SALT LAKE CITY — Steve Tate never imagined he’d be celebrating the first birthday of his triplets with a fundraising 5K to help pay for cancer treatment for his youngest.
Mark Robbins didn’t set out to climb a mountain six times in 20 hours, a feat three times more ambitious than anything he’d ever attempted.
When Jared Campbell fell in love with Grandeur Peak, he didn’t realize he could turn that affection into something that might benefit everyone else.
As for me, I never saw myself as anything more than a jogger, so how exactly did I end up crawling up the side of an icy hillside in the middle of the night?
Jared Campbell stood on top of Grandeur Peak one night looking down into the normally picturesque Salt Lake valley obscured by “a thick inversion” with the question from a friend on his mind.
Running was simply something Campbell enjoyed doing
“Running, for the most part, is my personal time,” he said. “A time to be quiet and reflective, where I do my best problem solving, and where I feel most capable of clearly working through situations that in normal life get clouded by external or emotional influences.”
One of the places he loved to run was “up and down” Grandeur Peak. The popular Millcreek trail is a beautiful bruiser. It’s 3.1 miles of climbing with 2,500 feet of ascent, the reward being of a spectacular view from the 8,299-foot summit. A few of his friends were giving him some good-natured grief about how much energy he was expending on running up and down mountains.
“One of them asked, ‘Think about how much good you could do for the world if you redirected your running effort to something that would benefit mankind,” Campbell said. “I decided to try and figure out a way to spin what I was doing in a way that would benefit the community at large.”
That was the night he decided he would try to find a way to make his affection for this mountain route “benefit the community at large.”
He talked to a friend about what group he might work with to raise money through a unique 24-hour run. His friend put him in touch with Breathe Utah, a non-profit that seeks practical solutions to Utah’s air-quality issues. For four years (2012-2015) he organized small, unofficial Grandeur challenges.
Eventually, he ended up joining the board of Breathe Utah and learned “how truly remarkable they are.”
Campbell decided to try to make the annual event official and was granted permits just a few weeks before this weekend’s race. The word spread through social media and 53 people signed up to see how much Grandeur they could handle in 24 hours.
The challenge was called “Running Up For Air” and its purpose was two-fold: raise awareness and raise money. If the group was able to raise $5,000, they’d receive a matching donation from various individuals and businesses.
So the unofficial run became an official event at 6 a.m. Saturday. Campbell did 13 laps — the most of anyone participating — although there were 226 ascents in total.
Six of those hard-fought ascents belonged to a father of three who started running when life took too much from him.
Mark Robbins said he started running after losing several people close to him in a short period of time. One of those was his sister-in-law, who was stricken with breast cancer in her early 20s.
He decided to run a 5K dedicated to raising money for cancer research, and somehow he just kept running. The former high school wrestler ran marathons and eventually found his way onto the trails.
He said he doesn’t have “the runner’s body” but that didn’t discourage him. He said he was drawn to the “vulnerability” of trail running.
Running in nature is humbling; it is grounding. And so, he kept at it.
On Saturday night, I met him as he was engaged in his sixth summit. His personal record on the trail was two summits in 24 hours. His goal this weekend was four summits for Hayes Tate, the 11-month-old son of a friend.
“I just kept drawing strength, support and awareness and love that helped keep me going,” he said. “I kept thinking, ‘Hayes doesn’t get a break, and I’m running this in his honor. Why would I take one?’” There were times, many of them, when he wanted to stop.
“In the end, I just wanted to show as much support as I could by giving my best effort,” he said, acknowledging that running for someone doesn’t change the realities of their pain. “I think when we run to the point that we did yesterday, we just believe that the ability to suffer, on some level, may alleviate some suffering for the family. It’s a shared grief. I’m going to support you by doing something hard, something that brings awareness.”
He said Hayes’ uncle, his best friend from high school, posted something on social media about friendship doubling joy and easing pain.
“Even if it’s a little bit,” he said, “you’re just showing them you’re in their corner. They’re not in this fight alone.”
Former University of Utah football standout Steve Tate said that’s exactly the message he got when Robbins told him what he’d be doing for the youngest of his 11-month-old triplets.
In January, Hayes Tate was diagnosed with Choroid Plexus Carcinoma, a cancer so rare and so aggressive, the fight to eradicate it requires the most brutal form of chemotherapy treatments.
He started the second of six rounds of treatment on Tuesday, but Friday’s dose was the most toxic.
