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Chicago woman plans to climb Mount Kilimanjaro to raise money for Special Children’s Charities

Brenda McHugh hopes to raise $50,000 for Special Children’s Charities, which was founded in 1969 by her late husband Jack McHugh. 

Brenda McHugh hopes to raise $50,000 for Special Children’s Charities, which was founded in 1969 by her late husband Jack McHugh. 

Brenda McHugh’s blonde and loosely curled hair swayed freely with every motion. Sweat began to trickle from her hairline causing her face to glisten. After she finished her 30-minute strength training, which focused on her core and lower-body muscle groups, McHugh put her hands on her hips and let out a big sigh before she picked up her pink recovery drink.

“Am I done yet?” she joked before taking a big gulp.

But she knew the answer. This was only her warmup.

McHugh grabbed her 20-pound weighted vest and a hiking backpack and trudged in her steel-toed boots to the altitude room at Well-Fit Performance studio in West Town.

As soon as you walk into the chamber, you’re transported from being only 574 feet above sea level to an elevation of 12,000 feet or more. It feels as if you’ve already finished a grueling workout and can’t catch your breath. You start to feel fatigued and within minutes, someone who isn’t used to the low oxygen levels in the air can become dizzy and disoriented.

“The whole idea is to basically stress the body of the oxygen level in a way that can’t be stressed in any other way at sea level,” Well-Fit Performance owner Sharone Aharon explained. “You still have to do the exercise but it’ll give you 25 to 35 percent more performance benefit from your workout.”

Brenda McHugh is training at Well-Fit Performance studio in West Town to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.
Madeline Kenney/Chicago Sun-Times

McHugh has learned to love this room, which is one of only five altitude training facilities in the U.S., though, she’s breathing heavy after the first round of interval training.

In the end, this pain and suffering, she said, will all be worth it.

It’s Aug. 29, the final day of her rigorous training program. This week, she did light workouts and packed in preparation to board a plane Saturday for Tanzania, Africa. There she hopes to accomplish one of her lifelong bucket-list dreams: Conquering Mount Kilimanjaro. She’ll be doing this while also raising money for Special Children’s Charities, which was founded in 1969 by her late husband Jack McHugh.

“To see just an ordinary group of people do something extraordinary and now it’s 50 years later, this is a way for me to honor them,” said McHugh, whose goal is to raise $50,000 and has an anonymous donor willing to match the funds. “[And] to show my respect for what they did and the difference it’s made in the lives of all the athletes and all the kids who’ve benefited.”

McHugh, who wouldn’t reveal her age but said she’s “old enough to know better,” has always been fascinated by the seven summits. In 2000, her father and cousin hiked Kilimanjaro without her after unforeseen circumstances blocked her from going. Now, 19 years later, it’s her turn. The excursion is expected to take eight days, and she’ll summit on the seventh day, which is her father’s 84th birthday.

Kilimanjaro is not Mount Everest or Mount Kanchenjunga by any means, but it’s still a difficult trek. Every year, about 50,000 people try to trudge up the African summit. However, only 61.7% of those hikers are successful, according to several Tanzanian reports.

“I decided I was going to give my best effort and that’s the same thing that we have as a motto for [Special Olympics], which is, ‘I may not win but I’m going to give my best effort trying,’” McHugh said. “And I believe now more than I did before that I can do it.”

But McHugh wasn’t always this confident. In fact, she doubted her abilities to climb the mountain as recently as June, which is when she officially started training.

McHugh had three surgeries over the last 18 months, and in March, she was ran over by an unoccupied car that rolled down a driveway and crossed two lanes of traffic and a median before finally being stopped by a fence across the street.

With bandages on her shoulder and recently removed stitches from the back of her head, all McHugh was trying to do was move.

“People told me later when I left, they looked at each other and said, ‘There is no way she’s going to be able to do that,’” McHugh recalled.

In July, she started training at Well-Fit Performance with Aharon.

“I told him I’m a noodle and he needs to fix that,” McHugh said.

“She’s not a noodle,” Aharon said. “She’s definitely fit. ... The idea of climbing the mountain is being in shape and common sense, and I think she has both.”

McHugh predicts she’ll be carrying at least 35 pounds of gear, while wearing four to five layers of clothing. She’s also bringing two mementos on the trip: White rose petals and mini Special Children’s Charities flags.

For the entire year after her husband died in 2017, McHugh said she always kept white roses around her as a reminder of him.

When she gets to the top of the mountain, she plans to take in the view of the snow-capped mountain tops and the cotton clouds that’ll cover the land below her. Then, she’ll plant the flags on the ground and take a picture. Before finally turning her attention to the sky and her husband.

“I think 19,341 feet is the closest I can come to him,” McHugh said. “I’m going to throw those [rose petals] up in the air, and that’s after I reach up and touch him and I know he’s going to reach down and touch me.”