Sister Stephanie breaks fundraising goal for treadmill marathon

By Joyce Duriga | Editor
Wednesday, September 2, 2020

A screenshot of the Zoom video conference where champion runner Deena Kastor, bottom, surprised Sister Stephanie, top left, while she was on mile 25 on Aug. 23, 2020. Kastor was Sister Stephanie’s idol while she ran at the University of Illinois. Top right is David Zimmer, owner of Fleet Feet running stores, who introduced Kastor on the call.

Despite three false starts, three power outages and her legs cramping at mile 17, Franciscan Sister of the Eucharist of Chicago Stephanie Baliga accomplished her goal on Aug. 23 of running a marathon on a treadmill to raise money for the Mission of Our Lady of the Angels.

Her time was 3 hours and 33 minutes. She also surpassed her fundraising goal of $40,000 by a huge margin and took Team OLA over the $1 million mark in total collections since the team’s inception in 2011.

Sister Stephanie is in charge of Team OLA, which runs the Chicago Marathon and the Shamrock Shuffle and raises money to support the outreach efforts of the Mission of Our Lady of the Angels, 3808 W. Iowa St. The Franciscans of the Eucharist of Chicago live and minister there.

Sister Stephanie also hopes her effort will set the world record for a marathon run on a treadmill by a woman. No one currently holds that record and information has been submitted to the three organizations that certify world records. She is waiting to hear back.

Despite all the mishaps, Sister Stephanie took everything in stride. “All that crazy stuff usually happens in a normal marathon.” she said. “At least marathons don’t have false starts like that. It was a little frustrating. The first one was like, ‘OK, fine,’ but then it happened two more times and it was like ‘Oh my gosh.’”

Her treadmill marathon captured the attention of news media across the Chicago area and the country. It also received major support from the local and national running community. That was due in large part to the efforts of “team motivator” PJ Weiland.

Weiland, who has run marathons in the past, created the volunteer position for herself in 2019 after noticing that the team needed more engagement among its members. Sister Stephanie didn’t have time to really engage them because she was busy with her other ministry work.

“Her team was kind of doing their own things so I said, ‘You need someone to pull them all together, to build a community, to use social media to engage them and to have them stay engaged,’” Weiland said.

In 2019, Weiland ran the team’s social media, created Facebook groups for them, interviewed 50 of the runners and shared their bios.

When COVID-19 hit, Weiland was doing Zoom interviews with team members to introduce them to each other. It was during one of those livestreams that Sister Stephanie said she would run the marathon on a treadmill if organizers called off the Chicago Marathon.

Weiland, whose work involves helping businesses create visibility for the work that they do, saw that this event could be something big and received permission from the community and Mission Our Lady of the Angels to run with the promotion.

“I immediately Googled treadmill marathons and realized there’s no world record for a female,” she said. She called Sister Stephanie with the news and said, “I think we can make this really big.”

“And she said, ‘That’s awesome! I’m so pumped!’” Weiland recalled.

Weiland emailed the three organizations that maintain the world records, one of which is Guinness World Records, and found out what they needed to do to document the record attempt. COVID-19 complicated the process, but they were able to meet all of the requirements.

Weiland said, looking back, she sees God’s hand on race day.

“We started it three times. We had three power outages. We had three nuns behind the scenes — Sister Jess, Sister Emily and Sister Jaime — taking care of everything with me, and she finished it in 3:33. The Trinity was at work here. It was pretty amazing. And it took us 40 days to plan for it.”

More than 100 people joined Sister Stephanie on Zoom over the course of the run to cheer her on. Some even ran while they tuned in. Even more watched her run on YouTube or other social media, where it was streaming live, which surprised Sister Stephanie.

“The number of people who were generally just watching was insane. I can’t even believe that many people just watched part of this,” Sister Stephanie said. “It is incredible. I’m grateful for everyone who supported, prayed and watched.”

Businesses rallied to support Sister Stephanie and her effort. They donated the banners that hung on the walls of the gym while she was running (which will be reused for other efforts at the mission); a business lent the mission an official race clock; another business donated a bib and yet another made Sister Stephanie a one-of-a-kind medal for her race.

“That was the goodness of it,” Weiland said. “Everyone I called, I asked ‘Can you help me?’ and they said, ‘What do you need?’”

Because of the power outages and the display on the treadmill returning to zero each time, Sister Stephanie had to rely on the three referees who were officiating the run for the world record for her actual time and splits.

“The referees are probably the biggest unsung heroes in this whole thing because no one really knew what they did when it was happening, but they worked their tails off,” Weiland said. “For her the race was super, super hard because her splits were all off, her timing was off because she couldn’t look at the treadmill and say, ‘This is where I ran and this is what mile I’m at,’ because it was never there. She had to just keep running.”

A surprise guest who joined Sister Stephanie on Zoom at mile 25 helped her keep running to the finish line. A parishioner at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Glenview, Weiland’s parish, is a representative for Asics and was able to connect the mission with Deena Kastor, who holds several records for long-distance running and won the bronze medal in the marathon at the 2004 Olympics.

Kastor was also Sister Stephanie’s idol when she was a long-distance runner at the University of Illinois.

Kastor appeared on the screen while David Zimmer, the owner of Fleet Feet in Chicago, was reading her biographical information. Before Zimmer said Kastor’s name, Sister Stephanie yelled from the treadmill, “No way! What? Oh my gosh!”

“She was like a model for me when I was at my peak,” Sister Stephanie said a few days after the race. “It was just an incredible experience to have her with me at the end. I never would have thought I would have met her as a person or met her in my life.”

Kastor teared up when talking to Sister Stephanie about what she was doing.

“I was almost crying but I couldn’t because I had to finish. I wasn’t crying because I was dying,” Sister Stephanie said, laughing. “She really pulled me through too. I was really, really fading.”

At press time, Team OLA had raised over $125,000 for the mission. That number will increase as donations for the other team members come in.

Sister Stephanie said she hopes all of the attention she and the mission have received for the treadmill marathon helps to raise awareness of the need for help on the West Side of Chicago and for the good work the church is doing during the pandemic.

“I hope that this is a bright light showing that the church is able to do something during this trying time when a lot of things seem difficult,” she said. “To be honest, I wasn’t expecting to raise this much money and I wasn’t expecting people to be this interested. I’m kind of stunned by it still.”

She says she would definitely do it again and she’s already looking toward next year.

“If anyone wants to run for the team in 2021, you let me know.”

To donate to Team OLA and Sister Stephanie, visit To watch the run, visit


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