UNIVERSITY OF SAN DIEGO / Spring 2010
[endurance]
Swim, Bike, Run, Love
Triathlons are a metaphor for life for cancer survivor
by Kelly Knufken
Photo by Tim Mantoani
H

e started running at age 6 and never quit. In the years since, J.D. Dudek has built himself into an elite athlete who’s done 137 triathlons. He’s competed in 42 events — swims, triathlons and marathons — just in the last six years.

Not that beating cancer has made running any easier.

The chemotherapy and radiation treatments Dudek received after he was struck with leukemia six years ago left him with peripheral neuropathy, a nerve disease that makes his feet feel like he’s wearing ski boots, yet produces terrible stinging after running.

“My feet have taken me a lot of places — 20,000 miles on my bike, many runs,” he says. “Running is tough (on my feet). I have to ice them, and some days I just can’t run.”

On the day after the Los Angeles Triathlon this fall, Dudek kept his upbeat attitude by relying on his high pain threshold and his personal motto of “Never, never quit.”

Dudek ‘79, (M.Ed. ’85), has always felt a deep faith connected to athleticism, particularly as a football player at USD.

“The university grounded me,” he says. “I didn’t know anybody at USD. But I walked into The Immaculata, and I felt that touch of faith.”

Dudek exudes energy and passion. Maybe it’s due to cheating death, but you get the feeling he had this intensity even before that.

“It’s not my A.D.D., it’s J.D.D.,” he quips. “No, I’m just happy to be on the planet, man.”

Dudek once was the lender on big, splashy downtown high-rises, but his Western Mission Mortgage in Coronado employs just a small crew now, reflecting the state of the real estate market these days.

“If you don’t have a big family, you have to create your family. We need each other on this planet,” he says.

Toward that end, he mentors Tiffany, a fellow leukemia survivor who wants to attend USD and become a nurse.

“She’s like a daughter,” he says. “I got sick when I was 46. One day I was feeling really bad for myself. She said, ‘Hang in there, buddy, I’ve been dealing with cancer since I was 6, so you can make it.’”

He’s now coaching her for a triathlon, a sport that has touched all areas of his life, not least his recovery.

“The elite competition — and just getting the most out of your body and the mind — you become more educated on what you’re capable of. It gave me a greater sense of focus and endurance.”

That newfound single-mindedness will come in handy, as he’s about to embark on a two-year project to look at how various cultures deal with cancer survivorship.

Giving back is big with Dudek. He donated a rehabilitation gym at the City of Hope, where he received a bone marrow transplant from his brother.

Whereas before leukemia struck he was all about finishing in the top three for his age group, now Dudek is happy to have finished 171st out of 500 in the Los Angeles Triathlon.

“I’m not fast anymore. I was like a Porsche, and now I’m like a good Chevy truck. I may not be at the front of the pack, but I’m still in the pack.”