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.”

Triathlete overcomes traumatic brain injury to race again

Megan Kruth still doesn’t know what sent her flying over her bike’s handlebars on Aug. 4, 2013.

The Ironman triathlete and 17-time All-American collegiate swimmer had done training rides on that stretch of Babcock Boulevard near her McCandless townhouse hundreds of times. But that Sunday morning, she probably hit a bump in the pavement. When her helmet struck the pavement, it split open like a too-ripe watermelon. The impact fractured her skull, ribs and collarbone.

By the time her ambulance pulled into Allegheny General Hospital, she was in a coma. Doctors weren’t sure she’d survive the surgery to remove a bone flap from the skull to expose the brain and relieve building pressure.

But neurosurgeon Khalid Aziz says that the then-41-year-old had several things working in her favor: the quickness with which the paramedics got her to the hospital, her youth and her extremely good health.

“But I also believe it was her spirit,” he says. “You could just see she wanted to get better.”

Ms. Kruth would have to re-learn how to swallow, talk and walk in the months of difficult rehab that followed. But no one doubted she’d fight her way back, says her younger sister Erin Kruth of Dallas. “There has never been anything that Meg didn’t do because it was too hard.”

Megan Kruth lived with her parents, George and Mary Lou Kruth of Shaler, for a year after her bike accident in Aug. 2013. (Megan Kruth)

With the support of many doctors and nurses, family and the triathlete community, “Iron Meg” has been able to return to not just swimming, but also competing. On Saturday, she’ll participate in Race for the Conch Eco-Seaswim, a 2.4-mile swim in the Atlantic Ocean at the Turks and Caicos. This would be on the 1,427th day since her accident.

The 44-year-old long-time second-grade teacher at Pine-Richland’s Hance Elementary is using it as an opportunity to help others who’ve suffered a traumatic brain injury, as afundraiser for Allegheny Health Network Neuroscience Institute.

She says, “Goal-setting has brought me back to what I love.”

Slow and steady

After her initial surgery, Ms. Kruth wound up needing four more cranial surgeries over the next year, including one to place a customized synthetic implant in her head after the first bone flap became infected. (“But I can go through scanners with no problems!” she quips.) Her broken collarbone, repaired with a titanium plate, required another major operation.

While she hated the white protective helmet she wore for months to keep from reinjuring her brain, she slowly got better. After 17 days in the hospital, she spent less than two weeks doing inpatient rehab at UPMC Mercy Hospital’s Center for Brain Injury before going home to live with her parents, George and Mary Lou Kruth of Shaler.  By fall she was jogging short distances; by Thanksgiving, her daily routine included spinning on an indoor trainer bike while FaceTiming with her sister Marcia in Florida.

Ms. Kruth, though, couldn’t always see that she was making progress. Plagued by short-term memory loss that sometimes left her struggling for words, she often felt frustrated or angry. Multitasking proved impossible. And she didn’t like being dependent.

“Doctors told us this will be a journey, not a sprint, and you’ll need lots of patience,” says her father, noting how just one wrong word could set her off into a rage.

There also were setbacks during the year she spent recuperating in her parents’ home. One of the scariest was a seizure during a Sunday walk at Hartwood Acres not long after she got out of rehab. Seizures occur in one of every 10 people who have a TBI that required hospitalization, so it wasn’t completely  unexpected. But as her sister Erin noted in a post on the CaringBridge website, it was a reminder that healing is a process, “even when you think you’re in the clear.”  Ms. Kruth would have three more seizures over the following spring.

Her family encouraged her with Ironman analogies: “Sometimes in training you get an injury and have to step back and rest a bit, Erin would tell her. “But you always get to the finish.”

“Yes, I went through a lot of extreme emotions,” admits Ms. Kruth, who still works with a neuropsychologist to develop strategies for coping. “But there also was a part of me that said, ‘OK, I’m going to fight for this, whatever it is.’ ”

One big milestone was getting her driver’s license back in September 2014 . That’s also when her plastic surgeon, Michael White, allowed her to start swimming again with friends, albeit very slowly and not for long distances.

After a false start in January 2015, she was back in the classroom the following fall, by which time she’d also achieved another milestone — moving back into her townhouse. Her students’ parents, she says, “were wonderful.”

All the while she was swimming. She now practices five mornings a week before school, with the Cranberry Wave masters swim team at the Rose E. Schneider Family YMCA in Cranberry.

It was team member Mary Anne Savage of Cranberry who first planted the idea of the Turks and Caicos race in her head last winter. Ms. Kruth decided it’d be a good vacation for her, too. She was ready.

