VUHS students take on a challenge for a good cause

VERGENNES — By the middle of the day on Feb. 6, Vergennes Union High School students Nate Rowell and Max Ratti-Bicknell had completed one two-and-half-hour, 10-kilometer circuit and climbed, crawled or jumped over its five-dozen obstacles at the Polar Bear Challenge at Benson’s Shale Hill Adventure.
At that point, Rowell, a senior from Vergennes, and Ratti-Bicknell, a junior from Ferrisburgh, had already met their obligation to donors who had pledged money to the VUHS National Honor Society to fund research to fight polycystic kidney disease (PKD), the group’s major community service challenge.
But they finished their snacks and went back out and clambered over 20-foot walls, hung from monkey bars while moving hand-over-hand uphill, pulled themselves up ropes, and ran between the dozens of similar obstacles all over again.
“The cause was enough incentive for us to run as hard as we could,” Rowell said.
The two had offered to take on the Polar Bear Challenge as a way to draw potential donors’ attention to that cause, which is personal to the tight-knit honor society: Member Hailey Cray’s mother, Dana Cray, is one of the roughly 600,000  PKD patients in the United States.
In PKD, according to mayoclinic.org and kidney.org, fluid-filled cysts develop and grow in kidneys, and possibly other organs, once its onset arrives, typically between the ages of 30 and 40.
Its severity varies, and Hailey Cray, a senior from Addison, said her mother is doing well, but treatment is largely focused on diet, and ultimately many patients need kidney transplants as they age. About 5 percent of the transplants performed in the U.S. are to PKD patients, while in the meantime research funds are scant. (See related story here)
Hailey Cray said her mother is currently undergoing an experimental treatment, but options remain few.
“A lot of it is waiting until your kidneys fail, and then you go on dialysis, and then you go on the transplant list,” she said. “And depending on how desperate you are, how long you are going to be able to live without a kidney, your place on the transplant list can vary.”
Therefore, Cray is grateful for her peers’ willingness to submit themselves to the Polar Bear Challenge.
“I couldn’t have done it, so I was very impressed both of them did it. Just all the running between the obstacles, I think it would seriously tire you out,” Cray said. “They did one lap, came in and ate, and went right out for another one. And I was kind of amazed, and very, very impressed that they were doing this. And very touched that it was doing something for a disease I care about.”
For Rowell, doing so was nothing new. A soccer player at VUHS, he had been introduced to the Benson obstacle course as a freshman in a sports leadership workshop. As a sophomore, he ran the Polar Bear Challenge to raise money for breast cancer research to support his mother, then a breast cancer patient, now in remission. Since then he has run a summer event at the Benson center, which has a growing reputation among endurance and fitness enthusiasts.  
Rowell said he was hooked as a freshman.
“It was muddy, and we just all ran through the course,” Rowell said. “It was kind of like, this is something I could really see myself doing as a hobby.”
Ratti-Bicknell, a soccer teammate of Rowell’s, was new to Shale Hill Adventure on Feb. 6. Although he made it through both circuits he sounded unsure if he planned to make it a habit.
“It was a lot harder than I thought,” Ratti-Bicknell said. “I saw the pictures, and Nate’s done it before, and I thought, ‘I can do it.’ It’s not for everybody.”
Ratti-Bicknell was asked which obstacles were the toughest.
“The toughest for me? The ones I could do or couldn’t do?” he said. “One was like Tarzan, where you were swinging between ropes. I tried that one and landed right on my butt. One that actually hurt me was called the Gut Check, where you have to jump from one log onto another log. The point is you catch it on your stomach, but I missed it and hit it with my chest. That was fun, right on the first couple obstacles.”
Rowell said the cumulative effect of the obstacles wears down participants.
“It’s a lot of upper-body-intensive obstacles. It’s easy to say, ‘I can do this one obstacle,’” Rowell said. “But when you put it in context of the other 51 obstacles to a lap, it really takes its toll on you over time.”
They both agreed a 20-foot-tall wooden climbing wall dubbed the “Destroyer,” was tough because of its steep pitch and wide spacing of handholds.   
But Cray said leaner, wiry participants like Rowell and Ratti-Bicknell actually fared better on that obstacle.
“There were a couple real tall, big guys who were trying to be real tough and go up the side with minimal hand grips,” she said. “And they would try seven, eight, 10 times. And Nate comes up, and he and the smaller guys, not the basketball players, six-three guys, go right up and over.”
Cray said the entire honor society chipped in, but senior Nora Hubbard joined her, Rowell and Ratti-Bicknell in spearheading the effort to get a letter written explaining PKD and the fund-raising plan and distributing it throughout the VUHS community.
“We sent it to a lot of people, and we got a really good response,” Cray said.
As of late last week, they had raised more than $4,300 toward the group’s $6,000 goal, and other fundraisers are planned, such as a bake sale, possibly combined with a movie night, and maybe a sponsored 5-kilometer run.  
“We’ll keep going,” Cray said. “A lot of family members are still sending checks in the mail. One way or another, we’ll get there.”
Probably the other efforts won’t be quite as exciting as the Polar Bear Challenge, or, Ratti-Bicknell said, as fun.
“When you’re out there doing it, like seeing what you really can do, like climbing up this rope, you feel like Batman,” Ratti-Bicknell said. “It’s really cool.”
But all the help from any quarter is truly welcome, dramatic or not, Cray said.
“It’s been a lot of people stepping up and doing a lot of good things,” she said. “We’re such a small school, it does feel like a community. Everyone knows everyone’s parents. And that’s in the definition of the National Honor Society. I think it’s a lot of like-minded people, and community service is really held in high esteem, and just doing good things, too.”
Those interested in contributing can make checks payable to the PKD Cure Foundation and mail them to Vergennes Union High School, 50 Monkton Road, Vergennes, VT 05491. 

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