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Dexter stroke victim running Boston Marathon

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DEXTER — Anyone running the Boston Marathon is likely to have a massive case of the jitters on race day. Couple that with the one-year anniversary of the Boston bombings and surviving a stroke only seven months ago and Crystal L. Cockayne is running the most epic race of her life today.

But on Sept. 12, Ms. Cockayne’s dream to compete in Boston nearly became a nightmare when she learned she had 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. At 26 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 those of 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. This 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.

A JOURNEY BEGINS

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 5-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 would 8.08 more miles take?

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 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 has expanded the field of runners to 36,000.

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, laughing.

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.

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.”

She knew she wanted to help a cause that provided support and encouragement to others who struggle with the emotional effects of neurological trauma. To that end, Ms. Cockayne has partnered with the Foundation for Neurosciences Stroke and Recovery, a nonprofit dedicated to enhancing the lives of people and families affected by neurological ailments. So far, Ms. Cockayne has raised more than $3,000 for the foundation, and will run today’s Boston Marathon in its name.

Allison Smith, executive director of the Orange County, Calif.,-based foundation, will cheer 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 she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

“Regardless of the odds, we refuse to let our struggles define us,” she said.

This is her first visit to Boston, and Ms. Smith said she considers it 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.”

If bodies could speak, they would scream “no more” at mile 24 of a marathon. But 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.

Ms. Cockayne will run in the 10:30 a.m. wave today.

“Everything I’ve got is focused on running 26.2 miles,” she said.

IF YOU WANT TO DONATE
Crystal L. Cockayne has raised money to support the Foundation for Neurosciences Stroke and Recovery. To contribute, visit www.fnsroc.org and click on “Donate to our foundation.”
TO WATCH THE RACE
Universal Sports Network will provide live television and online coverage of today’s 118th Boston Marathon from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Coverage from Boston’s Copley Square will also include pre- and post-race shows at 8:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. and a wrap-up show at 4 p.m.
Time Warner digital cable subscribers in Jefferson and St. Lawrence counties can find Universal Sports Network on Channel 407.
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