Wookie Kim in a red shirt smiling on a knife edge ridge in Hawaii
(Photo: Wookie Kim)

Nothing Stops Wookie Kim

A near-death experience prompted this trail runner to take stock of what mattered to him—fighting for civil rights and adventures in the mountains

Wookie Kim in a red shirt smiling on a knife edge ridge in Hawaii
Wookie Kim

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At 5 A.M. on July 10, 2016, Wookie Kim left his car in the parking lot of the Four Pass Loop, a rugged 27-mile route through Colorado’s Elk Mountains, with several passes around 12,000 feet. The run was on Kim’s bucket list, and he was eager to tick it off.

At the time, he was working in a high-pressure D.C. law firm, working grueling hours with minimal access to the trails he loved, so he was excited to spend a long day adventuring with friends in the Rocky Mountains. A nagging headache bothered Kim slightly, but he assumed it was dehydration, so he kept hydrating, just to make sure. He’d been at altitude for a few days, and he wasn’t worried. It’s probably nothing, he assured himself.

Normally a fit athlete used to tackling sub-three-hour marathons, he was annoyed when he wasn’t able to keep pace with his running partner, Will Dorsey Eden, also from D.C. He was more annoyed than afraid when his feet began to stumble on West Maroon Pass’s technical terrain, since it was well within his pay grade as an experienced ultrarunner. Maybe it was just an off day? Kim shook it off and kept moving.

Halfway between the second and third pass, in an almost inaccessible basin above 10,000 feet, Kim realized he was in trouble. His headache intensified, and he wasn’t able to navigate even the less technical sections of the trail smoothly. His run slowed to a shuffling hike. He talked the options through with his running partner: they could keep going, go back, or try and bail off the loop into the “nearby” town of Marble, Colorado, several grueling miles and many hours away. They decided to forge ahead, with Eden physically carrying him until he could no longer stand.

The last thing Kim remembers is asking three passing hikers for ibuprofen before his memory went blank, and everything went dark.

Kim lost consciousness on the trail. Some backpackers who were nearby helped stabilize him and prevented him from aspirating on his own vomit, while his running partner ran all the way back to the Maroon Bells parking lot to get help from the ranger stationed there.

Wrapped in a tarp, Kim began seizing. He was unresponsive by the time Aspen Mountain Rescue arrived with oxygen, though he was breathing and had a slow pulse. They immediately requested a medevac from Flight For Life. Kim was evacuated to St. Anthony hospital in Summit County, alive, but in a coma.

A man is in a coma hooked up tubes and in bed
(Photo: Wookie Kim)

Fade to Black

Kim was unconscious for three days. He had suffered from high-altitude cerebral edema (HACE), a rare, life-threatening acute altitude sickness where the brain swells due to lack of oxygen, and high-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE), which seldom happens at altitudes as low as 12,000 feet, where Kim was running. When he was rescued, his left lung was almost entirely filled with fluid, leaving Kim to drown in his own breath. The hospital staff thought Kim’s prognosis was grim.

He finally awoke, intubated, with no memory of what happened, and no ability to speak. He spent 10 days in the hospital, re-learning how to speak, walk, and do simple math. (Kim’s condition was so critical and rare that it was eventually used in a medical case study for neurologists who study HACE).

In a blog post written a year after his release, Kim writes: “People also ask me if I’ll ever go back into the mountains. The answer is an unequivocal yes. As much as the past year has made me reflect on the value of life, I also know that a well-lived life requires a series of well-calculated risks. The mountains that nearly killed me are also the mountains that have brought so much joy in my life. That’s not something I’m willing to give up. It might sound reckless, particularly after experiencing so much trauma. But to borrow the words of another ultrarunner, ‘I’m not sure what level of risk is acceptable for me at this point, but I can say that a life of no risk is unacceptable.’”

Ten days later, back in D.C. Kim’s brush with death taught him two things: he still loved running trails (he ran his next ultra, the Patapsco Valley 50K, just a month after leaving the hospital, and his first 100-miler five months later, at the Devil Dog Ultras in Virginia), and he wanted to quit his job at his law firm and dedicate his life to fighting for civil rights.

Two runners at the finish line of an ultra, around a brown forest
(Photo: Wookie Kim)

Running Towards the Law

Wookie Kim speaks with the polish and purpose of someone who’s used to being careful and specific. A true lawyer. Each word is intentional, each phrase well-ordered and thought through as if he’s presenting a case in the courtroom. For someone so adept at crafting a coherent narrative, he’s reluctant to engage in any self-mythologizing.

Kim was born in Seoul, South Korea, and grew up in a Korean-American household attending international schools in Hong Kong and Tokyo before moving to Concord, New Hampshire, to attend boarding school.

