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A Training Slowdown Led to A Diagnosis—And A New Kidney

Michael Kaltenmark, known as the escort for Butler University's bulldog mascot, went public with his story and inspired countless kidney donors to volunteer.

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Michael Kaltenmark, 40, knew something was wrong when his daily run started feeling like he was stuck in first gear—then stuck in first gear with the emergency brake on.

In Indianapolis, Kaltenmark is known as the man on the other end of the leash. For over a decade, he’s been the owner and caretaker of Butler University’s live English bulldog mascot. Besides serving as the director of community and government relations for the university, he’s also been the one to run onto the football field, around the bases, and, most importantly at a school known for its hoops, onto the court with the famed dog. While English bulldogs don’t have a reputation as great running partners, they take a lot of energy and have a lot of fans. And Kaltenmark has a cheering section of his own. Anyone who has worked with him, trained with him, or is friends with him, knows that his unwavering enthusiasm for life is infectious.

In the late 1990s, Kaltenmark was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease, which causes inflammation of the digestive tract, and was prescribed the drug Asacol to reduce the symptoms. The drug was not monitored properly and, in an 18-month span, caused him significant kidney failure. Kaltenmark was referred to a nephrologist who performed a kidney biopsy and switched him to a new drug, Remicade, for the Crohn’s symptoms. The nephrologist was content to let Kaltenmark continue his normal, healthy lifestyle, with frequent check-ups and an infusion of Remicade every six weeks. For several years, that was the routine: Daily running, often in the lead pack at his local triathlon series; spending time with his wife and two young sons; and keeping up with his dogs. In town, he raced a sub-one-hour sprint triathlon and finished a sub-90-minute half-marathon. There was nothing Kaltenmark loved more than pushing his limits in training and being at the start line with the community he loved.

But then he got stuck in that first gear. In 2018, as Kaltenmark was training for his favorite races, he started falling farther and farther behind. He saw his doctor. “I just started noticing every third run or so I was working much harder for my normal pace. And then it became every other run, and then every run, so I decided to get things checked out,” he said. “We did some blood work and started putting it all together.” They did a number of lab and diagnostic tests. His kidneys were failing. It was time to get on the transplant list.

“I was told that I was being placed on the transplant list and in the meantime, I should start seeking a living donor and adopt a vegan lifestyle immediately,” Kaltenmark said, because plant-based proteins are easier on the kidneys. His doctor also told him to slow his pace in training—and to get used to feeling tired. Kaltenmark knew that sometimes it takes years and years to find a donor, but that he probably didn’t have that long. He first thought of his brothers, Randy, 50, and Doug, 47, figuring they’d likely be the best bet for a kidney donor. His doctor agreed, but also encouraged him to go public—to do a call for people to sign up to be donors. At first Kaltenmark was reluctant, but his doctor urged him to use the platform he had that could help a lot of people besides him. Kaltenmark went live with his story and asked that those who felt comfortable sign up to be tested to see if they’d be a match.

The response was overwhelming. Local media picked up the story, as well as ESPN. Within a week the kidney donation center was so overwhelmed with people signing up to donate a kidney to Kaltenmark that they had to turn donors away. But they also encouraged everyone to consider staying in the donation bank, in case they were a match for someone else. And it worked. Kaltenmark’s story spread awareness and connected people in need with those willing to donate. He also found support he didn’t realize he needed by making his story public. One day, Kaltenmark got a call from a guy in the next town over. The man, Todd Gambill, had gone through the same thing. He was a runner and knew how hard it was to not be able to run and race—but after a transplant a few years ago he had fully recovered.

“He called me up and was like, ‘I know what you’re going through, I went through it, and I can tell you you’ll be out in no time and you’ll be running again.’ I needed to hear that so bad. I needed to have that vision. I needed to have someone on the other side of this,” Kaltenmark said. The two are still in touch, and hope to run and race together when it’s safe to do so.

“I was still training all through 2019, but it was trash. I’d have one occasional out of the blue really good run and it was like, ‘Wow, that was a good day.’ But 90% of it was just garbage. That May, I talked my doctors into letting me run the Mini [Indianapolis Half Marathon]. I knew I had two bad kidneys, but I just needed to do it. And then I talked them into letting me do one more triathlon, the Tri Indy sprint triathlon in July. I basically just survived that, and then we pretty much shut down all activity.” Kaltenmark managed to work out a little bit, but by the time late summer hit, even the most minor activity exhausted him. As most endurance athletes understand, Kaltenmark felt like he needed those last races in order to process all that he was going through. “I was just desperate to do something I loved,” he said.

On Jan. 9 of this year, Kaltenmark finally received his transplant—a day before his 40th birthday from his brother, Doug. Doug pole vaulted and ran track in college at Rose-Hulman. “He has faster half-marathon time than me,” Kaltenmark said. “So I’m hoping this new kidney from him will help me beat his time.”

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Kaltenmark was looking forward to 2020 as his comeback season, “but given the immunosuppressants I was on, I wasn’t ready to jump back in. So, I’m really looking forward to 2021, but I know there will be no excuses for any slow times. I’ve had plenty of time to get back to form so I have high expectations.” More than anything, Kaltenmark is just grateful to be healthy and doing what he loves again.

“I can’t wait to be back with my people, in that racing atmosphere. I can’t wait for the start line, the transition area, the finish line. That fellowship is what I love.”