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Running for her life

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    I started running in 2008 and have since completed 15 marathons. When I first met Stephanie “Pezz” Pezzullo, she had just finished a strong performance in the Chicago Marathon. We discussed a possible story about her running success. But when I asked what obstacles she had overcome, the story became more about faith and courage.

    Janes: 704-358-5897 or

Stephanie Pezzullo’s car has a bumper held together by duct tape, she quotes Bible verses on Facebook, and she whooshes past everyone on McAlpine Creek Greenway in neon shoes, socks and running shorts.

Almost everyone who knows her calls her “Pezz.”

But barely anyone knows that for years, she battled severe anxiety and depression. That she often wished she were dead.

On Oct. 13, she is set to run the Chicago Marathon; it will be her second 26.2-mile race. In her first, also in the Windy City last year, she finished behind just nine women – and ahead of 16,793 others. With that time, she would have won Charlotte’s 2012 Thunder Road Marathon by a half-hour.

Pezz could live and train with other elites in California, Colorado, Arizona. But Charlotte is where she feels loved.

So here, she’s probably unique: A runner who treats competing in races as her primary career. It’s not glamorous; there’s no health insurance, no 401(k). Her race expenses are paid for by sponsors and event directors, but she’s just one injury from a financial crisis.

And yet she runs – 90 to 100 miles a week. She is running toward dreams of winning a race like Chicago, but also toward a peace that has eluded her for most of her 31 years.

Pulling her, pushing her, encouraging her are a select group of people she’s shared her secrets with – and who she believes saved her life.

* * *

Pezz’s father, Rhode Island physician Steven Pezzullo, was diagnosed as bipolar in 1991, when Pezz was about 9, he told the Observer. He also said his behavior around his family before that was erratic, with frequent mood swings. He screamed and swore a lot. After he learned of his disorder, he said medication helped.

Months after his diagnosis, court documents show Steven Pezzullo spent a night in jail on an assault charge; it was later dropped. Six years later, according to court records, he was arrested for allegedly beating up his mother; she refused to go forward with charges.

Pezz, her mother Linda Pezzullo, and her uncle Jim Ricci said medication did not improve home life.

* * *

Pezz started playing soccer at age 10 in a Glocester, R.I., youth league.

Her younger brother Matt said Pezz wasn’t naturally athletic, but she had drive. She took up softball, tennis and basketball, too. She’d come home and spend hours dribbling, kicking, running, jumping and shooting.

Said Ricci, her uncle: “Her drug of choice had become sports. This was her ‘out’ from the insanity that was going on (in her house).”

At 16, she played varsity basketball and soccer at Ponaganset High School in Glocester and joined a club soccer team.

Then at 17, she was invited to try out for a select U.S. regional team. More than 200 girls from 12 states competed for 15 spots. No one from Rhode Island had ever been selected.

She didn’t have much of a relationship with God; her family only went to church for Christmas and Easter. But in the middle of the night, she went onto the field and prayed. “I just said, ‘God... I want to make this team so bad. I want to play in college. But it’s your will.’ ”

Two days later, she was the last girl chosen.

It fueled her faith and got her away from home as the team traveled to tournaments in Arizona, France, Italy and Switzerland. Between that and being named an All-American at Ponaganset, colleges took notice.

Though several top New England schools offered full scholarships, she jumped when Penn State – a top national program – gave her a partial one.

“It was far away from home,” Pezz said. “I wouldn’t have cared if their academic program sucked. I was going.”

* * *

She arrived as a freshman in 2000 with a stress fracture in her tibia, so the coaches red-shirted her to preserve four years of athletic eligibility. But she could practice with the team.

Pezz quickly struck up a friendship with Heidi Casey, who was in the same recruiting class. Heidi, from Colorado, was battling homesickness and confided in Pezz about her struggle to adjust.

“She was always really warm and caring and seemed to have this added element to her just in terms of bigger life perspective,” Heidi recalled.