Megan Kruth poses with fellow swimmers at Crawford Pool in Shaler on Labor Day weekend in 2014. It was her first swim after her bike accident in 2013. (Megan Kruth)

Because Ms. Kruth is such a fast, amazing swimmer, Ms. Savage expects to come in well behind her.

Training with her, Ms. Savage says, has been an awesome experience for the entire team. Not only does Ms. Kruth have a ready smile at 5:30 a.m., “but we all can learn from her experiences how to face things head on.

“Just the way she approaches each challenge is so inspirational.”

For her part, Ms. Kruth — who in 2015 was featured in acommercial for Allegheny Health Network —  says she’s just happy to be back in the water, competing, and to be able to give back to the community that gave her so much during the healing process.

Before her accident, summers were always about her. This year, it’s about the fundraising and she’s also volunteering at Mercy in the brain injury unit.

“It readjusted my perspective,” she says. “It brought me back to earth.”

She’ll never be the old Meg, says her father. But that’s OK. So many brain injury patients give up. His daughter never lost hope.

“Your life just starts over,” he says. “You appreciate where you’ve come from and all the new life experiences.”

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 (, 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.”

Teacher with cystic fibrosis gears up to run Pittsburgh Marathon

Hannah Camic gets a look when she’s running that flies in the face of the chronic lung disease she was born with. She doesn’t smile so much as she glows, as if lit from within.

This is no small feat when you’re double digits into an early morning workout that could include as many as 20 miles before some Pittsburghers have had their first cup of coffee. It’s an absolutely amazing one when you consider her lungs are in constant battle with the thick, syrupy mucus that’s a hallmark of the cystic fibrosis she was born with 32 years ago.

Or that every time she’s in a group she puts herself at risk for life-threatening infections through cross-contamination.

Getting enough air can prove difficult, so she coughs. So much and so hard at times while she runs that a week before the Elizabeth Borough resident was to compete in her first Pittsburgh Marathon last May she bruised her ribs.

“I was the sickest I’d been in a year,” recalls Mrs. Camic, who teaches chemistry at Bethel Park High School. Her airway was so obstructed, she felt like she was breathing through coffee straws. “In my heart, I didn’t know if I should run.”

Her head was a different matter. She’d gotten so many encouraging messages while training with Pittsburgh’s Run to Cure CF team — during which she raised more than $19,000 for research — that to not lace up for the 26.2-mile race was, well, unimaginable. So despite her family’s reservations, and with coach Audrey Burgoon lining up support along the course, she went for it, knowing she’d labor for every breath as though the wind had been knocked out of her by a punch to the chest.

She was “beyond disappointed” with her time, but she finished, spurred on at the end by her younger brother, Levi, who ran alongside her the last four miles.

“Given how sick I was, it was somewhat miraculous, and I don’t say that about anything I do,” she says. “However, I did not feel that sense of accomplishment, joy and pride that I had experienced in other races and that I used as mental motivation throughout my training. But as you know, you just run the best you can with what you’re given, and I did do that.”

Or, you try again, as she did three weeks later at the Buffalo Marathon — and took 12 minutes off her time.  In all, she’s completed 52 races since her first 5K in 2013, all with her doctors’ blessing.  She’ll run her second Pittsburgh Marathon on May 1 with a time goal of 4:30 and fundraising goal of a little more than $12,600, bringing her three-year total to $50,000.

For someone with CF to cross the finish line, she says, is therapeutic in more ways than one. First, running is a good form of therapy in that it helps her lungs to clear out the gunk and stay strong. Perhaps more important, it allows her to deal emotionally with her disease.

“It’s a mental thing,” says Mrs. Camic, who logs upward of 30 miles a week. “When I’m out there running, I’m defeating cystic fibrosis,” a genetic condition that worsens with age. Life expectancy is about 38 years.

Mrs. Camic isn’t the first to heal the body and soul through running; there’s something about crushing miles that can make someone who feels bad, mad or sad suddenly feel better. But her resolve — many would call it grit —  is something for the record books.

It’s tough enough for any working mother to find the time for marathon training. Mrs. Camic has to work around a schedule that also includes four hours a day of treatment.

Hannah Camic reads a book while taking treatment for her cystic fibrosis in her home in Elizabeth. Nate Guidry/Post-Gazette

Every day at 4 a.m., she straps on a life jacket-like compression vest that vibrates, helping break up the mucus. It runs for 1½ hours. While it’s shaking, she uses a nebulizer to inhale a fine mist of four mucous-thinning medicines into her lungs. Afterward, the equipment has to be cleaned and disinfected.

