3 Year Kidney and 3 month Liver Recovery Update

Colorado Mountain Biking. A test of my physical recovery from both surgeries. This post won’t be for everyone. Some may find it boring and possibly a bit braggish or self-aggrandizing. It’s not intended to be. It’s more of a journal to document for comparison purposes my personal recovery since I started on this organ transplant journey in February of 2020. It is a way to further demonstrate that a person can donate a kidney (and liver) and lead a normal life.

Since my first mountain bike trip from Wisconsin to the western states of Montana, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico in 2008, I’ve made mountain bike trips to Colorado specifically maybe 10-12 times over the years. I very seldom ride the same trails twice, so a direct comparison is a bit difficult, but the trails/rides are similar enough in elevation, difficulty, length, etc. to get a good idea.

So again, the intent of this post is to compare my physical health as it pertains to mountain biking pre and post-kidney donation (3 years ago) and liver donation (3 months ago).

I pretty much know what my baseline capabilities are. For the purpose of this post, it’s not really important to consider how I compare to others. That said, I’ve done many, many mountain bike and cross-country ski races all across the country in the past 25 years and normally finish in the middle of the pack for my age bracket. Some of the more “crazy” ultra-endurance races I’ve done much better, even winning once in a while, where there aren’t any age brackets. Some of these races had a lot more to do with experience, mental toughness, and desire than physical capabilities, though.

In any case…….

Lynn and I have been a week in Avon, CO and I’ve ridden 6 straight days in and around the Avon area. Elevation is 7 to 9,000 feet. Typically rides are 3-4 hours in nature, give or take, at sustained max heart rate for much of the rides. Think steepish climbs for 60-90 minutes or more, some nice flattish riding at the top, and going downhill as fast as your skills, equipment, and risk tolerance will allow. I do take the time to enjoy the scenery, so a few stops are normal.

I was in good cardiovascular shape including my lower body (legs) coming off of the recent Organ Trail (TOT 4.5) ride from Lubbock, Texas to New Orleans/Baton Rouge, Louisianna that ended in the middle of April. Riding almost 30 straight days averaging 60 miles or so on a mountain bike for 6-7 hours a day builds a very good base.

After TOT 4.5 I was pretty much off the bike from the middle of April until the end of June. Lynn and I flew to NYC in late April for the Today Show, then we flew to Los Angeles on May 21st with my liver donation surgery on May 28th. I started to do some very gentle rides as part of my liver donation recovery at the end of June. By the end of July, I was trying to get in some longer rides of 3 hours at a pace that was comfortable but still challenging. The first part of August I started pushing my rides a bit more, knowing the trip to Colorado was coming up. I do some but not much intensity/interval riding. I normally depend on my normal singletrack riding to provide me with this aspect of fitness. In the days/weeks/months leading up to Colorado, I did very little intensity training.

I do think that the Organ Trail rides over the past 3 years have helped strengthen my stamina and endurance. However, the type of riding required for high-intensity output (uphill and/or race pace) for shorter 3-hour rides at or near one’s maximum heart rate takes a different style of fitness, especially at altitude.

In any case, here are my results and findings. The last time I was in Colorado riding, before organ donation, was in 2019. (I did ride a week last summer in Colorado, but I didn’t take the time to document my rides, although I feel my recovery was 100%). So, I’m comparing my organ donation recovery from age 63 to 67, pre and post-donation.

All of my riding in Colorado has followed pretty much the same routine. Ride every day for 3 hours or so continuously at similar elevations, pace (heart rate), distances, and skill levels. Basically, my goal for these rides is to maintain a pace a bit below race pace with no energy intake (food) during the ride. Water only. I typically can tell where my fitness level and intensity are by how much I cramp up off the bike and at night while sleeping. I want to be exhausted but still have enough recovery/energy to ride the same way the next day for a week straight. If I feel a bit “weak” I’ll still normally ride but pick a “green”/beginner trail and reduce my pace but not the distance or time and call it a recovery ride. I love being out on the trails enjoying the mental state I enter into, the scenery, and the overall satisfaction riding singletrack gives me, even if it’s at a slower pace. This is true of all riding I do, not just in Colorado.