Teammates found Pezz outgoing and quick with a joke, but she didn’t go to parties with them, didn’t drink, opting instead to join a church on campus and go to Bible study. She was getting straight As, and to an outsider, she was doing OK.

Privately, Pezz was in agony. She had nightmares – when she could actually get to sleep. Sometimes, she would only sleep for 20 minutes, then stay up all night.

In the spring semester, after her stress fractures had healed, she would go for walks at 2 or 3 in the morning. Walks turned into runs, runs turned into lung-bursting sprints. “I just had all this tension and energy that had to come out. ... My heart always hurt.”

Alone in her room, she substituted one type of pain for another. She would pinch and punch herself, bang herself against the wall. She started cutting herself where no one could see. She wouldn’t shower with her teammates, and never wore a bathing suit in public.

And when she was 20, Pezz tried to kill herself.

She was on Interstate 95 heading to a soccer game in Boston on a rainy July night, Pezz said. “I felt I was bad, awful, wrong in not just sports – in everything. I hated myself. I was mad. I just didn’t think I could do anything right.”

She sped up and started crossing lanes, aiming to hit a big tree – but she side-swiped another car, crashing instead into a sign and tree branches. Neither she nor the couple she’d hit suffered serious injuries. But Pezz remembers two things clearly: Guilt that she almost hurt someone else, and the bumper sticker on the other car: “Jesus Loves You.”

* * *

Throughout her childhood, Pezz said, her father frightened her and hurt her. He would grab and strike her, push her to the ground and throw things at her. He recalled hitting Pezz just once in his life, “with a little stick on the butt,” and maybe twice pushing or shoving his former wife. But Linda Pezzullo confirmed that he was physically aggressive with his family. They divorced in 2002 after both children had moved to college.

“They all lived under the fear of abuse,” said Pezz’s uncle, Jim Ricci. “Everybody had eye signals. ... It was a controlling thing that was going on. It was really sick to see.”

* * *

Pezz at first told everyone the car wreck was an accident. Then she told Melissa Ramsey the truth.

Melissa had joined the team as assistant coach the previous year, and they had become fast friends. On the bus, while everyone else slept, she and Pezz played games or chatted. Pezz volunteered at middle and high school club teams that Melissa coached.

With suicidal thoughts consuming Pezz on one bad day in the spring semester of 2003, she did what she had never done before: She opened up to Melissa.

It startled the coach. She said she knew Pezz had been struggling – she’d seen her pass out at practice because of exhaustion. But when Pezz told her she was hurting herself, “I didn’t really understand it,” Melissa said.

Melissa suggested counseling. Pezz resisted, so Melissa involved the head coach, and they got tough: “You need to get help or you’re going to be off the team.”

Pezz reluctantly complied, but her chaotic behavior persisted. On one road trip, Pezz forgot her uniform. The very next game, she forgot it again.

In midseason of her junior year, Pezz’s exasperated coaches convinced her to check into Mount Nittany Medical Center’s Behavioral Health Services, where doctors diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress disorder. There, Pezz reluctantly answered questions about her family.

She told counselors her parents’ divorce had enraged her father, and that she felt uncomfortable when he attended her games. So on a counselor’s advice, Pezz called him with the counselor and Melissa listening.

“All I said was, ‘Dad, I’m getting some help right now and I think maybe you should stop coming to my games,’ and he went ballistic. ‘I’m gonna come there, I’m gonna f------ kill your coach, then I’m gonna f------ kill your counselor, then I’m gonna f------ kill you.’ ”

While Pezz had often heard these threats, they scared Melissa.

“He was pretty coherent,” Melissa said. “You could understand he was ready to come after us.” Steven Pezzullo recalled being angry, but denies making threats.

Melissa said the team added on-field security during Pezz’s next few games.

After she was discharged that same year, Pezz decided to hitchhike to another state without telling anyone. She was missing for two days. Pezz was hospitalized again.

“I don’t really think I understood the severity of it until I entered in the daily battle with her,” Heidi said. Instead of telling Pezz her troubles, she listened.

“For the first time,” Pezz said, “I opened up to her instead of her always opening up to me.”

