Gretchen McKay

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.“

Chia seeds go from sand to goo, but they’re oh-so-good for you

Chia seeds are super tiny, but super good for you. Gretchen McKay/Post-Gazette



My kids usually are pretty good sports about trying unfamiliar food. Yet no amount of cajoling, begging or double-dog-daring could get my daughters to taste chia, a protein-packed member of the mint family that’s best known for its pee-wee sprouts kids have been growing in animal-shaped planters for more than 30 years.

“You mean the stuff on a Chia Pet? No way!” Olivia declared, when I mentioned there was a bowl of chocolate pudding made with it chilling in the fridge. “That’s gross.”

Chia seeds aren’t the most appetizing of ingredients (they look like sand, or possibly fleas), and that’s before I learned the seeds turn into a slimy goo when you mix them with a liquid. (More on that later.) Or saw that the cookbook that got me thinking I should explore this latest “superfood” included recipes for cat food, bunny drink, horse chow and livestock feed.

Then again, as Christopher McDougall makes the case in his 2009 nonfiction bestseller “Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen,” chia (pronounced chee-ah) is one of those recently “rediscovered” foods with which we all should be better acquainted, teenagers included.

Easy to grow and super nutritious, chia was an essential supplement in the ancient Mayan and Aztec diets, and the seeds also enjoy a long culinary history in northern Mexico’s Copper Canyon. To fuel the extraordinary endurance runs they’re famous for — 50 to 100 miles at a time, in huarache sandals — its reclusive Tarahumara tribe for centuries has made a “home-brewed Red Bull” out of chia seeds mixed with water, citrus juice and honey (they call it iskiate.) Hopi Indians are believed to have eaten the seed before embarking on epic runs from Arizona to the Pacific Ocean.

“If you had to pick just one desert-island food, you couldn’t do much better than chia,” writes Mr. McDougall, “at least if you were interested in building muscle, lowering cholesterol, and reducing your risk of heart disease; after a few months on the chia diet, you could probably swim home.”

That’s because gram per gram, chia has almost three times more iron than spinach, twice as much potassium as banana and five times as much calcium as milk. It’s also superpacked with protein, omega-3s, omega-6s, iron, zinc and antioxidants. It’s got fiber, too, enough that it’ll clean out your innards like a miniature push broom. And did we mention it’s vegan, and gluten-free?

There is a slight hitch: Because chia aborbs up to 12 times its weight in water, it turns into a gel as soon as it hits the liquid in your stomach. But that’s actually a plus, once you get used to it, because that slows the conversion of carbs into sugar, improving your endurance during exercise. Chia also helps keep you steadily hydrated and maintain your electrolyte balance.

To a runner who’s always looking to go faster and longer, it all adds up to a pretty good reason to give the seeds a try. Hence, the pudding my daughter turned her nose up at but which I’m happy to report was pretty tasty, once I got past its gloppy, tapioca-like texture.

Chocolate Chia Seed Pudding. Gretchen McKay/Post-Gazette

Native to north central Mexico and south to Guatemala, chia was pretty much lost to the world after the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs, who valued the crop so much it was used as currency and offered to the gods; the Spanish had no time for plants they couldn’t grow back in Europe. Chia’s rediscovery in the last two decades is due mostly to the Northwestern Argentina Regional Project, a project begun in 1991 with the goal of reintroducing lesser-known crops that once energized so many in Latin America for commercial production. In the U.S., chia is found mainly in specialty markets and health-food stores, where a small but growing group of fans is happy to extol its virtues.

Uncommon Market in Bethel Park has carried the seed for about two years, and while shoppers sometimes are reluctant to try it, once they do they can’t seem to get enough of the stuff, says owner Janet Gralka. And it’s not just women over 50 who are buying it for their husbands’ colonic health.

“It’s people in their 20s — health conscious,” she says. Her daughter is but one example: she stirs it into yogurt and makes smoothies with the seed.

Chia isn’t cheap: a 10-ounce container of white Salba chia seeds grown in Peru costs $5.99 at the South Hills store, while the bulk price at East End Co-op in Point Breeze is $9 per pound; at Whole Foods Market, it’s $6.99 per pound for bulk or $16 for a 15-ounce bag of its organic 365 brand. But as Wayne Coates demonstrates in “Chia: The Complete Guide to the Ultimate Superfood” (Sterling, May 1, 2012, $14.95), a little bit of Slavia hispanica goes a really long way. Most of the book’s recipes call only for a teaspoon or two of raw seeds, or a cup or less of chia “gel,” made by whisking 13/4 tablespoons of chia seed into 1 cup of cool water. Too much chia, in fact, can lead to digestive distress if you don’t already eat a lot of fiber, so you may want to slowly introduce it into your diet: there are 5 grams in one tablespoon.

Probably the easiest way to sneak chia into meals is to simply sprinkle the seeds — raw or toasted — on top of your favorite foods like eggs, yogurt, rice, salad, oatmeal, etc. You also can stir the tiny seeds into a smoothie, shake, slushie or fruit drink, but be prepared — if you don’t guzzle it fairly quickly, you may have trouble swallowing after the seeds start trapping liquid (chia gets slimy when it gets wet). Or, slip a few teaspoons into your favorite cookie, cake or muffin recipe. Your kids will never know the difference, other than a slight crunch.

