Gretchen McKay

Late-bloomer running coach leaves no runner — and no funds — behind

Audrey Burgoon’s come-to-Jesus moment came at mile 18.

It was her first marathon, in San Diego in 2006, and her training partner of four months had just hit the wall. Seeing him falter, she burst into tears. She did not know how to run by herself. Her coach asking why she was crying only made her feel more like a failure.

Turned out, she was running so fast, she was on pace to qualify for the Boston Marathon. On her first race. She just needed to keep going.

She says, “You don’t know your potential until you push yourself,” a philosophy she’s taken to heart in the 100-plus races she’s completed over the past 13 years. She’s preached it to the hundreds of charity runners she’s coached to the finish at Pittsburgh Marathon events.

From participant to coach

Ms. Burgoon is 56, lives in Mt. Lebanon and is a textbook late bloomer. The Alaskan-born military brat moved all over the country before her parents settled in Pittsburgh in 1983. Sports as a kid? Never. The Penn State University grad took up exercise only in her 40s, after watching Richard Simmons “Sweatin’ to theOldies” in a TV commercial during a New Year’s Eve party and realizing she’d packed on some pounds.

She eventually worked her way through the entire library of his tapes, and the extra weight melted away. By fall 2005, she’d made so much progress that she hired a trainer, who one day suggested doing some track work at Mt. Lebanon High School.

So ignorant was Ms. Burgoon about running that she thought a quarter-mile lap around the track was a full mile. But she was fast, and her trainer sensed potential. She decided her new goal was to run a marathon.

A flyer from the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society turned up in her mailbox on the very day her friend’s child was diagnosed with leukemia. For a spiritual person who doesn’t believe in coincidences, the moment was profound. She had to run.

The Pittsburgh marathon at the time was on its five-year hiatus, so her first race with LLS’s Team In Training would be in San Diego. It was such a fun experience and she was so good at fundraising that she eventually became one of the charity’s volunteer coaches. In 2009,  the year the Pittsburgh Marathon returned, she helped coach the team that would raise thousands of dollars through the first Run for a Reason program. She’s kept at it, raising more than $114,000 for various organizations over the past decade.

 

Charity runners, says Ms. Burgoon, often are stigmatized as being less serious than “real” runners, especially when fundraising is a way to gain entry into a race without a marathon-qualifying time. “But they’re athletes like everyone else,”  she says.

Helping others make the transition

Justin Schell of Squirrel Hill first got to know Ms. Burgoon in the mid 2000s when she helped train him for his first half-marathon in North Park. The lymphoma survivor had just left his job as an accountant and was eager to shed the 40 pounds he’d put on sitting behind a desk.

One thing that struck him about her was the amount of time she invests in her runners, even though she works full time as senior administrative director at Asbury Heights in Mt. Lebanon. She even cooks for her team, as weekend training runs always are followed by one of her homemade breakfasts.

“She remembers learning to feel the discomfort of exercise,” he says.

Still, if people complain they don’t have the time to train, she doesn’t hesitate to call them out, he says. In the nicest possible way.

Hannah Camic of Elizabeth Township remembers how happy she was when the soft-spoken coach found her at the exact moment of her breaking point during the 2016 Pittsburgh marathon.

Ms. Burgoon had become a coach for Pittsburgh’s Run to Cure Cystic Fibrosis team. Ms. Camic was born with the disease, which can cause her lung function to drop when she runs. By mile 23 during that race, unable to breathe, she was fighting for every step.

As always, Ms. Burgoon was running back and forth on the course, looking for strugglers. She told Ms. Carmic, “Know you can do this,” and repeated it as she ran beside her for the next 3 miles, until the finish line was in sight. Then it was back onto the course to help some of her other 150 runners.

That means she runs more than her runners do, sometimes up to 40 miles during a race. “I’m a running coach who wants to run.”

Double the impact

Mary Pat Joseph of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation asked Ms. Burgoon to be the nonprofit’s Run for a Reason coach in 2014. She doesn’t have to fundraise, but she’s already raised almost $10,000 of her $12,000 goal for this year — more than anyone else.

Ms. Joseph has experienced her work ethic first hand — and with a broken wrist — when she ran her first half-marathon.

“Her message of accountability and personal responsibility resonated,” she says. “There have been many times since when I remembered her words when I fall short.”

She lauds her coach for helping her and hundreds of runners attain goals they never imagined, all while helping further other causes.

“She teaches life lessons.”

A different kind of runner’s high

As he lines up for Monday’s Boston Marathon, John Platt will feel the same jitters as every runner, plus a few of his own. Did I train hard enough? Will I make it up Heartbreak Hill? At what mile will I go blind?

The Moon resident’s feet always are numb. It will feel like he’s running in work boots. His eyes will be glued to the ground as he thinks through every step.

When the Kenyan elites float past him around mile 11, he’ll be battling vertigo; by mile 18, his peripheral vision will go gray. That’s Uhthoff’s phenomenon, a rare side effect of his multiple sclerosis.

“It’s almost like a storm is approaching,” he says of his temporary blindness, which kicks in when his body gets too hot. “It gets darker and darker,” to the point where he has to stop and stuff ice into his skull cap and arm sleeves to cool down. That brings back his eyesight and puts him back on the course. Until he overheats and loses sight again.

But nothing will stop the 42-year-old father of two — not the weather, which plays roulette with his symptoms; not his doctors, who advise him to not run long distances; and not his body, which fails him every day.

“You run free,” he says. “Alive. In the moment. It’s an entirely different type of runner’s high.”

His doctor calls him “oppositionally defiant.” That makes Mr. Platt grin.

Pushing back

Some 400,000 people in the U.S. have multiple sclerosis, a chronic, degenerative disease of the central nervous system. Mr. Platt was 29 and watching the Daytona 500 on TV when he experienced his first symptom in 2003.

“The world started to spin,” he recalls.

The next day, while driving, he suddenly couldn’t see to his left. He lost feeling in his legs, then his balance. Doctors found a lesion on his brain that they thought might be the result of a stroke or a tumor. It took 18 months for them to diagnose multiple sclerosis.

Mr. Platt will never forget sitting on a paper-covered exam table at Allegheny General Hospital in 2005 when he was told: MS.

“Life almost stops for a second,” he says.

But part of him was relieved. Now he and his wife, Aimee, had a name for the inexplicable symptoms. They could push back.

There is no cure for MS; doctors treat its symptoms and reduce relapses with drugs that suppress the immune system, explains Troy Desai, Mr. Platt’s neurologist at AGH.

“But it won’t make him better or heal the damage,” Dr. Desai says.

Over the next seven years, Mr. Platt developed new symptoms: fatigue, memory loss, tremors. He walked like a drunk. The worst was Uhthoff’s, which struck one steamy June day in 2006 when he was making a sales call for a freight company in a hot warehouse. Even small increases in body temperature cause him to lose his vision. He lost his job. He wanted to give up.

Deeply depressed, he retreated to his air-conditioned home (cooled to 60 degrees) in Moon. To walk, he needed a cane. He had a wheelchair waiting in the garage.

Raising money, awareness

Doctors often prescribe exercise to help manage MS symptoms, but Mr. Platt started running after a personal crisis. In June 2013, he lost a friend from his MS support group to heart issues. He’d flooded his systems with many of the same high-dose steroids. Her sudden death hit him hard.

“I needed to do something about it,” he says.

He went to his basement, stepped onto a dust-covered treadmill his brother had given him, and took a first step. He had to hold tight to the handrails, and it took a half hour, but he walked a mile. The next day, he took a few steps more than that, and the next day, a few more.

The following November, cheered on by his doctors, he walked his first 10-kilometer course around his housing plan. Then, he walked a half-marathon.

In 2014, he got his first real pair of running shoes and a new goal: to raise money and awareness for the MS Society by walking the distance of a marathon every week for an entire year: 1,362.4 miles, or 2.5 million steps.

“That’s when I fell in love with the marathon,” he says.

Or at least his version of the race.

He walked a marathon in April 2014 as part of Pittsburgh’s annual MS Walk. With his father, John Platt, driving behind him at 4 mph, Mr. Platt left his house near Olson Park at 2:45 a.m. and walked to Point State Park. It took six hours.

He decided to try running. He was neither fast nor pretty — he drags his feet — but it improved his health and gave him purpose. He signed up for the Pittsburgh half-marathon in May 2014, and the following September ran 33 miles on a treadmill at Elite Runners, formerly in McKees Rocks, to raise money for MS research.

Matt Imhof, Elite’s director of running operations, still can’t quite believe it.

“He was on it for seven hours, with no breaks,” Mr. Imhof says. “He is so much tougher than the rest of us.”

Mr. Platt next ran three full marathons, the first — and his fastest marathon to date — in Chicago in October 2014. By year’s end, he had walked or run 1,667 miles.

In 2015, Mr. Platt decided to run the world’s largest — the New York City Marathon. But the day before the race, he wore out his legs with his wife and two daughters touring Times Square. As he came down Fifth Avenue during the last few miles of the race, he was visibly in so much pain that his wife jumped onto the course to run with him a quarter-mile to keep him going.

“You can’t be here!” he yelled. “They’re gonna grab you!”

His Chicago time had qualified him for the 2016 Boston Marathon, as one of 50 mobility-impaired runners. Five months later, he ran alongside athletes with spinal injuries and missing limbs, including Patrick Downes, who had lost his left leg in the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013.

As expected, Mr. Platt’s vision went dark around mile 14. He lost 26 minutes icing down in four aid stations along the course. Still, the experience of running the “marathoner’s marathon” in under six hours was so profound, he couldn’t wait to do it again this year. But he would have to take a different approach.

During some race last year — he’s not sure when because he runs numb — he had fractured his pelvis. His doctor would allow him to continue running only with a trainer.


