After heart diagnosis, Phoenix native Stephanie Bruce begins final year of career with Rock 'n' Roll Marathon

Elite runners Stephanie Bruce and Kellyn Taylor come in together for the half-marathon during the Humana Rock 'n' Roll Marathon in Tempe on Jan.19, 2020.
Elite runners Stephanie Bruce and Kellyn Taylor come in together for the half-marathon during the Humana Rock 'n' Roll Marathon in Tempe on Jan.19, 2020.

The last time she ran in a marathon, Stephanie Bruce finished 10th in New York City with a 2:31.05. In an event featuring the world’s best marathoners, that’s a remarkable finish. Among Americans, Bruce — a Phoenix native and 2002 graduate of Phoenix Xavier Prep — came in fifth.

Her running career, in that moment, was in the middle of a prolonged apex that had seen her post personal bests in the 5K, 10K, half marathon and full marathon since the beginning of 2019.

But Bruce knew something was off. Throughout the 2021 season, she had been experiencing what she now describes as “confusing symptoms” and felt that her body wasn’t at 100%.

“To be honest I wasn't sure if it was from grief,” Bruce said. “My mom died last June and I had been having a hard time with training and life. I was like, I gotta go into the doctor.”

In the initial blood tests, Bruce appeared fully healthy. In the follow-up electrocardiogram, though, unusual signs began to appear. After that, she did an echocardiogram at Flagstaff Medical Center. Within 48 hours, the cardiologists diagnosed her with bicuspid aortic valve disorder, meaning her aortic valve has two flaps rather than three.

With the diagnosis, Bruce felt lost. “It was a really life-changing moment but I didn't know why,” she explains now. Without her mom — the person who she would have gone to for advice and support — Bruce turned introspective, reevaluating her career she had led to that point.

“It made me feel like my whole running career feels like a gift that I got this far,” Bruce said. With uncertainty about what the condition meant for her career, she began doing research on her own and discovered that it increases risks associated with pregnancies. “Running is my whole life,” Bruce said, “but it's not worth me not having more children.”

To put an end to that uncertainty, she took a trip to MedStar Health in Washington, D.C. to meet with a team of sports cardiologists. The prognosis was positive. While Bruce will likely have to undergo heart surgery in the future, running doesn’t currently pose any risk to her health.

By that point, though, Bruce’s reflection had birthed a new mindset as it pertained to her career. For years, qualifying for the U.S. Olympic team had been atop her goals. In trials for the 2020 Olympics, she came 19 seconds away from going to Tokyo for the marathon.

But Paris 2024 is two and a half years away. She’ll be 40 by then. And in that period of reflection, Bruce re-shuffled her priorities. She wants to have another child and she’s excited for the post-racing life of holding running camps and connecting with her fanbase of primarily female runners through an assortment of business ventures.

So, despite getting clearance to keep running, Bruce decided that 2022 will be her last year of doing so professionally — an opportunity to put a bow on her career with what her coach Ben Rosario calls “a mixture of bucket list and favorite list” races.

All of which brings us to Sunday’s Rock ‘n’ Roll marathon in Tempe.

In the long-distance running world, athletes typically compete in two marathons a year, one in the spring and one in the fall. Global events like the Boston, London, New York and Chicago marathons highlight the calendar.

As such, events with smaller purses, like Phoenix’s, are used as an opportunity to run the half marathon in order to get racing experience without putting 26.2 miles of wear on the body. Rarely do these half marathons hold the same meaning as full marathons.

But for Bruce, the Phoenix race — which returns this year after a one-year hiatus in 2021 due to COVID-19 — has always been special.

As she winds along the course between Tempe and Scottsdale, she knows she’ll encounter familiar faces. Her brothers, who rarely get to travel to her races elsewhere, will be there with their families. Some of her high school friends and coaches will be, too. Even random fans who support because of her Arizona roots will be there.

In that crowd, though, Bruce knows one face will be missing.

“The last time I ran this (in 2020), my mom was there so this will be the first time I'm running without her,” Bruce said. “So it'll be very special.”

That year, she won the event for the second time. On Sunday, she hopes to kick off the final season of her career with a third.

Theo Mackie covers Arizona high school sports and Phoenix Rising FC. He can be reached by email at and on Twitter @theo_mackie.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Phoenix native Stephanie Bruce begins final season with Arizona marathon