More than a race
Cancer survivors team up to tackle 16th annual Grand Traverse
Times Staff Writer
Originally published 2013-03-28
It all started at an airport in Africa.
And while that doesn’t sound like the most common route to reaching the start line of the Elk Mountains Grand Traverse (EMGT), the lives that Garrison Garcia and Sean Swarner have led up to this point are anything but common.
When the clock strikes midnight this Friday and the duo takes their first few strides into an inky, glacial abyss, the challenges that will unfurl along the 40-mile patch of snow that stretches from Crested Butte to Aspen can only pale in comparison to the trials they’ve both endured to get there.
“While you’re sitting awake in that hospital bed at night and your IV is dripping nasty chemicals and your monitor is beeping and mom and dad are sleeping ... you feel as alone as you possibly could be,” said Garcia, a Gunnison native and cancer survivor.
Before either of them had graduated from high school, Garcia and Swarner had both survived life-altering bouts with cancer — not once, but twice. It was somewhere in the process of overcoming those physically debilitating and mentally melancholic episodes that they learned how to embrace the concept of adventure.
“If you go through any traumatic experience in life, you can’t go through it without it changing your life,” said Swarner, who was once read his last rites at the age of 14. “It takes a strong person to reflect on what you went through and how it was able to make an impact on your life.”
Now about that airport in Africa: It was there in July of last year that Garcia and Swarner met face to face for the first time. After Garcia was awarded an Adventure Support Grant (ASG) by Swarner’s cancer survivor advocacy organization, the CancerClimber Association, they and a handful of other survivors had the opportunity to spend two weeks scaling Mt. Kilimanjaro and on safari in Eastern Africa.
That experience created the bond that led the two to talks of future adventures, including one failed attempt at summiting Mt. Rainier this past winter. When Garcia brought up the idea of tackling the EMGT, Swarner — a Frisco resident, who had no clue what the race was all about — couldn’t help but be intrigued.
“I had no idea it even existed until Garrison mentioned something about it,” said Swarner, who was the first ever cancer survivor to summit Mt. Everest. “But it doesn’t take much to convince me to do stuff like this.”
It will be Garcia’s fourth attempt at completing the EMGT in recent years. While just one of his three prior attempts ended by crossing the finish line in Aspen, this time around he’ll be carrying a torch that extends beyond his own desire to conquer the beastly endeavor.
“I really just wanted to support Sean’s cause, because it gave me so much,” said Garcia. “To be able to stand with a few other cancer survivors on top of Kilimanjaro was amazing. To do the Grand Traverse with Sean is going to be amazing.”
Reaching the finish line together is among their aspirations, but the team has set an ultimate goal of raising $1,500 for the CancerClimber Association in the process. Those funds will be split in two directions, one of which will go towards funding an ASG like the one that Garcia was awarded last year.
“It’s kind of like the Make a Wish Foundation program, except instead of it being about the end, it’s about the beginning,” Swarner explained.
The other half of the funds will go towards Swarner’s latest idea, which is to purchase a “mobile base camp” that can travel around the country to hospitals and cancer centers in hopes of spreading inspiration, education and empathy.
According to race coordinator Bryan Wickenhauser, fundraising efforts like Garcia and Swarner’s have exploded among EMGT competitors this year. After about 12 duos registered as a “charity team” last year, that number is at about 22 or 23 teams entering Friday night’s race.
“We know that this is an endeavor that’s big and meaningful to a lot of people,” said Wickenhauser. “If the race can be a catalyst to help them raise more money for the organization they feel near and dear to, it’s a win-win for the race, the athletes and the organizers.”
As far as the race goes, Swarner doesn’t know exactly what to expect. But he said that he should be in pretty good shape for it; in the past two weeks alone he’s completed the New York City Half-Marathon and an event in St. Louis called the Fight for Air Climb, which required scaling 40 flights of stairs to raise money for the Heart and Lung Association.
“(Garrison) knows where he’s going and what not to do,” said Swarner, who lost partial use of his lungs in recovery from cancer. “I’m just going to let him be my guru and go-to source.”
The only goal that Garcia has set in terms of the actual race is finishing and doing so in less than the 14 hours it took him the last time he completed the EMGT. His ultimate focus remains on giving back.
“I don’t have a bunch of money or the skills to advance any sort of medical technology,” said Garcia. “I just want to help in any way I can and I find this to be a way that I can help inspire people and raise money for a good cause.”
Swarner will speak about his experience as a two-time cancer survivor and life-long adventurer during an event that will be held tonight, March 28, at the University Center’s South Ballroom on the Western State Colorado University campus.
Admission to the event is free of charge and it will begin at 6 p.m.
For more information about the CancerClimber Association, visit cancerclimber.org. In order to donate to their effort, visit crowdrise.com/cancerclimberemgt/fundraiser.
(Matt Smith can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or firstname.lastname@example.org)