Mark Scotch, an endurance athlete, met a stranger in a bar and offered him his kidney. Most people don't realize the critical need for kidney donations or that 13 people die every day waiting for a kidney. Read this story and interview with Mark to learn about his heroic generosity and how he continues to live a life full of adventure and physical activity.
The Arrowhead 135 is considered one of the 50 hardest races on earth. It is a human powered endurance event taking place during the coldest part of winter in the coldest place in the United States. Mark Scotch's story has caught media attention and inspired many people. His project, "The Organ Trail", chronicles his health journey as well as his endurance adventures. Head to his blog to read his full race report.
All photos by Jamison Swift unless otherwise noted.
You “retired” from races like Arrowhead 135 and Tuscobia Ultra but you did them both this winter. WHY?
Back in the winter of 2019/2020 I had completed Tuscobia 160 on skis between Christmas and New Year. I then completed The Arrowhead 135 in late January 2020 using a kicksled. This was the final discipline that qualified me for the a'trois award, doing the AHU by bike, ski and foot (kicksled is included in the foot category). I had also completed the AHU unsupported on bike in 2018, so I thought it was time to give up my roster spot and let someone else take a crack at The Arrowhead. My wife and I were both retired so after Arrowhead 2020 we took off to escape the rest of our midwest winter heading southwest towards Texas, Arizona and New Mexico. Along the way we stopped in Natchitoches, Louisiana for the night.
That's when I met Hugh Smith, found out he needed a kidney and I offered him one of mine. During the process of learning what I needed to do to donate for Hugh, I read that 13 people die in the United States every day waiting for a kidney transplant. Neither my wife nor I knew that and for some reason it hit me. I rather quickly came to the conclusion that there are probably thousands if not millions of people able to donate that don't know about the need and maybe they would be willing to donate a kidney to save someone's life if they did.
I decided to start The Organ Trail: A Kidney Donation Journey, to create awareness about the urgent and dire need for donors AND to demonstrate that a healthy person that qualified could donate a kidney, probably save someone's life, and then go back to the lifestyle they had pre-donation surgery. In my case that prompted me to come out of "retirement" and do both the Tuscobia 160 and the Arrowhead 135 in the winter of 2020/2021 on one kidney. Covid canceled the 2020/2021 races so I had to wait until winter of 2021/2022, at age 66, to do them. I finished both events, with one kidney and didn't experience any ill effects.
WHO CAN DONATE A KIDNEY? Every transplant facility has its own criteria, but in general, anyone healthy enough can donate.....that has 2 kidneys, of course! The oldest person I heard that donated was 84! The first step in considering if donation is right for someone is finding out if one actually qualifies to donate. Here is a great place to start, the National Kidney Donation Organization, NKDO.org
Tell me about Arrowhead 135. Highs, lows, and did you finish?
With the warm temps forecasted for Arrowhead 2022 I was excited to not have to deal with the -10 to -20 degree temps we had to handle just a few weeks earlier at the Tuscobia 160. I started out feeling quite well, eating and drinking into the first checkpoint at the Gateway store. I knew, once again, that this was going to be my last Arrowhead, so like at Tuscobia earlier in the month, I stopped and "enjoyed" the opportunities to rest a bit, socialize with as many racers and volunteer friends as possible during the race and at the checkpoints.
I think I was in 13th place or so coming into Gateway. I had a bowl of soup and some hot chocolate and took off in 20 minutes or so. I knew I had to keep my calorie count up so I tried picking up the pace and began eating more frequently.
With one kidney, water consumption was a much bigger concern for me than in years past, so I also was very grateful that with the warm temps accessing my camelback tube was easy and there was really no danger of dealing with a frozen tube. All was good.....but I did start to realize that my desire to eat was not really what my throat and stomach had in mind. As time went on, it became obvious that getting food down was going to be an issue. I slowed my pace some to try to relieve the stress on my body but it apparent that I was going into some serious calorie deficit.
About 7 miles from Melgeorges Shalane Frost, the women skier from Alaska, came up from behind me and passed me as I was walking up a hill. She stopped at the top and pulled her backpack off and was grabbing some food and water when I came up to her. She looked at her GPS and smiled broadly as she stated "1/2 way there". I smiled back and offered, that no, Melgeroges is 1/2 way.
She took a 2nd look at her Garmin gave a quizzical look at it and me as she restated, "no, 1/2 of 135 miles is..." and as she was doing the math I broke in and asked, "Is this your first Arrowhead?" to which she replied "yes". I said, "I'm not the skier you are, for sure, I can tell that, but I've skied this twice before, trust me on this one, just figure Melgeorge's is 1/2 way".
Shalane seemed like a very humble, thoughtful and confident person, respecting the opinion/advice of someone that has covered the distance before, and slowly nodded her head as she repositioned her backpack back on and took off.
