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.”