Course corrections: Special bond lifts cancer survivor to racing series win
Former coach, athlete form strong relationship amid hardships
Greenfield - As Matt Kruger set out on his 10-kilometer run in the Luck of the Irish Run at Lake Country Lutheran on Saturday, the moment was filled with little drama.
No matter what happened, he knew the Great Lakes Running Series title was his, sewn up mathematically through four of the five races.
He won the fifth race anyway.
Kruger knows where he's headed, figuratively and literally. It hasn't always been the case for the 22-year-old cancer survivor or for his coach, Richard Dodd.
The series, affiliated with Racers Against Childhood Cancer, features events in Oconomowoc, West Allis, Franklin, Pewaukee and finally Hartland, and Kruger placed first four times and second once.
As a junior at Whitnall High School, Kruger was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and underwent 10 weeks of chemotherapy, cutting into his cross-country career. So for him, the cause is as important as the results.
"I haven't had any (long term) effects from the cancer," he said. "But you always have to keep it in the back of your mind that the cancer can come back. You don't want to think about it, but it's something you have to think about."
Kruger is also autistic, a fact that made his transition to the high school running team tumultuous. He said he finds himself fixating on things like model railroads and cars ("I get my mind stuck on it," Kruger said. "Sometimes, I see a car driving down the street, and all I can talk about is that car.").
Running happened to be another fixation.
"It was a learning process for all of us, because I didn't have any experience myself (with autism)," Dodd said, recalling his days as the Whitnall cross country coach. "I had met him as a middle school runner, and he was the type of kid to ask a lot of questions and wanted a lot of answers, but he was a personable kid. It was clear from Day 1 he could run very well.
"I took the boys aside and said, 'Matt can be a little difficult, but he's a member of the team, and what makes the world great is all different kinds of people. Part of our deal is to be accepting and work with it."
For Kruger, who ran the wrong way while leading his first freshman race and had to backtrack 100 yards for second place, Dodd has always been a major advocate.
Off the trail
Dodd really wanted to support Kruger through his ordeal in 2006; he wanted to write or send a card. But if he had, those on the outside would see the stamp mark that said very clearly where the mail came from: the Franklin House of Correction.
"I didn't want him to know," Dodd said. "We were going through our diseases at the same time, only I deserved it. Mine was being treated supposedly by being incarcerated, but it didn't get any better; I wasn't even allowed access to what I needed. But then again, I probably wasn't ready. I was still in denial."
He didn't know it then, but Kruger already knew.
With Dodd at the helm, Whitnall took third at the state meet in 2004 and sixth in 2005, and the sophomore Kruger was the team's second runner in the latter campaign. But Dodd resigned from the coaching position before the 2006 season, citing family concerns. The issues ran much deeper.
Dodd said he had drifted into a life of alcoholism that began to pervade every aspect of his life. He was thrown in jail for seven months after incurring a series of DUIs, got divorced, became homeless in 2007 and wound up at a rescue mission in Milwaukee. He pondered suicide and spiraled out of control until January 2008, when his sister brought him to Madison for treatment.
He's now four years sober, but he needed heart surgery in October 2008 and has since had a medical procedure on both legs, all related to his drinking, he said. An accomplished runner who ran in the 1979 Boston Marathon, Dodd didn't run a step for 3½ years.
In the throes of his darkest days, Dodd was contacted by Kruger in 2007.
"My sister is neighbors with his parents, and ran into Matt's mother at the grocery store," Dodd said. "I was changing phone numbers and addresses a lot, so I was hard to find."
Dodd was invited to watch the final meets of Kruger's season, where the former coach watched Kruger qualify for state just one year removed from his cancer treatment. Though Dodd was several months away from turning his life around, it was the rekindling of a crucial friendship.
The road back
Three years ago, Kruger asked Dodd to help him train for his first marathon.
"I wrote a lot of workouts for him to do at that point; there's about a three-month buildup to a marathon," Dodd said. "It really isn't that different than training for a 10K, you just add some longer runs."
In Kruger's first attempt, he was in the hunt for third place but had leg cramps after the 17-mile mark and fell way back - he still finished below three hours.
"For a debut, that would be considered pretty successful," Dodd said. "He's 20 at that point, when most runners are running collegiately and not even thinking about marathons. I really thought for a great portion of that race he was going to finish third."
A year later, he led the first 22 miles of the Lakefront Marathon before falling back, and last October, Kruger had a breakthrough at the Lakefront, taking seventh place overall with 2:39.08. He wasn't alone. Dodd, who has returned to running competitively, finished in 3:03.47 and won his age group, men 50-54.
"Whether it's maturity of being smarter or maybe knowing I was back in the race, who knows?" Dodd said of Kruger. "I think it's just a matter of him putting it all together. It was a long time coming."
The race ahead
Kruger lives in Oak Creek and trains at the Pettit National Ice Center frequently. He has aspirations of building up to Olympic-level marathon times.
"I like hanging out with some of the speedskaters there; they've been great motivation for me," Kruger said of the venue in West Allis, a national training center for Olympic speedskaters. "(Dodd) is my unofficial coach, and he's a good friend of mine. He mentors me through running.
"A couple months ago, I brought him to church for the first time, and lately, he's committed himself to God."
Dodd described himself as a bit of a life coach for Kruger but also said Kruger has done a lot of the teaching.
"For a while last year, I was going to church with him once a month in Muskego, and I live in Madison," he said. "Matthew has always had faith in me.
"The kid's faith is strong enough for the both of us. God wasn't going to deny him what he truly loves to do and gave him an opportunity to get back to it."
The RACC series, run by Cole and Jenny Braun of Oconomowoc, saw its participation increase by 30 percent in this, its fourth year.
The event donated roughly $20,000 toward research for a cure.
“Matt is an example of the reason RACC was founded and why it is so important,” Cole Braun said. “Matt is a very talented runner … improvements in medicine and the increase in cure rates are the direct result of research, and the dollars spent on research is the key component.
"We have come a long way but there is a lot more still to do. The goal is for the day to come where RACC and other charities like the MACC Fund can close their doors because we have found a cure.”
Even then, Kruger and Dodd will always have a reason to keep running.
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