She also takes “lots and lots of pills,” and when she’s sick, the list grows.

She repeats the process following dinner. If  her 5-year-old daughter, Noelle, is awake, they lie together or play games. If not, she watches TV, reads or grades papers. Sometimes she dozes during treatment, and her husband, Ed, takes over.

Depending on the day, her lung function can go up or down anywhere from 10 percent to 20 percent after treatment. Regardless, she never misses a run and also cross-trains with weights and yoga. Even on days when she has a line threaded into a vein in her chest to administer antibiotics, she puts shoe to pavement — She figures she’s logged at least 100 miles with the tip of a catheter taped to her arm. A few weeks after last year’s Buffalo race, for instance, she had to get a line to treat an infection.

“Why not double up and have running be my medicine, too, and get that double boost?” she asks.

As for any runner, sometimes it’s easy, and sometimes two miles feels like 20. What propels her forward, she says, is Noelle. “She’s my motivation to keep going.”

Success, she adds, is even more appealing when the odds are against her. ”The greater the challenge, the greater the feeling of victory.“

Ms. Burgoon, her coach, chalks her success up to a runner’s ability to overcome adversity. “Some people who aren’t athletes look for excuses. She looks for a reason, and performs. Her positive approach to life in ingrained in her.”

Hannah Camic runs with her training group in Pittsburgh. Nate Guidry/Post-Gazette

Exercise, says Dr. Michael Myerburg of UPMC, who specializes in pulmonary disease, is the perfect treatment for people with CF because it can slow the rate of decline in lung function. In fact it’s so important, that it’s “one of the things we review when we see CF patients at clinic,” he says.

“Breathing heavy is a really good stimulus to clear mucus and keep the lungs clear,” he says. “So we really push exercise with everybody on every visit.”

Although she played soccer in high school and cheered at Bucknell University, Mrs. Camic never thought much about running until three years ago. Like many 20-somethings, she had a lot of weddings on her calendar and wanted a way to get in shape. A friend at school suggested the treadmill; one mile later, she decided to train for a 5K. “I got addicted,” she says. And she’s competitive for her age group, logging a respectable 7:27.33 this past July at the GNC Live Well Liberty Mile.

The stats on CF, Mrs. Camic admits, can be scary. That’s why fundraising for research is so important to her and also why she went public with her story last year; until then, no one but close friends and family knew she was ill.

“I have never wanted special treatment or to be viewed as a sick person.“

Her wish in joining the CF team and  sharing her experiences is that she’ll provide hope and encouragement to those affected by the disease. “I want to show them that having a family, a job and a very happy, fulfilling life is possible.”

While researchers have made tremendous progress in the treatment of some CF patients, they’ve not yet been successful with Mrs. Camic’s particular mutation. She could be looking at a lung transplant.

But when she’s running, some of those fears and sadness about the future fade away.

”Focusing on negatives does zero good for me,“ she says, ”so I try to focus only on the positives and those things that I can control. After all, cystic fibrosis or not, no one is guaranteed tomorrow.“

A (very long) run for a good cause

Chef Derek Stevens of Eleven Contemporary Kitchen is also an ultra-marathoner. Larry Roberts/Post-Gazette

When Eleven Contemporary Kitchen celebrated its 10th birthday this past June, executive chef Derek Stevens went all out. The four-course tasting menu he created for the Strip District restaurant awed and amazed: Some 200 guests dined on such gourmet delights as Fede pappardelle tossed with morels, veal sweetbreads served atop lobster risotto, and blueberry tart stuffed with lime curd and cheesecake.

For his own 40th birthday next month, Chef Stevens will again push himself to the limit. Only this time, instead of in the kitchen, it’ll be on a 20-foot-wide crushed-stone trail.

On Sat., Sept. 6, he’ll compete in the Pine Creek Challenge, an ultramarathon that stretches 100 miles through Pennsylvania’s “Grand Canyon,” from Wellsboro to Jersey Shore and back again. He has 24 hours to finish.

No, he’s not trying to stave off a mid-life crisis. (Though by completing the race by noon on Sun., Sept. 7, the veteran runner certainly will prove he’s still got it.) He’s running to raise money and awareness for a charity that’s close to his heart: the 5P- Society, a nonprofit support group for parents and families with a child with cri du chat.

Also known as “cat’s cry” syndrome because of the high-pitched, kitten-like cry of afflicted infants, the rare genetic disorder strikes about one in 50,000 babies, or about 50 to 60 babies a year in the U.S. It causes an array of physical and mental impairments due to a deletion on the short arm (p) of the fifth chromosome (5).

