Marko Pechnik stood in awe at the finish line of the 2014 Chicago Marathon.
For the majority of the first 19 years of his life, his mother, Linda, had never been a runner. But on this October day, she and Marko’s older brother, Matthew, had completed 26.2 miles in a little over six hours.
“I’ve just been sitting on the Xbox playing video games all this time,’” Marko Pechnik recalled thinking at the time. “Then, to see your mom there, after having not run for 40-some years, it’s just eye-opening to see how you can alter and change your habits to accomplish a goal.”
Nearly five years later, inspiration flows both ways for the mother and son running duo.
For the third straight year, Linda and Marko celebrated Mother’s Day by running in the Ice Age Trail 50 in LaGrange.
Linda said she was about 43 years old when she realized she need to start getting more exercise.
She lost her father to heart disease when he was just 45 years old. And as a cardiology nurse at Beloit Hospital, for decades she has seen first-hand what can happen to a person’s heart when it is not properly cared for.
“I told myself, I’m going to do something,” Linda said. “I don’t know what it is, but doing something for even half an hour is better than no physical activity.”
So she started walking.
Eventually, Linda completed a short race.
“Running my first 5K (3.1 miles) was really hard,” she said. “If you haven’t been a runner, you think, oh my gosh, I can’t do this—I’m overweight, or I’m slow, or this or that. But when you get out there, all that doesn’t matter. You just go out and do it and challenge yourself and do the best you can.
“You realize you can do hard things.”
Linda completed a half marathon in Madison in 2011. Running the Chicago Marathon with Matthew in 2014 was a milestone.
Matthew, she said, is more of a triathlon athlete than strictly a runner. But Marko, over the past two years, has followed their long-distance lead and dived head first into ultrarunning.
How far can he go?
Marko continued to reflect on his mother’s finish at the 2014 marathon over the next couple of years as he got back into running.
“Seeing them complete that marathon opened my eyes to the fact you can start running at any age,” he said. “I figured, I’m still pretty young, let’s see what I can do.”
In 2016, he ran his first half marathon at the Avenue of the Giants among the Redwoods in northern California.
Marko has since twice completed the Madison Marathon. And this past September, he did the North Face Endurance 50K (31 miles) in Dousman, completing the race in 4 hours, 39 minutes.
Every year, he has upped his mileage in the Ice Age Trail 50, running the half marathon in 2017 and the 50k a year ago before signing up for the 50-mile event this time.
“I like challenging myself and seeing how far I can take it,” Marko said. “I think eventually the end goal would be … the Western States 100 Mile (in California). That’s kind of a sought-after race for a lot of ultrarunners. If I could do that, I think it would be the pinnacle of my running career.”
A celebratory run
Marko and Linda enjoy the Ice Age 50 for several reasons.
For one, they can train a bit together for the event. The course is about a 45-minute drive from Janesville—where Linda has lived for more than 30 years and where Marko is a first-year art teacher at his alma mater, Janesville Craig High School.
They also love the scenery of the race course, the people who host the event and the challenge of long-distance trail running.
“Trail running is harder than road running. You’ve got more hills and have to pay attention to where you’re running,” Linda said. “You’ve got rocks, and the ground is uneven.”
“And it’s a pretty hilly course,” Marko added. “I think the elevation gain is 3,700 feet, so that can wear on you. In Madison or Chicago, you might only gain 600 feet.”
In its 38th year, Saturday’s Ice Age 50 drew nearly 1,200 runners from 32 states, as well as Canada and the Netherlands. This year it served as the Road Runners Club of America national ultra marathon championship.
But perhaps the main draw for the Pechniks is that the event is held on Mother’s Day weekend.
“As a parent, your kids look at a lot of what you do,” Linda said. “I feel like I’ve been a little bit of an inspiration for the two of them. That’s super cool, and that’s why this weekend is special for the two of us.”
Still drawing inspiration
While Marko attempts to stretch his running distances farther and farther, Linda prefers piling up the miles a half marathon at a time.
She is not into running for speed and doesn’t consider herself competitive but continues to sign up for several races per year.
“I just like to finish what I start,” Linda said. “If I have a race in mind, then it keeps me exercising.”
Marko said his mother’s inspiration has now branched well beyond her own two children.
“Now that I’ve started running, I’ve had some friends start running and we all run together,” he said. “It’s started a chain reaction.”
And now, when Marko is completing his ultrarunnning races (events longer than a marathon), he thinks of Linda and the influence she has had in helping him reach so many finish lines.
“I start to really reflect on all the decisions I’ve made in my life,” he said. “They kind of all stem from my mom and my brother running that Chicago Marathon together.
“It’s just cool to see how one person’s decision to want to change something so small about themselves impacts two other people.”