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Chasing a dream is not like chasing a fly ball or a toddler or a runaway shopping cart. Chasing a dream is more like pursuing a rainbow, a dust devil, or maybe a wisp of mist rising from a parking lot after rain. And even when you catch one, (and how do you know for sure?) the dream may not turn out to be exactly the one you thought you were chasing. Which is okay, because when some dreams become reality, those dreams are even more full of joy and wonder, full of hidden surprises, even more life-enhancing than the dream you thought you were chasing in the first place.

No one understands this better than Phil Shin, a 53 year-old ultrarunner and liver transplant patient from South Pasadena, California. The prepackaged, headline-ready version of the dream Phil has been chasing for more than a year is to be the first person who has undergone a liver transplant to complete a 100 mile footrace. But any dream is more multi-layered, more nuanced, less easily described than what fits on the “short answer” section of a quiz. And Shin is not one for the glib, hashtag-friendly answer. His undertaking is a difficult one, and a whole lot of people he loves and respects are on the journey with him, so he is thoughtful and expansive in his responses. He wants you to understand.

“It’s not, ‘Hey, I beat cancer and I’m doing all these cool things.’ It’s “Who am I to take these gifts and not go do something?”

Since realizing a life-long dream of qualifying for the Boston Marathon, just months after a 2018 surgery to remove a racquetball-sized tumor from his liver, only to have the cancer recur, Shin has done plenty. He ran four marathons in six months while dealing with the uncertainty of his diagnosis, and “accepting the fact that maybe I wasn’t going to make it.” After Shin’s longtime friend Mark secretly went through the donor identification process, turning out to be a near perfect match, (and pumping the still unaware Shin for running advice) the transplant was performed in September of 2019. “Our transplant,” Shin calls it now.

Just months after the transplant, Shin and Mark and their team ran the Los Angeles Marathon, raising $10,000 dollars for the Brave Like Gabe Foundation, started in memory of Gabe Grunewald, an elite runner who had recently lost her long and bravely public battle with cancer. And in 2021, just two years after the successful transplant, Shin found himself flying through the wall of crowd noise down Boylston Street, finishing the Boston Marathon in a speedy three hours, twenty-three minutes, and only a year later than he had planned.

Fast-forward two years to find Phil Shin in the hot sun and thin air of Leadville, Colorado, making final preparations to run the fifty miles from Leadville, over the nearly 13,000 foot-high Hope Pass and its llama-supplied aid station, and down the other side to the ghost town of Winfield, where he would refuel, pass a quick medical check, then turn and do the whole thing in reverse. And all systems, says Shin, are go.

“Massive kudos to my coach, Adam Frye,” Shin tells me on a cloudless Wednesday afternoon, three days before the race, “I’ve been running more mileage than I ever have, and feeling better than ever. I never had an appetite for that kind of volume, but it felt great. I don’t feel hurt, burned-out….” He sounded almost giddy about where he was at physically. “I feel good. The running stuff is good. The package is delivered.”

And if anything, Shin is even more ready mentally.

“I haven’t really felt like this since my wedding day,” he laughs, “I mean, you have a hard date, right? But it’s a long way off, so you don’t think about it every second, then all of a sudden, it’s time, and I need to make arrangements for my crew. They are like my groomsmen! They are coming to support me on the big day, but until the day of the race it’s my job to support those four amazing women, make sure every accommodation is set. So, I’ve been going a thousand miles an hour for the past two weeks.”

But on this crystal Wednesday afternoon all is calm. He has spent the past four days at the house that will become a hive of activity in the last hours before the race, but until now has been his personal Fortress of Solitude, where he has gone about the business of race prep, eating, doing easy runs and hikes, mentally dialing himself in, with surprisingly few obsessive race thoughts, contentedly solo.

“I feel like the kid from ‘Home Alone,’” he laughs, “I just feel this calm, peace, thinking about all I have done to get in this position. I haven’t felt flustered by the enormity of this,” he says, “I’m kind of comfortable with the idea of swimming as far outside the buoys as I can go, just embracing the raw uncertainty of it all.”

His thinking, his sense of calm in the face of a really, really daunting task, makes a great deal of sense, if one thinks about it. The training is done, the guests and wedding party are coming soon enough, the mountains outside of town await, unavoidably visible through the thin air. The “I-do’s” with the trail would be exchanged in due time. Why sweat about it?

If you listen to ultrarunners much, you will no doubt hear them talk about “The Why.” The “why” in question is simply the reason why – when everything superfluous has been scraped away, molecule by molecule, like rubber from the sole of a running shoe – one should continue with this impossible – and on some level, silly – task. “Why” is the one word of graffiti on the wall of the pain cave, and eventually, knowing the answer to the question becomes the only thing that makes the next step possible. For Shin, the answer to that question is not a difficult one, though he can’t be sure until he is deep into the belly of the monster that awaits on Hope Pass, if it is an answer he will remember when taking the test.

And in Shin’s case, as with most people figuring out how to keep doing a very hard thing, the “Why” is an essay question. Part of it has to do with learning the kind of things about one’s self that can only be learned in extremis, but an even bigger part has to do with the mission of the Chris Klug Foundation.

The foundation was founded in 2003 by professional snowboarder and liver transplant recipient, Chris Klug. After learning at 21 he would need the transplant, he waited for six years until a liver was found. Two years after that Klug won an Olympic bronze medal. When Klug approached Shin in 2021 about running Leadville, Shin was dubious. He had never seriously considered running a hundred-miler and was not sure he wanted to take it on. But Klug was persuasive and the idea had a certain romantic appeal, and soon enough, Shin was piling up fifty and hundred kilometer finishes like hot dates on the way to a Colorado wedding in the sky.