“It has the most side effects,” Steve Tate said Sunday. The treatment will deplete the disease-fighting white blood cells in Hayes’ tiny body and he will suffer other issues, including canker sores in his mouth and down his throat.
“He doesn’t have any white blood cells to fight them off, so he has to rely on just toughing through it,” Steve said. “I shared this with Mark when he came to visit.”
Robbins said he wanted to make his time on the mountain as close to 24 hours as possible. While he thought that would be four summits, it turns out, he had one of those days runners relish.
He finished six summits, the last of which was about 1:38 a.m. Sunday, which means he covered roughly 37 miles in 20 hours. Steve Tate has never been on the Grandeur Peak trail, but he is still in awe of what Robbins accomplished.
He and his wife, Savanna, have been “overwhelmed” by the love and support they’ve received in hundreds of gestures, large and small.
“I think it does (help),” Tate said of people running in his son’s honor. “It doesn’t help Hayes' situation, but it makes you realize we’re in this together. This is a fight a lot of people are going through. They feel the same emotions we do, and knowing that helps us get through it.”
An act of defiance
As I trudged up the snow in the waning hours of Saturday night, a frigid wind blew across my face, and I stopped to catch my breath.
That’s when I realized I’d been lucky enough to watch the sunrise and the moonrise from the same spot on the Grandeur Peak trail.
When I saw a Facebook post about RUFA, I was captivated.
Sure the race fell right in the middle of the busiest time of year for us prep writers, but I had a plan.
Because the event allowed participants to do as many trips up and down as they wanted in 24 hours, I could run one with the earliest wave (6 a.m.) and then come back to run one night lap after covering the 4A and 5A girls basketball championships and watching the closing night of my daughter’s play.
So here I was, starting a lap at 11:38 on a Saturday night. I was mentally exhausted, and so just as I reached the saddle of the mountain, I started questioning whether I really needed to push all the way to the top or not.
Suddenly all I wanted to do was stop.
Every step was agony. I focused on what hurt and why getting to the top was a futile and insignificant accomplishment. Two laps in this group of participants was a fairly minuscule accomplishment. So did it really matter that I “officially” finished that second lap?
I began wondering why we runners are so quick to suffer for a cause. Like Jared’s friend, I questioned whether it really changed anything for the greater good. I feel inspired when I run for others, but did it really change anything?
Yes, I thought.
Every step up this mountain is an act of defiance. It’s a show of solidarity. It is a prayer of gratitude.
When we run, we raise money, we start conversations and we connect with each other. I realized I’ve never once wanted to quit when my friends have been by my side. It's only when I'm alone that the temptation to abandon a goal becomes enticing.
As I fought not to slide backward with every step in those final feet to the summit, I wrestled with all the worst parts of myself. And finally, thankfully, the part of me that convinces me I can do this kind of stuff, gave me a reason to finish the climb to the top.
“Because I can,” I said out loud, as I stood up one more time and turned toward the mountain. My legs were on fire, my sore ankle throbbed and I was out of water.
And then I thought of little Hayes and his parents.
I thought of a friend of a friend who was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor just a couple of weeks ago.
I thought of my little 9-year-old friend Lota Ward, who simply wants the life back that he had before a brain tumor stole his carefree childhood. I thought of two remarkable women who’d lost husbands — one to the war in Iraq and one to a drunk driver.
And I had the same thoughts Mark had when he contemplated going home after five summits.
They don’t get to quit. There is no short cut through their challenges. They have to wrestle their pain every day, no matter what the world demands. They get up, and they fight.
So I summoned their strength and I scrambled to the top.
Steve Tate said he and his wife turned to friends when he found out they were having triplets. He said he knew there were people who’d been through this challenge and he asked for their advice. They decided to take the same communal approach when Hayes was diagnosed with cancer, which is part of the reason they decided to combine the birthday celebration with a fundraiser to help with medical bills.
“There are people who’ve been in this boat,” he said. “They’ve been there and they’re going through it and they’re going to help us out. It’s been kind of overwhelming the people all over the world who are embracing our challenge.” When you’re alone, these fights seem soul-crushing and impossible. The fight seems pointless and the struggle feels like too much.
But together, we are miraculous. We can change public policy and bring joy to a family suffering though incredible pain. Robbins had friends give up their Saturday night to hike his final ascent with him. I thanked them for allowing me to hike down with them.
And what I learned from my own late-night battle was that even when in those solitary struggles, you haven’t been abandoned.
“For four laps I ran on my own,” said Robbins on Sunday. “But I did not feel like I was running alone.”