Chia Strawberry-Banana Sorbet. Gretchen McKay/Post-Gazette

Because chia is mucilaginous — gluey — it also can be used like flour or cornstarch to thicken soups and gravies.

To incorporate chia into baked foods, grind seeds in a clean coffee mill, high-speed blender or food processor until they resemble sand. Then substitute the milled chia for one-quarter of the flour called for in a recipe. But don’t feel as if you have to; unlike tough-shelled flax seed, which has to be ground, chia seeds are just as nutritious when ingested whole. Easier still is to buy it already ground. For vegan baking, 1/4 cup of chia gel acts as an egg replacer.

Don’t cook much? Chia also can be purchased as an oil capsule and in prepared products such as cereal, drinks, bread and energy bars.

The new Whole Foods Market Wexford carries the organic Greens Plus Omega 3 Chia Energy Bar ($2.29).

For those who’d rather slurp the seed, there’s the Mamma Chia Pomegranate Mint Vitality Beverage ($2.19).

You can find even more chia products on the Internet., for instance, has more than a dozen snack foods made with the seed, including fruit bars, crackers and tortilla chips. GT’s, which helped introduce the U.S. to a fizzy, organic fermented tea known as kombucha, offers three flavors of chia-spiked Synergy, a juice variety of the tea: cherry, grape and raspberry.

You can find the ProBar Fruition Strawberry, which earlier this month won one of Prevention Magazine’s 26 “healthiest food award” at


Moroccan Carrot Salad

PG tested

This easy side dish goes just as well with roasted chicken as it does with grilled meat or fish.

  • 1/4 cup chia gel (recipe below)
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon white or black pepper, or 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 8 carrots, grated
  • Salt to taste
  • Crushed red pepper to taste
  • White sesame seeds for garnish (optional)

In a large bowl, whisk together the chia gel, olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, cumin and pepper. Add shredded carrots and gently mix to combine and evenly coat carrots.

Season with salt and crushed red pepper. Garnish with sesame seeds, if using.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

— “Chia: The Complete Guide to the Ultimate Superfood” by Wayne Coates (Sterling, 2012, $14.95)


Chia Gel

This gel won’t affect flavor, but it will increase the nutrient profile of your favorite foods. Stir into salad dressings, condiments, even peanut butter and jelly.

  • 1 cup cool water
  • 1 3/4 tablespoons chia seeds

Pour water into a sealable plastic or glass container. Slowly pour chia seeds into water while briskly mixing with wire whisk. Wait 3 or 4 minutes and whisk again.

Let mixture stand for 10 minutes before whisking again. Seal the container in the refrigerator for up to two weeks and use as needed. Whisk before using.


Chocolate Chia Seed Pudding

PG tested

My kids wouldn’t touch this tapioca-like pudding, which looks like it’s full of itsy bitsy frog eggs. (I know — gross!) It actually ended up being pretty tasty.

  • 2 tablespoons cocoa powder
  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon instant coffee powder (optional)
  • 1/4 cup chia seeds
  • 1 cup milk
  • 2 teaspoons honey, or to taste

Mix cocoa powder, brown sugar and instant coffee (if using) in a bowl; stir until no lumps remain. Fold chia seeds into mixture. Pour milk into bowl and stir to incorporate; let mixture sit a few minutes before stirring again. Repeat resting and stirring a few times over the course of 20 minutes.

Cover the bowl with plastic, and refrigerate at least 2 hours and up to 24 hours. Drizzle honey over the pudding to serve.

Serves 1 to 2.



Chia Strawberry-Banana Sorbet

PG tested

This is an easy and absolutely delicious dessert, and your kids (or spouse) will never know they’re eating something so healthy. It also will hit the spot after a long run.

If you’re feeling adventurous, substitute different frozen fruits and juices; next time I’ll try it with mango and orange juice.

  • 2 tablespoons chia seeds
  • 1 cup pineapple juice
  • 16-ounce bag frozen strawberries
  • 1 ripe banana

Combine seeds and juice and let them soak for a half-hour. Whirl soaked seeds and juice with berries and banana in a blender until well mixed and smooth. Serve immediately. To make this a smoothie, add more juice. Serves 4 to 6.

— Adapted from Baja Arizona Sustainable Agriculture (


Chia Limeade

PG tested

This is a variation of chia fresca, the all-natural energy drink that sustains the Tarahumara tribe of Northern Mexico on their epic long runs. It’s refreshing, but it will get gelatinous if you let it sit too long (think of a half-set bowl of lime Jell-O). So, bottoms up!

  • 3 tablespoons chia seeds
  • 5 cups cold water, divided
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 cup fresh lime juice
  • 1/4 cup fresh mint leaves, loosely packed

In bowl, mix chia seeds with 1 cup water. Let stand 15 minutes. Drain, and rinse the seeds.

Mix remaining 4 cups cold water and the sugar in a medium pitcher, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Add the lime juice and stir to combine. Mix in the chia seeds. Garnish with mint leaves and serve over ice. Serves 4.

— Marcella Valladolid, Food Network