Logo for: National Kidney Registry

The Last Desert, The Final Stage

Matt Cavanaugh

It’s over. I won. Today’s sixth stage started at about 6:30 a.m. and six and a half hours later, I won the stage and the race as well. (But it’s never as simple as that, is it? I’ll put a pin in that thought and come back to it later.)

My top competitor, a Japanese runner nicknamed “Mori,” trailed close behind the entire day. I started the day with a little under 7 kilometers on him. He’s an exceptional runner with a hard late kick, so my goal was to keep him behind me and in sight all day.

Today we ran in Telefon Bay on Deception Island in the South Shetlands, just north of the Antarctic Peninsula. Deception is a former whaling station and the island itself forms a C shape as it’s a caldera—a large volcanic crater formed when the mouth of a volcano collapses.

Last night we repositioned away from some terrible high winds engulfing the Antarctic Peninsula. That meant we had our worst sleep—we tried to get to bed by 9 p.m., but the sea wouldn’t let us. We got up a little after 3 a.m. for today’s early start. 

The course was 2.4 kilometers, again a loop, with some patches in black volcanic rock, ice, and, of course, snow. 

I got an early lead on Mori and kept it for the full 60+ kilometers. I’d glance back every loop at least once and I’d see his yellow North Face cap. I’m pretty sure I’ll have a nightmare next week featuring that yellow hat. 

By the time the last lap came, my hands were frozen and serious salt stains had slid down the sides of my eyes and nose—an indicator I was at the edge of my electrolytes. Any further and the day might’ve gone really bad.

The island was so windy that we couldn’t really celebrate much. They took an awkward photo with our medals around our necks, before we hustled onto the Zodiacs for our choppiest, wettest ride back to the ship of the week.

Now back to that “I won” nonsense. Of course I did the running. Still, if you’re reading this, I owe you some measure of thanks, if for no more than keeping tabs on this endeavor. This year has been quite an undertaking and I never would have made it without the support and faith and encouragement of so many like you. I’m genuinely sad at the fact that I can’t thank you all right now, directly, as you deserve. But I will certainly aim to do so in the coming weeks. 

There’s one more thing I’d like to mention. It receives little attention but the accumulation can have an impact like snow rolling downhill. The well-placed and well-timed kind word.

I started this week with a message from a young man who wrote to tell me that my races have inspired him to donate his kidney, as I did. It’s hard to capture what that feels like other than to say—so good it made me want to live up to his generous estimation of me. 

Then, over the course of this week, people who have watched me struggle and wither in the heat this year were so very kind this week. There are few spectators at these events, but one—Amelia from South Africa, who I told many times has now become my second favorite South African (behind Nelson Mandela)— at every lap, every opportunity, she’d say something to keep me going.

And sometimes the fellow competitors are just the best. Julita from Poland (once a competitor on Polish Ninja Warrior), Artur from Brazil, Simon from Britain, who would always say “go for it!,” and Mark from Atlanta, previously of Moscow, who’d always offer a “Rock n Roll, Matt!”

They gave me the nicest nudge when I needed it most, and add up enough of them, paired with so much support from afar, and if I could do it, I’d slice that medal into a million pieces and share it with you all.