“I didn’t want to play any sports,” says Kim. “Like, cross-country? What the hell is that? You run in circles? It didn’t sound that appealing, but I did it anyway.” Kim discovered he had a talent, if not for running, for pushing himself.

“I was the kid who just loved putting himself in pain,” says Kim. “I was the kid who just loved suicide sprints, the kid who just loved running until I almost passed out. And I guess that just continued.”

After finishing high school, Kim went on to study at Yale, earning a B.A. in Ethics, Politics, and Economics. In college, he ran his first 26.2 at the New York City Marathon as a sophomore and went back to do that race again as a junior, running it in under three hours.

“That made me realize, huh, I guess I’m decently fast,” says Kim. He was hooked.

Kim dabbled in marathons and triathlons, signing up for his first Ironman before having ever done a triathlon, or even owning a road bike. He had developed a taste for pushing himself and was always curious to see how far he could go. After college, he spent two years at Teach for America before going to Harvard Law school, where, after two more sedentary years, he rekindled his affection for running.

It was then that Kim met Kyle Pietari, who was two years behind him in law school, and already an accomplished ultrarunner with several prestigious ultras to his name. Kim and Pietari became quick friends and running partners, and Pietari began to slowly lure Kim to the dark side of running: trail and ultra.

“Ultrarunning was something I knew existed, I just didn’t think I’d ever get anywhere near it,” says Kim. “Then, I met Kyle.”

Soon, the two were racking up miles and bonding over their shared experiences as law students. They loaded their running packs with textbooks, and Pietari encouraged Kim to explore ultrarunning, sharing that, if you could train for a fast marathon, you could train for a hundred.

“Wookie is a go-getter who moves through life driven by passion and purpose,” says Pietari.  “When he sets his sights on a goal, he’ll pursue it with ferocity on the inside, but on the outside you’ll only see a level head and a sense of humor.”

“I thought to myself, That’s interesting, maybe I can do something with this,” says Kim. So, he signed up for and ran the JFK 50, a legendary “Beast Coast” test piece, notorious for its combination of technical Appalachian Trail and fast towpath.

Kim loved it so much, he immediately signed up for his first 100-mile race, unknowingly months before he would end up in a coma, wired to numerous beeping and pumping machines in the Colorado Rockies. Pietari says Kim immediately took trail running to the next level.

“Wookie had almost no experience trail running, camping, filmmaking, or planning outdoor adventures. When he decided he wanted to experience trail running, he immediately took it to an extreme,” says PIetari. “He planned a crazy trip around the U.S. and did 45 different trail runs in 45 days! He blogged and made a great film that documents all of the runs.”

A New Outlook on Life

Recovering from his near-death experience prompted Kim to take stock of what he really wanted in life, forcing him to shift his mindset towards living in the present. He had originally started work at his law firm doing general business litigation with the intent of making and saving money so that he could one day move into more meaningful and fulfilling work in civil rights.

“That near-death incident, and recovering from it, prompted me to reflect on my life trajectory. The biggest takeaway for me is very trite, but you never know whether you’ll be here tomorrow. I was trying to shift my mindset towards living in the present,” says Kim. “And what I usually tell people is: don’t defer until tomorrow the things that you want to do today.”

Still in the hospital, Kim began to outline the criteria for the next phase of his life. He wanted to work for “an awesome civil rights organization,” and he wanted to live in a community with excellent outdoors access, where people prioritized work-life balance.

“For most of my adult life, I’ve been in these environments that are very Type A high pressure, you know, focused on achieving. That wasn’t important to me anymore. You know, I think as with many things, you’re sort of socialized into thinking that you just have to keep achieving, keep adding to the resume or what have you. And I wanted to leave that environment. I wanted to live in a community where work isn’t the first thing or only thing that you talk about at happy hour.”

Taking Time For The Trails

So, Kim and his wife Gillian moved to Honolulu, Hawai’i, where Kim now serves as the Legal Director at the ACLU of Hawai’i.

“During law school, Wookie knew he wanted to practice civil rights law. He never gave up that dream,” says Pietari. “After years in the elite big law firm world, he walked away from money and prestige to go fight for civil rights with the ACLU. Within the industry, I know a lot of lawyers deeply respect him for that.”

“I really wanted to work for the people,” says Kim. “I want to ensure the promise of equality that our nation was purportedly founded on, and not just in a legalistic sense. I want to help prevent systemic discrimination of women, Black people, people of color, and against people experiencing poverty. That’s why I became a civil rights lawyer.”