John Platt runs through his neighborhood this month in Moon. After two years of vision problems and balance issues, Mr. Platt was diagnosed in 2007 with multiple sclerosis, a disease that strikes the central nervous system. (Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette)

Getting ready for Boston

Running always flares Mr. Platt’s MS symptoms, so he pushes to get used to wonky legs and a fuzzy head. He sweats buckets. Every so often, he trips and falls.

“I know every crack in every sidewalk,” he says.

His trainers press to make his body as strong as possible. Weekly workouts at Cool Springs Sports Complex in Bethel Park include weightlifting, speed work and battle ropes. Once a week, he strips down and slips his 6-foot frame into a negative 220-degree cryotherapy chamber to speed recovery.

Cooled to the core, Mr. Platt dresses, then steps into a pair of neoprene “Incredible Hulk” shorts that secure him inside an antigravity treadmill.

“These things give me a permanent wedgie,” he complains as he starts to jog. He’s quickly drenched in sweat.

His trainer, Jeremy McCullough, shakes his head and says, “I push him the same as any client.”

When the session is over, Mr. Platt holds up his right index finger. It’s quivering with fine tremors, a tell-tale sign of a flare-up — and of a good workout.

During Monday’s Boston Marathon, Mr. Platt, for the first time, will run with Mr. McCullough and another guide, Lauren Wentz. They’re there not to be his eyes, but to run ahead to the aid stations and explain his heat blindness to volunteers. They’ll stand ready with ice, hoping to shave minutes off last year’s time.

Mr. Platt understands that people think this is crazy. But as he has since his first step on that treadmill years ago, he’s thinking about his daughters Julia, 13, and Olivia, 11.

“I wanted to be active in their lives,” he says, his voice thick with emotion. “I didn’t want to be that dad that was inside looking out the window as they were playing. I wanted to be out there with them.”

Because they are significantly more likely to develop the disease, he worries that they might also hear the words, “You have MS.” His running shows them that you can overcome it.

“I’m definitely in a much better place because of marathons,” he says. “They really do change lives.”

Chronic bowel disease doesn’t deter Pittsburgh runner

Lauren Moran of Bloomfield puts on a belt that keeps her stoma bag in place before going for a run. Michael Henninger/Post-Gazette

A love of running did not come naturally to Lauren Moran.

If anything, the Baldwin native considered moving her legs forward in anything faster than a slow crawl as punishment — and she was on both the soccer and track teams in high school.

“I hated to run,” says Ms. Moran, 34, of Bloomfield. “For me, it was always the worst part of sports.”

She held firm to that belief after graduating from Edinboro University with a communications degree in 2004, and her friends started signing up for weekend 5Ks. “I just never had an interest,” she says.

Even if she had, Ms. Moran’s body might have resisted. The summer after her freshman year in college, she was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, a severe form of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

Ten years and three major surgeries later — the last of which left her with an ileostomy bag — Ms. Moran has turned her body’s betrayal into motivation. Looking to get healthy, she decided to train with a runner friend for the 2014 Great Race. Crossing the finish was such an emotional high that she ended up running a leg of the 2015 Pittsburgh Marathon Relay. She’ll be on a relay team again this year with family members May 1, helping to raise awareness of Crohn’s.

Her friend and mentor, Emily Winn, is running the full marathon to raise money for the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America in her honor.

“It’s come full circle,” says Ms. Moran, associate director of alumni relations at Duquesne University. “I’m in a whole new place because of running. My body can do different things.”

Learning to cope

There’s no one test that identifies Crohn’s disease with certainty; its symptoms “fit” a number of GI disorders, including celiac disease, ulcerative colitis and irritable bowel syndrome.

While no one knows for sure what causes Crohn’s, heredity and a malfunctioning immune system are thought to play a role. Stress and diet can aggravate the symptoms, which include diarrhea, abdominal pain and fatigue.

It wasn’t until her weight plummeted 15 pounds that Ms. Moran’s mother insisted she see a doctor. A “million” tests later, she was finally diagnosed.

Named after the physician who first described the disease in 1932, Crohn’s can affect any part of the gastrointestinal tract, That means its severity and symptoms can vary from patient to patient. A chronic disease, it can develop at any age for the estimated 700,000 Americans who have it, although it’s most common between the ages of 15 and 35.

Ms. Moran didn’t think her diagnosis was a big deal; this was the era before smart phones and computers, so information was hard to come by. “I couldn’t understand why my mom was so upset,” she recalls.

Doctors advised watching her diet to see what foods triggered symptoms and started her on medication. By the end of her junior year, she was getting Remicade infusions every six weeks, but she got worse instead of better. In 2006, while a grad student at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, she had to have surgery to remove about 12 inches of her large intestine.

Recovery was tough but within a few weeks she was well enough to take a job in Florida. With maintenance drugs, she stayed healthy for the next few years. “I thought, ’This is great!’” she says.

Lauren Moran of Bloomfield goes for a run. In college, Ms. Moran was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. Michael Henninger/Post-Gazette

One step forward, two steps back 

Only it wasn’t. By 2013, the flare-ups were bad enough that simply willing herself to get through the day didn’t cut it. Realizing another surgery was likely, she decided to move back to Pittsburgh to be close to family. Three months after starting her new job at Duquesne University, she was in so much pain she couldn’t sit. Once again she went under the knife.

When she woke up from the 11-hour surgery, she had a colostomy. In addition to the physical recovery, Ms. Moran faced the emotional burden of dealing with a colostomy bag. It was a huge hit to her self esteem.

What if it leaked? Would she smell? How often would she have to empty it, and what if her stoma (the opening on her belly) made a funny noise? How would she wear a bathing suit? And what would it mean for dating?

“There’s so much stigma around it,” she says.

Yet Ms. Moran kept her concerns to herself. As Ms. Winn, 27, of Lawrenceville, notes, ”She’s not the type of person to complain.”

Which is how she came to start running six months after the surgery. Finally feeling good and able to eat different foods again, Ms. Moran realized it was time to get some exercise if she didn’t want to pack on the weight. Ms. Winn had just run the 2014 Pittsburgh Half Marathon and was bugging her to start running with her. With some trepidation, she agreed to train for the Great Race that fall.

Exercise might seem like a bad idea for someone with major stomach issues, but according to several studies, regular workouts can lead to less fatigue and alleviate some symptoms of IBD.

At first, she couldn’t even log a mile along the North Shore and would only run solo. “But Emily kept pushing me and after about a month, I was able to meet her in the Strip District for runs.”

She slowly improved, and that September, with a running belt keeping her stoma bag in place, she ran the Great Race 10K. Tears flowed when she crossed the finish.

“It was such an emotional year, and I never thought I could run,” she says. “It was a huge accomplishment.”

One more challenge

While a stoma is insensitive to pain, the race left her with some bad bruising around the colostomy site and a sore belly. Later that fall, doctors gave her devastating news. the rest of her colon would have to come out.

“I’d come so far that year, and felt healthy,” she recalls. ”I couldn’t believe I had to go through this again.”

In January 2015, surgeons converted her colostomy to an ileostomy, an operation in which doctors make an opening in the lowest part of the small intestine and bring it outside the body. They also removed her rectum.

Recovery was extremely hard, but what kept her going was wanting to run again. “Lauren is not the type to dwell on the bad stuff. She always wants to enjoy the moment,” says David Doyle, a friend since high school.

A month out, she could walk 10 steps. By March, she was jogging again, with a new goal: Running the last leg of the 2015 Pittsburgh Marathon relay. Not only did she finish, she gave it her all.

“It was awesome,” says Ms. Winn, who ran alongside her. ”I was exhausted but she was this little ball of energy.”

A stoma bag keeps Lauren Moran’s ileostomy in place during a run. Michael Henninger/Post-Gazette

Ms. Moran had so much fun that she decided to train for a sprint-distance triathlon at North Park three months later. She’ll run the marathon relay again this year and is also gearing up for her first Olympic-distance triathlon this summer.

Her body has been through so much, but it’s also proven to be resilient, Ms. Moran says. She has to be careful about hydration. But running has played an integral role in her recovery. She hopes by going public with her disease, she’ll create hope for others.

“Other college students will go through this,” she says. “I want them to know they can still lead a healthy life.”

She’s even come to appreciate her stoma.

“How can something that keeps me alive not be beautiful?” she asks.

After family members’ suicides, woman heals her emotional wounds through running

Amy Jacobson of Penn Hills jogs along Madison Avenue on Pittsburgh’s North Shore during a training run with Steel City Road Runners. Nate Guidry/Post-Gazette

For months after her older brother Allan’s suicide in November 2002, Amy Jacobson was numb. It was as if the Maryland college student had fallen into a big black hole of nothingness where the only emotion that churned inside her body, after the initial shock wore off, was total detachment.

Allan had been the brainy kid in the family, and his death a month shy of his 25th birthday in their parents’ basement seemingly came out of nowhere. It was only in the unforgiving glare of hindsight, she says, that her family realized he’d been desperately unhappy. Adding to her family’s distress was the fact that her father, who’d become a paramedic after retiring from the Navy, had found him but couldn’t revive him.

To allow herself to feel, Ms. Jacobson now realizes, would have been to acknowledge the anger, guilt and shame so many suicide survivors struggle with after the death of a loved one. But that’s a recognition of today’s 34-year-old self; back then, the fact her brother had taken his own life simply didn’t compute.

“You get lost,” she recalls. “Our lives completely fell apart.”

But worse days were to come.

Six months later, her baby brother Sam — the life of the party who’d always seemed so confident and sure of himself — met the same tragic end. Then in July 2004, her father also died by suicide, sending her into what would eventually be diagnosed as active post-traumatic stress syndrome. “My life continued to unravel.”