The next year, Heidi graduated and returned to Colorado. Melissa married and moved back to Louisiana.

Losing two trusted supporters devastated Pezz.

So when the Charlotte Eagles – a professional team owned by Missionary Athletes International – asked her to play in their summer league, Pezz thought, “Maybe it’s another chance to get away.”

* * *

When she came to Charlotte in 2004, she was paired with a host family: Ron and Ramona Pedemonte of Indian Trail, and their two boys – Matt, then 8, and Mike, then 11.

Pezz could not believe how they lived. They had limits on TV time; they were strict about candy and soda; they had bedtimes. Ramona would read to the boys, then tuck them in with a kiss.

“I was like, ‘How the hell am I gonna live here?’ ” Pezz said. “I just thought they were nerds. I thought they were complete nerds.”

But Ron treated Ramona in a way Pezz had never seen a husband treat a wife. There was no yelling. No fighting.

Ramona said Pezz was friendly and outgoing, but with one odd trait: Her hands shook. A lot.

About 3 1/2 weeks after she moved in, the family was getting ready for church. Pezz had planned to join them, but at the last minute, she told them she felt sick.

Ramona asked questions as if she wanted to help, Pezz thought. So she decided to open up again.

She wasn’t ready to tell all, but she told Ramona about the cutting and anxiety attacks. She told enough to paint an ugly childhood.

During milder anxiety attacks that Ramona witnessed, Pezz held her body stiffly. She grabbed at her shirt obsessively, or pulled at the skin on the back of her wrist. In more intense attacks, she would breathe shallowly and turn pale. Severe attacks would have her sobbing and in a fetal position. Then Pezz would dissociate.

“It would be like a switch went on and she would be gone,” Ramona said. “Her body was there, but no one was home.”

Ramona offered to help Pezz even after she returned to Penn State. In the middle of the night, Ramona would get phone calls like this:

Pezz: I’m in a field, and I don’t know where I am.

Ramona: OK, look around. Do you see any lights?

Pezz: Yes, I see lights.

Ramona: Walk toward the lights. Do you see any buildings you recognize?

Pezz: Well, I think I see the library.

Ramona: Walk toward the library. ...

On the soccer field, Pezz never felt lost. She helped lead the Nittany Lions to their fourth conference championship in her four years as a starter. But they were eliminated earlier in the postseason than expected.

“I was just so heartbroken,” Pezz said, “because I was a senior and I felt like, ‘I don’t know how we lost that game. Two days later, I just was like, ‘I’m doing something else.’ ”

She called the track coach, asked for a tryout and learned she would need to run a mile in 5 minutes, 15 seconds or less to make the cut.

After only a month to prepare, Pezz ran a mile in 5 minutes, 6 seconds.

In her one season of track, she was among the team’s stars.

* * *

As a little girl, Pezz never viewed herself as fast.

“My nickname from the time I was 5 on was ‘slow f---ing retarded reject,’ ” Pezz said. “ ‘Slow’ was always in my head. ‘Slow, you’re slow, you’re slow.’ ” Steven Pezzullo said he “may have” used such names; both her mother and brother confirm the verbal abuse.

* * *

In May 2005, Pezz graduated from Penn State with a degree in kinesiology, then returned to Charlotte to play for the Eagles.

She had no career goals, but she had people who cared about her.

Ron and Ramona invited her to live with them indefinitely, with one stipulation: that she resume counseling. They helped her kick an addiction to lorazepam, which psychiatrists at Penn State had prescribed for anxiety, depression and insomnia. Pezz had stopped cutting herself.

Matt and Mike Pedemonte gained an older sister in Pezz, who often attended their soccer games. Ron spent hours with her in intense battles of Ping-Pong, basketball and pool volleyball. She confided in him, too. For Pezz, it “was the first time I felt safe opening up to a man.”

Pezz also convinced her teammate and friend Heidi – who had been living in Colorado – to give the Eagles a shot, too. Pezz introduced an Eagles men’s player, Sam Casey, to Heidi; they were married within a year.

