JACKSONVILLE – After being shot by a sniper in Afghanistan in 2010, Marine Maj. Matthew Kutilek had no idea the bullet that severed two of the three arteries in his right leg and left him with an open compound fracture of his tibia would lead him three years later to sit on a bicycle seat “the size of a piece of a pie” and ride 6,300 miles.
Far from it.
Kutilek, whose wife was expecting their third daughter at the time, was just hoping to survive.
And then maybe not lose his leg. Kutilek said he should have died and “certainly” should have lost his leg. But he didn’t. He not only survived but later this month the 34-year-old, 5-foot-10, 165-pound infantry officer stationed at Camp Lejeune will take part in the brutal Dirty Kanza, a 200-mile bicycling endurance race in Emporia, Kan.
More than 1,000 bicyclists are expected to compete in the May 31 race, which includes vast weather extremes that range from not just wind and rain but hail as well as 100-degree temperatures and 12,000 feet of climbing.
A year ago Kutilek (pronounced cue-ta-lek), who’s been stationed at Camp Lejeune since 2009, thought about taking up the challenge but knew he wasn’t ready. A year later he feels he is.
“This race has a tradition as one of the hardest races in the country. The winner last year, to put it in context, finished in just under 12 hours,” Kutilek said. “So 12 hours on a bicycle in May with all the elements in Kansas from cold to heat to win to tornadic activity. I first heard about it about a year and a half ago. It really piqued my interest because of the difficulty of it.
“But I knew I wasn’t ready last year to do it because I was relatively new to cycling. So I made a concerted effort to train for it since last May.”
The degree of difficulty wasn’t all that sparked Kutilek’s interest in the Dirty Kanza. While he was born in Cincinnati, he grew up in Wichita, Kan., where he lived from the third grade until he was 18 and “got dropped off at The Citadel,” where he graduated from in 2001 with a degree in history. Wichita is about two hours south of Emporia.
Beyond that, the Dirty Kanza, which draws competitors from several countries and nearly every state, was the perfect vehicle for a fund-raiser Kutilek was doing for the Semper Fi Fund, which raises money for wounded, ill and injured Marines and sailors.
His goal: $20,000. So far, he said he’s raised more than half of that ($11,000).
How he decided on raising money for the Semper Fi Fund, Kutilek said, is “a crazy story,” going back to his days as an instructor in 2006 at The Citadel in Charleston, S.C. The school staff wanted to teach the students that included future Marine officers about “giving back” to the community, including charities.
So the staff chose the Semper Fi Fund.
“We actually brought down some wounded Marines from Camp Lejeune to The Citadel,” he said.
The goal was to raise $5,000. In four months, Kutilek said, the ROTC unit at The Citadel raised $94,000.
That, however, was only Chapter I of the “crazy” story. Chapter II begins in southern Afghanistan - as does the story of how he took up bicycling. After being shot, Kutilek was medevaced to the Bethesda (Md.) National Naval Medical Center, where he spent eight weeks recuperating. It was one of four hospitals where he spent time during his recovery, which included no less than 150 physical therapy sessions.
“The first person I met when I walked in that door was a representative of the Semper Fi Fund,” Kutilek said, “and it was the same people I had dealt with four years prior raising money for that organization. They helped me out (and) my family. They’re great. Ever since I was in the hospital I wanted a tangible way to give back to them and raise money for them.
“I was never physically able to until I started recovering the last two years and now I feel like there’s a great opportunity to raise money to give back to them. I chose the $20,000 goal so it’d be $100 per mile for the 200-mile race.”
Without the suggestion of a surgeon, however, Kutilek might never have taken up bicycling and might have had to find another vehicle to raise money for the Semper Fi Fund.
During his recovery, Kutilek endured 11 surgeries, including one in which a surgeon “literally sawed” his leg in half, rotating his lower leg “something like 12 degrees externally and my knee 10 degrees internally.” Then he placed a medal rod in Kutilek’s leg along with four screws.
“I asked him, ‘How am I going to get better? What do I need to do?’” Kutilek said. “He recommended I start riding a stationary bicycle.”
So he did.
And his first ride lasted about five minutes.
Kutilek played “every sport possible” in high school and intramural sports at The Citadel. He also enjoyed running long distances. He said he’d run a half-dozen marathons and several half-marathons along with a number of 5Ks and 10Ks.
Five minutes on a stationary bike? It was just a start, a mere bump in his road back.
“I started with five minutes and I built up to 10 minutes, 20, and then I finally rode my first bicycle ride on base. It was about a 12-mile ride around the golf course at like a 16-mph pace,” he said. “I immediately knew I enjoyed it. It was no impact. It made my leg feel great. I have only one artery in my lower leg. That causes a backup of blood, so my leg swells up all the time.
“The cycling allowed the blood to flow more freely. ... There was a lot less pain, more circulation. So I started riding for real in 2011.”
Meanwhile, he remained on limited duty with the Marines for two years before being placed back on full duty in April 2012. Three weeks later he was again redeployed to Afghanistan, where he spent seven months.
