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Raaj walks along the beach in SF
Pat and team members in 2006
Raaj helps Gilda find a kidney



Guts to Glory for Team of One: Raaj Gopal treks 128 miles to raise organ donor awareness
By Susan Rich in Walk About Magazine (January 2006)

For the past four years, Raaj Gopal, 51, has run The Relay, a 199-mile race that starts in Napa Valley, CA, crosses the Golden Gate Bridge at midnight and ends on the beach in Santa Cruz. The race is the largest event in the world promoting organ donation. Gopal's wife, Gilda, 37, needs a kidney, and he is determined to run, and now walk, until she gets one.

In an effort to encourage more participants, this year The Relay opened to walkers. The course was shortened to 128 miles, with teams of 10 to 12 walkers splitting the distance into 24 legs. As with any first-time event, the number of entrants was low. In fact, Gopal says, he was the only walker registered for the Oct. 15-16 2005 relay.

"I was watching TV with my wife one night and it stuck in my head that I am going to walk this year for The Relay, instead of being on a running team." A longtime marathon runner, Gopal averages 26.2 in just fewer than 4 hours. "I was looking for a challenge," he says now. "I knew I could go 128 miles."

Years of running do not a walker make, Gopal soon realized. "Walking is different. With running, you have momentum, you lean forward. I thought with walking, it would be easier to walk uphill and downhill, but it's not. With walking, you use more of your legs, your lower back."

Undaunted, Gopal started training about 2 months before the event, managing to log in several 26-mile walks: The distance from his home, twice around the San Bruno Mountain trail loop, and back again. Gopal decided he was ready to walk, and walk alone.

Hey, Not so Fast
Until that October day, Pat Bowling, 55, had never met Raaj Gopal. A volunteer for The Relay, she impulsively offered to join him when she learned he planned to solo the distance. This was just five days before the race. " I decided, I have to walk with him, and I will walk as far as I can," Bowling recalls.

A self-described "moderately fit middle-aged woman," Bowling was only walking a handful of miles each week. With no time to prepare, she slipped on her New Balance trainers, packed a few extra pairs of socks, and met Gopal at the starting line.

"When Pat called me, she said, 'I'm not in the best of shape, and I don't have much time to train.' And I said, 'I'm not a walker, I turned myself into one and I will slow down to walk with you,'" Gopal says. "We met on the day of the race and my mind was so set to it, I didn't give her time to warm up. I was just boom, off the starting block. She had a little catching up to do; she would run a little bit. But she did very well."

"He was unbelievable," Bowling says. "Like the Energizer Bunny. He walked nonstop. We'd get to a relay station, where people normally stop and rest for a few minutes. Raaj would get his Gatorade, a piece of fruit, and keep going." The two maintained an average pace of 6 mph until severe blisters between her toes halted Bowling after 40 miles. "Aerobically I was fine. If I'd had better shoes I could have walked longer. "

She lost three toenails but gained a rock-solid commitment to the cause. Bowling has already organized one walking relay team for next year - she plans to walk with family and friends - and hopes to launch at least one more. "Next year, I'll train," she says, confident she'll go the distance.

Miles to Go Before Sleep
Snacking on fresh fruit, energy drinks, and one solid meal of miso soup and teriyaki beef, Gopal lost about 4 pounds before finishing the race in 31 hours, 5 minutes. "Along the way, I didn't think much. I knew I had miles to go before sleep. I got into the zone, my concentration so strong nothing could take it away. When I crossed the finish line, I had kind of an elated feeling, but I still had to slow down, walk a little more, before I could sit."

The force behind Gopal's motivation is Gilda, his wife of 10 years. "She needs a kidney transplant or will need to continue dialysis for the rest of her life," he says. "Gilda goes through so much. I want to take some of that pain, but I am healthy. I don't live on pins and needles [waiting for an organ donor]. If I run or walk I don't take one-tenth of her pain onto me."

Although she is in good health and has an excellent chance of surviving until a donor can be found for her, thousands of others are not as fortunate, Gopal says. He urges people to seriously consider becoming an organ donor. "Someone waiting for a body part is waiting for a second chance at life. If you want to be an organ donor, help your family understand this."

A check mark on the driver's license is not enough. In the event of a fatal injury, there is a small window of time in which organs can be harvested. "If your family doesn't know you want to be considered a potential donor, they can refuse."

"Organ donation is a way of continuing the life of a loved one," he explains. "A human being can give life to as many as seven or eight people. It's the biggest gift any one person can give."

Even when his wife receives a kidney, he plans to continue solo walking The Relay each year. And Gopal will be seeing Bowling on the course. "I have to have a cause," she says, "and this is it. I've learned that so many organs are just wasted. I believe if we can get ten people aware of organ transplants it will be worth it." To register for The Relay, April 8-9 2006, visit