me to finish it again but, even more so, I wanted to take it all in. I wanted to share stories with other organ recipients and their families. I wanted to meet donor families and living donors to hear their perspective and to thank them for their generosity, as a member of the transplant community. I wanted to enjoy the festivities at the start. I wanted to look around during the climb, see the stream of headlamps ahead and behind, and take in the city lights of Aspen below. I wanted to breathe the fresh crisp air. I wanted to sing some songs on my climb—some that were audible and others that stayed in my head (I often returned to “One Foot in Front of the Other” by Walk the Moon). I wanted to run across the finish line with my arms raised triumphantly. I wanted to thank those who raised money for the Chris Klug Foundation and for organ donation awareness. And I wanted to enjoy the summit of Aspen Mountain with Becky, our two daughters, and other family that joined my 2nd Chance team.
After Saturday night, I can confidently say: mission accomplished.
My donor was never far from my mind during the race and I often thought about those who are currently waiting for a lifesaving organ transplant. Helping CKF raise money and spread the word of organ and tissue donation is a pleasure for me and I look forward to helping “eliminate the wait” for other patients. As Tom Petty sings, “The waiting is the hardest part.” For me, waiting for my heart transplant truly was the hardest part—even harder than racing up a 3,267-foot snow-covered mountain in the dark.
Gavin Maitland – Double Lung Transplant Recipient
After reaching the first water station about a mile into the Summit for Life uphill race, I couldn’t help thinking to myself, “Why am I doing this again?”
It was not an easy climb. My microspikes slipped as I trudged step by step up the packed snow and, somehow, I was too hot. Last year, I was too cold, so I compensated this year by adding several more layers. As it turned out, I overcompensated, as I was drenched in sweat and took off my gloves to cool down.
When I told my friends about the event—an uphill climb at night in the middle of December—many people rolled their eyes. They were thinking, “Why on earth would you do that?”
From the base of Aspen Mountain at 8,000 feet above sea level to the Sundeck at 11,200 feet (where the Summit for Life party was held post-race), I have often said that the Summit for Life climb is the best lung workout I could ever imagine. I took a full inhale and a full exhale with every step, as the available oxygen became thinner as I traversed up the mountain. Eventually, I reached the summit in a rather unimpressive two hours and 15 minutes.
However, for me, there is an unusual significance of feeling my breath like this. Unlike most Summit for Life racers, my lungs aren’t really mine. I received them just over 10 years ago from a young man, named Noah. When I met his parents—enormously kind and selfless people who have endured unimaginable pain since their son’s passing—they told me how much their son loved to hike and climb. I am so proud to be using his lungs in the way he would have wanted. In many ways, I climb for him.
Eric Pence – Living Kidney Donor
As I stood at the start line of the Summit for Life race at the base of Aspen Mountain, I didn’t feel cold. Although it was less than 20°F, I was too excited to participate in my first uphill ski race! All of the racers talked excitedly and the atmosphere buzzed with nervous energy. I told myself to take it easy and make sure not to start out too fast.
Once the race was underway, the talking diminished, as everyone concentrated on their breathing. My mind flashed back to one year ago when my sister and I were preparing to leave for the hospital so I could donate my kidney to her. It was easily the best decision of my life. Today, she’s healthy and I’m living a normal life. I can still compete in crazy races like these—pushing myself to the limit, feeling like I can’t get enough oxygen into my lungs, but determined to reach the summit and finish. I loved this race and the great dinner that followed at the Sundeck. Have you thought about altruistic organ donation?
Thank you to Steve Ast, Gavin Maitland, and Eric Pence for taking the time to share your experiences. Special thanks to Janie Lemons (J. Lemons Events) and to our sponsors, without which this event would not be possible. Thanks to everyone who supported and participated in the Chris Klug Foundation’s 13th annual Summit for Life uphill race. We hope to see you next December!