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50-Plus Living: Stillwater cancer survivor completes Long Trail hike

50-Plus Living: Stillwater cancer survivor completes Long Trail hike

Al Mackay made 272-mile trek while enteral (tube) feeding; raised money for Oley Foundation
50-Plus Living: Stillwater cancer survivor completes Long Trail hike
With the Long Trail as a backdrop, Al Mackay is shown enteral (tube) feeding and atop Jay Peak with sister Barbara.
Photographer: shutterstock/laura knapp/al mackay

Al Mackay reached a few new peaks this month. 

The Stillwater resident hiked Vermont’s 272-mile Long Trail, all while feeding enterally and while raising money for the Oley Foundation,  a non-profit that assists people with intravenous nutrition and enteral feeding. 

Oh, and a sprained knee. 

Mackay’s motto is “limitations are a state of mind,” and he certainly lived that out along the trail.   

The Adirondack 46er is well known not only in the hiking community but in the local business community. 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.

He was diagnosed with tonsil cancer in 1999, and had a tonsillectomy and was given several aggressive rounds of chemotherapy and radiation. Shortly after, he was told he was cancer-free. However, years later, he developed a high-grade sarcoma on his esophagus. In 2017, he underwent extensive surgery to remove it and, after a long recovery, started to feed enterally or through a tube. 

It was an adjustment, trying to figure out the best ways to balance his diet and get proper nutrients. The Oley Foundation helped him do just that. 

“I was in the dark, originally,” Mackay said. 

The non-profit, which has an office in Delmar, assists people through education, advocacy and networking. Mackay’s goal was to raise $15,000 during the hike. For everyone who donated, he would add them to an email list which he would send updates to throughout the hike. 

He embarked on the journey on June 17, with a nearly 40-pound pack of food and other supplies. Unlike many of his other hikes, he could only carry two and a half days worth of food with him because it weighed more than typical trail food. 

Each day he had three meals and two snacks, taking in around 4,000 calories.

“A lot of people lose 10-20 pounds on a trip such as this. I lost only four pounds,” Mackay said. 

He made resupply stops every few days with his wife, Annette, and other family members meeting up with him.

Things started off pretty well. However, about halfway through the second day on the trail, his knee started hurting. It got to the point where he couldn’t walk on it. Yet, he still had six miles to go to get to a stop. 

“It ultimately got so bad that I was taking half steps,” Mackay said. 

After several hours of walking (at a rate of about a mile an hour) he finally reached his destination. He contacted his family, who brought him to an orthopedic doctor in Saratoga, who told him he sprained his Medial Collateral Ligament (MCL). 

“I was mad, frustrated and confused. I asked myself, ‘Why my knee?’ I had never had a knee injury before. The rest of my body [wasn’t] hurting at all,” Mackay said. 

Luckily, Annette is a medical massage therapist and was able to help him get back on the trail within six days. He had to wear a brace, but he was walking pain-free, for the most part. 

Throughout the journey, he walked between 11 and 14 miles, going by his trail name, Lego, which he’d actually picked up during a hike back in 2013. 

“It didn’t make a difference what the weather was. I needed to make it from point A to point B in two and a half days or I wouldn’t have food. So there was a lot of incentive to that,” Mackay said. 

As one might expect of such a long journey, he had a few brutal days. 

“One was going from Cooley Glen Shelter up over three mountains before lunch and then the fourth mountain was Camel’s Hump, which is a little over 4,000 feet. It was a hot day and I got so dehydrated that both my thumbs split open I was so dry. It took me almost 12 or 13 hours,” Mackay said. 

There were also plenty of rewarding moments too. 

On July 4, after a resupply stop, he headed to Mount Mansfield, which is about a 10-mile hike, mostly uphill. 

“All of a sudden, five miles had gone by in two and a half hours, which is two miles an hour uphill, pretty fast. It was like ‘How’d that happen? Who was pushing me?’ Something carried me up. Before I knew it, the ten miles was gone and I was at the shelter like nothing had happened like I hadn’t walked at all,” Mackay said. 

He often went by his trail name, Lego, along the way and met people hiking not only the Long Trail but the Appalachian Trail as well. Started in 1910 by the Green Mountain Club, the Long Trail is one of the oldest long-distance hiking trails in the United States and about 100 miles of it overlaps with the Appalachian Trail, in southern Vermont. 

While he hiked most of the way alone, Mackay was sometimes joined by his son, Aaron, daughter, Marissa, sister, Barbera, and wife, Annette.

He finished hiking on July 19 and was able to raise over his original goal of $15,000, through a few people he met on the trail as well as others who read about his journey in the Gazette. 

Mackay is working with the Oley Foundation to plan a presentation on the trail on how he was able to manage his nutrition while hiking nearly 14 miles a day.  

“As a tube feeder, I can’t emphasize enough, there are no limitations. It is a state of mind. You can decide what you want to do and how you want to do it,” Mackay said, adding,

“Life is not different, except for how my nutrition enters my body. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, it’s nothing to be embarrassed about, it’s just a different way to get nutrition into the body.” 

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