Then in the fall, Pezz visited Clemson University to watch former Eagles teammates play a college game. At halftime, she went to the Clemson track to run. Pete Rea – a coach for ZAP Fitness, a training center for Olympic-hopeful runners in Blowing Rock – was there timing another runner. He noticed Pezz’s speed, gave her his card and suggested she call.

Six weeks later, Pezz was training with Rea and his wife, Zika, ZAP’s co-founder. They gave her a monthly stipend, free gear, performance bonuses and travel expenses.

Pezz’s transformation from soccer player to runner was complete.

The Reas introduced Pezz to the steeplechase, a 3,000-meter track event over barriers and a water jump, and in her first event, she qualified for both the U.S. championships and the Olympic trials.

In her second, after one lap, a taller runner ahead of Pezz obstructed her view. She sailed blindly over a barrier and “instead of landing on my foot, I landed more on my top of my toe,” Pezz said. “It was just like a pop.”

Her ankle bone had chipped off.

She wouldn’t run competitively for nearly three years.

* * *

Pezz started working as a personal trainer at Performance Training in Pineville in 2007 and became friends with Jim Reavis, a cycling coach who introduced himself after watching her limp in and out of the facility on her cast.

Over the next 18 months, she tried to run again, but she was slower than ever and off kilter. She shared her frustration with Jim. “Why don’t we put you on a bicycle?” said Jim.

So Pezz borrowed a bike, and Jim hooked it up to a CompuTrainer – a device that offers feedback on a cyclist’s speed, power and cadence – and she started posting numbers he’d only seen from pro cyclists.

What she really wanted to do, though, was run again.

At Jim’s suggestion, they went to see renowned running gait analyst Jay Dicharry at the University of Virginia. One look at Pezz, Dicharry said, and it was clear she was using only her left leg to run. She was dragging the leg she had injured.

Back in Charlotte, she and Jim would go to the Siskey YMCA in Matthews; she’d run, he’d watch.

Jim: “I would sit there and say, ‘Use your right leg, use your right leg.’ ”

Pezz: “It was so annoying.”

But she kept at it. “And it was like I could run again.”

Pezz believes God sent Jim into her life, “at a time that couldn’t have been more perfect.”

Though he wasn’t a church-goer when they first met, she wanted him to attend with her. He resisted. She nagged.

Finally, Jim made a deal: Finish a 5K in under 17 minutes, I’ll go with you.

On a sweltering summer day, she ran 16 minutes, 35 seconds. They’ve been going to church together since.

Pezz said Jim, 73, is “like a grandpa” to her. They don’t talk about her childhood, but “he knows I came from a tough background.”

* * *

When Pezz was a child, Pezz and her mother both said that Steven Pezzullo was inappropriately affectionate with Pezz and would grow angry when she wouldn’t reciprocate. They said one time, for example, he grabbed kitchen knives and warned Pezz: “If you don’t hug and kiss me, I’m gonna f---ing put these down your throat.” Steven Pezzullo said this never happened.

* * *

In January 2010, in a three-page handwritten letter to Ron and Ramona, she outlined her hopes and fears about her running career – and her reasons for moving out.

“If I do not perform well enough, or if nothing comes of it financially, or sponsorship-wise, then I will quit, and at least know I tried,” she wrote. “I know you have been willing to put up with this crazy dream. ... But maybe time is up.”

She found an apartment with a former Eagles teammate in the spring. The following winter, she took another risk and moved to Flagstaff, Ariz., to live and work out with elite runners.

“I think there was a part of me that just needed to get away because I felt like I was burdening people in Charlotte, and I still had so much to hide,” Pezz said.

She ran well in Arizona, but anxiety returned. She forgot to eat, missed flights and couldn’t sleep. She didn’t resume hurting herself, “but it was not a good year,” Pezz said.

After nine months in the Southwest, she came home to Charlotte.

She was disappointed in herself, but the training helped her speed.

