For most runners, a detour means an unexpected running route, a sudden injury or illness that derails training, a fork in the running journey to be avoided or quickly overcome. For Stephen Pecevich, a detour was the beginning of his journey into running.
As a former Division 1 college athlete, father of two (now three), and philanthropist, Stephen was no stranger to hard work and taking on life’s challenges but he had never thought of himself as a runner or dreamt he would become a runner, let alone run a marathon.
The most unimaginable news
Everything changed the day his two-month-old daughter, Sydni, was diagnosed with an extremely large brain tumor and underwent an emergency 12-hour surgery to remove it. One night, when she was five months old, it didn’t look like she was going to survive the night.
”Just give me a chance to be your dad,” Stephen whispered to his infant daughter while he held her in his arms. “I’ll be your eyes to see and your legs to walk.”
Sydni shocked the entire hospital and survived the night.
“The next morning, I thought, don’t let those be shallow words. Live by them,” he said. The next step came to him quickly. “The first thing I thought to do was run a marathon and be her legs. I recognized the ongoing suffering my daughter was going to go through and I picked it as the greatest challenge.”
Sydni’s life would be dramatically different from that of his other children. His existence would never be the same.
Stephen embraced the detour. He became a runner.
“Why stop here?”
It wasn’t too long before he finished his first marathon in Boston. “Why would I stop here?” he thought, “My daughter will never talk, never walk, never feed herself. This may be a lifelong crossing for her, so I will continue to honor her untiring determination as long as I am physically able.”
Since that fateful night 16 years ago, Stephen has run 18 marathons; 14 in Sydni’s honor and four more in honor of his two other children. He let his children paint his race shirts with handprints and their own unique designs. He even went as far as swapping shirts halfway through a marathon so he could wear a shirt to represent each child equally. So often on the cancer journey, the healthy kids are overlooked.”
For Stephen, running has changed his life dramatically. He’s learned along the way that if he doesn’t care for himself, he won’t be able to care for his disabled daughter. Her daily care requires him to lift her up 10-15 times a day, which can be very hard on his body. “Now with running, it’s no longer about time, it’s all about getting out there. In the process, I’m listening to my body.”
A way to stay connected
Over the last year, the Running Groups feature in the ASICS Runkeeper app became a way to stay connected with his friends across the U.S. and Canada. Early in the pandemic, a friend sent him an invitation to a Running Groups challenge with the goal of running 100km in one month. After a successful yet challenging month, they’ve renewed the challenge every month since usually with a goal of 50km a month and have grown the group to around 30 participants at a time.
Throughout the pandemic, the challenges have helped people in his Runkeeper running group lose weight and get back into running. “We’re fostering heart-healthy end results that keep growing as we keep renewing the challenge,” said Stephen. “It’s been motivating people to not let the pandemic control us or hijack our health.” Stephen consistently uses the group chat to send encouraging and motivating messages to the group, no matter the distance of someone’s run. “I absolutely love it when I see my friends’ kids participating and finishing a workout on the Runkeeper app,” he said.”
But in a group full of former college and professional athletes, there’s bound to be some competition. “There’s a lot of pride with other athletes. If I go out and do a three-mile run you won’t see a response. If I do a 13-mile run you’ll see banter in the chat.”
For Stephen, there’s a lot of pride in seeing his route and stats in the app at the end of his run. “I’ll send it to my friends in Canada with a competitive message like ‘Dude, what did you do today?’.”
Embrace life’s detours
Hanging in Stephen’s house is an engraved wooden sign that reads “Embrace Life’s Detours”. It’s a motto he always tells his kids. “Run toward the detour no matter what–rise to the challenge. Run right at it.”
For Stephen, no one has taught him more about embracing detours than Sydni. Although she cannot speak or move, she experiences life through touch. “Sydni taught me to embrace what other people run away from. I’ve learned to embrace the feeling of the elements of nature. A warm rain, the gusts from a wind tunnel, or a snow flurry reminds me of how my daughter sees life–when I’m running out there in the snow, I’m seeing life through her lens.”
Stephen’s current goal is to run a total of 20 marathons and then transition to half marathons. Over the years it’s become more difficult to fit in the long runs required for marathon training while balancing the needs of his three children. Despite the difficulties, he’s continued to make his health a priority.
“You aren’t abandoning your child if you take care of yourself. You are doing your child a disservice if you don’t take care of yourself,” he said. Now, as a public speaker and childhood cancer research champion, he is widely recognized as a vocal “DAD-vocate” for other parents going through life’s detours.
A Sound Mind in a Sound Body
When asked about the ASICS motto of a “Sound Mind in a Sound Body”, Stephen responded: “You can’t have a sound mind without a sound body, one feeds the other. Not having a sound body affects everything; sleep, your eating, how you treat other people. Your happiness might morph into sadness and you might not know why because your body isn’t at its healthiest potential. A sound mind and a sound body must act together.”
Stephen encourages new runners to start small and limit their expectations. “Start with a ¼ mile walk or run, then a ½ mile. Running is about “your” needs. Not what other runners do. Don’t start out with the mindset that you lack what you need, he said”. He reminds us how often as runners we compare ourselves to others. “You don’t have to run an 8-minute mile to be a runner. You can run a 15-minute mile and be a runner.”
Stephen knows the journey is not over, nor the challenges or detours. He’s embraced them and finds joy in sharing his story with others.
“My journey doesn’t have to be picture perfect in order to be beautiful. Imagine if I’d run away from our countless detours. I try to focus on embracing the detours. I’ve appreciated so much of life’s splendor because I choose to embrace life’s detours. I would have missed so much if it weren’t for my daughter. Ours is a life-lasting crossing. If you can find the strength to cross that bridge of acceptance, then you will be able to appreciate how you can still have a beautiful life.”
No matter the detour, we hope you keep running.