Steve Sodergren was coming up on mile 20 of the St. Jude Memphis Marathon when he spotted her: a St. Jude patient cheering him on from her wheelchair. Protected from the cold, December drizzle by an overpass, she was completely bundled up, except for her face.
While other runners were pushing through to the last miles of the marathon, Steve stopped to meet the little girl and her family.
“I felt a pull, seeing her there clapping in her wheelchair,” Steve said. “I still get goosebumps.”
Kneeling down to ask her name, age and how she was feeling, Steve met Abi, who was less than six weeks from her first chemotherapy treatment after being diagnosed that October with Ewing sarcoma, a rare type of bone cancer. That morning, Abi was feeling good. She had taken her first steps without assistance since her diagnosis.
The first thing Abi’s mom, Jamie, noticed about Steve was his shirt. It was covered in the faded marker signatures of cancer patients.
50 races in 50 states
Steve wears the shirt during every marathon, and this November, the 56-year-old from Topeka, Kansas, will don those signatures once again. Crossing the finish line of the New York City Marathon, Steve will join the elite few who have run a marathon in all 50 states – a total of 1,310 miles.
For Steve, the accomplishment is more than the achievement of a 15-year goal. It is a way to raise awareness and money for the lifesaving work and research taking place at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee.
“Every marathon since meeting him in 2016, he will send me a message through text, and he stops at mile 20 every single time and wishes me well,” Jamie said. “Just knowing what we thought was just going to be us being there to cheer on runners, in the long run, has been an emotional connection that you would never get in any other journey of life.”
Each day Steve trains, he devotes his run to someone diagnosed with cancer or another life-threatening disease. Steve takes a photo along his route holding a sign that reads, “Running4” and the name of the person.
He posts the photo and a message of encouragement on his Running4 Facebook page, an initiative he began in 2014 to raise $26,200 for cancer charities — or $1,000 for each of the miles that make up a marathon — in the time it took him to run a marathon in all 50 states.
“He puts so much more thought into it than just running a marathon,” Jamie said. “His heart is there for the right reasons.”
On September 27, Steve was running for Grit of Lawrence, Kansas. It was Grit’s second birthday after being diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma, a soft tissue cancer, as an infant.
“He makes me cry every time I see it,” said Grit’s father, Nolan. “To know there’s someone out there who didn’t know who you were, but goes out of their way to let you know somebody cares and has your back and is willing to go through the grind and say prayers for you — we use the word hero too much in this world, but he’s definitely one of them.”
Running for a purpose
Steve did not start running until his early 40s. He took an interest after his wife, Jenny, ran the Chicago Marathon in 2003. That next year, Steve did the same.
For Steve, it’s more about the community than it is about the competition. People from all walks of life are out there pulling for each other, he says.
“It just took a hold of me and I was looking for another one,” said Steve, a college math professor at Allen Community College.
What started as an excuse to travel to all 50 states would turn into a higher calling. In fall of 2014, he had an epiphany.
Steve had been running for 10 years at that point. He’d completed 32 marathons, but he didn’t really know why until one morning when he passed the house of a young girl he had coached in youth sports.
She had been been diagnosed with a brain tumor.
“I vividly remember training for marathon No. 33, and I was running past their house on a Sunday morning and I thought about her and her family. The sun was coming up and I thought about how terrible it was and I decided I wanted to turn my running into something that would make a difference,” Steve said. “I wanted to find something that would give my running purpose.”
When she passed away about a month later, it was a turning point for Steve.
“That’s when I decided I wanted to start fundraising,” he said.
A year after Steve launched Running4, cancer hit even closer to home. His mother, Myra, was diagnosed with a brain tumor that was deemed inoperable. Steve took her to radiation and chemotherapy treatments.
“She loved kids. When we would see a child in the waiting room she would say, ‘They’re just babies,’” Steve recalled. After his mother’s diagnosis, Steve became a St. Jude Hero, raising money for pediatric cancer.
Myra lived for 14 months after her diagnosis. She was 78. Four months after his mom’s death, Steve came to Memphis, Tennessee, to tour St. Jude and run the St. Jude Memphis Marathon.
'Something bigger at work'
When Steve launched Running4 in 2014, he thought his 50-state goal of raising $26,200 was audacious, but over just the past five years, people have raised more than $185,600 – far exceeding Steve’s expectations. For the New York City Marathon, Steve is working toward a new goal of raising $262,000 — or $10,000 for every mile in a marathon. He is proud of the fact that the money has been raised solely through generous giving.
“All it has been is putting a link out there, and people have clicked it repeatedly — people I’ve never met. It has been overwhelming,” Steve said. “There’s something bigger at work here. It has been one of the more pleasant surprises in my life.”