She ran her first half marathon in 1 hour, 14 minutes, 32 seconds – 48 seconds behind the winner, Mulu Seboka, one of Ethiopia’s premier distance runners. Mark Hadley, a Charlotte coach who has experience with other elites, offered to train her. Boulder, Colo.-based footwear manufacturer Newton Running gave her a sponsorship deal.

But about the same time, Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky was under investigation for molesting children.

To Pezz, it dug like a knife into old wounds. It involved kids getting hurt by adults they trusted. School officials she knew were implicated. For a month, she was sleeping only two or three hours a night.

“I wasn’t seeing a counselor or anything,” she said, “and just didn’t feel like I could talk to anyone.”

* * *

Then she met Susan Black.

They knew each other’s faces because they both ran on the McMullen Creek Greenway. A mutual friend introduced them in January 2012, and Pezz and Susan learned they both attended Elevation Church at Blakeney. Pezz had no car, so Susan took her to services.

Pezz hated herself for the experience in Arizona, and she couldn’t escape hearing every day about Sandusky’s crimes.

“I’m really struggling with some things,” Pezz confided to Susan. “I don’t know what to do.”

Susan didn’t either, but she accepted the challenge: “Literally, God said ‘Here,’ and I said, ‘OK, what do you want me to do?’ ”

Pezz opened up again.

Susan could empathize. Her childhood was nowhere near as difficult, but she’d lost her mom when she was 13 and her dad to suicide at age 14. So she understood what she calls “a bird without a nest.”

And she is a good listener. So Pezz, in time, told Susan everything.

* * *

Pezz’s darkest childhood secret, she said, is that her father had inappropriate sexual contact with her when she was a girl. She won’t give details, but said “the worst of it was from the ages of 5 to 10” and it continued into her teens. Her uncle, Jim Ricci, a pastor, said Pezz disclosed this to him when she was a freshman at Penn State.

Steven Pezzullo denied inappropriate sexual contact. He said he “probably” was addicted to sex as a symptom of his bipolar disorder, “but not with little girls. With big girls.”

“I don’t know if she took different things, me playing around and wrestling or something – if she took something like that (the wrong way),” he said. “But there’s never been any kind of sexual advances toward my daughter.”

Linda Pezzullo said she wasn’t aware of sexual contact, but said she believes her daughter’s accounts.

The most confusing part, Pezz said, was that there were times when Steven Pezzullo seemed cheerful, generous, smart and engaging. The rest of the time, she said, “was hell on Earth.”

* * *

Last year, the Rhode Island Department of Health suspended Steven Pezzullo from practicing medicine after a then-70-year-old female patient alleged sexually inappropriate contact during a physical exam in 2011. The licensing board document also refers to a similar allegation from a female patient in 1996. He was cleared in that case.

Pezz and her father, now 63, had maintained a relationship. He would occasionally travel to watch her race, she said. And they would talk on the phone maybe twice a month.

Then last Christmas, Pezz went home to Rhode Island. She’d told Susan she wasn’t going to see her father, but she did anyway.

“It triggered a lot of bad memories,” Pezz said. “I came (back) a wreck.”

Two weeks later, with Susan by her side, Pezz called her father, confronted him and said she was ceasing contact.

She won’t pursue legal action against him right now. She wants to heal, and she’s not sure that would help.

Her relationship with her mother has improved. Over the summer, Linda Pezzullo visited Pezz in Charlotte. They see each other several times a year. She forgives and loves her mom. She understands her decisions.

“It was, ‘This is what we do to survive. We just do what he wants,’ ” Pezz said. “But if I have kids, would I let that happen to them? ... Hell no.”

* * *

Pezz resumed counseling at Susan’s urging, and revealed more than ever in therapy. In May 2012, Pezz moved in with the Blacks.

With Susan’s encouragement, Pezz stood up more for herself, set boundaries and decided to start training for Chicago. After her strong performance there, Running Times ranked her 10th among top U.S. marathoners.

Susan, like Ramona, supported Pezz unconditionally.

