When Nate Boutcher was 22, he found out his kidneys were failing. He wasn’t totally shocked by the doctor’s news, since his dad had suffered from kidney failure throughout Boutcher’s childhood, but the diagnosis still hit him hard. Like most undergrads, he thought he was invincible at the time.
“I knew that I had scarring on my kidneys when I was 18, but I didn’t think it would get any worse. When I went in at age 22, I had some swelling, but I thought it was because I needed stronger medicine—but it turned out, I had severe kidney failure,” Boutcher, who is now 27, told Runner’s World. “My dad didn’t deal with kidney failure and dialysis treatment well. He gave up on himself and just accepted that he would always be sick. I didn’t want to go through that, too.”
Because his kidneys had stopped working, Boutcher needed immediate hemodialysis treatment, which cleans blood and removes fluids and extra waste in the same way working kidneys do. Boutcher was instructed to go in for dialysis three times per week for around four hours each time, for the indefinite future.
“Unless you get a successful kidney transplant, dialysis is basically a life sentence,” Boutcher, a resident of Ontario, said. “I figured I had a choice between sinking and swimming while living with dialysis, so I decided to swim.”
The way to do that? Challenge himself to do things he never thought possible. Five years after he began his kidney dialysis, Boutcher completed the 2019 Detroit Marathon in October, finishing in 5:15:55. While he was all smiles during the race, getting to that finish line took years of hard work, commitment, and remarkable mental toughness.
After Boutcher was diagnosed and began treatment in 2014, he felt terrible for the first six months afterward as his body adjusted to the medicine and the rigor of dialysis. Because of all the time he spent in the hospital, he had to drop out of college.
“Mentally, I was in a really bad space. I thought life wouldn’t ever be normal again,” he said.
By 2015, however, Boutcher began to improve. His doctors adjusted his medication to decrease his nausea and pain, and his body started to feel strong again. In the fall of 2015, he went back to finish his degree at St. Clair College, but this time arrived on campus with a fresh outlook: He was done with drinking, smoking, and playing video games, and instead focused on being the healthiest version of himself he could be.
On the days he didn’t have dialysis treatment—which completely sapped his energy—he began weight lifting, going to karate classes, hiking, and practicing yoga. He joined a yoga studio owned by one of his dialysis nurses, and a few months later, became a certified yoga instructor at the studio.
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In March 2018, Boutcher decided he wanted to take on a new fitness challenge, so he downloaded a beginner’s 5K training plan.
“I always avoided running when I was a kid, but I realized it was because I always went out too fast and died. Once I found a pace that I could comfortably hold, running became much more fun,” he said. “After I started running a few days a week, I got stronger.”
Boutcher finished his 5K in the spring, then signed up for the Detroit Half Marathon in October 2018. To prepare for it, he did four runs per week—alternating days of running with days of dialysis treatment—on top of teaching three weekly yoga classes. After he finished the 13.1 miles in 2:31:17, he knew he wanted to go for the full distance the following year.
“I wanted to run a marathon just to see if I could do it, and also use it as a way to fundraise for other kidney dialysis patients,” Boutcher said.
He signed up for the 2019 Detroit Marathon as soon as registration opened, then set a goal to raise $5,000 to support people living with chronic diseases. His dream is to create a nonprofit that gives chronically ill patients wellness packages, complete with journals to jot down their goals and other items to help de-stress. At the time of the race, Boutcher had raised around $3,000; he plans to continue fundraising in the future.
To prepare for his first marathon, Boutcher followed a similar training plan as the half marathon, but with longer long runs on Wednesdays—his farthest was an 18-miler—and an interval workout during the week. He ran on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, and had dialysis treatment on the remaining days of the week.
As he increased his running distance and intensity, he had to closely monitor what he ate and drank. Excess fluids and minerals like potassium, phosphorous, and sodium can wreak havoc on his body, since his kidneys cannot filter blood normally.
“I’m only supposed to drink one liter of water a day total,” Boutcher said. “But when I’m running, I obviously need more than that. Luckily, I sweat a lot while I run, so my doctors said I should just replace whatever I sweat out.” For the marathon, he stopped at water stops during the first half, then had a few GU gels on the second half.
Now that he’s checked off a 26.2-miler, Boutcher is planning to take some down time to celebrate the race. He said he hopes that through running, he can help support other people who are suffering from a chronic disease, and also inspire them to take back their own lives.
“Just because I have this disease doesn’t mean I can’t run a marathon,” he said. “I’m still able.”
Digital Editor Hailey first got hooked on running news as an intern with Running Times, and now she reports on elite runners and cyclists, feel-good stories, and training pieces for Runner’s World and Bicycling magazines.