Kim is particularly passionate about civil rights issues around gender equity, and is currently suing the state of Hawai’i for a disparity in facilities for high school athletes. According to the case, high school girls were changing in teachers’ closets and in a Burger King restroom because they didn’t have access to the same locker room facilities as the boys. Kim is also currently working on cases related to reproductive justice and expanded access to abortion medication, as well as making sure that unhoused people aren’t penalized for poverty.

Kim is equally passionate about his legal work as he is about his adventures in the mountains and waves of Hawai’i. To balance it, he does his best to integrate his two passions by run-commuting to work, or using his solo time on the trails to sift through legal arguments. On days when he goes into the ACLU office, he’ll often take the scenic route: a six-mile jaunt along the coast to soak up fresh ocean air before retreating into the beige confines of his law office.

The work is hard, often keeping Kim tied to his computer for 12 or more hours a day (he says it’s not uncommon to work an 18-hour shift, which is “decent 100-mile training,” as he puts it), pulling all-nighters as he sifts through depositions and prepares oral arguments. Mountain adventures have become a critical part of how Kim takes care of himself. Running around Honolulu, Kim sees police cars and other reminders of the work he’s doing. Trails help take him away from that world.

“I always make time to run,” says Kim. “But for me, disconnecting from work is so important, especially getting out on the trails. When I’m out, up on Tantalus [a lush, forested 10-mile loop above Honolulu with 1,400 feet of gain] all by myself and all I can hear is the birds, that is disconnection.”

Burnout is common in Kim’s world. It’s not just the workload, which is substantial, but the difficult, emotionally-involved nature of the work. Kim and his colleagues often work with people grappling with the trauma of being unhoused, experiencing systemic racism, or having their civil rights be violated, and those sensitive topics can hit close to home.

Kim says he has also taken up surfing, which forces him to leave his cell phone on the shore.

Wookie Kim surfing a wave
(Photo: Wookie Kim)

Trail Ohana

When he’s not riding waves or fighting for civil rights, he’s surfing the trails with his trail Ohana, or family.

“Wookie is the soul of the Hawai’i running community. He bridges running groups across Islands with his selfless approach to sport, his unyielding positivity, and his yes-man attitude,” says Cat Bradley, a professional runner for Brooks based on Oahu. “Pick a race or event on any of the Islands and Wookie is at the center of it, and not usually for himself. His love for running isn’t rooted in himself or his own goals. But is instead rooted in his love for seeing other people succeed. He is a fast friend with an adventure always around the corner and a community of runners who know they can depend on Wookie.”

RELATED: Hawaii, From Sea to Sea (Photo Gallery)

Bradley first met Kim at the start line of the Go Big 50K on the island of Hawai’i, where she was attempting to qualify for the 50K road World Championships. They ran together for the first 20 miles, and when Bradley questioned her ability to secure a qualifying time, Kim looked at her and said simply, “Let’s f*cking do this.” He encouraged her to push through and sent her off with a huge high-five. Bradley used that as fuel to run a qualifying time.

“When he crossed the finish line twenty minutes after I finished, he asked about my own race before I could even hobble over to greet him,” says Bradley. “Though we had just met a little over three hours earlier, my success was his success. And because he supported me, the entire community did too.”

Kim says the connections he’s built in the “HURT (Hawaiian Ultra Running Team) Ohana” have been instrumental in his ultrarunning journey.

“I think the HURT Ohana does a great job of welcoming people of all backgrounds and abilities,” says Kim. “The people I’ve met through the Ohana are really diverse. I have friendships with a lot of people that I don’t see politically eye to eye with, and people who even push back on my work with the ACLU.”

In his previous career, Kim primarily interacted with other lawyers. Now, he goes on group runs and races with aircraft mechanics, police officers, and even teachers who work for the school district that he’s currently suing.

“The whole spectrum of society is reflected in who I run with,” says Kim. “And that leads to a much wider perception of the world, and who people are. It started as a great group of friends that took specific steps to be more inclusive, and that’s what makes the Ohana what it is.”

“Wookie is the shining example of an amazing runner and the most committed team player,” says Alyssa Clark, who met Wookie through HURT and won this year’s HURT 100, with Kim as a pacer. “He embodies why the trail running community is so special, and his selfless acts of kindness, time, and energy speak to his love of the sport. Having him as a pacer was so crucial for HURT and was f’ing fun!!”

Since vowing to pursue a life dedicated to civil service and adventure, Kim has never been happier. He’s completed four 100-mile races, including the Devil Dog 100 after his incident, and even returned to Colorado to complete the Run Rabbit Run 100. Kim says he’ll be back to complete the Four Pass Loop someday and fulfill the promise he made to himself in a hospital bed in Colorado: to mitigate, embrace, and accept risk in pursuit of a life full of adventure.

This article was originally featured on Trail Runner.

Lead Photo: Wookie Kim

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