Chef Stevens learned the devastating news his daughter, Helena, had the disease five years ago, a month after her birth. It was through resources such as 5P-, he says, that he and his wife, Marie, have learned to better cope with her developmental delays.

“It just ripped our hearts out,” he says of the diagnosis. But with therapy, and a great pediatrician, “she’s doing amazingly well.” So much so, that she’ll start kindergarten at Crafton Elementary just a few days before he takes to the trail.

For such a public personality — he’s presided over the high-end, open-air kitchen since October 2006 — Chef Stevens is famously private about his private life. (“When I’m at work, I talk about work,” he says.)  So his call for donations took even those who know him best by surprise.

“He doesn’t even tell me where he’s going on vacation,” says Bill Fuller, corporate chef for big Burrito Restaurant Group, which oversees Eleven.

Then again, he says, “This is a guy who super loves his family, and has a lot of emotion wrapped around his kids,” which also include sons Desmond, 11, and Gavin, 8. “This is a good way to let some of that emotion out.”

Unlike many ultramarathoners, Chef Stevens isn’t a lifelong runner — a former smoker, he only started about three years ago, after realizing what terrible shape he was in. He took to it like a duck to water.

His first race two years ago, which he got talked into by his good friend Jim Arthur, whom he’s known since his high school days at North Allegheny, was the 15-mile Spring Thaw at North Park. Next, Mr. Arthur convinced him to do the Rachel Carson Challenge, a 34-mile-long endurance hike/run on the brutal Rachel Carson Trail. “A great adventure,” he says.

Along with other shorter races, he’s also completed the 50-mile North Face Endurance Challenge in Washington, D.C. Twice. Last year, he did Pine Creek’s 100K event (roughly 62 miles) in a respectable 13:53:27.

Not easy for a guy who often has to work in runs after a brutal 10-hour shift at the restaurant. Just a couple Saturdays ago, he notes with a laugh, he and Mr. Arthur ran a full marathon on the Montour Trail after finishing work at 11 p.m. After three hours sleep, he was back in the kitchen. He’ll push his 6-feet 4-inch, 210-pound frame to do it again this week to prepare mentally for Pine Creek.

Chef Stevens readily admits he doesn’t like people to “meddle in his stuff,” but once he got the idea a few weeks ago to marry his birthday event with fundraising for 5P- Society, he couldn’t shake it.

“It’s an opportunity to raise money for an organization that can help other people, to do something for someone else,” he says. So while he’s “just like any other schmuck working in the restaurant industry,” he hopes people consider donating.

Unlike his daughter, who struggles on a daily basis, he says, he gets to choose his challenges.

“It’s a mental thing,” he says. “Your mind will quit a thousand times before your body will.”

When you’re running such long distances, he continues,  there are times when you feel like you can’t take another step, and times when you feel like you can cruise all day. Like life itself, he says, “There’s good and there’s bad.”

This is his chance to make good.

You can make a donation to Chef Stevens’ event at



Homeless citizens join with North Side ministry to run Pittsburgh Marathon



A former crack addict who used to sleep in abandoned houses, Monica Craft isn’t your typical runner. In fact, she walked a lot more than she jogged when she stepped onto the track at Schenley Oval Sportsplex at Schenley Park in Oakland last week for a mid-morning workout.

Clad in a corduroy jacket and cotton sweats, with her short strawberry-blond hair pulled back into a tight bun, the now-sober New Kensington native had a goal of 12 quick-paced laps for a total of 3 miles — something of a grind, considering she’s not a big one for exercise, but still 2½ miles short of what the 56-year-old will have to pull from her reserves in a few days.

On Sunday she will run the first leg of a Pittsburgh Marathon women’s relay team for L.I.V.I.N.G. Ministry, a North Side-based nonprofit dedicated to ministering to the homeless. She won’t be fast. But even if she is one of the last competitors to reach her exchange at Ridge Avenue and Merchant Street, she’ll consider her race a victory.

“It doesn’t matter about winning,” she said, noting that her recovery has included learning to live life on God’s terms. “It’s about doing.”

James Edmunds, who’ll run the second leg of the relay for the ministry’s men’s team, is a tad more competitive. A sprinter in high school who excelled in the 100-yard dash and 440-yard relay, he hopes to break eight minutes a mile as he runs through the West End to the Smithfield Street Bridge.

Not used to long distances, the 44-year-old said, “I’ve had to learn to slow that sprint down and pace myself” during training, which on a warm, sunny afternoon in late April included two hilly loops totalling 5 miles around Riverview Park. Joining him on the run was the ministry’s 30-year-old co-founder, Charles Chapman, and program director Joshua McKinley. Despite being years older, Mr. Edmunds left both of them in the dust.

