By SHANNON O. WELLS
By spring 2020, Stephanie “Stef” McLaughlin had trained 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 recalls of the COVID-19 pandemic’s initial wave of shutdowns. “You know, it was very disappointing for many people, just like everything was being canceled at that time. So, I really was like, I’ve got to finish this.”
McLaughlin, who works in the Dietrich School dean’s office, decided to design her own course and — with the support of friends, including unofficial “coach” Cathy Suchin — “virtually” completed the marathon in Moraine State Park near Portersville, Pa. She’s not sure she could’ve done it — or the follow-up virtual half-marathon in 2021 — on her own.
“I really think that a big life lesson in all this is finding your people and making connections and getting your support,” she says. “I mean, to try to run 26.2 miles completely by yourself … I’m sure there’s someone out there who’s done it, but it would be very difficult. So, I had some people who supported me: my family and some good friends.”
With that glow of accomplishment, McLaughlin, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2010, confidently entered Pittsburgh’s inaugural Back Half Marathon this spring. Held April 30, the 13.1-mile race — part of the first “live” Pittsburgh Marathon in two years — starts halfway through the marathon course.
McLaughlin relished being back among other runners and the spirited fanfare along the course. Oh, and she also managed to trim five minutes from her half-marathon time last fall, from 2:06 to 2:01. “I couldn’t believe that, to be honest,” she says. “For a runner to shave off, like, a minute, from their best half-marathon time is pretty good.”
Running 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 commit to raise money for a charity or cause of their choice. McLaughlin chose to support the National Society for Multiple Sclerosis and set up a website for donors to chip in.
“It’s an amazing nonprofit. They do a lot of very good work,” she says. “They’ve made exceptional progress with this disease, even in the past 10 years.”
McLaughlin ran as part of a “team” of marathon runners raising funds for MS research. “It was kind of interesting the way they do it,” she notes. “My team for MS was, I think, about 30 people, but I never met anybody that was doing the Back Half (specifically) for MS. There were, I think, just a couple hundred people for all the different charities that were able to do the Back Half.”
Regardless, what she enjoyed most was hearing the reasons runners adopted the causes they did. “What was really fun about it was you got to hear stories from someone from the Food Bank and the Children’s Hospital. To hear everyone’s stories was just so wonderful.”
McLaughlin found the very Back Half Marathon concept had its own rewards, as a field of nearly 20,000 runners from various race events narrowed considerably for the Run for a Reason participants starting at the halfway point.
“It was really, really fun, because all of a sudden you’re with just the charity runners, and it made it very small,” she says. “And then we merged in with the marathon runners. So, to share that kind of energy … I had the time of my life. It was so great.”
Seeking and finding balance
A mother of four, McLaughlin was diagnosed with MS in 2010, shortly after her third child was born. The numb hands and feet she attributed to post-partum physiology led to a series of tests and a diagnosis for the potentially debilitating central nervous system disorder.
Suffering through early therapeutic experiences, McLaughlin found relief through injections of Copaxone, a protein-based medication that fights the demyelination of nerve cells. Her health-and-fitness-oriented lifestyle also worked to her advantage in alleviating MS symptoms. She gradually broadened her repertoire with more yoga and aerobics.
“I’ve really found that exercise helps me. I mean, I do take a drug therapy which has helped, I’m sure, immensely, but diet and exercise — it really just made me feel better,” she says. “I had been active, but I really started walking a lot. And then that walking, it started into more of running eventually.”
McLaughlin considered herself a regular runner by about 2013, though she didn’t enter a race until 2017. As much as she enjoys running, she finds regular yoga sessions — along with her strong Christian faith — agree with her and counter some MS-based limitations. “Yoga, of course, helps your balance, and that can be dramatically affected by multiple sclerosis. But, I mean, thanks be to God.”
‘Like a champion’
West View resident Cathy Suchin, McLaughlin’s yoga instructor and overall fitness “coach,” says her good friend exemplifies the transformational 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 moving,” Suchin says. “Stephanie embraces these disciplines like a champion, with grace and hard work.”
The two met nearly 30 years ago when Suchin taught yoga at an L.A. Fitness club McLaughlin attended. Despite McLaughlin’s own physical challenges, Suchin says her generosity abounds.
“Stef is one who always compliments and thanks me for my support and guidance. Due to arthritis that has almost thwarted my running plans, she has encouraged me to get back up and go,” she adds. “She is a true friend in so many ways: a true woman of God, a true athlete. I’m truly blessed she calls me ‘friend.’ ”
In addition to friends like Suchin, McLaughlin credits her son, three daughters and husband of 21 years with unconditional love and encouragement through her struggles and triumphs.
“They’re always supporting me through the whole experience, which has helped a lot,” she says, adding that her sister-in-law is a nun. “And her job is prayer. I know they prayed for me, so I know that God has a hand in all this, but I feel God can work hand in hand with diet, exercise and medicine.”
Shannon O. Wells is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at [email protected].
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