ML (Matt) Cavanaugh: The superpower on the other side of kidney donation

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Runners participate in the Salt Lake City Marathon on Saturday, April 23, 2022.

This being National Donate Life Month, it’s sad to acknowledge that more Utahns are dying of kidney failure than breast or prostate cancer, trapped in limited lives, stuck at home. This weekend, the Salt Lake City Marathon will form a 26.2-mile human wave of health — from the Olympic Legacy Bridge at the University of Utah, behind the Capitol, through Liberty and Sugar House Parks, on to the Library Square finish — running right past those thousands in the Salt Lake City area that are homebound in kidney failure. Several runners on the course will demonstrate how those with the good fortune of good health can help those with the bad fortune of bad health. And saving a life can be a life-changing, life-upgrading act.

I’m one of those runners. I donated my left kidney a year-and-a-half ago at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center near Washington, D.C. My kidney flew to Seattle, where it went to a stranger, and that donation kick-started a chain of others that helped another seven recipients (the final one landed back at Walter Reed).

In the time since, I’ve experienced a deep and continuous uplift. To know you’ve had a pivotal part in saving another person’s life is like rocket fuel for the spirit. It’s the only way I can explain what I did last year.

In 2022, just months post-donation, sponsored by the National Kidney Registry, I ran a series of ultra-running events designed to show there is no limit on post-kidney-donation life. I took on Racing the Planet’s 4 Deserts ultramarathon Grand Slam series: four races over 7 months, each self-supported, 6-stages, 155-miles in environments hostile to kidney function. About 90 have completed the Grand Slam, none are kidney donors. The challenge meant carrying all my own calories and gear on my back, in temperatures certain to test the kidney’s ability to be my body’s radiator. We called it “1K4D” (“one kidney, four deserts”). I got better over time, and broke through with a win in the last race (the “White Desert”) in Antarctica this past December. Overall, I became the fastest American to ever finish the Grand Slam, with one kidney or two, having beaten ultra-runner Dean Karanzes’s record time.

While running with scorpions and penguins was fun, this year I’ve come home. My partner, Hilary Baude, and I have pledged to run 12 marathons in 2023 (”1K12″) in cities with multiple major transplant centers — including here in Salt Lake City, with Intermountain and the University of Utah — to show Americans there’s no cap on life after kidney donation. We know this works through experience. In last year’s Atacama Desert race, I received a message from a man in Montana, who wrote, “You are an inspiration. I hope this message gives you some strength, because you have done that time and again without even knowing me.” Or while fighting to hold onto the win in Antarctica, a 19-year old wrote to me, “I have been following your racing adventure for quite a while now…you have had a huge influence on me.” Both became donors.

It’s these small moments, these reminders — that once, you suspended self-interest for the greater good — that kept me moving forward last year. You can’t stay mad at yourself or down for too long when the world won’t let you. That’s the superpower I found on the other side of kidney donation. Even when you feel like fading away, others will always see the magic, the good, the better angels in you. You may be human, you may lose it momentarily, but they remind you who you can be, and reflect it back on you when you need it most.

Of course I can’t promise every donor feels the feels I’ve experienced this past year. But I know most do. The common refrain I hear from donors is their only regret was that they could only do it once.

And kidney donors are far more than just runners. They Crossfit, they climb, they bike, they’re yogis, they play pro basketball, and there’s a team out there right now that will soon attempt to break the current Guinness World Record by climbing to the top of every US state’s high point in under 43 days.

Many others love to sweat a little less. Ned Brooks, the founder of the National Kidney Donation Organization, donated at 65 and still today at 72 sails and shoots. Or Sophia Jackson, of Orem, was on a business trip six months ago, and learned about an NYPD cop who needed a kidney. She donated, and in the process saved two lives, including the cop. As she put it, “you can change the world one person at a time.”

Join us Utahns, like myself and Sophia, who already know that a small sacrifice can eliminate another person’s suffering. The superpower you get for free.

ML Cavanaugh

ML Cavanaugh (@mlcavanaugh) is running this weekend’s SLC Marathon, and serves as the CEO of the National Kidney Donation Organization. Those who would like to learn more about living kidney donation, please visit 1K12.org.