I ran into Shalane a bit later, almost literally, when just a few miles down the trail she surprised me by skiing towards me. She had come to a Y in the trail and had taken the correct, right turn, but she had turned around after a while thinking that she had taken the wrong fork in the trail. I said, no, you're going the right way. She stated she had not noticed any bike tracks for a distance and felt the left fork must be the correct one. I gently corrected her by saying, no, she had gone the correct way and that maybe some snowmobiles had come by and wiped out any bike tracks. Luckily she trusted me and we both took off, to turn left down the trail onto the lake. I was 6 minutes behind her into Melgeorges, the 1/2 way checkpoint.
As a xc skier, I rather marveled at her form and strength. Having watched her glide down the trail and across the lake, I was rather surprised she hadn't caught me much earlier! Even on the soft, mushy snow, she barely sunk in as she kicked, poled and glided her way down the trail. Shalane not only obliterated the women's record, which Kate Coward had totally smashed a couple of years earlier, Shalane now has the record ski time for both women and men. Fantastic!
My wife Lynn met me at the far side of the lake. She didn't say anything till after the race, but she said I looked pretty messed up. We hugged goodbye as she headed off to the Casino at the Finish Line and I headed inside the checkpoint.
By this time I hadn't eaten much if anything for the past couple of hours, maybe longer. I got into the checkpoint and was offered wild rice soup and grilled cheese and I selected chocolate milk as a drink. The milk went down fine, the soup was ok, but after just one bite of the grilled cheese everything threatened to come back up to see daylight if I ignored the message my stomach was telling me.
I tried to relax some, drank a bit more milk, got another bowl of soup, but even that was giving me that funny feeling you get right before a hurl. So, I knew what I had to do. I trekked on over to the Tamarack cabin, carrying my 1/4 eaten grilled cheese, untouched 2nd bowl of soup, and one more cup of hot chocolate. I laid down immediately and barely heard fellow racer Bob Hingtgen come in and do the same. I fell asleep so fast I didn't even set an alarm. After about an hour I woke up, warmed up the soup and sammy, and viola! Down they went. Bob got up as well and after getting our drop bags settled we signed out......but only after I asked the volunteer to text my wife to pick me up at any road crossing necessary to make our 2:30pm flight out of MPLS Tuesday afternoon. I wasn't sure when I'd finish at this point and we had a plane to catch.
Bob and I took off, catching riders as we went. Bob ended up breaking his chain, but I hadn't noticed him drop back. He caught me past the hills 3 miles or so before the Embark (3rd) Checkpoint, I had stopped to talk to Todd Gabrielson, our snowmobile angel, to notify him of a biker that had bivied 10 feet off of the trail back in the hills which signals that they might need some help. I had some orange slices Bob and I shared and had put down as much food as I could, which included a few Gu blocks and some regular Gu.
Bob and I came into the checkpoint both calorie starved. I was able to squeeze down 2 Embark syrups, (man, that Coffee Syrup was tasing great about then!) and we took off. The trail was solid and I knew I could hammer it, even with not many calories, as long as I kept my electrolyte levels up so cramping wouldn't occur. I had been popping Hammer Endurpolytes and drinking water, so I just tried to ignore my muscles and get on with it. I was hoping to see Lynn at the finish line and not at any of the up coming road crossings this close to the end. It wasn't long before we came upon another rider and he was admittedly tired and having some issues. He wanted to hang with us, so I suggested he tuck in behind Bob and we took off. I just decided to move out solo if needed at the max speed I could muster. Luckily, I got the finish before Lynn cut me off and I pulled in feeling pretty dang good considering.
How do you feel pushing your body like this after donating a kidney?
I feel really good that I was able to finish a very tough Tuscobia 160 in the cold temps and also Arrowhead, although not as competitively as I'd have liked, but still respectfully. I actually wanted to push my body to be confident when telling people that yes, one can donate a kidney and truly go back to what they were doing pre-donation.
My main concern really wasn't my "body" but more making sure I took in enough water to give Lefty (my remaining kidney) the best opportunity to function at the highest level possible while filtering my blood.
An interesting fact is that 1 out of 750 people are born with only 1 kidney and generally never even know it until later in life. Kidneys in a healthy person function at less than 100% each so if only one is left, the slack can be picked up by the remaining kidney. The remaining kidney will actually grow in size in many cases as well, to increase its capability.
HOW IMPORTANT IS KIDNEY DONATION?
It's very important.
100,000 people are on the waitlist.
13 people die every day in our country due to a shortage of kidneys. Although most of us have designated on our driver's license that we will donate our organs if anything happens to us, the sad fact is that only 3 out of 1,000 people die in such a way their organs can be used. If one does the math, all it would take is around 10-15 more people out of 10,000 than already donate every year to wipe out the waitlist. Another way to look at it is that if just one time every year, we could fill a stadium of people that would donate (again, beyond the number that normally become living donors in a year), there wouldn't be a waitlist and no deaths of those waiting for a kidney. Think about how many times a stadium is filled every year between college football, pro football, baseball, basketball, etc.
I think if enough people knew about the need and understood that if they are healthy enough to donate it wouldn't adversley affect them and more would consider kidney donation. If I would ever need a kidney, I would be given priority on the waitlist and would receive the first best-fit kidney, so that's another risk that is taken care of for living donors.