“I don’t care if she wants to be an amazingly fast professional runner. I don’t care if she wants to bake the best cupcakes in Charlotte. I don’t care if she wants to become a brain surgeon,” Susan said. “I just want her to experience the chance to achieve a dream.”

Pezz won’t say what she earns from running, but she has always paid her bills. She never took money from the Blacks or the Pedemontes unless it was an offer to help with medical expenses or an emergency.

She said in 2012 – when 75 percent of her income came from racing – she earned less than she did as a full-time personal trainer.

Marathoners peak in their 30s, when endurance and discipline often improve. Pezz turned 31 in May.

The top marathoners are paid well. Liliya Shobukhova, 35, of Russia was the highest-paid female marathoner in 2011 at $720,000, according to a survey by ESPN The Magazine. The majority of professional runners, however, scrape by on $20,000 a year or less, said David Monti of Race Results Weekly, who recruits pros for the New York City Marathon.

“Running is mostly a pro sport in name only, with an income distribution that forms a very steep pyramid,” said Toni Reavis, a marathon TV commentator.

Runners at Pezz’s level must choose races carefully to maximize their income, Monti said. A bad performance means earning nothing. Mile specialists can race often, “so if the race on Friday goes poorly, there’s another one on Tuesday,” Monti said. But with marathoners, like Pezz, “it takes three to four months of training for each one, and even the smallest problem – a blister, an upset stomach, a calf cramp – can ruin everything. The pressure on race day is massive.”

And this year already has been filled with pressure.

In February, she moved into a one-bedroom apartment. It’s the first time she’s lived alone.

In March, a large cyst on her left hamstring caused her to drop out of a race in Florida, then miss a race in Virginia Beach. “I was just at the point where I was like, ‘I’m done’ ... ‘I’m just gonna take a step back from running,’ ” she said. So she got herself three part-time jobs.

But in April, she had “a little therapy session” with Susan and refocused herself on running. The next Sunday, two weeks after the cyst was drained, Pezz finished ninth at the USA Women’s 10 Mile Championships in Washington. In the next five weekends, she won more than $4,000 in three races – not including bonuses.

Then in June, another setback: kidney stones. The pain forced her to walk during portions of a major 10k in New York, finishing in 31st place.

“There’s been a lot of times where I’ve thought about quitting and ... ,” Pezz said, then paused. “Running. This is back to running. Not quitting my life. ... It’s a financial struggle. You’re always waiting for your next paycheck.”

* * *

Pezz wants to finish in the top 10 in the Chicago Marathon on Oct. 13. She hopes to beat her 2012 time by more than 90 seconds if the weather is ideal.

But the best part of Pezz’s life now isn’t running. It’s the people who love her.

Melissa has hosted Pezz at her Baton Rouge, La., home multiple times. Pezz is godmother to Heidi’s son Sammy, now almost 2. Jim is always there if Pezz needs a movie date or a lift to the airport. This past summer, she spent a week with the Pedemontes in the Caribbean. Susan frequently comes to Pezz’s races; next month, she plans to cheer her as she runs through the streets of Chicago.

They admire Pezz’s recovery, her courage and her heart.

Said Melissa: “If someone goes, ‘I had a hard life,’ I’m like, ‘Your life was fine. Let me tell you this story about this girl ... ’ She’s a great example of how, no matter what your situation is, you can become anything.”

And that’s Pezz’s wish: That her story helps others who suffer to heal through faith, trust and openness.

“There is hope for whatever tough situation or crazy past that you have experienced,” Pezz said. “We all cope in different ways. I really feel that I used whatever small talent or gift I was given to keep getting to the next level of healing. Doing well in sports brought me to certain people and places that have helped me to move forward and take some shame away.”

“Romans 8:28 is my favorite verse. It says, ‘In all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to his purpose.’ It basically just means if I really feel I was called according to God’s purpose, that no matter what happens in this life, it can be turned around for good. And it has in so many ways.”

When Pezz closes her eyes and dreams of her future, she sees herself as healthy, happy, and with children of her own.

She sees people who love her.

She sees hope.

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