IRON RANGE — Former Virginia resident Mark Scotch will return to the Range this week for a grueling 135-mile winter bicycle trek through the wilderness.
Competing in what is considered among the “50 toughest races in the world” may not be for everyone. But for the 66-year-old, the Arrowhead 135 Ultra, an endurance race taking place in freezing temperatures from International Falls to Tower, has special meaning.
Especially this year.
It will entail one leg along a journey he calls “The Organ Trail.”
Scotch has completed the Arrowhead 135 in the past. But this time around, he is doing it with only one kidney.
That’s where “The Organ Trail” comes in.
Scotch, who was recognized nationally last year as the USA Today Human Triumph of the Year Award winner for exemplifying human kindness, is traversing the county to draw attention to organ donation; in particular, living kidney donation.
He has set out on the “trail” to prove, also, that a person can function on a single kidney and “still lead a life full of activities — even if those activities are sustained and vigorous.”
• • •
“A guy goes into a bar and comes out with only one kidney.”
Scotch enjoys joking around that the line sounds like the beginning of a silly wisecrack.
While it’s not completely accurate, it is not inaccurate, either. And it does explain how the story of The Organ Trail got its start, he says.
Scotch explained over a recent Zoom call from his home in Wisconsin:
It was early 2020, not long after Scotch completed that year’s Arrowhead 135 race, that the Wisconsin native and his wife, Lynn, took a travel-trailer trip to Texas. Along the way, they stopped in the small town of Natchitoches, Louisiana, parking the trailer near a microbrewery.
There, Scotch, then 64, who had retired from a career of selling diagnostic equipment in the paper mill industry, met Hugh Smith, a 56-year-old former professional horse jockey.
The two strangers engaged in conversation ranging from sports to politics over some beers for an hour or so at the brewery in Smith’s hometown.
“He was an energetic guy, so full of life — a very high energy kind of guy,” Scotch said. “Lynn came in and pretty soon Hugh said, ‘I gotta go.’”
Scotch and his wife urged him to stay.
Smith responded that he had to get home for his nightly dialysis — a treatment used to remove waste products from the blood when the kidneys can no longer adequately do the job.
The former jockey had suffered many bumps and bruises, for which he took excessive amounts of ibuprofen in the days before the over-the-counter drug had consumer warnings about the dangers of taking too much.
Subsequently, Smith’s kidneys were damaged. By 2019, he was in stage 4 renal failure. The end-stage kidney disease required 10 hours per night of at-home dialysis via a machine accessed through an abdominal catheter.
Smith casually mentioned to the couple that he was in need of a kidney transplant, explaining that he was on the national transplant list and among nearly 100,000 Americans waiting for a life-saving kidney. Sadly, about 13 of those patients die each day for lack of a donor.
“I instantly knew that I wanted to do that,” Scotch said of donating one of his own kidneys.
Several thoughts flooded Scotch’s mind, all at once, he said.
He knew people could be a living donor; his sister-in-law had donated a kidney more than a dozen years earlier. Kidney transplants from living donors generally offer better outcomes for recipients, according to the National Kidney Foundation.
Also, Scotch thought about how he and his wife had talked many times through the years about organ donation following the death of their 15-month-old son in the mid-1970s. The child had suddenly stopped breathing and was put on life support.
“We didn’t know about organ donation. When we found out about it, we wished we could have donated his organs.” Had the parents “been promoted,” they would have done so, he said.
When Scotch’s newfound friend said he was looking for a kidney, it was as if lighting struck, Scotch said. Quite simply, he knew, “it’s time.”
It was time for him to help a fellow human in need.
• • •
Scotch soon learned of the National Kidney Registry Voucher Program, which allows a living kidney donor to choose the most convenient time frame for their kidney donation surgery and provide a “voucher” to someone who is then prioritized to receive a living donor kidney through the NKR.
The system allows donors and recipients to complete transplants with the highest degree of compatibility, thereby greatly reducing the chances of organ rejection.
By mid-August, 2020, Scotch and Smith had both undergone extensive medical testing and screening, and Scotch was told he could become a “voucher donor.”
At the end of September 2020, Scotch was matched with a compatible individual in New York to whom he successfully donated his kidney. Scotch then named Smith as the person he wanted to receive the voucher.
As a result, on Feb. 18, 2021, at a transplant hospital in Mississippi, Smith received the gift of a much-needed kidney from an individual in southern California.
The voucher program “made it so easy to donate,” Scotch said. He was not required to be a direct match with Smith and was able to have his donation surgery at his local hospital in Madison, Wisconsin.
Both he and Smith are healthy and doing well, Scotch noted. Dialysis no longer dictates the former jockey’s life.
Scotch, whose surgery was at 6 a.m., was “was up and walking by 8 p.m.” He was home the following day.
And “I was back on a bike in a month.”
That’s when he had the idea for the Organ Trail.
• • •
Scotch was an athletic young person, involved in sports, he said. After high school, he lived for nine years in Oregon, where he and Lynn started a family before moving back to the Midwest.
After landing a job with the former Potlatch lumber mill in Cook, Scotch and his wife and sons moved to Virginia, where Scotch coached Little League and the family lived from 1983 to 1988.
While Scotch cross-country skied and raced, including in the American Birkebeiner (North America’s largest cross-country ski race), “I started becoming concerned for my own health in my mid-40s.”
His oldest son, who had injured his knees, was cycling as a form of physical therapy and introduced his dad into the sport. “More and more I got into mountain biking and biking in general.”
Soon, Scotch was participating in cycling races, too. It became a new passion for the self-proclaimed “adventurer.”
After donating a kidney, Scotch realized he had yet another reason to ride a bike.
Prior to meeting Smith, he knew very little about the “urgent and dire need” for living kidney donors. He guessed most other people were in the dark, also.
By riding across the county, sharing his donation story, Scotch could teach people — one person, one community at a time, what he had learned. And, possibly, inspire others to consider saving lives by becoming living donors.
Scotch established his organization — The Organ Trail — to share the knowledge and spotlight those in need.
Early last year, he completed his first Organ Trail ride, cycling 1,500 miles from Madison, where he donated his kidney, to Natchitoches, where he first met Smith. The “icing on the cake” was reconnecting with Smith — this time with one of them a kidney short and the other with the gain of a new, healthy kidney.
Scotch’s second Organ Trail ride began on Sept. 19 of last year in Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. From there, he traveled into New York City and through upstate New York to honor the recipient of his kidney. The route took him through Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan, then back to his hometown in central Wisconsin, where he arrived Oct. 16 — 1,600 miles later.
The Arrowhead 135, which begins Monday, is his latest endeavor.
“I've done the race a number of times and am one of the relatively few (18 people) who have completed the race by all three methods — bike, ski and foot — receiving the coveted à Trois Award after the 2020 race,” Scotch said.
“My efforts through The Organ Trail — and competing in events such as Arrowhead 135 — are all about generating awareness for the need for kidney donors, especially living kidney donors. … It’s a solvable problem. If enough people learned about it and cared enough,” there could be far fewer people dying while awaiting a kidney and more people, like Hugh Smith, living a good life.
Neither Scotch nor Smith have made contact with the recipient and donor of their kidneys. But the friends, connected through organ donation, nonetheless, have each other.
Scotch said his wife is now also looking to become a living kidney donor.
“It’s unbelievable what one person can do to change someone’s life,” he said. It truly is a “superpower” — one “we all have inside us,” according to The Organ Trail website.
The best “human triumph,” after all, is that of human kindness.