Gretchen Kraus has adopted a motto she said best sums up her athletic endeavors — determination, dedication and desire.
Like the beginning, middle and end of a novel, the 44-year-old Soldotna woman’s tale goes like this:
Determination to quit smoking, get active by running, swimming and cycling and put her old life behind.
Dedication to renew her athletic tenacity after a near-death cycling accident put her in the hospital for 17 days.
Desire to overcome her fears, finish the triathlon her accident kept her from racing a year later and give back to the athletic community that supported her through it all.
On Sunday, May 15, 2011, Kraus lay at the bottom of an embankment near the Little Susitna River victim to a cycling accident. She said she smashed her liver like a pumpkin dropped from a window. One of her kidneys was blackened and dead. The doctors said she shouldn’t have lived.
That was just a few weeks before she was scheduled to compete in the Eagle River Triathlon — her biggest fitness goal to date. Although her medically induced coma kept her from that race, the accident wouldn’t stop her from recovering and finishing the same race a year later on June 3.
“You have to really want it and want to have fun with it,” she said. “I would tell anyone that wants to Tri that it is worth every bit of effort that you put into it.
“The feeling that you have when you cross the finish line is unexplainable.”
Today, Kraus will watch the 222 Tri-The-Kenai participants — 60 who are first time triathletes — experience that same feeling. She’ll spend the day volunteering as the event’s transition coordinator.
“A little bit of jealousy,” she said with a laugh on Thursday when asked to describe how it might feel watching the event. “Now I have the fever.”
Step by step
Kraus, an assistant in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District accounting department, started smoking as a sophomore at Soldotna High School.
A few years ago she found herself out of shape and struggling to walk up a steep mountain hill in Eagle River with her sister and children, she said.
“I remember I couldn’t breathe and my oldest said, ‘Why don’t you smoke another cigarette, Mom? Maybe you can climb a bit higher.’ I was flabbergasted,” she said.
On the drive back to the Peninsula, she threw her pack Marlboro Lights out of the window. Shortly after, she started walking and soon advanced from steps to strides, picking up the running bug.
She found a few friends who started to help her be more active and was soon intrigued by the goal of completing a triathlon. She did team triathlons and duathlons, but there was a hang-up — Kraus couldn’t swim.
“I was scared to death of the water,” she said. “For me, I thought I’d never be a triathlete because you have to swim.”
But training companion and friend Tony Oliver helped her conquer that fear.
“We trained together five days a week, generally, and out of that has grown an amazing friendship and so when we are not training we spend most of our time together,” she said. “He’s been my motivator.”
She later joined a triathlon training class and would swim, bike or run once a week along with other at-home assignments. Things were looking good for Kraus as the weather warmed and her triathlon approached.
‘Our miracle girl’
While biking the Clean Air Challenge — a 120-mile bike ride from Houston to Talkeetna and back to raise money for the American Lung Association — Kraus came to a corner about five miles from the finish line.
Cycling is her best sport and she likes to go fast, she said. But as two women dropped her, she dug in and hit a rough patch on the path, losing control. Thankfully the women heard her scream and an emergency room doctor was racing directly behind her.
“I can remember being worried about my bike,” she said with a laugh. “I can remember telling them, ‘How’s my bike? I’m fine.’”
She said the surgeon looked in her face and told her they needed to operate or she would die.
“It wasn’t until that point I said to him, ‘I have two children who need me so you are going to have to do what it takes to save me so I can live for my kids,’” she said. “Then I woke up 10 days later.”
They spent days operating on damage to 45 percent of her liver and removing her dead kidney. She said the surgeon thought it was her muscle mass that saved her life. She said she gets goosebumps thinking that her training might have actually saved her life.
Before she left the hospital, she was wheeled into the radiologist’s office.
“He said, ‘I just wanted to tell you that you are our miracle girl. You really should have never left this hospital alive and so I wanted to shake your hand and tell you that you get to go home and that we are so proud of the fight you put on,’” she said.
Two days after she came home 35 pounds lighter, Kraus started walking again.
“All that work I had done? I was back to square one,” she said. “In your mind, you just want to get back to where you were. I just thought, ‘This can’t be happening. I have to work hard.’”
The first time she went jogging she wrapped her drain tubes and bags around her abdomen with a bandage. She later had hand surgery and in March suffered a bowel obstruction and ended up in the hospital again to have her small intestine un-twisted.
In December 2011 she decided she would register for the Eagle River Triathlon again and do whatever it took to finish this time.
“If you want something bad enough, you are going to work hard to get it,” she said. “Once you begin that journey of working so hard, you don’t ever want to go back where you were.”
One day Kraus came home and one of her two sons told her Oliver brought her bike back from the shop. However, the one on her trainer wasn’t hers, rather an upgrade financed by friends. After sitting, crying and staring at it, she said she was equally excited and frightened.
“I wanted on that bike so bad but at the same time I had such fear of how it would feel,” she said.
Now she doesn’t quite ride as fast as she used to, she said. But she’s more confident with each pedal. Kraus’ license plate reads “NTAFRD,” or ‘not afraid.’
In May, Kraus did the Clean Air Challenge again.
“I thought ‘Oh, I’ll be fine,’” she said thinking back to when she rode through the crash site. “So I pedaled through that area and I got a mile down the road and tears started to come. It was just weird — my face was just wet.”
She later stopped to take photos, retrace her steps and come to emotional closure.
A few weeks later, Kraus finished her triathlon — a 500 yard swim, 12.2 mile bike and 5K run — with a time of 1:46:30.
She said she thought she was going to be scared. She started the race with sweaty palms. But the only thing she could think about was how far she’d come, she said.
“As I was pedaling on the bike ... I just remember my face hurt because I was smiling the whole time because my tri coach said, ‘Just have fun with it, Gretchen,’” she said.
Now, Kraus is eyeing the Hammerman Triathlon in Anchorage in mid-July and the Tri-The-Kenai for next summer.
Even though many now tell her she is an inspiration, she said she doesn’t see it. Anyone can be an athlete and everyone has to overcome obstacles for the things they want, she said.
“I don’t think I’m anything special — we all have a certain amount of fight in us,” she said. “Things happen, things are laid in front of you and we have this spirit inside us that makes us fighters.”
Brian Smith can be reached at email@example.com.