A survivor’s marathon

North country woman beats stroke to run historic Boston race

It was a spectacular Monday in late April, a kind of day that was finally worthy of celebration as a long, dark winter gave way to spring. With the sun brightly shining in a brilliant blue sky above Boston, millions of eyes turned toward the birthplace of American Revolution where, for 118 years, residents have set the stage for athletes from across the globe to run the city’s renowned marathon.

The excitement and energy was palpable. A city that just a year ago saw a beautiful spring day explode with terror was blooming with renewed vigor and confidence. For one north country woman, a different story of terror and triumph had taken stage. It was less than a year ago that Crystal L. Cockayne suffered a stroke while at her office early one morning. Just eight months since a blood vessel nearly ruptured in her brain, a stronger, more determined woman had regained her confidence and renewed vigor. On April 21, Crystal and the City of Boston were of one heart and mind, their terrors of the past year the cause for their triumphant returns on this day.
“The city’s huge, but the whole purpose on that day was to run or to cheer on those who were,” Ms. Cockayne said. She was running in the 10:30 a.m. wave.

On race day, in a city of roughly 640,000 people, Boston reveals a community that weaves together a unique fabric of emotion, accomplishment and friendship. And only a year after two bombs exploded near the finish line, killing three people and wounding hundreds of others, runners reclaimed the race. A record crowd of one million people — twice the usual number — watched and cheered on runners.
“The energy was amazing,” Ms. Cockayne recalled.

But on Sept. 12, Ms. Cockayne’s dream to compete in Boston nearly became a nightmare when she learned she had lived the entire 26 years of her young life with a hole in her heart.
“I changed my schedule that week and was at work earlier than usual,” she said.
As business coordinator for surgical services at Samaritan Medical Center, Ms. Cockayne was overseeing implementation of a new computer system when, at 7 a.m., it happened. She lost control of her arms. Her face started to droop. Mumbled words stammered from her mouth. Still shy of 27 years old, she was having a stroke.
Just two weeks earlier, Ms. Cockayne was determined to win the 18.12 Challenge in Sackets Harbor. The year before, she finished second, and the woman who took first in 2012 wasn’t running. The race was hers.
Despite her laser-like focus on the finish line, a battle for her very life was stirring in another part of her head. A blood clot was snaking its way into the left side of her brain.
“I knew something was wrong,” the Dexter resident said.

She couldn’t shake the nagging pain under her arms or the fact that her legs ached like a runner who is just starting to train. She ran, but finished a disappointing sixth place among women. The pain and pressure in her body continued to build until she found herself on a hospital stretcher days later.
“I was like a circus act,” she said. “A 26-year-old isn’t supposed to have a stroke.”
According to the National Stroke Association, when a person has a stroke “out of the blue” with no obvious risk factors, doctors often check to see if it was caused by a “hole” in the heart called a patent foramen ovale. About one in five Americans has the condition, but many don’t realize it until a traumatic event like a stroke occurs. All people are born with flap-like openings in their hearts. But for most, the opening closes by itself shortly after birth. In Ms. Cockayne’s case, the flap remained open between the two upper chambers of her heart — the left and right atria. The opening allowed a blood clot from one part of her body to travel through the flap and up into the left side of her brain, which caused her stroke.

Now 27, Ms. Cockayne started long-distance running two years ago after she experienced a difficult breakup and moved back to her native north country from Columbia, S.C.
“I was living on my parents’ couch feeling sorry for myself,” she said.
Her brother, Alex J. Cockayne, wouldn’t let her wallow. On his prodding, the two decided to run the inaugural 18.12 Challenge and, with little alteration to her training regimen of steady five-mile runs, Ms. Cockayne took second place among women.
“I must be pretty good at this,” she recalled thinking. “Why not try a marathon?”
After all, what’s 8.08 more miles?

With the Philadelphia Marathon set as a qualifying race on Nov. 14, 2012, Ms. Cockayne began to see herself in Boston.
The Boston Marathon is the world’s oldest annual marathon. Its first running was in April 1897. Today, it ranks as one of the best-known road races, attracting an average 500,000 spectators each year, making it New England’s most widely viewed sporting event. It draws an average field of about 20,000 registered participants, with 26,839 entrants in 2013, according to the Boston Athletic Association. This year, the association expanded the field of runners to 36,000, giving many who couldn’t finish last year because of the bombings a second chance.
To qualify, a runner must first complete a standard marathon course that is certified by a national governing body affiliated with the International Association of Athletics Federations, typically 18 months before Boston.
Prospective women runners between the ages of 18 and 34 must run a time of no more than 3 hours and 35 minutes to quality for Boston. Ms. Cockayne crossed the finish line of the Philadelphia Marathon in 3 hours and 24 minutes, with 11 minutes to spare.
“I was amped,” she said. “I never actually thought I would qualify!”
She received notice of her acceptance into the Boston Marathon on Sept. 14, the same day she was discharged from the hospital after surviving her stroke.
“I don’t think I’ll ever be accused of being the girl who cried wolf ever again,” she said.