Originally from Youngstown, Ohio, where his family still lives, he became homeless after losing his job at a candy factory last year. Most nights he was able to find refuge in a shelter, but not always: With just 75 emergency beds available for men in the Pittsburgh area (and another 100 or so for women), he occasionally had to sleep outside on a ramp beside a building — an experience he called “crazy.”

“But you have to do what you have to do to make it through,” he said, shaking his head.

After bouncing around from here to there, he ended up at Pleasant Valley Men’s Shelter in Manchester, where he connected with the L.I.V.I.N.G. Ministry missionaries who hold Bible studies and other activities there. Putting his faith (and future) in God, he entered the ministry’s intense, six-month Project L.I.F.E. discipleship program for the homeless. Agreeing to take part in the marathon relay, he said, is a way to give back to the community.

In addition to raising money, through, for the ministry as part of the marathon’s 2014 Run for a Reason charity program — their goal is $12,000 — he hopes to serve as an example to those who still are living on the streets.

Just as Jesus loves them, “I want to let them know we love them, that there are people who care,” he said. “I think we can make a great impact on those who are suffering.”

That, and to live in the moment. “I’m doing it for the excitement,” he said with a grin. “I want to hear the crowd.”

This is no small thing, because when you’re homeless, noted Mr. Chapman, you’re typically ashamed of it and don’t want to broadcast it to the world. That isolates you at a time when what you really need is to feel you’re part of something.

“So much of our ministry is just about paying attention,” he said. “In everything we do, we truly value and view the homeless as our friends.”

“It’s good to be part of something,” agreed Samone Oliveros, director of women’s outreach and Ms. Craft’s unofficial coach. “Not just God’s kingdom, but the big things people in the city do together.”

While those who know and understand L.I.V.I.N.G. Ministry’s experiential approach consider the relay a no-brainer, a more common response is one of confusion, Mr. Chapman said.

“We don’t run the marathon with the homeless because it’s good press or because we feel bad about their situation,” he continued. “We run the marathon because it’s fun and we love to do fun things with any and all of our friends.”

Raised in Baltimore, Mr. Chapman has been working with the homeless since the seventh grade, where on a mission trip to Washington, D.C., he dished up meals in a soup kitchen. For a while in his teens he wanted to be an engineer. But after another mission trip to Jamaica at age 16, he felt a calling to serve those who get overlooked in society.

A few months after enrolling at the University of Pittsburgh, where he studied social work on a full scholarship, he visited his first homeless shelter and realized his life’s mission. “People don’t see [the homeless] as people,” he said, “just as a situation or problem.”

Finding beds and jobs for the estimated 2,200 men and women who live on the streets or in shelters in the Pittsburgh area is important work. But the cycle of homelessness doesn’t stop just because there’s a roof over their heads and food on the table, Mr. Chapman said. In fact, he noted, sometimes housing makes things worse, because then the person is totally isolated.

What’s really needed to help people rise out of homelessness, he said, are relationships.

Being part of the mission’s marathon relay team provides those connections.

Ms. Craft and others on the team have been meeting every Tuesday with Ms. Oliveros for a walking club at Union Place Building at Allegheny Center Alliance Church. They talk the entire time they’re on the track. The men also have been training together when they can.

There are other benefits. Research has shown that even moderate aerobic activity can improve symptoms of depression and increase the likelihood of an addict staying sober. Also important, preparing for a race can help those who may have not made the best choices in life establish goals and achieve a sense of accomplishment.

As Ms. Craft noted during her workout, “I’m trying to be strong and a responsible person. I’m doing something different in life. I want to find my purpose.”

“People think the homeless are dirty, smelly drug addicts or derelicts,” said Mr. McKinley, the ministry’s 37-year-old director of discipleship. He’s running the last leg of the relay. “But they may just be people who have lost their way.”

L.I.V.I.N.G. Ministry cobbled together two relay teams last year, bought everyone shoes and set about fundraising. But it was so last-minute, no one officially trained. Staff weren’t even sure everyone would show up on race day. (To better their odds, they asked racers to sleep over and lined up volunteer back-up runners.) But sure enough, everyone was there at 5:30 a.m. that morning, ready to go. They managed to raise some $8,000 for the ministry.

One runner was so excited to get her medal, Mr. Chapman said, that she mailed it to her mom for Mother’s Day. “It was like, ‘Look! I did it. I finished something.’ ”

Ms. Craft expects she’ll feel that excitement, too, on Sunday.

“I’ve been through harder pain than this.”