This past autumn, she started the long journey of healing her emotional wounds in a way she never could have anticipated: with a random 1.6-mile run along Rodi Road in Penn Hills that would lead to her signing up for the Pittsburgh half marathon on May 1.

Running as a lifeline

Growing up, Ms. Jacobson didn’t have an athletic bone in her body. Sam was the natural athlete, a daredevil who excelled in everything from soccer and football to wrestling and cross country. She was too shy to put herself out there.

“I never had the confidence to try out for anything,” she says.

Which explains why the immense pride the Penn Hills secretary felt after that first run on Oct. 11 proved so overwhelming as to be addictive. True, she probably walked as much as she ran. And when she did pick up the pace, “I was slower than a turtle in peanut butter.” Yet it got her so fired up about running she’s now training with Steel City Road Runners to compete in her first 13.1-mile race. She’ll also run a 5K the day before as part of the Pittsburgh Marathon’s Steel Challenge.

“Running has become my lifeline,” she says. “It has given me a reason to push on.”

Climbing out of the darkness wasn’t easy. As a survivor, Ms. Jacobson says, people expected her to be strong, especially for her mother. She was anything but.

Amy Jacobson of Penn Hills with her brothers Allan, left, and Sam.

“My life was out of control,” says Ms. Jacobson, who moved to Pittsburgh from West Virginia five years ago, not knowing a single soul, and now works for an accounting firm. “I couldn’t regain my grip, and I had no idea what I was going to do, or why I got up in the morning. I wasn’t living. I sure as hell wasn’t happy.”

Ms. Jacobson’s encounter with suicide sounds exceptional. Yet it’s more common than you might think. Suicide is the 10th-leading cause of death in the U.S., says David Brent, endowed chair in suicide studies and professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh. More than 41,000 Americans take their lives each year. And many more attempt it — approximately 12 people harm themselves for every reported death by suicide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The risk is higher for family members of people who commit suicide because suicide typically doesn’t happen in a vacuum, says Dr. Brent, who directs the Services for Teens at Risk suicide prevention program at Pitt and Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic. Most often it co-occurs with issues of drug or alcohol abuse, impulsiveness or psychiatric conditions such as depression or bipolarism, all of which often run in families. Even so, the “absolute” risk of suicide for relatives is still statistically low, he says.

“Genetics isn’t destiny,” he notes.

Learning to be sensitive to changes in mood or behavior can make one more resilient, says Dr. Brent. So can grief therapy, along with lifestyle changes that help minimize stress, such as getting some exercise.

‘Runner’s high’

Ms. Jacobson says she instantly felt better when she put foot to pavement. The first few times she ran, in fact, she cried.

“Everything that I’d kept bottled up was released,” she says. “That feeling of accomplishment, of doing something I never thought I could do, it’s indescribable.”

There might be a word for it: endorphins. Experts have long recognized that exercise eases anxiety and improves mood because it makes your body release these morphine-like chemicals, says Howard Aizenstein, a professor of psychiatry at Pitt.

The effect is two-fold. In addition to reducing one’s perception of pain, endorphins can trigger a feeling of intense well-being during and after strenuous exercise that runners sometimes refer to as a “runner’s high.”

“They’re like natural opiates in the body,” says Dr. Aizenstein, with a drug-like effect that people can get addicted to.

Studies suggest exercise can also lead to an increase in the gray matter in the hippocampus part of the brain, which correlates with improved cognitive function. Exercise also presents opportunities for socialization and can boost self-confidence when people set, and achieve, goals.

In Ms. Jacobson’s case, running also has helped her shed more than 70 pounds she’d packed on after being diagnosed at age 19 with polycystic ovary syndrome, a hormonal endocrine disorder that leads to weigh gain, infertility and other problems.

Like many new to the sport, she started small last fall, jogging just enough to make signing up for the Jingle Bell Run on Dec. 13 not seem totally crazy. She surprised and amazed herself with a 34:34 finish. It was so incredible, that when she won entry into the half marathon during a week of giveaways, she decided to go for it. She started 2016 with a Steel City group run on New Year’s Day.

The running community, Ms. Jacobson says, has been an integral part of her road to success. “They’re so supportive and welcoming. For the first time, I feel a sense of belonging.”

It’s inspired her to pay it forward. This spring she started volunteering for the Western Pennsylvania chapter of The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (www.afsp.org), a nonprofit. She’s committed to raising $5,000 for the 14th annual Out of the Darkness Walk in Pittsburgh on Aug. 27. “I want to take what I’ve learned and give back to others,” she says.

Which is considerable. Through running, she says, she’s learned you don’t have to accept what’s handed to you, that even when you feel like giving up, you can go on.

“It’s a metaphor for my life,” she says. “I have my ups and downs, good runs and bad, but no matter what, I keep putting on my running shoes and getting out there.”

So whatever her time on May 1, even if she has to walk some of her way to the finish line, she’ll feel victorious. Sam, she says, would be so proud of her.

“All of my hard work and persistence will have finally paid off, and I will be able to say that anything is possible as long as you don’t give up.”

Female runners self-defense: Stay aware

It was a beautiful, sunny day when Leah Yingling set out on June 15, 2010, for what she thought was going to be a routine three-miler on one of Johnstown’s most popular running trails.

If only.

As she recounted at Pittsburgh Marathon’s inaugural Safe Strides self-defense course for female runners at Bakery Square on Feb. 21, the experience instead was a chilling reminder of the danger women can face when they run solo.

Even when they jog on familiar turf.

Even when the workout’s in broad daylight.

Back home after her freshman year at Carnegie Mellon University, Ms. Yingling had just finished lunch with her twin sister, Kelsi, when she decided to go for a quick run. Tying on her Brooks PureFlows, she headed to James Mayer Riverwalk Trail, a secluded hiking and biking trail that follows the abandoned Johnstown and Stony Creek Railroad built by the Johnson Steel Co. in 1891.

It was a route the 19-year-old had run dozens, if not hundreds, of times during high school without incident. So this time, too, Ms. Yingling didn’t take any special precautions as she headed into the woods, and in fact left a small container of pepper spray on the seat of her car in favor of her cell phone.

A mile into the out-and-back run, her luck changed. Standing ahead on the deserted trail was a man wearing a hooded sweatshirt. As she veered to the left to step around him, he pulled out a knife, stepped into her path and grabbed her. When she screamed, he put the knife to her throat and tried to drag her into the bushes to sexually assault her.

During the struggle, Ms. Yingling somehow managed to find her cellphone in her pocket and dial 911. When her attacker realized it, he ripped the phone from her hand and fled. He was caught a few hours later and sentenced last year to eight to 16 years in state prison for the assault.

Others have not been so lucky.

While running is a relatively safe sport statistically, there are people out there who mean to do runners harm. Realistically, females are bigger targets for assault than males for obvious reasons. Ignoring that fact will not make them less of a target.

Just last month, a woman was raped on the Provo River Trail in Provo, Utah, while running after dark. Female joggers also were attacked on trails in Lewisville, Texas, in January; on Katy Trail in Dallas in November; on Capital Crescent Trail in Bethesda, Md., in October; and on Northern Virginia’s Four Mile Run Trail in July.

“It’s a growing problem,” said Road Runners Club of America executive director Jean Knaack, in part because more females than ever are running — some 7.6 million females finished U.S. road races in 2011 — and for longer distances. “But women really don’t want to hear it.”

According to Running USA, women now account for the majority of entrants (59 percent) in the 13.1-mile half-marathon, a distance that can require 30 or more miles a week at the height of training. Because so many work, many of those miles are logged when women are alone, in isolated areas, at off hours — with the birds before dawn or after work at dusk.

Pittsburgh Marathon race director Patrice Matamoros’ approach to the annual footrace, which this year will be May 5, always has been to focus on the athlete as much as the race. So when a friend told her about a runners’ self-defense course women’s safety expert Jennifer Gray developed for RunHERS of Oklahoma City, she decided she, too, should offer a program here in Pittsburgh, “because one of the most important things we can do is take care of you while you run.”

Turns out, her husband knew the perfect man to teach it: Self-defense expert/ex-Navy SEAL Craig Douglas of Mississippi, who spent 21 years working as a cop, nine of them in narcotics.

Leah Yingling talks during Safe Strides, a free personal self-defense program designed specifically for female runners, hosted by Pittsburgh Marathon. Ms. Yingling had been assaulted along a trail near Johnstown. Post-Gazette

Because assaults on runners can and do happen anywhere — small towns, big cities, downtown parks, suburban trails — Mr. Douglas’ main message was that women need to be totally aware of their environment. The earlier you can spot a potential problem developing, the more you can do to avoid or manage it.

The ultimate opportunists, “bad guys are looking for easy victims,” he told the crowd. “They’re the ultimate opportunists. They attack when conditions favor them the most and you the least.”

One obvious — but often ignored — way to increase awareness is to lose the music if you’re running alone in an isolated area, even if it means your run will be more boring. Runners get attacked from behind because the assailant knows you can’t see them; wearing headphone means you can’t hear them, either.

“You cannot put headphones on and tune out because that really does increase the possibility of you being a victim, ” Ms. Knaack said. The vast majority of reported attacks, in fact, are on women wearing headphones, she said, although newspapers often are reluctant to report it for fear of placing blame on the victim. That’s why safety tips included in those stories invariably include “don’t run with headphones.”

“It’s a veiled message.”

Runners also need to avoid activities that distract or make you oblivious to your surroundings, such as talking on a cell phone or fumbling too long with your shoelaces.

“Task fixation is like a moth to the flame for bad guys,” Mr. Douglas said.

Once on the trail, stay alert so you can assess strangers coming toward you for any potential threat. While you never know for certain what’s going on in a person’s head, there is body language that strongly relates to criminal behavior. For instance, Mr. Douglas said, a criminal often makes a “grooming” gesture before he attacks: He might rub the back of his head or neck, touch this face or cover his mouth.

