Motivation in training is a personal thing. For some of us, it’s driven by a desire to win a local race, or PR a Strava segment. For others, training is a goal in and of itself, providing a sense of structure and routine. For Cameron Summerson, training was motivated by something entirely different, something far more important than a podium photo or a higher FTP. Cam was training to save his young son’s life.
For Cam’s full interview check out Successful Athletes Podcast Ep. 4.
Cycling started unceremoniously for Cam, who lives in Texarkana, AR and serves as editor-in-chief of a technology website. Back in 2013, like many young parents Cam found himself out of shape and overweight, and decided to make a change for the better. He took up cycling and started watching his diet, losing about 40 lbs through recreational riding and conscious eating.
Everything changed for Cam and his family on December 26, 2014. That winter his 2 year-old son Axten got very sick, and on Christmas day Cam’s wife Kori noticed Ax’s legs looked swollen. His condition worsened and the family brought him to the emergency room first thing the next morning. He was quickly rushed to Children’s Medical Center in Dallas where they got the news- Ax was suffering from Focal Segmental Glomerulosclerosis (FSGS), a rare disease causing irreversible scarring of the kidneys. Worse still, his condition had progressed to the point of end-stage renal failure, requiring immediate dialysis. Doctors reported that had he not been rushed to the ER, Axten likely had only about 24 hours to live.
The diagnosis arrived around midnight. By 9:00am the next morning Ax had undergone an operation and was on hemodialysis, with his small size requiring a catheter directly into his heart. He spent 3 weeks in the hospital, and then several months returning 4 times a week for dialysis sessions to normalize his fluid levels. Eventually, Ax was placed on peritoneal dialysis, a procedure that can be achieved at home. For 12 hours every night, his little body was attached to the dialysis machine in an uncomfortable process, enabling something resembling normal life during the day.
The only long-term solution for Ax’s condition was a Kidney transplant, but it would be several years until he was grown enough to be ready for one. Kori quit her job to become full-time mom, teacher, and nurse, and the family decided that Cam was the best candidate to donate an organ. This process requires not only a blood type match but also good physical fitness, with healthy blood pressure and body weight of paramount importance. While he’d lost some weight from cycling and had resumed recreational riding after the diagnosis, Cam had a long way to go. Now, he had motivation, and his goal was bigger than any race or PR. Cam was training towards a kidney donation, and his goal was literally life or death for his young son.
In early 2017 Cam heard about TrainerRoad from a colleague, who gave him a free month trial. “It literally changed my life,” Cam told me. “I learned how hard I could go, how deep I could dig. It changed how I approached everything in my life- both on and off the bike.”
Motivation and Goals
Throughout the following year of training, Cam faced setbacks, but these little annoyances paled in comparison to what he was working towards. Every day brought crushing new challenges for the now almost 5 year-old Ax, with extreme physical weakness and surprise hospital admissions adding to the continuing pain of nightly 12-hour dialysis sessions. But through it all he was unwavering in his bravery, and Cam looked to him for inspiration.
“Ax had that will, that drive to not give up, and that was so motivating to me. Every time I wanted to give up, I thought of everything he’d been through, and think about just watching him overcome every obstacle that was put in front of him. And there’s nothing more motivating… honestly he’s my hero.”Cameron Summerson
Cam’s journey to fitness followed the same path as many athletes, driven by a big idea and reinforced with small milestones along the way. “Motivation and goals are dynamic,” he explains. “It started off with just this big goal, but when I started seeing myself get faster that became even more motivating.” Also like any other athlete, Cam’s training was complicated by external stress and life events, and he fit in his time on the bike whenever he could. Sometimes he’d ride early knowing he’d be in the hospital with his family all day, other times he’d train late at night.
By early spring, Cam’s fitness had improved to the point where he began preliminary testing for kidney donation. After several months of physical and mental screening, a final test 3 days before the operation confirmed his readiness.
In October 2017, Cam’s kidney was removed by Dr. Dev Mahendra Desai at UT Southwestern Hospital, and transplanted to Ax at Children’s Medical Center by Dr. Mouin Siekally, just a few hours later.
A New Normal
Recovery was very slow for Cam, but very fast for Axten. Just over a week post-op Ax was discharged from the hospital, and was running around and feeling good for the first time in years. Cam, on the other hand, experienced the most physically challenging period of his entire journey. The operation cut through his abdominal muscles, and the loss of core strength made it difficult to even get out of bed. After 6 weeks, he was cleared to begin riding gently indoors for an excruciatingly difficult 30 minutes at a time. He called on his months spent training before surgery to guide himself forward, with his knowledge of how hard he’d pushed himself a reminder of what he could achieve. After 3 months he was cleared to ride normally.
Life will never be the same for the Summerson family. For 8 year-old Ax, continued health challenges persist. Live-donor kidney transplants bring long-term improvements, but there are no permanent fixes for chronic renal disease. In addition, his physical and mental development were both affected by his illness, and Ax will deal with the severe ramifications of his disease for the rest of his life.
For Cam, motivation is different now. He achieved his goal, a goal so immense that few of us can begin to understand it. Now, his drive to get faster and fitter has changed. His single-minded push to improve his body has been replaced by a lasting love of cycling, and an ongoing motivation to be the healthiest dad he can be. “For the rest of his life, this is going to be something Ax is going to deal with… at some point in his life, he’s going to need a new kidney, and I know that. And I can’t give it to him.”
But Cam Summerson is still driven to improve. His goals are just simpler now.
“I can be strong for him.”
For more cycling training knowledge, listen to Ask a Cycling Coach — the only podcast dedicated to making you a faster cyclist. New episodes are released weekly.
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