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In it for the long run: An LI woman's half-marathon quest honors her mentor and friend

Peggy McHugh trains Friday near her Wantagh home

Peggy McHugh trains Friday near her Wantagh home for the half-marathon. "Sister Mary taught me prayers move mountains, and giving creates happiness," McHugh said. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

For the third time, Peggy McHugh walked in late to homeroom. That earned her detention removing gum from the bottom of cafeteria tables at Sacred Heart Academy in Hempstead. 

But it was the way her homeroom teacher, Sister Mary Sheridan, spoke to her that left such a strong impression on the 14-year-old.

"She was strict but nice and sweet," McHugh said. "And adorable."

That was about 28 years ago, and the two women have remained close since. McHugh is now 42, and she wants to do something to honor the nun who has served as a spiritual and life adviser, but who now, at age 90, is debilitated by Alzheimer's disease.

So when McHugh runs her first half-marathon in the NEFCU Long Island Marathon on Sunday, she will be raising money for the Alzheimer's Foundation of America. It's a way to thank the woman who has gone from being a teacher to mentor to friend to a kind of surrogate grandmother for McHugh's two daughters.

"Sister Mary taught me prayers move mountains, and giving creates happiness," said McHugh, who lives with her husband and daughters in Wantagh. 

Their relationship began as the bond between a high school student and her favorite teacher. Sister Mary would watch McHugh play on the basketball team at the all-girls Catholic high school. McHugh enjoyed telling the teacher about her day.

McHugh went on to college and became a teacher herself. Shortly thereafter, she came back to visit the school and was struck by how much it meant to her to see her former teacher. They went for a burger at Leo's in Garden City.

"My Nana died when I was 11. Sister Mary is my surrogate Nana," said McHugh, who teaches algebra at Sewanhaka High School in Floral Park.

Over time, the two got together for Mets games, manicures, movies. McHugh learned to cook Sister Mary's favorite dish, chicken Francaise. Sister Mary took on a grandmotherly role with McHugh's daughters, Molly, who is 11, and Kerry, 10. 

"I had neck surgery on July 1, 2013 — her 85th birthday," McHugh said. "I knew I would be OK."

It's been hard watching the Alzheimer's slowly rob her old friend of the ability to remember things, to understand her surroundings, to hold a conversation. 

Alzheimer's disease is an irreversible, progressive brain disorder that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills, and eventually the ability to carry out the simplest tasks, according to the National Institute  on Aging.

Estimates vary, but experts suggest that more than 5.5 million Americans may have Alzheimer's. The disease, the most common cause of dementia, is fatal and is ranked as the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States, the agency said.

McHugh and her daughters visit Sister Mary once a month. They were there when the convent celebrated Sister Mary's 70th Jubilee in 2016, marking her seventh decade as a nun.

"As confused as she is, she always knows me," McHugh said. "We hug and I hold her hand. She says things like, 'Love you' and 'God loves you'."

People close to McHugh see the impact of the friendship upon her.

"She's Peggy's go-to person," said her friend Linda Baldacchino, 42, of Malverne. "Peggy has always been a loyal friend. Once she loves you, she loves you forever."

The lessons of such a lasting friendship have reached McHugh's daughters, said her sister, Julie Kutner, 51, of Rockville Centre.

"It's about learning to never give up on people, to still love them even when they have health issues," Kutner said. "You'll always be there for them, because they were there for you."

Always athletic, McHugh got hooked on running in 2010. She runs every day and sees it as "therapy — to clear my mind." Most days she runs three to five miles, so the 13.1 miles in a half-marathon is a big challenge.

But she said she wants to shine a light on this disease, and has a Crowdrise page that has already collected about $3,400. The page is crowdrise.com/o/en/campaign/a-run-to-remember-for-alzheimers.

"Something good has to come out of this terrible disease," McHugh said.

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