Other pre-attack indicators are target glancing (looking to the left or right or behind you as you approach) and a discernible weight shift. If someone is going to pull a knife or attack you, he’s going to shift his weight from one foot to another so he has a base to move explosively.

Bad guys tend to telegraph their intentions, so furtive movements of the hands around the waist should also raise your hackles.

“That knife or gun doesn’t just magically appear,” Mr. Douglas noted. “It has to come from somewhere.”

Predators also might try to engage you in conversation, knowing it will cause you to lose your focus.

For someone to assault you, they have to get their hands on you. So always maintain distance when you pass someone you don’t know or who makes you uncomfortable and keep your hands close to your body and relatively high; it will reduce the amount of time it takes to cover your head with your hands if you’re attacked. If you have to pass closely, square your hips so it’s harder for them to bump you. If you have to shout for them to get out of your way, that’s OK, too.

“If you have space, you have time,” he said.

And what if the unspeakable happens?

If you can get away, that’s the best outcome. If you can’t, drop your weight to a level change like a wrestler (it will help you stay upright) and put your hands up to your head.

“You can’t fight semi-conscious,” Mr. Douglas said. “You need to protect your ‘computer’ so you can keep thinking.”

If you can get a shot in, go for the eyes.

Jennifer Gray, in an article in RRCA’s newsletter, recommends staying calm and going to the ground in a “false surrender.” If the attacker thinks you’ve given up, he’ll stop fighting to hold you down; that makes it easier to execute an escape.

Ms. Knaack of RRCA hopes courses like the one offered by Pittsburgh Marathon will become part of a growing trend. Already, one big name has embraced the idea. In January, Olympic runner Todd Williams launched RUNSAFER, an array of seminars and workshops to teach self-defense techniques to runners. It will be offered at specialty stores and gyms that teach martial arts and self-defense. (To date, the closest one to Pittsburgh will be offered at Mojo Running in West Chester, Ohio, in October; for more information, visit runsafer.com.)

The goal of the program, Mr. Williams said, who in 2012 earned a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, a martial art that focuses on grappling and ground fighting, isn’t to scare runners off running alone but rather to put one more tool into their runners’ toolbox.

“It’s for ‘just in case,’ ” he said. “So you feel more empowered.”

Which brings us back to the beginning of the story. Ms. Yingling said it took her about a month to feel comfortable running again after her attack, “and when I say ‘comfortable,’ I mean able to leave my house … absolutely everything made me anxious.” Learning not think about the “what-ifs” took even longer.

With each step forward, though, she became stronger. In May, she’s running the Pittsburgh Marathon on behalf of Girls on the Run SoleMates, a nonprofit character development program for girls that combines running activities with lessons in nutrition, body image and social issues.

“People always think, ‘It’s not going to happen to me,’ or that you only get attacked at night time,” said Ms. Yingling, 21, who will graduate from CMU with a degree in material sciences and engineering two weeks after the race. “But the truth is, runners often aren’t as lucky as I was. You need to be alert.”

For safety tips, see: http://www.rrca.org/education-advocacy/rrca-general-running-safety-tips.

Soldier’s Story: A year in Afghanistan changes Lt. Col Chris Cieslak, and her family

This is the last in a series on Lt. Col. Chris Cieslak’s deployment to Afghanistan:

Lt. Col. Chris Cieslak is welcomed home by neighbors. Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette

 

A bunch of red, white and blue balloons danced at the front door when Lt. Col. Chris Cieslak came home earlier this month after a year in Afghanistan. But the rest of her homecoming didn’t exactly go as expected.

The Ben Avon Army reservist ended up returning to the United States the same week her husband, Jeff, had planned a spring break getaway for the kids to a water park in Ohio. So instead of one of those teary reunions at the airport, she was picked up by a friend and dropped off at a house that was as silent as it was empty.

Missing that storybook ending would drive more than a few soldiers crazy. Col. Cieslak isn’t one of them. Chalk it up to an engineer’s way of thinking, but to her, the fact her family waited until the next day to rush home so they could finish their vacation was an example of them continuing to live life to the fullest while she completed her service.

“At first, I was upset they wouldn’t be there to greet me,” she acknowledged earlier this month, just two weeks back into civilian life. “Then I thought, ‘Wait a sec … They didn’t sit on the sidelines when I was in Afghanistan and watch life pass by.’ ”

Col. Cieslak is the first to admit the 43-year-old woman who walked into that empty house on April 4 was not the same suburban mom who had left it a year earlier. That’s because during her deployment with the 412th Theater Engineer Command out of Mississippi, she learned something important: It’s only when you step out of your comfort zone and confront challenges that you can truly grow as a person.

Life lessons

Civilians like to think of military service as the ultimate sacrifice. To be sure, more than 6,000 American soldiers have lost their lives in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003, and many thousands more have been injured, some seriously, according to Defense Department figures. But there’s also a gift that comes back to you by serving, Col. Cieslak points out, often in the most unexpected ways.

When you live with 1,200 people in a space that’s smaller than the footprint of the old Civic Arena, you can’t let bad feelings fester, she said. One of the most valuable life lessons she learned during her yearlong stint in the Afghan capital of Kabul was how to work through conflicts quickly, even with people you don’t like. Her time overseas also revealed, in a very concrete way, how others will support you during tough times if you simply reach out.

It was a challenging year for the Army mother of two, and not just because she lived in a walled-in compound that felt very much like a prison, or that it took a good five months for the civil engineer to find her voice on the job. She also worried whether the engineering consulting firm she’d spent countless hours growing into a successful business with several employees would survive her deployment. Then, in January, her 71-year-old mother, Lois, died from a heart attack while vacationing in Florida. The loss was devastating.

Mom was the one who encouraged her to consider ROTC while attending Penn State and was one of her most ardent supporters when she enlisted in 1991 in the Army Reserve. Had she not been able to lean on her community of fellow soldiers when that bad news made its way 7,000 miles across the globe, the last few months would have been unbearable. From figuring out how to get her on the first flight out of Kabul, to rallying around her when she returned from emergency leave, to recognizing the restorative power of work, they offered a comforting, collective shoulder to cry on.

“We were each other’s families,” she said, “so we tried to reach out to care for and watch over others.”

Value of teamwork

Working as a cog in the wheel of a well-oiled machine provided her with another insight into her own life: how much she missed being part of a high-achieving team. So much so, that by the time she returned to Pittsburgh, she’d decided she no longer wanted to run her own business, and she is in the process of shutting it down. On Tuesday, she’ll take a job as a project director with Oxford Development Co.’s sports and entertainment division, working on projects that include the redevelopment of the Civic Arena site.

“It was still afloat, and my baby, so it was depressing to let it go,” said Col. Cieslak of Chronicle Consulting, whose four employees included her husband, who served as office manager. Yet at the same time, the decision was liberating.

Everything falls on your shoulders when you own a business, and that can make you feel trapped and smothered, she said. So one of her goals while she was in Afghanistan was to look ahead and figure out where she wanted to be in 10 years. The answer was something that would make her feel “alive.”

“Before I left, I’d been in the same job for a very long time, and I think I was stuck in a rut,” she said. The change in attitude didn’t go unnoticed.

As impressed as he was with the way his wife ran her company and projects before being deployed last spring, the “old” Chris doesn’t hold a candle to the “new” Chris.

“She made this quantum leap of fearlessness, where nothing is going to stop her,” Mr. Cieslak said.

The family grew closer during Lt. Col. Chris Cieslak's year-long deployment in Afghanistan. Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette

Her family grew in positive ways, too. Her children, now 9 and 11, appear more self-reliant than they were a year ago, and their relationship is much closer. For her engineer husband, who’s been a stay-home dad since their son, Johnny, was born in 2003, he became even closer to this children. To her surprise, he even took on her job as the family “initiator,” planning several vacations and countless activities with the kids.

“It’s been very gratifying,” she said.

One disappointment over the past year, she said, was that she was exposed to almost no Afghan culture because her duties didn’t require working with locals.

“There was only so much you could step out of your responsibility, and do what you wanted to do,” she said.

It was also hard for her to regain her momentum after returning to Afghanistan after her mother’s funeral. With fewer than two months left, there was barely enough time to train her replacement, let alone finish her projects.

Also weighing heavy on her mind was her job with the 412th. To retire at her current rank of lieutenant colonel, she needs an additional 18 to 24 months in the Reserve. Unless she wants to keep traveling to Mississippi, that means finding a new unit — no easy task in a military that’s drawing down.

Hard to say goodbye

Having been previously deployed in 2003 to Kuwait, Col. Cieslak knew that most of the close friendships she’d form in Afghanistan wouldn’t last: forged in the pressure cooker atmosphere of a war zone, they’re just too intense to continue in the relative calm of civilian life. So as early as last fall, separation anxiety was setting in. She couldn’t help but feel melancholy.

By March, she was so sad at the thought of leaving her surrogate family that it started to overshadow her return to Pittsburgh.

“It’s like postpartum depression,” she said.

Three weeks into civilian life, Col. Cieslak is still adjusting. Facebook has allowed her to stay in touch with a few of her closest military friends, but most of those relationships have already started to fade. Now, the focus is on reconnecting with friends and neighbors and her husband and children.

She thinks it will take about six months to fully readjust — but it’s also kind of exciting.

“You go away, and come back, and it’s like falling in love all over again,” she said.

Many soldiers, herself included, thrive on the excitement of deployment. So the real challenge, she said, will be figuring out how to reap the benefits of military service — the intense relationships, opportunity to lead, the ability to effect change — as a civilian.

PG VIDEO

Ohio hardware store owner hammers out prosperous life

KIDRON, Ohio — To the scores of tourists who travel to the sprawling but somehow-still-charming hardware store that put this tiny farming community on the map a half-century ago, Jay Lehman is a local version of Bill Gates, an astute businessman who grew a tiny niche market into a global enterprise.

