PITTSBURGH — When Emily Haberman saw her twin sister, Nicole, first ride a bike, she had to do it, too. As she got older and watched her dad run races, including marathons, she wasn’t staying on the sidelines then, either.

So she didn’t. And, after running 10 half marathons over the years, Haberman, 27, of Richland, leveled up to run her first full Pittsburgh Marathon earlier this month. She was among a record 42,000 runners competing across a full weekend of events, per race organizer P3R.

An auspicious race such as Pittsburgh’s 26.2-miler is special for Haberman, who has spastic cerebral palsy, a mild form of the disorder that weakens the right side of her body. She decided to take on the challenge for her continued health.

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“Everybody ages,” Haberman said. “And as I get older, I have to work harder to maintain my muscle strength and flexibility.”

She was diagnosed shortly before birth, when doctors discovered she suffered a stroke while in the womb, she said.

CP is caused by abnormal brain development or damage that impacts muscle control, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. With symptoms and their severity varying, about 764,000 children and adults in the U.S. have at least one symptom of CP, according to cerebralpalsy.org.

For Haberman, her right side is impacted by her condition.

But she has ignored doctors’ dour warnings of mobility limitations.

“I was very fortunate,” she said. “I have a twin sister, Nicole, who never let me go backward. The doctors didn’t believe I’d be doing anything like I’m doing today. I proved them wrong, every step of the way.”

She also credits a co-worker at the U.S. Postal Service for keeping her moving: Ben Brucker, 46, of Springdale, an ultra-marathon runner who has conquered well over 100 races, encouraged Haberman by talking about training for the race almost daily at work.

“I think it’s great she set that goal and is able to do everything she has done,” Brucker said.

During the Pittsburgh Marathon this month, he called Haberman at mile 7 when he was just past mile 5.

“Damn, you’re cruising,” he said. They met at mile 10 and ran together to the finish line.

“There were points where I felt I would not be able to make it, and Ben came and found me and changed my whole mood and put my mental state back together,” she said.

He was also a lot of fun on the 26.2-mile course.

“Doesn’t this downhill make you want to run?” he asked Haberman during the race. Haberman flatly disagreed, but the banter kept her going, taking her mind off of any pain.

Right before the finish line, both jackrabbited, trying to outrun each other. “I was dying, but we came in first together,” Haberman said.

The official time was 6 hours and 26 seconds.

“When it comes to running, you have to be persistent and realize it’s going to be hard,” Brucker said.

“You will have lots of reasons to quit. You’ll go through injuries and there are days when the weather is bad and you don’t feel like going out there. You keep pushing through and your mind and body adapt.”

After the marathon, a friend brought a bottle of Champagne to celebrate. Haberman’s post-races plans also included a bubble bath and “carbing out” on pizza and wings.

“The other runners don’t look at my disability,” Haberman said, noting that running makes her feel normal and free. “The support is insane. As long as you can move your legs, you are a runner.”

The marathon was not just a victory for victory’s sake, but a step-up for more opportunities.

“I’m not going to stop here with my career, personal life or being an athlete. I have the motivation to keep pushing,” Haberman said.

Haberman looks normal, but when people work closely with her, they notice less activity from her right limbs, she said.

“I have a limp, but when I’m training for running, you don’t notice it so much,” she said. “That’s one of the reasons why I run.”

Her disability impacts her right arm, which curls a little when she runs. “Nicole and I call it the ‘little baby hand,'” she said.

And Haberman’s functionality is unpredictable.

“Every day there’s a different obstacle or challenge to adapt to,” she said. “Some days I can go through with no adaptations and the next day, my right hand does not function the way a hand should.”

Cold temperatures can tighten the muscles and cause pain throughout the right side of her body, even her tongue, Haberman said.

“You should see me when that happens at the dentist’s office, it’s hilarious,” she said.

Haberman, who earned a black belt in karate as a kid, knows the more athletic she is, the stronger the right side of her body will be.

She learned in physical therapy that playing a sport would maintain her strength and eschewed the long-term prospects of the monotonous movements in PT. Haberman has been running for more than a decade now.

Running and staying fit is a family staple.

Her father, Stephen Haberman, 61, of Richland, is a longtime runner who has completed marathons.

Haberman’s parents, her biggest fans, support her in whatever she attempts. “They told me, ‘Don’t look at it as a disability.'”

Haberman walks without assistance, though sometimes she wears splints for her right leg and arm.

When she was a teenager going for her driver’s license, she didn’t want to use adaptive equipment to drive a car. Instead, she strengthened her right leg and drove without mechanical assistance.

“Nicole was always active and fit and Emily never wanted to be less than that,” her father said.

He said doctors sometimes don’t know the extent of someone’s determination.

“Emily was not going to be the person not participating in something because she had a disability,” he said.

“She didn’t want to be the twin over there. She wanted to be with her sister.”

Nicole Haberman, of New Castle, verified there is still much competition with her twin sister. They run together.

“If I have to slow down for her, I’ll say, ‘Hurry up slowpoke,’ she said.

The competitive spirit is free and natural in the family. Emily didn’t have to be pushed to try to equal other kids, her father said.

“She did it herself,” he said. “That is why we are so proud of her. Because she never let this disability keep her down.”

© 2024 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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