Born to run: 'It's all about heart and desire'

Marty Smith, right, with Joe Kaczynski and Special Olympics executive Laurie-Jean Hannon after a run near the Austrian Alps. Special Olympics

SCHLADMING, Austria -- For United States Special Olympics athlete Joe Kaczynski, running is a relationship. It is personal and unconditional, like a significant other you honor with great care and commitment.

For him, the joy and the pain and the trust of the bond make him feel alive. Without it, he is empty. Stride by lengthy stride, his cadence is a reminder:

I can. I will. I do.

"Running is the most important part of my day, because it's the No. 1 thing I love," Joe says. "It's all about heart and desire."

This is true. The running equation is more than mind over matter; it is determination of mind over matter. The moment your will cracks, your brain tires and convinces your body to stop. Just then, there's no coming back.

Chances are Joe is a better runner than you are. He's certainly better than I am. I run a lot, semi-well.

I can't hold his shoes.

For runs 10 miles and shorter, Joe likes to keep a 6:40 pace. Anything longer, and he'll settle for the 7s. In response to this information, I tell him he's nuts, and we share a belly laugh.

I admire Joe. He's not caught up in the daily minutia that troubles me, the whos and wheres and whys and hows of it all. He cares about the moment -- not how he arrived at the moment or where the moment might lead. Just right here. This.

At this moment, Joe sits on a wooden park bench at the foot of the Austrian Alps, nestled between a mossy rock wall and a dusty gravel running trail. He stares blankly at the creek rolling by on the other side of the trail, a crystal mountain stream filtering downward toward a 30-foot waterfall, the rush of its dive filling the air with a great whooshing sound. It is unseasonably warm.

The previous day, Kaczynski sloshed and splashed his way through a slushy slalom course to win his first World Games gold medal in cross-country skiing, the 5K. His smile while recounting the effort is a trophy.

He had to dig. His lungs and legs were on fire, but his will was stone cold.

That's Joe. Live the pain. When he has to find a deeper level, he thinks of legendary runner Steve Prefontaine or the 1980 U.S. Olympic men's hockey team.

"You always gotta believe in miracles," Joe says.

Joe has an intellectual disability with autism traits. His parents, Mary and Jerry, saw signs when he was 3. Their other two children, John and Julia, spoke well by age 2. Joe, the youngest, desperately wanted to say the words, but the words defied him. Joe got so mad, Jerry says he turned blue in disgust.

These days you'd never know it. Joe's thoughts are direct and sincere and without agenda. They are vividly detailed at times. As he discusses running, our conversation bounces around a bit until it lands at a most profound statement:

His hero is Superman. Running is his Supergirl.

How about that for a guy who couldn't get the words out?

Running is his passion. It's also his income. Joe works at a running shoe store. He analyzes customers' running form and fits them with the best shoe for their respective gait. He is the cash register DJ. His boss, a former collegiate runner, gave no charity. Joe earned his job and would be treated like any other employee, with the same responsibilities and expectations.

Some of us run from responsibility. Joe runs toward it. We feel pressure. Joe feels empowerment.

"It's hard, but it's wonderful," Mary says through joyful tears. "It just brings tears to my eyes that he's come as far as he has. This is more than we ever thought he would accomplish as he was growing up."

"We were looking at the norm and the average," Jerry adds. "Joe actually changed that, our outlook on him. He changed it. We didn't expect what he's accomplished ever to be reality."

Athletics were integral to Joe's development and social reception. He was always fast. And no matter the audience, speed meant respect. Special Olympics, especially, was important. He was always quiet. But meeting people who fought his fight opened him up. He's 32 now, and maintains one high school friendship. His other friends are all relationships from Special Olympics.

"He keeps breaking through the barriers we never thought he'd pass," Jerry says. "We got him into track. That's when his talent came forward and he was accepted by all the other athletes. That really took him to another plateau."