And somewhere along the way he had found his “why.” Representing the Chris Klug Foundation, (CKF) whose mission is passionate education and advocacy for organ and tissue donation and transplantation, made perfect sense. The world Klug envisions contains nobody going through the agony of waiting for a donor, an agony with which Shin is all too familiar.

“That uncertainty is something I wouldn’t wish on anyone,” he says, and soon after talking to Klug, he was racking up days in the California hills, intent on helping eliminate that uncertainty for good.

By the day before the race, Shin’s Fortress of Solitude had become race-prep central, a buzzing hive of activity presided over by its queen, crew chief and rabbit co-founder, Monica DeVreese.

“I love Monica so much,” says Shin, “She has such a commanding presence. You know everything is going to get done the right way, but at the same time, she is so sweet, such a calming presence. I can’t imagine having anyone better out there.”

Keeping with the wedding theme, the day before the race Monica and Shin led a shakeout run, sponsored by rabbit, attended by fifty runners and occupying the place of a rehearsal dinner. Coach Adam Frye dropped by, and organ donor Mark showed-up during the athletes meeting later in the day. All the guests had arrived.

The evening before the race was filled with logistics, crossing of t’s and dotting of i’s. Packs and drop bags were organized. Then, nothing left to do but get a little shuteye and lace ‘em up.

Five hours later Shin and his all-girl band were huddled together in the middle of a dark Leadville street, the last time they would gather until the crew would tend to their runner out on the course.

“It was not planned,” Shin says of the happy scrum, “Everyone just put their arms around each other, one by one. We all huddled-up together, told each other how much we loved one another. This was about us, not me.”

Then, final instructions were given, the gun was fired, and a few hundred headlamps bobbed into the darkness of a terribly early – and awfully warm – Colorado morning.

Shin moved easily along the first, flat section to the May Queen aid station, from where rabbit social media guru Kevin Lara texted me, “Phil looks great!’

And he was having fun.

“We hit Powerline, which was a long, steep downhill. The runner behind me was saying how badly his quads were getting pounded. I was like, this is playtime! Wheeee!”

He was still feeling great, though the day was warming up, at Outward Bound aid station, (mile 23.5) where Shin saw his crew for the first time.
“They were like a NASCAR pit crew! Everyone had their own task. I left feeling good. BIG energy!”
When next Shin saw his crew, at Twin Lakes, (mile 37.9) the energy was a little less big.

“By the time I hit Twin Lakes there had been a lot of alpine singletrack. I really started to feel the heat. It was totally exposed the whole time, not a cloud in the sky. This was on the Colorado Trail; a lot of climbing a lot of hiking. At one point I got some cold water from a spectator, but by Twin Lakes I was slipping. I hadn’t been able to eat anything, so I ate everything my crew handed me all at once…then everything I put in came back out all at once.” He laughs, “Talk about a scene! Then I saw this woman waving at me. She said, ‘Do you recognize me?’ I said, ‘Um, yes?’ It was the surgeon who did the transplant, there to cheer me on at this, of all spots!”

Hope Pass was a trudge-fest. “We climbed 4,000 feet in four miles,” says Shin. “I spent two hours leapfrogging up the pass with other runners. I wasn’t expecting it to be that difficult. The last mile up Hope Pass (mile 43.5) took forty minutes. I had to start thinking about cutoffs.”The trail down to Winfield (50 miles) was a dark, rocky moonscape. “I fell a couple of times, got a little skinned up, no big deal. And at Winfield,” he says, “the carnage is real!”

At the Winfield aid station, he chugs two Cokes and begins to trudge back up the mountain toward the llamas and Hope Pass.

“The trail out of Winfield was runnable, but by mile 52 I was dizzy, cramping. This was the moment of the race for me, time to stop and evaluate the situation. I’ve been exhausted before, that was nothing new, but even though I’d had about a half-gallon of fluids, I hadn’t peed in five hours, and what does that mean about my kidneys? Am I endangering my liver? Just how much am I risking, here?”

“I asked myself, ‘How much do you value this gift you’ve been given?” He pauses for a moment. “I asked myself what I wanted to do with this third chance at life, with this liver, donated by this guy who is here? I told myself, ‘Stop and look at reality.’ So, I had that conversation with myself, said ‘Okay, we’re good.’”And then he turned and walked back to Winfield.

“It wasn’t a walk of shame,” Shin says a few days later, “It was a celebration. I’m still celebrating.”
Ten hours after he had last seen them, Shin reunited with his crew, and they reenacted their pre-race huddle, feeling, Shin says, “Raw and broken, emotionally unloaded. We felt like we did everything we were supposed to do.”

Earlier, Shin had given each of the four members of his crew a gift: a custom silver pendant, designed by artist Erica Sara for the Brave Like Gabe Foundation. The pendants said, simply, “Brave.”

Says Shin, “I’ve thought about those pendants, the word ‘brave’ a lot. I think I found my bravery, and it would not have been brave to continue. But maybe it was brave to stop.”

In the end, it may not have been exactly the dream Phil Shin had started out chasing, but picture for a moment those five people, huddled as one under a Colorado mountain sunrise, exhausted and dirty, closer than ever to the ones they already loved. From here, that kind of looks like a dream come true.

Postscript: Only 44% of those who left Leadville at 4:00 that Saturday morning made it back from Winfield under their own power. Phil Shin was right, the carnage was real!



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