Jay Lehman founded his hardware store in Kidron, Ohio, in 1955 to serve a local Amish population. Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette

The rural store that bears his name has gone from serving a few hundred locals each year to one that peddles its old-fashioned wares (some authentic, others reproductions) to hundreds of thousands of customers in more than 200 countries.

Half a million do their shopping each year in person, pairing a trip down hardware’s Memory Lane with a visit to Ohio’s Amish country. (The store is busiest during the fall and Christmas shopping seasons.) Others boost company sales through its 170-page catalog or extensive Web site, which features a toll-free 24-hour order line. Orders have been sent as far as Tibet.

Yet the plain-living Amish who travel there by buggy in search of things no one else sells in person — a wood-burning cookstove or hand-crank mixer, perhaps, or a rebuilt Maytag wringer washer that runs on gasoline — probably have a different view of Mr. Lehman: that of a savior.

Had he not bought the 30-by-40-foot hardware store perched at a crossroad in the center of town back in 1955, many of the items they need to live off the grid might likely have vanished. Nor would some of them have jobs. It’s gotten awfully tough in these parts to make a full-time living off the land, so a growing number of Amish are turning to cottage industries such as furniture making and arts and crafts for their livelihoods. Lehman’s Hardware sells the fruits of their labor to other Amish, tourists and non-Amish locals.

“Even if they can’t farm, they want to live on the farm,” Mr. Lehman softly explains.

That said, the Amish today account for just 10 percent of his business. Replacing them at Lehman’s cash registers are nostalgia buffs and hobbyists, along with environmentalists looking for sustainable products and missionaries and homesteaders in search of appliances and other household items that don’t rely on power (composting toilets are suddenly hot).

The rich and famous also have come calling. So has Hollywood. Rachael Ray, Paula Deen and Martha Stewart are just a few of the celebrities who’ve bought from Lehman’s and its product has been featured in films as varying as “The Patriot” and “Cold Mountain” to “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Mystic River.”

“It’s a happy place,” says Mr. Lehman. “People like the atmosphere.”

Pulling anecdotes from this modest, unassuming King of Hardware is kind of like yanking a 31/2-inch nail out of petrified wood. But Mr. Lehman tells a funny story about his first brush with Tinseltown in the mid ’90s. Out of the blue, he recounts in his vaguely German accent, a producer in Miami called looking for some old-fashioned oil lamps. And he needed them that very day!

Accustomed to the simple life, Mr. Lehman couldn’t fathom how that might happen. But the voice from afar was persistent. Drive the lamps an hour north to the Cleveland airport, it cajoled, and then knock on a certain door inside the terminal. Someone on the other side would take care of the delivery. Well, if you say so … .

“So I took them myself,” he says. He pauses, the slightest of smiles creeping across his face. “I do a lot of work myself.”

Needless to say, the lamps arrived in Florida in time for the evening shoot.

“I couldn’t believe someone would pay me to do that,” Mr. Lehman says, a touch of awe tinging his voice.

The rest, as they say, is hardware history.

Mr. Fix-it

A devoted Mennonite who still lives on the farm he grew up on (although in a new house), Mr. Lehman, who recently turned 80, is as surprised as anyone at his store’s success; he was always more interested in the hands-on “fixing” aspect of the business. That’s why he became a mechanic at age 17 for a local garage instead of following in his father’s footsteps as a farmer.

“I didn’t want to get up early in the morning and milk cows,” he explains, laughing.

Not that he was afraid of hard work: At 20, Mr. Lehman left Ohio for Frankfurt, Germany, where as a missionary with his church he helped build homes for refugees under the Mennonite Central Committee-run PAX program.

His return to Kidron three years later found him out of a job. The two-room country hardware store up for sale at the corner of Kidron and Emerson roads, though, promised a new start. Or, as Mr. Lehman, who ended up buying it for $30,000 on his father’s signature, recalls: “I thought it’d be interesting.”

Lehman's Hardware in Kidron carries a variety of merchandise including haberdashery display. Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette

It might appear a leap of faith to so drastically change careers. But back then, he says, every small town had a bustling hardware store. Thanks to a Thursday livestock auction in a barn across the street (Ohio’s oldest) his store just happened to come with a predominantly Amish customer base — a segment of the population with whom he shared many beliefs and a similar plain way of life. (Amish tend to be more conservative and less tolerant of technology; as Mennonites, the Lehmans can drive and use electricity.)

“When someone in a suit came in, we’d wonder, ‘What’s he doing here?’ ” he says, chuckling.

Mr. Lehman assumed he’d be a “small-time hardware guy” the rest of his life — especially because a second, three-year Mennonite Central Committee assignment in 1961 with his first wife, Ella Mae, that took him to The Congo and Kenya, where he made travel arrangements for missionaries, stretched to 13 years. (His father and brother operated the hardware store in his absence.) And indeed, he could have been perfectly content serving those living beyond the reaches of electricity, including the missionary community he’d come to know so well.

Then came the Arab oil embargo, and Mr. Lehman’s natural entrepreneurial skills took flight.

Back in the late ’70s, there were still Amish who insisted on plain-black cast-iron wood stoves, which the hardware store bought 60 at a time. When word got out about this alternative energy source, a supply of Warm Morning stoves that should have lasted three years sold in fewer than three months. And because he had an “in” with the supplier, Mr. Lehman got preference over the Johnny-come-lately stores that hoped to bring these sought-after appliances to market.

At the same time, his missionary customers started asking for more of the hand grinders and gas refrigerators touted on brochures, jump-starting the store’s popular catalog division in 1979.

“It just mushroomed,” says Mr. Lehman. “After that, it was like, ‘What else have you got?’ ”

The Year 2000 scare spurred a similar craze toward self sufficiency. Mr. Lehman recalls a phone call during a dinner in Greece in 1999 informing him “this Y2K thing”– he didn’t even know what it was — was “getting big.” Talk about understatements: So many searched the store for products that would allow them to survive a technological meltdown that it eventually had to bring on 30 additional workers. It still employs more than 100 people — 10 percent of whom are Amish or Mennonite.

The latest boom is people who want to grow and prepare their own food, and those who have tired of a throwaway society.

Serving the underserved might make Mr. Lehman seem altruistic. But ultimately, he says, it’s also good business. “I was good at adapting.”

Big business

Today, Lehman’s is the go-to place for what daughter Glenda Lehman Ervin calls “the serious and the curious.” Mrs. Lehman Ervin, 46, became the marketing director in 1997 and her oldest brother, Galen, took over as company president in 2002; two other children are not involved in day-to-day operations.

Consider it a low-tech version of Lowe’s. At least six additions over the years have increased its retail space to more than 30,000 square feet, which is carefully carved into more than 10 departments. Its cash registers, for instance, are in a hand-hewn barn dating to 1849 that was salvaged in nearby Orrville and reassembled on site three years ago. It includes Amish-made rocking chairs for the weary.

Given his healthy sales and cult status — with his silver beard and short-sleeved denim shirt with the word “Jay” stitched in yellow on the left breast, he looks right out of Central Casting — you couldn’t blame Mr. Lehman if he took himself too seriously. (His daughter has installed cardboard “Flat Dads” all over the store, and his grandfathery mug also is on the old-fashioned sodas sold in the cafe.)

But his Mennonite roots dig deep. While he enjoys the social interaction that goes hand in hand with being a proprietor in a small town, he’s “not so much a people person.” It’s more, he insists with a wave of the hand, about the old-fashioned machines his talented hands still collect and meticulously repair (some of it’s traded in) and then exhibit in the store.

Occasionally, he’ll sell one of those museum-quality antiques. But most are for decoration, a gentle reminder of what used to be for future generations. Product is displayed in old wringer washer tubs; an 1883 jail cell from Somerset offers seating in the 2-year-old Cast Iron Cafe. The face on a Sohio gas pump is frozen in time at 1968 prices: a mere 26 cents per gallon.

Some of the stuff he hasn’t a clue as to its use, like a wooden thingamajig — is it a chestnut roaster? — screwed to one of the barn’s beams. But he displays it anyway.

“That’s just so Dad,” says Mrs. Lehman Ervin, about these blasts from the past.

Semi-retired since Ella Mae died about 10 years ago, after 41 years of marriage, Mr. Lehman comes in late and leaves early, always in his denim uniform and always on the lookout for the next big thing. That leaves more time for tennis (remarkably spry for his age, he still plays every Friday), travel with his second wife, Emma, whom he married in 2001, and planting trees (30,000 in the past 20 years). And the octogenarian still maintains an office — actually, it’s just a corner desk with a view of the parking lot.

“I’m having too much fun,” he says.

Lily Dale can be a spooky place

LILY DALE, N.Y. — I like a good ghost story as much as the next gal, especially this time of year, when even the staunchest disbelievers hope to hear something go bump in the night. But communicating with the dead through a medium? Now there’s a scary thought.

Still, here I am in this tiny speck of a village on the eastern shore of New York’s Upper Cassadaga Lake, sitting on a spiritualist’s front porch in the fading sunlight, hoping against hope that she’ll take pity on my sorry soul and give a reading. And that in the process, she’ll bring me good news from the other side.

During the summer, tens of thousands flock to Lily Dale, established in 1879 as a gated spiritualist center and today the world’s largest community of mediums, with more than 35 certified mediums and spiritual healers registered with the assembly. Some read palms while others read Tarot cards or give aura chart readings; whatever their method of transporting messages from the Great Beyond, all must pass a test and be registered with a spiritualist church.

