AUSTIN (KXAN) — At 5 a.m. on Saturday, Josh Perez laced up his sneakers for a run around Lady Bird Lake. Fourteen hours and 51 miles later, he finished his final lap, greeted by friends, family and his wife at the finish line.
Not many can say they’re able to run 51 miles, or would even attempt the feat. But each step of the way, Perez said he thought of his father, David Perez, who was on his own road to recovery after a bout of COVID-19 left him in a coma in the ICU for six weeks.
“To be fully transparent, they told me my dad had a 20% chance to live when he was in the ICU, when he first got there,” Josh said. “And to see your hero on a hospital bed, it was definitely, you know, a punch in the gut.”
Josh was joined by his uncle, Erik Villanueva, who also ran 51 miles in honor of David’s 51st birthday on Nov. 11. The idea came as Josh and his family were brainstorming ways to raise funds to help cover the costs of David’s medical bills. In addition to his 51-mile run, Josh and his family launched a GoFundMe to help cover David’s hospitalization and rehabilitation costs.
Prior to Saturday, Josh said he had previously run a marathon, but his training for the 51-mile trek maxed out at 17 miles. He said he was anxious heading into the run, but it wasn’t for him: Every step, every lap around the lake was dedicated to his “hero.”
“Coming up short wasn’t an option,” Josh said. “Whether I had to walk, jog, just crawl back to the finish line, I think [my uncle and I] had the same mentality: ‘I’m not gonna let you come up short, no matter how much pain you are in, no matter how long it takes. This is for your dad.'”
To know David, Josh said, is to know a man with a servant’s heart. A “big softy” at heart, Josh said his dad has dedicated 20 years of his life to community service and basketball coaching to at-risk children in east Austin. He called him a “true warrior” who wasn’t afraid to admit to his faults, but always works to the betterment of himself and those he loves.
A man whose COVID-19 prognosis gave him a 20% chance of living, doctors told Josh his dad had at least seven strokes while in an induced coma on a ventilator. Now, David is in rehab, learning how to walk again and regaining his voice.
The odds were not in his dad’s favor, Josh said. Family members were asked to stay nearby, bracing for the worst.
Then, during a visit to the hospital, Josh said his dad finally responded to a cue, squeezing Josh’s hand. And with that came his voice, his ability to stand and his memories, reminiscing with Josh on experiences past. With basketball as his father’s “love language,” the sport is a common thread weaving itself through those memories and their bond.
Their bond has been strengthened in new ways, as Josh and his wife, Arielle, await the birth of their first child — a baby girl — in a month’s time.
As Josh prepares to step into the role of fatherhood, he said he’s thought a lot about the lessons learned from his father, and the way David’s love for his children has informed the love Josh will have for his daughter.
“It’s just one of those things where it’s like, if our relationship never happened, I don’t think I would have had the same mindset going into parenthood,” he said. “And it’s truly a blessing to have him as a dad.”
As Josh navigated his five-loop tour of Lady Bird Lake Saturday, family and friends lined the trail with signs and words of encouragement to keep him going. Fraternity brothers in town joined him for a few laps, and his wife ran back and forth from their car to bring him water and fresh shirts to change into.
It takes a village to run 51 miles, he said. But the run to the finish line, and what it symbolizes, is easy when the man who inspired it is there in spirit, every step of the way, to guide him.
“I don’t think I could have made it without [my friends and family],” he said. “But it also goes back to the ripple effect of my dad.”