While there, he bought a “$100 Chinese bicycle,” which he used to train on around the base. When he returned to the states, Kutilek left the bike.
“I gave it to the guy that replaced me, and he rode it over there,” Kutilek said. “But I pretty much destroyed that $100 Chinese bicycle.”
Back home, Kutilek got serious about his bicycling. Being a “typical Marine, typical athlete,” Kutilek said he wanted to compete, and he wanted to do something physical. Running was out. It was painful for him to even walk.
But he was pain-free on his bike. He’s competed in a number of races, including a 100-miler along with a couple 50-mileevents. Last year, he rode 6,300 miles. This year his goal is to hit 8,000, and he “eventually” hopes to reach 10,000 miles in a year.
On average, Kutilek said, he goes around 20 to 22 mph on his “tempo rides” in which he’ll speed up and slow down to bring his heart rate up and down to help his endurance. In races, he can hit 24-25 mph or faster.
To prepare for the Dirty Kanza, he’s been doing some “hard riding,” including three days of training in which he rode 220 miles while ascending a total 22,000 feet.
“That was great training applicable to the Dirty Kanza,” Kutilek said. “I think I have the mental toughness where I can get through it where most people do not. ... Most Marines, infantry Marines, combat-proven Marines, have the mental toughness. If I have a good day on the bike, have no mechanical failures and no flat tires, I think that I’ll be able to finish in the top 10 percent, if not better.”
With a family of four, Kutilek said he does most of his riding between 4:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. or on weekends. He rides to work on occasion or at lunch, when he’s been known to hit the tank trails on base on his bike. Kutilek also has a route that he rides with his buddies that goes from Jacksonville to Richlands and then to Kinston before heading back through Trenton and Maysville.
While Kutilek has grown to love the sport, he said his wife, Andrea, who is a teacher at Hunters Creek Middle School, doesn’t share his affection.
“She doesn’t see the beauty of sitting on a seat the size of a peace of pie,” he said, adding, however, that his three daughters, Allie, 3; Lilly 5; and Emma, 7, “absolutely” love to bike with their dad. “I’ve got three sweet specialized bikes I bought from Classic Gallery downtown. We all ride together. My two eldest have rode seven miles. We’re building up as the temperature gets better.”
Asked what he gets out of the sport, Kutilek paused.
Several things, he said, including pushing himself to get better. That’s a challenge that can be punishing when you push yourself through “your comfort zone,” he said.
Then there’s the friendships he’s built through the hundreds to thousands of miles he’s spent beside another rider, including his training partners, Matt Hawkins and Josh Adams.
“But I would say the best thing is it’s easy to have measurable gains in cycling,” he said. “But it’s hard to get those measurable gains because you have to really push yourself when you really don’t want to. When it’s 8 degrees, 10 degrees, 12 degrees, you have to force yourself to get on the bike at 4:30 in the morning and ride to work just to see those gains. But it’s always a challenge.
“Then all athletes deep down inside think they’re a pro so they try to convince themselves that they’re better than they are. But in reality it’s a very humbling sport because there’s somebody much better than you.”
There’s more, however. There is what he called “the beauty of cycling.”
“The amount of miles I’ve covered in eastern North Carolina is ridiculous, and I’ve seen nature in its beautiful state where it’s wonderful and sunny and 80 degrees, and I’ve seen it where it’s 8 degrees. There’s beauty in all of that, and you can’t see that unless your out of your house on a bicycle,” he said.
“It’s much better than running because running you’re so limited how far you can go. Whereas when we go Saturday we’ll go all the way down the beach or wherever our loop takes us and we’ll see so many aspects of God’s creation. It’s pretty fascinating.”
Kutilek described himself as a “spiritual person,” which was only reinforced by his “near-death experience” in which he lost 17 units of blood - the average adult male has about 10 to 12 pints.
“You tend to reflect on life and how fleeting it is,” he said. “You want to make the most of your opportunities, and difficulty equals opportunity. So where is this taking me? Whatever opportunities are presented my way I will try to take advantage of them and be an encouragement and motivation to other people..., especially injured guys.
“There’s a lot of injured guys that may not be defeated physically, but they’re defeated mentally. They never come back to their fullest because of the debilitating aspects of their injury. I don’t want to be that guy that uses an injury as a crutch or as reason not to give 100 percent. Where does it take me? Where it will.”
As he prepared to leave after an hour-long interview with The Daily News, Kutilek was asked if there was anything he’d like to add.
“I would say one thing. Why do I do this? One of the reasons is because it’s an opportunity to show the idiot that shot me that I’m defeating him every day. You wake up every day and I can defeat this guy every day by getting on my bike and living life and riding it. Lastly, everything I do is for the glory of God.
“I see this as an opportunity for the Lord to use me through the simple bicycle to convey his message of giving 100 percent and in everything we do to give him glory and never to quit. There’s a lot of Marines that were shot or blown up or injured and they’ve given up on life. So I’m trying to give them some hope and say, ‘Hey, you don’t have to give up.’”