I didn’t make it past the assembly’s picturesque brick gates until late on a Monday in mid-September, a few weeks after the town had buttoned up for the season. So rather than the hubbub captured in HBO’s recent documentary “No One Dies in Lily Dale,” which paints it as a pretty happening place, I was met with a spooky silence.

At least I saved the daily $10 gate fee charged from June 24 to Sept. 4, right?

Even one day after Labor Day, though, and you could wonder: That’s it?

The one-room 1890 school house that contains the Lily Dale Museum is closed until mid-June. So is the Marion Skidmore Library, which houses the world’s largest collection of rare Spiritualist and metaphysical books, and the historic Maplewood Hotel, situated near the water and the center of activity since the 1880s, with the faithful gathering on its covered front porch on summer evenings to recount their day or quietly meditate.

Arriving on a fall weekday, I also found the bookstore and souvenir shop and much-ballyhooed Crystal Cove gift store shuttered. (They’re only open weekends during October and November, depending on the weather.) No pun intended, but in fall, Lily Dale is, well, a ghost town.

That said, there’s a certain charm to the village in the off season. The Ferris wheel and bowling alley on the beach that allowed men to “relax from their daily worries” are long gone, along with the childhood home of the Fox sisters, who helped create Spiritualism. The home was moved here from Hydesville, N.Y., in 1916, and destroyed by fire in 1955. But I couldn’t help but be bewitched by the row of gingerbread Victorian houses lining Cottage Lane and after battling traffic for two hours, soothed by the town’s picturesque lakefront gazebo.

I also got a kick out of seeing so many houses with “medium” shingles planted in the front yard, even if most of them weren’t officially open for business and many were in desperate need of serious renovation; I half expected Allison Dubois (the character played by Patricia Arquette on NBC’s “Medium,” not the American author who claims to be a psychic) to come walking down the street.

Spiritual types know to make an appointment to assure a reading during the off season. (There’s a list, with the mediums’ websites, at www.lilydaleassembly.com). I, on the other hand, had decided to leave it to fate. Which is how I ended up practically begging the aforementioned medium to do a walk-in at 7:30 at night.

I initially wasn’t impressed with the hokey way she lit incense and turned on New Age music before asking me to lay my hands on top of hers. And what was up with the fuzzy bedroom slippers? The messages from beyond also were so general — my in-laws wanted to say “thank you” for keeping my husband on track and a friend who died last year wanted me to know her funeral was “lovely” — that I had to wonder if she wasn’t simply reading my body language and facial expressions, and telling me what she thought I wanted to hear.

Then again, she knew (guessed?) my mother-in-law had crippling arthritis and that my girlfriend suffered a heart attack. Spooky. Maybe it wasn’t a total waste of 30 minutes and $70.

Also verging on creepy (at least to someone used to having lots of people around) was spending the night — alone — in a 100-year-old guesthouse with nary a soul to speak to, a view through the blackness of an empty lake and no TV. Call me a baby, but every scary movie I’ve ever seen played in my head as I tried, with jangled nerves, to get to sleep.

Regrettably, a sweet-looking Cup-a-Joe’s Coffee Shop in the middle of town wasn’t open the next morning for business. So my stroll through Leolyn Woods to Inspiration Stump, where mediums hold outdoor services twice a day during summer, was bleary eyed. Whether the messages spirits send to audience members are the real deal or the result of practiced fishing is anyone’s guess.

But standing in trees, with only the rustle of the flag that rises like a crucifix from the tree stump breaking the silence and sunlight dappling the leaves, was definitely a spiritual experience.

Ben Avon family turns home over to film crew; Proves to be insane yet exhilarating

steve mellon/post-gazette

A movie production crew set up shop inside the Ben Avon home of PG reporter Gretchen McKay (center) for the filming of “Riddle,”

As someone who writes about homes, I’m usually the one knocking on front doors, trying to sweet-talk homeowners into letting me tell the world about the architectural delights beyond the threshold. Sometimes they say yes, and sometimes they say no. Having once had my house (and decorating) subjected to hundreds of inquiring eyes on a holiday house tour, I can’t say I blame homeowners who shun the limelight.

When Hollywood comes knocking, though, it takes an iron will to slam the door in its glamorous face. (The lights! The cameras! The action!) That explains how two movie directors and a crew of 40 ended up at our house last week to shoot scenes for “Riddle,” a psychological thriller being filmed here. Val Kilmer stars as a sheriff with a dark side.

Normally, my lawyer husband and I are pretty good at thinking things through. But we have our weaknesses, one of which just happens to be the way houses look in movies. Actors frequently disappoint, but we always can wallow in the set designs. I’ve lost count of the number of times we’ve painted (and repainted) our walls to replicate a room we saw in, say, “Father of the Bride” or “What Lies Beneath.”

So when a location scout from Smithfield Street Productions, working out of McKees Rocks, appeared on our doorstep in Ben Avon a few weeks ago and asked if we would allow our house be used as a set, it wasn’t just good luck. It was destiny.

Friends and family cautioned us against it, offering up horrid tales of homes being torn apart during filming, crew running amok in the landscaping, and neighbors complaining to the police about noise, lights and parking. But we (me) had stars in our eyes. Even after we found out the star of “Batman Returns” wouldn’t be coming (he wasn’t part of our “location shoot”).

We didn’t really think about the consequences much beyond the fact that the day of the filming would take a long time (it stretched from 9 a.m. to 2:30 a.m. the next morning), would involve some equipment being loaded into our house (more than you can possibly imagine) and require a set dresser to spruce things up (actually a plus — maybe a real movie person would paint our house in real movie colors for free!).

It wasn’t until a long line of white trucks groaned onto our street, and the crew started unloading an endless collection of lights, booms, cables, dollies and camera equipment into the yard that the uh-ohs started fluttering like butterflies in my chest. What had we gotten ourselves into?

Though we had a general idea of when directors John Hartman and Nick Mross planned on filming, we didn’t nail down the date until 11 the night before. Luckily, we’d cleaned up over the weekend, so the only question was where the kids would do their homework and sleep (the girls next door, our son in the basement) and what to do with the dog (ship him off to Grandma’s).

Come to think of it, where would we sleep, if sleep was even possible? Spoiler alert: It wasn’t. Just too many darn people in the house, many of whom spent their time moving cumbersome pieces of equipment from place to place, knocking pictures off the wall or hushing us to keep quiet when the cameras were rolling.

As our son would post on Facebook at 10:37 p.m., some eight hours after the novelty of having a movie crew at our house wore off, “So being locked in the basement not allowed to make noise kind of sucks.” Crouched on the steps in the third floor or squeezed in a corner, trying my best to stay out of the way, I had to agree.

No time for painting

The day-long shoot started easy enough, with the team responsible for transforming our home into the “Teller” abode arriving on our stoop not long after the kids left for school. In big movies, there’s lots of time for decorators to come up with a design plan based on pictures taken by location staffers. In our case, production designer Lendie Lee got the official call the same time we did, late the night before.

“Sometimes it’s on a wing and a prayer,” she said, laughing, completely nonplussed. Sadly, there’d be no time for painting.

In 16-year-old Jack’s room, Ms. Lee and decorator Smith Harper Hutchings swapped Jimi Hendrix and Anti-Flag posters for baseball memorabilia and pictures of cars; across the hall in Catherine’s room, Justin Bieber pics and middle school knicknacks got the boot.

Transforming our living room into a “video village” where producers could watch live feed of the filming was a different story. Rugs had to be rolled away and furniture pushed in the corner to make room for the computers, TV monitors and a row of directors chairs for the Big Guns. (And yes, they really do have their names stitched on the back.) I must have looked anxious, because John the location guy pulled me aside with a sympathetic smile.

“You know, something’s probably going to get broken,” he warned, as a crew member rolled a giant camera dolly that weighed as much as our Subaru into our dining room. “You need to put away anything that’s valuable.” A short time later, men were carrying my dining room table to my garage-turned-home office.

Later on, when three lighting techs scrambled across our sagging porch roof with huge sunlamps to provide the illusion of sunlight pouring in my son’s bedroom window, we wondered what the limits were on our homeowner’s policy.

Adding to the stress was the fact I’d fractured my baby toe on my way to vote that morning and was hobbling around the set hunched over like a pirate. Unable to run up and down stairs, it was tough to keep track of the controlled chaos swirling around me.

Some advantages

On the plus side, in moving heavy furniture, we discovered things we hadn’t seen in years. Under the couch we found a remote control, a key to my parents’ house and several earrings. Behind our ridiculously heavy sideboard, we discovered kids’ artwork we’d forgotten existed. The crew also managed to pry open a kitchen window that had been painted shut years ago and had to clean the glass twice (twice!) before it stopped showing streaks.

Also, being the homeowner granted us special status with the crew, who were friendly, happy to answer questions and respectful of our belongings. Neighbors might have been stopped at the curb, but we had the run of the set and snack-filled craft truck. We even were allowed to hang out within the “village” during filming and got a personal introduction to the film’s young co-star, Ryan Malgarini of “Gary Unmarried” fame. He cheerfully posed for pictures and signed autographs for neighbor kids who lined up at our fence.

The only problem with filming is that it went on and on and on. Long after the last light went off in our neighbors’ houses, our home was ablaze with megawatts of artificial sunlight, packed with so many young, hip people it felt like the pit at a rock concert.

Then suddenly, at 1:30, word went out over the vast network of wireless headsets that shooting was wrapping up for the night (something about triple overtime) and the entire crowd sprang into action like the Cat in the Hat just before the parents come home, snapping off lights, unplugging wires, wheeling out carts and stuffing trash in garbage bags. Within an hour, every bit of equipment had been loaded into the trucks, all the furniture was back in place and it was as if it never happened.

The only reminder that Hollywood came calling, in fact, is a large patch of trampled grass in our front yard, a date with a professional house cleaner and a pair of sunglasses Mr. Malgarini, to my daughters’ delight, left on the sideboard. Oh, and $500 in our pocket.

