Dietrich School Administrator Finds Inspiration on Marathon’s ‘Back Half’ | University time
By SHANNON O. WELLS
In the spring of 2020, Stephanie “Stef” McLaughlin had been training diligently for months to run the Pittsburgh Marathon, her first attempt at a 26.2-mile race.
“And then, of course, they canceled it,” she recalled of the first wave of closures of the COVID-19 pandemic. “You know, it was very disappointing for a lot of people, just like everything was canceled at that time. So, I was really like, I have to finish this.
McLaughlin, who works in the dean’s office at the Dietrich School, decided to design his own course and – with the support of friends including unofficial “coach” Cathy Suchin – “virtually” completed the marathon in Moraine State Park near Portersville, Pennsylvania. She’s not sure she could have done it — or the follow-up virtual half marathon in 2021 — on her own.
“I really think a big life lesson in all of this is to find your loved ones, make connections, and get your support,” she says. “I mean, trying to run 26.2 miles completely by yourself… I’m sure there’s someone who has done it, but it would be very difficult. So, I had people who supported me: my family and some good friends.
With that glimmer of accomplishment, McLaughlin, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2010, confidently ran Pittsburgh’s first backstroke half marathon this spring. Held April 30, the 13.1-mile race — part of Pittsburgh’s first “live” marathon in two years — begins halfway through the marathon course.
McLaughlin enjoyed being back among other runners and the lively fanfare along the course. Oh, and she also managed to shave five minutes off her half marathon time last fall, from 2:06 to 2:01. “I couldn’t believe it, to be honest,” she says. “For a runner to shave off, like, one minute, of their best time in the half marathon, that’s pretty good.”
run for a reason
More important than speed, however, was McLaughlin’s participation in the Microsoft-sponsored Run For a Reason charity program, in which runners pledge to raise money for a charity or cause of their choice. McLaughlin chose to support the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and create a website for donors to participate.
“It’s an amazing non-profit organization. They do a lot of very good work,” she says. “They have made exceptional progress with this disease, even in the last 10 years.”
McLaughlin ran as part of a “team” of marathon runners raising money for MS research. “It was kind of interesting the way they do it,” she notes. “My MS team was I think about 30 people, but I’ve never met anyone who was doing the back half (specifically) for MS. There were I think only a few hundred people for all the different charities that were able to do the Back Half.
Either way, what she enjoyed the most was hearing the reasons why runners embraced the causes they embraced. “What was really fun was that you got to hear stories from someone from the food bank and the children’s hospital. It was so wonderful to hear everyone’s stories.
McLaughlin found the very concept of the Back Half Marathon to have its own rewards, as a field of nearly 20,000 runners from various running events narrowed significantly for Run for a Reason entrants starting halfway through.
“It was really, really fun, because all of a sudden you’re just with the charity runners, and that made the whole thing really small,” she says. “And then we merged with the marathon runners. So to share that kind of energy…I had the time of my life. It was so awesome.
Seek and find balance
A mother of four, McLaughlin was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2010, shortly after the birth of her third child. Numb hands and feet she attributed to postpartum physiology led to a series of tests and a diagnosis of a potentially debilitating central nervous system disorder.
Suffering from early therapeutic experiences, McLaughlin found relief through injections of Copaxone, a protein-based drug that fights nerve cell demyelination. Her health and fitness-oriented lifestyle has also worked to her advantage in alleviating MS symptoms. She gradually expanded her repertoire with more yoga and aerobics.
“I have really found that the exercise helps me. I mean, I’m on drug therapy which has helped me, I’m sure, tremendously, but diet and exercise — it really made me feel better,” she says. “I had been active, but I really started to walk a lot. And then this walk, it started with more running in the end.
McLaughlin considered herself a regular runner around 2013, though she didn’t run a race until 2017. As much as she loves running, she finds regular yoga sessions — along with her strong Christian faith — okay with it and counter some MS-based limitations. “Yoga, of course, helps your balance, and that can be significantly affected by multiple sclerosis. But, I mean, thank God.
‘Like a champion’
West View resident Cathy Suchin, yoga instructor and fitness “coach” at McLaughlin, says her good friend exemplifies the transformative powers of fitness and the right attitude. “Yoga helps us listen to our body and stay in the moment, so we can enjoy the experience of movement,” Suchin says. “Stéphanie embraces these disciplines like a champion, with grace and hard work.”
The two met nearly 30 years ago when Suchin taught yoga at a Los Angeles fitness club McLaughlin attended. Despite McLaughlin’s own physical challenges, Suchin says his generosity abounds.
“Stef is someone who always compliments me and thanks me for my support and advice. Due to arthritis which almost thwarted my running plans, she encouraged me to pick myself up and go again,” she adds. “She’s a real friend in many ways: a real woman of God, a real athlete. I’m really blessed that she calls me “friend”. ”
In addition to friends like Suchin, McLaughlin credits her son, three daughters and her husband of 21 years with unconditional love and encouragement through his struggles and triumphs.
“They always supported me throughout the experience, which helped me a lot,” she says, adding that her sister-in-law is a nun. “And his job is prayer. I know they prayed for me, so I know God has a hand in all of this, but I feel like God can work hand-in-hand with diet, exercise, and medicine.
Shannon O. Wells is a staff writer for the University Times. Join it at [email protected].
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