Joe is on a plateau now, quite literally, standing on that gravel path staring down the valley at one of those waterfalls, the glint of the sun bouncing off that dangling gold medal. Joe has moved on from Superman to discuss his other hero, his older brother, John.

John beat cancer. Twice. It stripped his stamina and took more than one-third of his right lung. Ten years ago, John went to the doctor with shoulder pain, and learned that a softball-sized cancerous tumor had grown within his right shoulder and spread to his left lung.

Joe visited during some of John's chemo treatments. It made him sad for his brother, and provided inspiration to train.

"If John can survive the chemo and survive cancer, I can survive with my tired legs and keep moving, motivate myself and train much harder than I've ever done before," Joe says.

For most of their youth, Joe was John's shadow, following so closely, in fact, that John once cracked Joe in the nose with the backswing of a baseball bat. Stitches.

That all changed at the 2003 Special Olympics World Games in Ireland. Joe won bronze medals in three distance-running events, all with a broken toe in his right foot that limited training. He ran the mile in fewer than five minutes. He ran 3,000 meters in 9:41. He ran 5,000 meters in 16:45.

He tells me these numbers off the top of his head.

Suddenly, John says, it was Joe casting the shadow.

Cancer returned to John's right lung last year, and the latest rounds of chemo were so exhausting, there were days he couldn't leave the bed. But he's in remission now, and his calendar is stacked. He'll get married in June and run the Detroit Half Marathon in July.

"Going through cancer, some days you wake up nauseated. Some days you can't even have energy or converse with somebody else on the street because you might end up in the emergency room," John says.

"Joe knows that. Joe understood that. And I think when he would go out and run, 12, 13 miles, he pushed a little harder because he knows. He would see me being nauseated and not being able to go talk to people. I was putting a smile on my face that everything was fine, but I think he knew that I was in a lot of pain."

John, a political science professor at Saginaw Valley State University, is an articulate speaker with a huge smile. He loves the Chicago Cubs. It's been a big year. He notes how impactful Joe's example was in his fight to beat cancer.

"I think it goes back to the Special Olympics pledge of, 'Let me win. But if I cannot win let me be brave in the attempt,'" John said. "And I think the last part of that, 'Let me be brave in the attempt,' is really what resonated with me when I was going through cancer.

"You don't want to lose in that fight. So every day you wake up, you're extremely brave. And I see what Joe's gone through throughout his whole life, and how successful he's been and all the things that he's overcome. And I look at cancer and go, 'Well, if Joe can do that, I can definitely do this.'

"He says I'm his hero ... Well, he's my hero."

When John marries Martha Zehender Keller in June, Joe will stand tall as best man.

"I was very happy he made me his best man of his wedding coming up this June," Joe said. "That means as a brother he cares about me a lot."

Joe is running now, down that gravel path and alongside that stream. He asks me to stop just a moment. He needs to tie his drawstring. He says he'd hate to lose his pants. We laugh again.

He's a Michigan football nut and starts in on me about coach Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines. He is ready to bet the farm on incoming all-world quarterback Dylan McCaffrey -- Ed's son, Christian's little brother. We discuss Jabrill Peppers and Jake Rudock and John O'Korn and Amara Darboh and the whole bunch.

I love his analysis, and tell him Harbaugh would, too.

Joe is here and he's present. For the moment, I'm right there beside him, stride for stride, but fully aware that if we were running any distance of significance, he would have dusted me by now.

I wonder about his thoughts and why he is so damned determined. And it makes me wonder why I am, and if I'm running from or toward something, and what that something may be. What's the psychology of the addiction?

"I battle that all the time, too," he said. "I told my mind, 'I know we're tired, but we're a human being. We're not gonna die, so we're gonna keep on going. We're gonna keep on moving. We're gonna keep on pushing harder.

"I feel alive when I do it. I just love it. It's not a sport that's made for a lot of people, [and] is not made for certain people. Some people are not meant to run."

And just then I realize my relationship with Joe was born to run.

Fate joined us, a mutual appreciation for the same brand of pain.

And the same respect for the relationship.