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Cupid's Undie Run event encourages scurrying in your skivvies

| Friday, Feb. 13, 2015, 9:42 p.m.
Runners take to the streets in the Cupid's Undie Run on the South Side on Saturday, Feb. 15, 2014. Pittsburgh's fundraiser run raised more than $107,000 for the Children’s Tumor Foundation.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Runners take to the streets in the Cupid's Undie Run on the South Side on Saturday, Feb. 15, 2014. Pittsburgh's fundraiser run raised more than $107,000 for the Children’s Tumor Foundation.

Generally speaking, stripping down to one's underwear and running through the streets of Station Square is discouraged, particularly in the middle of February.

On Saturday afternoon, however, people wearing pants while dashing across the Smithfield Street Bridge will find themselves in the minority.

A soldout field of 800 people is expected to participate in this year's Cupid's Undie Run for the Children's Tumor Foundation, cold and potentially snowy weather be darned. The idea started in Washington, D.C., in 2010 and first was held as the nation's capital was digging out from several feet of snow.

It quickly caught. This year, the run will take place in 38 U.S. cities, plus a few in Australia. Since its inception, Cupid's Undie Run has raised more than $7 million to help fight neurofibromatosis, a genetic disorder usually diagnosed in childhood or early adulthood that causes tumors to grow on nerve tissue. According to the Children's Tumor Foundation, there are 2 million people worldwide living with NF.

“It's uncomfortable, and it's cold, but we just remind people that what these kids (with NF) deal with is uncomfortable, and they deal with it every day of their lives,” said Pittsburgh run director Rachael Olbeter, 33, of Greensburg. “It puts it in perspective but in a funny way. And the fun of it gets everyone's attention.”

The idea for the run — and the accompanying pre- and post-run parties that go along with every event — came about after a pair of roommates watched their friend's brother be diagnosed and deal with the debilitating effects of NF. The tumors caused by the disorder can lead to blindness, deafness, chronic pain and even cancer, and the treatment options often are limited.

“Back in high school, Drew (Leathers) was a typical all-American kid,” cofounder Bobby Gill said of friend Chad Leathers' younger brother. “He was on the football team. He was the class clown. Then he started having issues with mobility, so they went to the doctor, and a full-body MRI showed hundreds of tumors all over his body, ranging in size from peas to softballs.”

By 2011, the tumors had become so bad that Drew spent 183 days in hospital, heavily drugged to deal with the pain. He's been in a wheelchair for years, Gill said.

But as part of the research the Children's Tumor Foundation funds, Drew was able to join a clinical drug trial. Since then, Gill said, Drew's tumors have shrunk by about 50 percent and he's seen an improvement in his quality of life.

“He can stand up for a second, which, it's a second, but back in 2011 that was totally unheard of,” Gill said. “He's started doing comedy at open-mic nights. He's in his early 20s now, and he's as funny as can be. He has this whole routine about being in a wheelchair, and it's hilarious. It's great to see that his life has improved so much that he can joke about it and have a positive outlook.”

This marks the second year the run will be held in Pittsburgh.

Last year's event drew 600 runners and raised $109,000, which was twice what organizers anticipated, Olbeter said. They already have raised $150,000 this year, and she hopes to find a venue for next year that will allow the run to continue to grow past this year's cap of 800.

Running “outfits” range from the skimpy to a bit more elaborate and more seasonally appropriate. Olbeter said it remains rated PG enough that if and when pictures show up on social media, no one will regret participating when they go to work Monday morning.

“It's all in good fun, and the important thing is that it is a fundraiser for children,” Olbeter said.

It's fundraising for which she is extremely grateful.

Olbeter's 8-year-old son has NF, and the family is relying on clinical research to help him. The Olbeters recently received word that there soon may be a new treatment option available.

“A year ago we were told by doctors that they didn't know what else they could do,” Olbeter said. “Fast forward a year, and we're being told there's something we may be able to try, so for me it really hits home.”

Karen Price is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach her at kprice@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KarenPrice_Trib.

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