On Oct. 6, doctors at St. Joseph’s Hospital, Syracuse, successfully closed the hole in Ms. Cockayne’s heart. But one thing weighed heavily on her mind: Would she be able to run again? Her doctor assured her that running was possible and even beneficial to her future heart health.
Yet, struck by the reality of what had happened, the ensuing anxiety and depression were crushing.
“You can watch a bone heal,” she said. “But you can’t watch your heart or your brain heal.”
It was a long and arduous road, but healing came as Ms. Cockayne realized she couldn’t let the effects of her stroke consume her. She had to embrace running again because she was never more herself than when she was running.
She again set her sights on Boston.

Last November was her first attempt — post-stroke — at an easy, 2-mile run.
“I was terrified,” she said.
She noticed every little pain and ache with great angst. But by pushing herself, she found peace and calm in doing something normal again.
“I’m happy this has changed my perspective,” she said. “I’m so appreciative of everything now.”
For the next five months, her focus was on training for the iconic 26.2-mile race. And although Ms. Cockayne’s heart was perfectly fine the day before the race, her immune system was not. Saturday night, she caught a terribly inconvenient cold.
“I was a mess,” she said.
Ms. Cockayne’s hotel room rapidly filled up with her spent tissues.
Her grandmother, Lorraine Chamberlin, extended customary grandmother-like concern. “I heard you were sick, sweetie. Why didn’t you just not run it?”
“Meme, you don’t not run Boston,” Ms. Cockayne laughed.
But she was in pretty rough shape on race day.
“My nose was bright red and I couldn’t breathe through my nostrils,” she said.
The young woman who survived a stroke only eight months prior joked that it was a cold that killed her on this race.

She shot off the starting line at an impressive 6:47-per-minute mile but later leveled off into a more relaxed pace by mile six to cross the finish line in less than four hours.
“I felt great the whole time except for the cold,” she joked.
Ms. Cockayne didn’t study the course details beforehand.
“I wanted the experience to be completely organic,” she said.
But she did know about the notorious Heartbreak Hill that comes at mile 23.

On the surface, it’s an entirely unremarkable hill that rolls under a residential stretch of Commonwealth Avenue in suburban Newton. But Heartbreak Hill has one outstanding feature — its location at mile 23 of the Boston Marathon at a slow and steady climb of 91 feet on a 3.3 percent incline. And at a point when a runner’s quads are already screaming, the heartbreak is acute.
So in the months leading up to the anticipated “heartbreak,” Ms. Cockayne included in her training routine runs up and down Watertown’s Coffeen Street Hill, between the Alex T. Duffy Fairgrounds and Interstate 81, pushing her speed with every pass. “I just about killed myself on it,” she joked.
She was ready when Boston’s Heartbreak came. In fact, when she passed the banner that exclaimed “The heartbreak is over,” she thought, “Really?”
“I didn’t feel that heartbroken,” she said. That’s likely because Ms. Cockayne knows what it is to hit the wall and break through it. “You’re running against your own internal struggle,” she said.
And she would know — she has lived it.

“Runners are such an amazing community of people,” Ms.Cockayne said. “Even when there’s not a crowd, we’re still cheering each other on.”
The camaraderie and friendship is almost instant.
“The reason we race isn’t so much to beat each other, but to be with each other,” Christopher McDougall wrote in his national bestselling book, “Born to Run” in which he asserts that the secret to happiness is right at our feet, and that we are each born to run.
But runners still appreciate a boost to their confidence as the miles pile on. And in Boston, there’s rarely a lack of encouragement as wildly supportive crowds line the 26.2-mile stretch from Hopkington to the finish line near the John Hancock Tower in the city’s Copley Square.
Wellesley College is the halfway point of the marathon — a significant psychological mark for runners. Along that one-mile area alone, more than 2,000 signs and thousands of college students energize runners with kisses and screams of support.
“Crowd energy can change your race,” Ms. Cockayne said. “It can make or break you.”
Wellesley and its students are as much a feature of the race, if more beloved, than Heartbreak Hill. The so-called Wellesley Scream Tunnel is so loud that Ms. Cockayne could hear the girls from a mile away.
“They had signs saying kiss me this and kiss me that,” she said. “It was hilarious.”

