Logo for: National Kidney Registry

For My Next Race, I Need Your Help

Matt Cavanaugh

At the end of this post, I’m going to ask you for help. Here’s why I need it.  

For several days now, I’ve marked a dozen spots on my upper back, shoulders, and collarbone with a black Sharpie. When I get in from a run, having worn the 20-pound pack I’ll carry for 155 miles across the Atacama Desert in northern Chile next week, I mark the bright red spots so I know where the pack will burn the skin. That way I can protect those places a little with tape before the race.

At this point, about to board a southbound plane, heading into the third of the four-race 4 Deserts Grand Slam, some of what it takes to run these things is routine. I think of food more in terms of weight and density than taste. I think of trade-offs. Wear the visor, which allows greater cooling and air out the top? Or choose the full desert cap with neck-covering cape?

When I started thinking about this at the end of last year, I was only a couple months removed from my kidney donation in September 2021. My abdomen had yet to heal fully. Somehow I felt strong enough, confident enough, to believe I could finish the 4 Deserts Grand Slam. To prove that a recent kidney donor could go out and handle these harsh environments might demonstrate to someone on the fence that they could live full physical lives post-donation.

In the Namib Desert, where I raced 7 months after my donation, the heat hit 131 degrees, draining me down to nearly nothing, but I finished. In the Caucasus of former Soviet Georgia, where I ran 9 months after surgery, the world’s worst weather and a burned down IT band nearly stopped me, but I finished.

After two hard-earned finishes, you’d think I’d have more confidence going into this one. But I don’t. I realized it in the sauna the other day.

To prepare for the desert heat, I’ve been going to the sauna for the past week. I aim for 30 to 35 minutes a session. The first 5 minutes are pleasant, next to no effort. Then it gets progressively harder, until it feels like it takes more than half my effort to grit my teeth as I sweat out those final 5 minutes.

When I’m honest with myself, that’s where I am with the 4 Deserts. Sure, I know more about what’s to come in general. But that makes it even tougher, mentally, to get back up and do it again so soon. To know, for example, that your back will again feel semi-constant slicing for yet another week. My upper back is already plenty patchy from cut-through and re-grown skin. The thought of even more raw and cut-open skin makes me nauseous.

I figured I’d be here by now, at a place where I would need help. I need help because I know I can’t do this if all I’m thinking about is how hot and miserable and cut-up I am.

One bright light is that someone I’ve mentored through the kidney donation process, in Utah, will donate a kidney to her sister sometime just after I finish the 50-mile fifth stage this week (assuming I make it that far). To know that half a world above me someone is saving a life, and that I was a small part of that gift, is a big mental boost.

But I need a little more than that, because, frankly, 155-miles is a long, long way.

For anyone reading this—family, family-friends, close-friends, distant-friends, friends-I-have-yet-to-meet—I’d like to ask something of you.

During race week, September 25 to October 1, the organizers maintain a satellite-internet-enabled-computer, where the racers can receive email from the wider world. Send me something, anything: a funny story about your day, about your kids, about your dogs, about how you’re doing, about a person you know with a kidney ailment, about how the Gophers or Utes or Charlestown Chiefs are doing, about the Dwight-Schrutiest guy in your office, or just a really amazing dinner you just had. It can be anything you think might help me take my mind off the race for just a minute, and I can tell you, from experience, it will help.

Just head to this race website: https://www.racingtheplanet.com/atacamacrossing/live

Go to “Results.” Find my name. Click “send an email.” And whatever you type will travel thousands of miles south to me, at the very end of my very long day.

I said I knew I’d be in this spot because, when I started this thing, my first blog post from late January reads: “I’ll write about my progress here…My goal is to bring you along for the ride. The highs, the lows, the ugly parts, and the really ugly parts. I can’t take you with me, but as much as possible I’d like to pull every reader a little closer—to feel your presence, because I know I won’t let myself give up if I can feel that, even from a distance.”