Day 1: 15 miles, 2,000 feet of climbing, 3-3.5 hrs on the bike. The type of riding that’s different in the mountains versus in the Midwest is that most of the trails in the mountains, like this day, a rider spends 2/3 of the time climbing, typically in the lowest gear or close to it, for 2 hrs or better getting to the top of the 2k foot climb, then enjoying the sweetness of the downhill ride. In some cases, it’s a combination of mountain roads or less steep singletrack up and steeper (sometimes much steeper and much more technical, i.e. rocks, roots, drops, and tight turns) singletrack down.

An example of a couple of routes. The blue dot is me at the top of the ride.

Beaver Creek, CO ski area

Day 2: Another 2,000-foot climb and 3 hr. day. I climbed a bit above the route shown below as you can tell by the blue dot.

Beaver Creek

I went down Paulie’s Plunge, in combination with the ride above upon recommendation from the local bike shop (LBS). As a black diamond-rated trail it lived up that rating. It was quite technical, I walked some features but the rock garden I was warned about was rideable thanks to having “grown up” on the rocks in Wisconsin at 9-Mile in Wausau, Blue Mounds State Park near Madison and riding a number of times the Roth Rocks trails near State College, Pennsylvania.

Beaver Creek

Day 3: A kind of “recovery” day. Not as much climbing, miles, or time in the saddle. Less miles but seemed like a steeper climb, even if the total feet climbed was less. A lot of cardio excursion (exceeding and maintaining max heart rate) and lactic acid (think pain/cramping) in the legs. No cramping though, so that’s good. Make a very conscious effort to keep as hydrated as possible. 10 total miles including riding to trailhead and back.

Avon, CO

This type of riding combines leg strength and endurance, cardiovascular stamina and bursts of intensity that can max out one’s heart rate, and a lot more upper body and arm strength than what most people realize.

Day 4: Another 2k foot climb with fun downhill. Near the town of Minturn. Approximately 15 miles adding riding back to Avon.

Added a 5 mile return to Avon

Day 5: A 20-mile recovery ride on the Vail, Avon, Edwards bike path. Just some out and backs to Vail and Edwards starting from Avon. A fun day to just enjoy the area and its scenery riding along the Eagle River.

Day 6: Last day of riding before we head home.

I put together 3 singletrack trails that gave me some serious climbing and fun downhills but were more cross-country than straight up and down only. It was basically a 12-mile out and back. A very sustained high-intensity ride for the entire 3-4 hours.

1st and 6th segment: Eagle Vail Trail.

2nd and 5th segment: Stone Creek Trail

3rd and 4th segment: Evercrisp Trail

I was very happy and satisfied that I didn’t seem to have lost much if any capabilities even after being off the bike for over 2 months during my recent liver transplant surgery. Plus the fact that I’m now 67 years old.

My biggest concern coming in was breathing (especially at altitude) and upper stomach/chest-related muscle issues as the liver surgery was open which means incisions that cut muscle versus laparoscopic which don’t as much.

It took a solid 3 weeks post-liver surgery to be able to take a single deep breath without experiencing a sharp, intense pain coming from my diaphragm area. Couple this with the major healing that had to occur from the actual incisions that were made to remove the sliver of my liver for Selena, I was assuming that I could experience a bit of chest pain. By the time I was riding in Colorado, there were no signs of these fears.

Yikes!!

And of course, the 800-pound gorilla/the elephant in the room, is that I’m not getting any younger and my lack of recent training. My weight has stayed pretty close to the same, so that wasn’t much of a factor. Maybe not having any alcohol for the post 4-5 months could be a factor in my favor.

So, even considering my 67 years I’d have to say I healed up very, very well from my recent liver surgery and all and all, I’m very grateful and thankful that I’m still capable of enjoying to the fullest extent possible major physical activity post kidney and liver donation transplant surgery.

2 thoughts on “3 Year Kidney and 3 month Liver Recovery Update

  1. Sue Sakai says:

    Hi Mark. I loved this article. I donated a kidney ten years ago to allow my sister-in-law to receive a kidney (10 donors, 10 recipients in our chain!) I went in to the event in good shape and I too am determined to stay in good shape to encourage others to consider being a donor. I like that you listen to your body and are aware of changes and limitations. I am 69 now and I also understand the “age” thing. Stay well, take care – Sue in Cal.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *