How one runner went from brain tumor victim to NYC Marathon competitor in less than a year

“No … no way,” she thought. “That’s not remotely possible.”

Ashley Clayton, 33, was lying on the floor of the Hoboken train station when paramedics rushed to her attention. Clayton was puzzled and trying to put the pieces together. Bystanders said she had seizure and collapsed to the ground.

“But I’m a healthy person,” she said. Clayton was an avid runner who loved marathons and took good care of her body. Besides, she rarely got headaches and didn’t feel any different that day. Why would she have a seizure?

The medics proceeded to probe with questions: “What’s your name? What day is it? Where do you live?” But Clayton couldn’t answer. She couldn’t remember anything—just the fact that she was on her way to replace a lost bus ticket the moment everything went wrong.

Clayton was quickly rushed to the hospital. The doctor guessed that she could have had a stroke or maybe it was multiple sclerosis. Tests and CAT scans ruled out those hypotheses. But when an MRI confirmed she had a brain tumor, Clayton suddenly found it hard to breathe.

This was Clayton’s life before the crisis of Aug. 2, 2016:

She was your average young woman from Point Pleasant, New Jersey, who loved her job in New York City. As a senior program coordinator at NYU Langone Medical Center, she enjoyed working with intelligent colleagues in the neurology department. She also got the chance to learn more about the human brain and diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia.

Clayton was supposed to run her first full marathon that fall at the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington D.C. She picked up running as a hobby three years ago and fell in love with how it made her body feel. Since then, Clayton has run a few races in NYC, one in Brooklyn, New Orleans and Austin. The 33-year-old isn’t competitive, she said, but running has played an important role in her life.

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“I’ve really been fond of it since I ran my first half,” Clayton told Excelle Sports. “It’s certainly a great stress relief for me.”

This is why when the neurologists at NYU told her she had to have surgery to determine if her tumor was cancerous or not, she had two questions about the procedure:

  1. “When can I run again?” And …
  2. “What is my hair going to look like?”

The doctor carefully danced around her inquiries: “Do you have any other questions?”

Of course, Clayton knew that removing a tumor located in the right frontal lobe was much more serious than mere cosmetic concerns. That area of the brain controls rational decision making, problem solving, motor function, memory, language, social and sexual behavior. There was no telling how it would affect her or her love of running.

The surgeon said that he could perform the surgery in September and sent her home.

“From August from September, I lived in this fog because I didn’t know anything,” said Clayton. “I kind of just went through the motions.”

Her parents were “freaking out,” she said. Even though she was the one who was sick, Clayton felt the need to be strong. “Whatever it is, we’ll deal with it. Even if it’s the worst situation, we’ll be fine,” she’d say as she put a smile on her face.

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On Sept. 7 the doctors proclaimed that the surgery was successful. Her tumor was simply benign and they completely removed all of the harmful tissue. Clayton stayed in the hospital for a few days before she was discharged. Her doctor gave her seizure medication and told her she had to rest from work for six to eight weeks. So she returned to the comfort of her parents’ home where she tried to live a normal life. But things were still a bit off.

“I would do silly things,” she said. “I would take a shower and I would bring the towel in the shower with me. And I remember one time when I was crying in the kitchen because I wanted to make pancakes, but I couldn’t  figure out how to pour and measure pancake mix. I knew what to do, but I just couldn’t do it.”

Clayton also had weakness in her right hand and she couldn’t walk steadily. She held on tightly to her father’s arm to maintain her balance as they took walks around the neighborhood. By the way she moved, it didn’t look like she could confidently run again.

But Clayton was determined to return to full speed and she had a great support system at NYU to regain her health. Her coworkers gave her theraputty to do hand strengthening exercises. They recommended some brain-training games she could play on her computer. And even though her walks were a little shaky, she continued to take strolls with her dad. Clayton became her own physical therapist.

Within three weeks she was back on the road running, and even though her pace wasn’t anything she’d consider impressive, she was overcome with emotion.

“I almost cried because I couldn’t believe this was actually happening,” she said.

Fast-forward one year later: Clayton is back to work and training just like she used to. She’s still on seizure medication and has to get MRI check ups here and there, but she says she feels like herself again—maybe a bit lonely in processing what happened to her. Clayton felt like throughout her recovery process that she was running on adrenaline, just doing what she had to do to heal.

“Now is when I’m dealing with the emotional effects of what happened,” she said. “You kind of feel alone in that. I would love to help others who are in the same spot and aid support groups for people who suffer from brain tumors.”

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As for running, Clayton had every intent to return to the Marine Corps Marathon for her major comeback in 2017. Then a better opportunity came her way.

Clayton submitted her story to a contest for a chance to win a spot in this Sunday’s New York City Marathon and ended up earning a bib number to one of the most prestigious races in the world. But for her, this race is not just about prestige.

“It means everything,” she said. “I know it’s so cheesy, but being in New York really saved my life because who knows what would have happened if I got surgery anywhere else? Everyone [at NYU] was so supportive, my coworkers, my friends who are all in this area. … Those people can come see me be able to run that race. It means a tremendous amount.”

Ashley Clayton was selected as a part of Powerbar’s Clean Start Team, a group of 17 runners who were granted entry into the NYC Marathon for their bravery in overcoming setbacks.

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