Throughout his life, Al Mackay has spent hundreds of hours hiking throughout the Adirondacks and the Northeast with a 35-pound pack thrown over his shoulder.
As he tackles Vermont's Long Trail starting on Monday, he’ll be carrying a different sort of weight, physically and mentally.
The Stillwater resident will be hiking the 272-mile trail not with the usual lightweight trail food but with packs of nutritional blends that he can eat through a feeding tube. Each meal is much heavier than the trail food he’s carried in the past, and he also has to make room in his pack for tubes and other equipment.
But that’s not going to stop him; it’s actually the reason he’s hiking in the first place. With each mile hiked, he’s donating money to the Oley Foundation, a non-profit that assists people with intravenous nutrition and enteral feeding.
“Limitations are a state of mind,” Mackay said.
The Adirondack 46er has never been one to slow down. Throughout his career, he has owned and/or managed the Luther Forest Corporation and ran Saratoga Water Services, Inc. and the Saratoga Lake Golf Club. He also served on the Zoning Board of Appeals for the Town of Stillwater
But in 1999, he was diagnosed with tonsil cancer. He had a tonsillectomy, followed by aggressive rounds of chemotherapy and radiation. Shortly afterward, he was told that he was cancer free.
However, years later, he developed a high-grade sarcoma in his esophagus, as a result of his radiation treatments. As the sarcoma grew, Mackay could barely swallow and struggled even to breathe.
Finally, in 2017, he met with doctors and surgeons at Boston Medical to talk about an operation. Doctor Michael Daley told him in no uncertain terms that the surgery was going to be difficult and that recovery was going to be anything but a walk in the park, adding that Mackay had better live a full life afterward.
Mackay went through with it and experienced plenty of ups and downs along the way.
The operation was scheduled to last 12 hours, while doctors removed the sarcoma and performed two skin grafs. However, they were done in eight, said Annette, Mackay’s wife. Recovery felt like an uphill battle though, especially after he failed a breathing test.
“The next day, I was starting to quit. I was giving up,” Mackay said. With the help of his family, who were always with him in the hospital, along with his spiritual community at Celebrating Life Ministry, Mackay made a full recovery.
Since 2017, he’s been enteral eating or tube feeding, which was quite an adjustment at first; learning how to get enough nutrition, figuring out how to navigate tricky situations like airport security.
Mackay found that the Oley Foundation was a key resource through it all. The non-profit assists people with intravenous feeding and enteral feeding, offering advice, advocacy, networking and education.
His goal in hiking the Long Trail is to raise $15,000 for the Foundation. So far, dozens of people have pledged certain amounts per mile, or made contributions of some sort and he’s up over $13,000.
“It offers hope,” said Joan Bishop, the executive director of the foundation.
“News of this is going to inspire people,” Bishop said. When people have to start enteral feeding, the adjustment can be really difficult, not only physically but socially. But people like Al, who are comfortable talking about enteral feeding, help to raise awareness around the subject and inspire confidence in others.
“You can go beyond the boundaries that are set for you,” Bishop said.
Mackay started training for the trail just a few months ago, while the weather was still chilly and rainy.
“My first practice day, I put 35 pounds on my back and tried to walk six miles, which I did,” Mackay said.
It was much more difficult than he expected and he considered scaling back his hiking goal. But that’s not his style.
Last week, he went on a 14-hour hike and it didn’t feel too strenuous.
“I’m as tuned as I probably can be,” Mackay said.
He’s hiked the Long Trail in sections before and well remembers the most challenging portions of the trail, which for him was Burn Rock Mountain, in Mad River Valley, Vermont.
“It’s a very pretty and very challenging stretch,” Mackay said.
Beyond hiking, Mackay is also concerned with making sure he has enough food. He’ll be stopping to refuel every few days, with Annette and other family members bringing him more meals and other resources.
When he went on other hiking trips in the past, Mackay said missing a meal or two and losing a few pounds wasn’t a big deal, it was normal even. He doesn’t have that luxury this time.
“I don’t have ten pounds to lose this time,” Mackay said.
Starting on Monday, he’s planning on hiking 12 to 14 miles a day. He hopes to complete the trail by July 12. Along the way, he’ll keep everyone who donates to the Oley Foundation updated on his progress via email. Anyone who would like to donate can email him at [email protected] He plans to present the Foundation with the donations shortly after he gets back.