Ms. Cockayne ran without the typical running gear — a watch or headphones. She let her body tell her what speed felt good and right.
“I didn’t want to be so focused on running so hard that I missed out on what was going on around me,” she said. “The crowds were amazing.”
And her instantly recognizable neon orange and blue 2014 Boston Marathon jacket solicited scores of well-wishes and ’atta girls from what seemed like all of Boston.
“As soon as people saw my jacket, they were yelling good luck and congratulations,” Ms. Cockayne said. “The outpouring of genuine support was unbelievable. Volunteers and supporters were thanking us for running.”
Perhaps it was because the runners represented a new day in Boston.

A moment of reflection and remembrance at the starting line honored last year’s bombing victims, but it was coupled with a profound message of rebirth. Race organizers and city officials were careful to not let the events of April 22, 2013, trump the joy that the day brought to so many, especially the athletes.
“They balanced remembering last year with not overshadowing people running their own races,” Ms. Cockayne said.
Part of her race was to help a cause that provides support and encouragement to others who struggle with the emotional effects of neurological trauma as she did. Ms. Cockayne partnered with the Foundation for Neurosciences Stroke and Recovery, a nonprofit dedicated to enhancing the lives of people and families affected by neurological ailments. Ms. Cockayne raised more than $3,000 for the foundation and ran the Boston Marathon in its name.
Allison Smith, executive director of the Orange County, Calif.,-based foundation, cheered Ms. Cockayne on at the finish line.
“Crystal is an inspiration,” said Ms. Smith, who was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder at age 13 and colon cancer at age 24. At 32, she was dealt yet another crippling blow when doctor’s told her she had Parkinson’s disease.
“Regardless of the odds, we refuse to let our struggles define us,” she said.
Last month was her first visit to Boston, and Ms. Smith said it was an honor to be around such highly motivated and energized runners.
“It’s the same story,” she said. “We don’t let tragic events or struggles dictate our lives.”

At 2:30 p.m. on April 21, exhausted and elated, Ms. Cockayne had done it: survived a stroke, a challenging recovery and 26.2 miles; she had crossed the finish line of the Boston Marathon.
“You would’ve thought I’d saved a burning orphanage,” Ms. Cockayne joked.
That day, she unleashed her inner hero. Ms. Cockayne showed the world she was strong, but now, like the thousands of others who crossed the finish line last month, she was Boston Strong.
Her parents, Gary and Della Ramsdell, were beaming. She remembers her mother just repeating, “I’m so proud of you. I’m so proud of you.”
An entourage of six accompanied Ms. Cockayne to Boston. Her brother and biggest supporter, Alex Cockayne, boyfriend Ryan Heise, roommate Jamee Phillips and friend Sam Roukus joined her parents.
“My family and friends were amazing supports. They made everything about me,” she said. “Alex was the first person I hugged when I finished.”
Their group dynamic was great and lively. While she ran, they drank at the landmark Cheers bar on Beacon Street. “They told me they were Cheers-ing to me,” she joked, but she wouldn’t trade time with them for the world.
“I still can’t believe I was running with all those amazing athletes,” Ms. Cockayne said.
She finds it surreal to put herself in the same category.
“I can run 26.2 miles, but it’s not until the last half mile that I actually convince myself that I can do it,” she said.

Ms. Cockayne crossed the finish line in 3:49:17, besting her goal to run Boston in less than four hours.
“I don’t know what race I’ll run next, but I’m looking forward to getting back into a normal routine again,” she said.
For Ms. Cockayne, a normal routine typically includes a run to Sackets Harbor from Dexter, a light 10 miler. “I’d call a friend to drive me back,” she laughed.
But in the routine of life and of running, Ms. Cockayne has regained her sense of pride, hope and optimism for the future. And to pay it forward, she has partnered with the Jefferson County Stroke Foundation and the American Heart Association to raise heart health awareness.
“She will be our inspirational honoree at next year’s Heart Walk,” said Kristy Smorol, American Heart Association communications director. “She’s such an inspiration for running Boston after her stroke.”
The Heart Association will use proceeds from the annual Heart Walk, which thousands of north country residents completed just five days after this year’s Boston Marathon, for research, training, advocacy and education.
“I’m excited to be a part of creating local awareness,” Ms. Cockayne said.

Her story alone is inspirational. The young woman who survived a stroke only to turn around eight months later and run a marathon is the same woman Northern New Yorkers call a neighbor.
“I just ran the Boston Marathon,” she recalled saying after she crossed the finish line in Boston that beautiful day in April. “That’s cool.”
Cool indeed. ‘Atta girl, Crystal.

By Grace E. Johnston, NNY Living