Members of the Run to Cure Cystic Fibrosis marathon team trek up more than 700 steps of the Cathedral of Learning every Thursday. Then they take the elevator back down and do it two or three more times.
The western Pennsylvania chapter of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, a donor-funded nonprofit working to raise awareness about the disease and money for research, founded The Run to Cure CF 2018 team in an effort to raise funding for its cause. The team began training in early January and meets every Thursday in the Cathedral to train for the annual Pittsburgh Marathon in May. Members of the team are required to fundraise for the race.
The group began using the Cathedral to train after one of the coaches realized the stairwells could be used to prepare for hills, according to team member Debbie Brown.
“One of our coaches’ wife works on campus, and he’s very familiar with the campus,” Brown said. “I think that’s how we got started.”
Anywhere from 10 to 20 gather to walk up the Cathedral stairs from the ground floor to the 34th floor, but the marathon team boasts larger numbers. Dale Himmler, 37, of Bethel Park, said he thinks there are more than 100 people signed up to run in the marathon on the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation team.
Each of these team members run for various reasons. Cindy Dulak signed up to encourage a friend already on the team.
“I am training with a friend who signed up, and I really like the cause and wanted to help support that,” Dulak, 46, of West Mifflin, said.
Others are running because people close to them have cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease that affects the respiratory system, getting progressively worse over time. Brown’s 15-year-old granddaughter suffers from cystic fibrosis. Himmler and his wife Jen also participate because their lives have been directly impacted by the disease. Their son was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis when he was born in October 2017.
“We found out a week after he was born that he had cystic fibrosis, and we were kind of thrown into this world,” Himmler said.
The proceeds from the team go to increasing awareness of cystic fibrosis and funding research for treatment or a cure.
“It’s great being a part of an organization, just getting involved and meeting other people that have the same passion,” Himmler said. “It’s very personal for my wife and I just knowing that these runs are helping everybody with cystic fibrosis.”
On race day, members of the team will take their positions at the starting line Downtown before winding through 14 Pittsburgh neighborhoods. The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation is one of 104 charities that the marathon foundation allows runners to fundraise for.
“This is my 10th year doing something with the Pittsburgh Marathon,” Himler said. “I’ve done the full [marathon, and] a number of half-marathons. I’ve also been a part of the relay.”
Dulak is also an experienced runner. She ran the the half-marathon last year in two hours and 38 minutes and will be competing in it again this year.
Even though this isn’t their first marathon, they still understand the importance of training. The team members utilize the Cathedral stairs because they mimic the Pittsburgh terrain, which requires runners to trudge up and down steep hills. Himmler said the 34-floor climb also helps build endurance.
“The stair climb is really good for building those muscles that, as your body starts to fatigue over the course of a marathon … can kind of carry you to the end,” Himmler said.
Besides the stairwells, team members run throughout the week, with each session serving a different purpose.
“Typically, the weekends are when you’re trying to build a long-distance run,” Himmler said. “In my experience, you don’t necessarily go for speed, you’re going to get the mileage.”
Training during the week consists of short, fast sprint intervals and recovery runs to help with the speed the runners will need for the longer distances. Like the marathon, the team trains throughout Pittsburgh’s diverse neighborhoods.
“We run all over the City — last week we ran through Bakery Square,” Brown said. “So we get to see different parts of the City as we’re training … we’ve had at least 50 people all run together on the weekends.”
With the Pittsburgh Marathon starting May 6, the Run for Cystic Fibrosis team has slightly less than three months to continue training and fundraising. But for Himmler, it’s going to be a longer road.
“Now it’s a life mission of being an advocate for those with cystic fibrosis,” Himmler said.