Would we do it again? Probably not, out of deference to our neighbors, but we don’t regret it. God knows what will end up on the cutting room floor, but I can already see us in the theater, looking up at the screen and thinking: What a great house!

Adventure just around the bend on overnight kayak-canoe trip

gretchen mckay/post-gazette

BELLTOWN, Pa. — Every paddler has her moment when the only thing on her mind is placing her water shoes on dry land. For me, it came about five hours into the overnight kayaking trip my husband and I took a few weeks ago on the Clarion River.

We’d slid our boats into the water under sunny, late-morning skies about 12 miles upriver under the bridge at Arroyo, Pa. Having kayaked the family-friendly Clarion on a number of occasions, we figured we’d travel at least 4 mph — maybe 5 mph if we put some muscle behind the paddling — a pace that would take us through this tiny crossroads in Elk County not long after we’d eaten our picnic lunch on one of the many giant rocks at the river’s edge. From there, it’s be an easy 5 miles to camp at Clear Creek State Park, leaving us plenty of time for a walk through the woods before a grilled steak dinner.

Talk about miscalculations. We wouldn’t pull our boats to shore at Clear Creek until well after 6 p.m., more than three shoulder-aching hours off schedule.

Don’t get me wrong — it was a gorgeous, meandering ride as the Clarion zigzags through narrow valleys of old-growth hardwood forests bustling with wildlife. (We spied several hawks and a blue heron.) Virtually alone on the water, with nothing but the occasional ripple of whitewater or a jumping fish to break the solitude, we were totally immersed in its natural beauty.

It just took a bit longer than we expected.

Slowed by a strong headwind and stretches of shallow water, a GPS we’d carefully packed in plastic in a life vest revealed we were only traveling a little more than 2 mph. Thank goodness, then, I’d taken my father’s advice and thrown a pair of paddling gloves into my kayak, and remembered to pack plenty of water along with the Pringles.

Tired as we were, when we finally pulled our kayaks out of the water and carried-dragged them to the rustic log cabin we’d rented at Clear Creek, we also were pretty darn happy. If you’re looking to commune with nature while getting a little exercise and fresh air, an overnight paddling trip is the way to do it.

Luckily, you don’t have to own your own boat to take an overnight paddling trip. Several paddling outfitters rent canoes and kayaks for overnight adventures of varying lengths on western Pennsylvanian rivers, often with a shuttle service that eliminates worries about how to get back to your car when the trip is over.

Indian Waters Canoe and Kayak in Tidioute, Warren County, for instance, offers several two- and three-day trips on the Upper Allegheny (15 to 45 miles, $55 to $100 per canoe), with overnight tent camping at developed campgrounds or on public lands along the river. For more enthusiastic paddlers, there’s also a seven-day, 107-mile excursion from Kinzua Dam to Tionesta ($300 per canoe, with a three-canoe minimum).

Generally, two adults and two small children can fit in a canoe, while kayaks can have single or double cockpits.

All trips are self-guided. But that’s not as scary as it might sound to beginners because the Upper Allegheny, a Class 1 river like the Clarion, is fairly calm and slow; some spots are shallow enough that you can wade across without getting your shorts wet.

Heading south, Westmoreland County’s Youghiogheny Canoe Outfitters can arrange a two-day paddle on the Youghiogheny River ($66.50 per boat, three boat minimum). The 28-mile trip starts in Connellsville, with most boaters over-nighting in tents on Layton Island, and ends at its livery in West Newton.

Securing a kayak or canoe, though, is only one part of the equation. You’re also going to figure out what equipment and gear to bring on the paddling trip, what will work best for meals and how to best prepare for any emergencies that might pop up.

Obviously, it’s a bad idea to set off for a weekend trip without at least some basic paddling skills — say, how to get in and out of the boat without falling in the water and how to properly hold a paddle. (If you’re traveling in a group, it’s important to know every paddler’s limitations.) Keystone Sojourns in Ellwood City offers a two-hour class in paddling Tuesdays and Thursdays ($25) at Lake Arthur in Moraine State Park. You can also try your hand at paddling through Kayak Pittsburgh, which offers free kayaking 4 p.m. to dusk Monday-Friday in Lake Elizabeth on Pittsburgh’s North Side, near the National Aviary (10 a.m.-dusk Saturday and Sunday, $5 per boat).

You’ll also want to make sure no bad storms are brewing and that the river you’re paddling isn’t too swift or high for your ability (searchable at www.rivergages.com).

Piper Lindell, who with husband Josh runs Allegheny Outfitters in Warren, Pa., maintains packing for a paddling trip is no different that car camping or backpacking in the woods, especially if you’re traveling by canoe, most of which can hold upward of 800 pounds.

“You just need to rethink the space,” she says. Kayaks are a bit tricker, thanks to an enclosed cargo area. Her advice: Figure out what you want, and then “cut it in half.”

How much is too much? There should be a minimum 6 inches of freeboard (the distance between the water line and the top of the boat).

Must-haves include a life vest for each paddler, and a throw bag and rope that can be used for water rescues and to retrieve a boat pinned by the current. You’ll also need a sleeping bag and tent, unless like we did, you rent a cabin. Bring a flashlight, an adequate water supply and bungee chords for strapping everything down. That way if you flip, all your supplies won’t go astray.

Speaking of unintended dips in the water, you’ll want to make sure you dress properly in quick-drying synthetic fabrics that wick perspiration away from the skin, instead of cotton and wool, which have no insulating ability when wet, notes Dave McQuaid of Keystone Sojourn, a Western Pennsylvania guide service. Don’t forget rain gear.

McQuaid also suggests including a tube of topical aloe vera in your first aid kit to soothe mild burns, sunburn and insect bites, along with bug spray and non-water based sunscreen. To keep items like cell phones, toilet paper and iPods safe and dry, invest in a good dry bag (or two) because “plastic bags don’t work.” Except for gathering garbage, that is, so be sure to bring at least one along for your trash.

Other essentials include waterproof matches or lighter and a small ax or saw for cutting firewood. If you have room, a starter log also is a smart idea.

In planning your menu, it helps to make a list of ingredients for each snack or meal. Remember, there are no mini-marts in the middle of the river, so you’re out of luck if you forget sugar for your coffee or ketchup for your hot dog.

Remember, too, that in Pennsylvania it’s illegal to drink or be under the influence of alcohol while operating a boat. So wait until you’ve pulled to shore to enjoy happy hours.

The difference between a boat that stays on shore and one that disappears downstream can be a matter of inches. Be sure to pull your canoe or kayak onto higher ground when you’re setting up camp or secure it with rope. Also, don’t tempt critters by leaving food out in the open or tempt fate by pitching your tent under a dangerous dead branch.

Perhaps most important of all, let someone know where you’re going to be paddling, and when you plan to return because your cell phone may not work on the water.

Meet the ‘Blonde Elvis’ of Mount Oliver: Tribute artists are alive and well

Bill Wade/Post-Gazette

Dan Casne makes his living redesigning and rewinding electromagnets used on overhead cranes in steel mills. It’s a technical job, and not a bad-paying one. But his true calling just might be singing.

He discovered this when he was well into his 50s. Watching karaoke one night at the Veterans of Foreign Wars building in Mount Oliver about eight years ago, a member cajoled him to take his turn on stage.

“Sing some Elvis,” he remembers the guy telling him.

An affable man with a personality as outsized as his biceps — Mr. Casne is a former amateur weightlifter who could bench 350 pounds — he good-naturedly complied.

He can’t remember what song, exactly, came out of his mouth, just that it was good enough that partygoers asked if he’d do another Elvis number at an upcoming event. The one song he promised stretched into a set of seven or eight.

“I thought it would be the first time I ever did something like that, and the last,” he recalls chuckling. “But they loved it.”

Before he knew it, Mr. Casne, 61, who lives in Allentown, was not just getting all shook up in front of crowds, but became part of the Rat Pack-inspired musical act, The Legends. In the process, he was making many a middle-aged heart go aflutter with the swiveling hips and spangly costumes that marked Elvis Presley’s Vegas years.

The musical phenomenon known as Pittsburgh’s Blonde Elvis — he wears long yellow locks instead of a coal-black pompadour — was born.

It’s not as outlandish as it sounds: Elvis actually was a dishwater blond who dyed his hair black, thinking it looked better on film.

Given that Pittsburgh’s population is the oldest among large metropolitan areas outside of Florida, and that people tend to like the music they grew up with, it’s no surprise a tribute act to one of America’s greatest cultural icons — even one with the wrong hair color — would strike a chord.

“Oh, it brings back the memories,” says retired Port Authority bus driver Jerry Contristano of Baldwin Borough, who’s been attending Mr. Casne’s shows for five years.

Oldies are popular enough that tribute acts — it’s a diss to call them impersonators — abound in local venues. Gateway Clipper Fleet recently started offering Friday lunch cruises with rotating headliner “stars”: Chris Denem singing Neil Diamond, Cathi Rhodes as country music singer Patsy Cline, Randy Galioto as Elvis and Bo Wagner, who does a Frank (Sinatra) & Dean (Martin) revue.

Mr. Casne’s success is ironic because he paid no mind to The King while growing up and is married to someone who’d rather listen to anything but.

“I prefer Hank,” admits his wife, Jo Anne. As in country legend Hank Williams Jr., who Mr. Casne also imitates on occasion at the theater he built five years ago expressly for that purpose.

He’s not an impersonator per se. He sings Elvis “his” way and has his own moves.

“I just get up and do what I do.”

‘Little Vegas’

If the sight of a blond Elvis singing “Blue Suede Shoes” in a studded bell-bottomed jumpsuit and yellow aviators is a hoot, Casne World is a verified howler.

