"It was surreal, awesome," recalled Zuluaga, a Tempe, AZ, sales representative and a member of The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society's inaugural Hike For DiscoverySM team. "I felt I was in another world. What a privilege to experience a place like that!"
Javier and his teammates were completing a day-long trek into the Grand Canyon and back, the result of several months of preparation that introduced them to proper hiking techniques, fitness skills and nutrition advice. Led by expert coaches, the hikers were motivated by the chance to explore one of the world's great natural wonders, and inspired by an even loftier goal -- in return for training, they raised funds to help the Society cure blood cancers like leukemia, lymphoma and myeloma.
"This really was an opportunity to give back," said Javier. "The training was great, the hike amazing, and I made a lot of friends. But even better was the satisfaction that I was doing something important to honor and commemorate a great friend."
From the football field to the trail
Zuluaga learned about Hike For Discovery shortly after hearing that his college football coach was fighting non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a blood cancer. Zuluaga, a former linebacker at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, M.D., deeply admired Michael Drake, the team's defensive-back coach.
"He was always striving to make people better, to give it their all whether or not they succeeded," Zuluaga recalled. "When Coach Drake was diagnosed with cancer, we knew he'd fight for all he was worth -- all of us who loved him were deeply affected by his battle for survival.
In 2004, during Drake's short-lived remission, Zuluaga decided that the two of them should train for the hike. "This was meant to be a celebration of life, a way to help coach, who loved the Southwest, to beat his cancer," said Zuluaga.
Drake trained for a couple months before relapsing, finally succumbing to the disease three months after the hike in August 2005. Zuluaga and his wife, Gina, carried on, raising $10,500 to help advance the Society's mission through garage sales, letters to friends and family, charity softball games and other fun events.
"Coach Drake had a passion for life, which we wanted to celebrate," Zuluaga said.
For more information about the 2006 Hike For Discovery, please visit www.hikefordiscovery.org.