Where Are They Now?
Curiosity got the best of me a year or so ago when I started asking an old friend a series of “Where are they now?” questions. I had left Minnesota for college in the deep South in 1982 and, except for vacations, never came back. Most of my friends and competitors from those days remain etched in my mind as perpetual late teenagers. It is hard to imagine them in their mid-40’s with graying temples and receding hairlines (especially considering long hair was “in” in those days). My friend, former coach Dave Griffith, managed to know at least some details for nearly all my queries, which is quite astonishing considering this covered a mere 2 to 3 year blip in his 20 plus years of coaching. There were lots of interesting nuggets; one classmate who went to the navy after graduation is still there as a high level officer, another ran a marathon in the 2:20’s and is now a successful businessman, still another gained 50 pounds and started smoking. Etc., etc.
And then there was Brian Kraft. Brian was one of those prodigies that seemed to leap onto the scene. I can distinctly remember Bloomington Track-o-Rama 1981, when he arrived from the hockey town of Bemidji a complete unknown and then proceeded to skunk us “elite” Twin Cities area runners. He was tall with black hair and had that effortless-looking stride great runners possess. He seemed like a friendly chap, though I never spoke with him much beyond the usual post-race banter. Brian would go on to easily win the 1600 and 3200 meter at State and earn a scholarship to Missouri. That was all I knew. So it was a shock and surprise 25 years later to learn that he had died of cancer. Coach Griff didn’t know all the details I wished to find so I dug a little deeper. With the help of local race director, running writer, and Bemidji native Pete Miller, I have pieced together a few details I would like to share.
At the age of 19, roughly one year after he made us all stand up and take notice, Brian Kraft was diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer. He left Missouri to begin treatment in Minnesota. Having endured that likely harrowing experience, he could be excused for throwing out the running shoes and college dreams and focusing on other things. But he didn’t. Brian enrolled at nearby North Dakota State University and by all accounts had a successful career for the Division II Bison. He would continue as one of the top Minnesota road racers in the mid-80’s. This despite setbacks that would make a regular person throw in the towel. Here’s a quote from an article Pete Miller wrote: “Fifteen years of chemotherapy, surgeries, a bone marrow transplant, and running. This is how most of us knew Kraft. The cancer kept coming back. And he kept running.” His times slowed some as his battle wore on but he still managed to qualify for and run the Boston Marathon in 1994 or 1995, 12 years into his diagnosis. This courage and enthusiasm no doubt inspired many others by sheer example. He also inspired in more subtle ways by selflessly encouraging others in the pursuit of their goals. Medically speaking, Ewing’s Sarcoma won their long duel in September 1997. However, Kraft’s spirit lives on. It only took a few months for some thoughtful individuals to inaugurate the Brian Kraft Memorial 5K. That race in now under the direction of Pete Miller and Craig Yotter, in whose hands it has been designated – fittingly – the USATF Minnesota 5K Championship and more importantly raises funds for cancer research. As for me, Brian Kraft is no longer a frozen image in the recesses of my mind but rather a reminder of how strong the human spirit can be when dealt the worst of blows. Also, perhaps, his is an illustration of how running just may provide some context – and extra motivator – in that struggle. It certainly seems as though his life and that of those around him was richer for his having made the decision to lace his shoes back up again. We needn’t look far to find similar examples here in Tallahassee.
Relay for Life is this Friday and Saturday May 8 and 9. Paula Kiger, Gary and Peg Griffin, Fran McLean and others have worked hard to make Gulf Winds a significant presence in this event. Follow this link to join the Gulf Winds team or to donate to the American Cancer Society if you haven’t done so already. All size gifts are welcome, and most of the funding supports research into innovative treatments that hopefully – one day – may not seem worse than the disease and may measure success in cures as opposed to a few months of delayed progression. Most importantly, jog a few laps in memory of those who have fallen victim and in honor of the survivors among us who continue to inspire.