Needing a place where he and his buddies could perform, Mr. Casne in 2005 ended up buying the 20,000-square-foot VFW building on Hays Avenue in which he got his start and, working nights and weekends with the help of Charles Krebs, Elaine Mitts and Gail Mervosh, transformed its 22 rooms into a mini-Graceland.

Actually, it’s friends who’ve likened the 1929 hall to Presley’s famed mansion in Memphis: Mr. Casne prefers the term “Little Vegas.” Whatever its name, it can only be described as over-the-top.

Up top, there’s a performance hall with space for 275 guests (150, if you want people to dance), tiki hut-like bars and twin dressing rooms for the talent (his has the bigger star). Elvis posters and a display of sequined jumpsuits brighten the walls.

The hall’s original 25-foot bar is downstairs in the game room, along with a pool table, leather sofas and projection-screen TV. Still to come is a 20-by-50-foot movie theater, a library, a full gym, bedrooms for the kids and grandkids.

Then there’s the lush private living quarters, the centerpiece of which is Mr. Casne’s cathedral-ceilinged bedroom and Egyptian-themed office. The fruit of 16 years of collecting, it has 8-foot replicas of the columns of Luxor Temple mounted on the walls, shelves full of reproduction statuary and miniature obelisks etched with hieroglyphics. Wondering what a full-sized replica of King Tut’s throne looks like? He’s got one of them, along with an 8-foot sculpture of the jackal-headed god Anubis.

His performances are more down to earth, what longtime fan Nancy Stabryla of North Baldwin describes as “personable.”

“He comes to your table and welcomes you, and you almost feel like family,” she says. The singing, she adds, “is excellent.”

“He’s phenomenal,” agrees her husband, Ed, retired from Neville Chemical Co. “If we’ve been there 10 times, we’ve seen 10 different shows. I’m serious, you’d be shocked.”

“I just put on a costume, jump on stage and have a good time,” Mr. Casne says.

Other tribute acts

Singer/songwriter Chris Denem wins similar praise for his Neil Diamond performances. He did his first tribute show to the pop singer in 1976 at age 19, at the New Kensington Holiday Inn with a seven-piece band.

Raised in a musical household in Penn Hills — his father, Ralph Scherder, is a classical pianist — Mr. Denem was an early fan of Mr. Diamond’s work.

“When he first came onto the scene, I thought, ‘That’s me. I can do that,’ ” recalls Mr. Denim, who also plays and records his own music. “So I started picking up his songs, and everything else just happened.”

In the 30 years since, the Butler resident has done hundreds more for crowds who sometimes confuse him for the real thing.

“When he does ‘America,’ you get chills,” says Mr. Stabryla, who has seen him perform numerous times.

Like Mr. Casne, he shies away from the word “impersonator.” He prefers to think of his work more as a tribute than a copy.

“It was just a natural fit for my voice and personality,” he says.

The fact he just happens to also look like the guy and has many of the same mannerisms? Pure happenstance, he insists, the result of genetics rather than wigs and makeup.

Many of his fans are older, but not all.

“The young girls like him because he’s cute,” says Barb Tanski, owner of Buttercup Woodlands Campground in Renfrew, Butler County, where he entertains campers at least twice a year.

Nor are they disproportionately female. Jerry Harrison of Butler estimates he’s seen him perform more than 40 times over the years with his wife, Kathy, including a couple of times in his own backyard for private parties.

Mr. Denem’s take on Diamond is so good, there are certain times when, if you turned your back to him, you’d think the “real” Neil was behind you, he says.

“He puts his heart and soul into it,” Mr. Harrison says.

Cathi Rhodes’ tribute to Patsy Cline is similarly heartfelt and dead-on, which is why Barb Ragen traveled all the way from Latrobe to see her aboard the Gateway Clipper’s Majestic on a recent Friday and made sure she was the second one on the ship.

“I follow her around to all the county fairs, too,” says Ms. Ragen, who works for Excella Health at Latrobe Hospital. “She’s so friendly to everyone, and her show is outstanding.”

The host of “Polka Carousel Show” and “CrossRhodes’ Bluegrass/Folk Music” on WBCW and WHJB radio stations for almost 10 years, Ms. Rhodes, 58, has countless acting and dancing gigs under her white rhinestone belt. The South Greensburg native also can sing. Really well.

It’s tough, walking in the cowboy boots of such a country icon. (Ms. Cline was the first female solo artist inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.) Her interaction with the crowd, though, eases the way.

“I don’t want to have this big expanse between us,” she tells the crowd when she takes her place at the microphone, giving her red-and-white fringed shirt a little shake. “So shake a leg.”

Long before she reaches “Crazy” on the set list, people are dancing.

Other oldies but goodies

The Blonde Elvis performs with the Rat Pack at Casne World, 325 Hays Ave., Mount Oliver, on Aug. 21. Tickets ($25) include dinner and beer but must be purchased in advance by calling 412-481-3121; doors open at 6 p.m., with dinner at 7 p.m. Info: blondeelvis.com.

The Gateway Clipper Fleet’s Golden Triangle Lunch Cruise will feature Mr. Wagner’s Frank & Dean revue on Aug. 29 and select Mondays through December, and A Portrait of Patsy Cline by Ms. Rhodes on Aug. 27.

Tickets cost $36.37. Information: gatewayclipper.com. For additional Patsy Cline performances, visit cathirhodes.com.

Upcoming performances by Mr. Denem include free concerts at the Robin Hill Park gazebo, 1000 Beaver Grade Road, Moon, at noon Aug. 18, and at Leo & Sons Grill 31, corner of Diamond and Main streets in Mount Pleasant at 8:30 p.m. Aug. 20. Info: http://chrisdenem.com.

Mall tattoo studio finds acceptance

Grace Patuwo/Post-Gazette

Getting a little ink etched into the dermis layer of the skin has become so mainstream that Pittsburghers can now get a tattoo at one of the most homogenized of American venues: the mall.

Two months ago, Get Inked … In the Flesh, a 1,500-square-foot tattoo and body piercing studio, opened its doors a few steps from Macy’s in the Mall at Robinson. And as co-owner Stephanie Vegoda expected, business has been brisk.

Many of its customers, evenly split between men and women, are Gen Y-ers who shop at Get Inked, the tattoo-related apparel store Ms. Vegoda opened last year on the mall’s lower level and recently relocated upstairs. But the studio also is finding an audience among aging baby boomers and 40-something professionals. Just the other day, Ms. Vegoda reports with a smile, they got a call from a woman who wanted to buy her mother her first tattoo. For her 70th birthday.

In other words, the studio draws the same clientele as most other stores at the mall.

More information

Get Inked … In the Flesh (store 60) is on the upper level of the Mall at Robinson. Hours are 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays; 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Saturdays; 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays. Information: 412-787-2800.

“Tattoos have gone from something you cover up to something you expect,” says Ms. Vegoda, 32. “So the time is right for the concept. It’s a lifestyle.”

This isn’t the first tattoo studio in a suburban shopping center: Tattoo Nation paved the way in 2006 when it opened a studio near Bloomingdales in the Willowbrook Mall in Wayne, N.J. (it has since opened a second store in a mall in Queens, N.Y.).

There are also a pair of tattoo and piercing studios in malls in Florida, with two more in the works. But it’s a relatively new concept for Western Pennsylvania. So new, in fact, that when Ms. Vegoda approached mall management, they didn’t exactly jump up and down with excitement.

“We were hesitant,” admits Beth Edwards, manager of the 150-store Robinson complex.

Needless worry, says lead needle artist Mike Anderson, who brought 20-plus years of experience when he relocated from West Virginia to Sewickley with his wife, Gina, a piercing artist. Since opening on May 7, the business has received nothing but praise from shoppers and other tenants, he says.

“We think it’s turned out great,” Ms. Edwards agrees. “It’s a good addition to the mall.”

Much of that can be attributed to the studio’s design. (Call it a parlor and you’ll quickly be corrected.) Ms. Vegoda and business partner Chuck Hornsby of New York clearly did their homework. With brightly colored faux-finished walls (she did the work herself), glossy wood floors and tasteful lighting, it’s more Miami Beach than Miami Ink, a Vespa instead of a Harley.

Hard-core tattoo fans may be put off by its mall-ness, and indeed, some competitors have dismissed the studio as too corporate. But they’re missing the point. A lot of people are intimidated by a traditional tattoo parlor, says Ms. Vegoda.

“We’re not trying to compete,” she says. “We’re trying to open up a new community to the art of tattoos in a place they feel comfortable. We offer good, clean work in a safe environment.”

Besides, she adds, anything that helps legitimize tattoos is good for the industry.

You have to be at least 18 years old to get inked, and there’s a minimum charge of $50, though prices can quickly climb depending on the intricacy of the design, size and use of color. A pair of screens offer privacy for the rare customer who doesn’t want to be on display, or is getting a tattoo on a body part no one but a significant other should see.

Recognizing that many first-timers don’t know what they want — 90 percent of its customers are walk-ins — Get Inked encourages them to page through large books of tattoo flash, or illustrations, at the front of the store. But it’s always best, says Mr. Anderson, to work with the artist to create a custom tattoo that has special meaning. (Word to the wise: “Tramp stamps” on the lower back are out; tatts on the side, rib cage and arms are in. )

Speaking of which, Ms. Vegoda has yet to get a tattoo of her own. She says there’s nothing she can think of that she’d want “for the rest of my life.” But body art is clearly in her blood. Six years ago, the Brownsville native started a company that provides face art, henna and airbrush tattoos for amusement parks across the country. Although her clothing store opened first, it was really just a clever way of getting the public used to an idea she’s had for a long time.

“We’re trying to change the mind of the public that a tattoo is a beautiful piece of artwork,” Ms. Vegoda says, “not something that you should try to hide or be ashamed of.”