Running is nothing new to Crystal Gail Welcome, she’s been doing it all her life. But when she lines up for the start of the 10-mile race of the Twin Cities Marathon Sunday, this time she won’t be running away from something.
For Welcome, 34, running long distances is a way to put miles between her and a remarkable litany of struggles over her life: Depression. Losing her job. Swelling to a weight of 345. Being diagnosed with intracranial hypertension, a rare disease that caused her brain to think it had a tumor. Undergoing 14 surgeries, including eight brain surgeries, since 2009.
Each time she runs, Welcome brings one of her hurdles into focus, and then destroys it.
“I’m not fast,” Welcome said in a telephone interview from her home in Atlanta. “A lot of people are faster than I am.”
But few are as determined.
That determination has made Welcome one of two dozen Global Heroes (the first African-American), athletes who haven’t let their medical problems deter them from running in the Twin Cities event. Global Heroes is a cooperative effort between Twin Cities in Motion and Medtronic, a local maker of medical devices.
Welcome was implanted with a neuromodulator, which controls the over production of cerebrospinal fluid in her brain. The device has allowed her to go into remission, and return to the person she used to be.
Welcome was a runner way back in high school, but she didn’t return to the sport until about a year ago. She said she has always suffered from some kind of depression, and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, something she initially rejected.
Refusing to face her growing mental health problems, she stopped taking medications and cycled through periods of deep highs and lows, sometimes winding up in the psych ward of a hospital. “There are times I didn’t really want to live,” Welcome said.
“It’s really hard when you are young and all your friends are going out at night and doing fun things that you can’t do because you have to take your meds,” said Welcome. “I lost my job, which in a way was a blessing because it gave me time to focus on my life, and more importantly my mental health. I started with my mental health, which allowed me to see that some of the issues I had were physical. I knew I had to clear my brain.”
Welcome’s brain began producing too much fluid, making it seem like she had a tumor. She lost vision in her right eye. She had vertigo when she stood up. She vomited frequently. She got intense headaches.
“It’s a weird feeling to have your body go crazy and there isn’t anything you can do about it,” said Welcome.
Her first brain surgery, in 2009, compelled Welcome to take stock of her life. She decided it could be pretty swell, and set out to remake herself. She paid attention to her diet and her health and lost 200 pounds. Welcome eventually was implanted with Medtronic’s neuromodulator, which eliminated the effects of her brain illness.
“I thought, I could have died,” said Welcome. “Going through that made me realize there is much to live for. The minute I woke up, and knew I could not take life for granted.”
“My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style,” Welcome said.
She had lots of help along the way, such as from her affiliation with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and the Atlanta Track Club.
Less than four weeks after the insertion of the neuromodulator, Welcome ran her first 5K since high school. Six months later, she ran a marathon.
“I always say running is free therapy,” said Welcome. “When I run I can work through all my problems. I spent a lot of time in my life running away from things, now I’m running toward something. I’m taking steps toward a goal, always moving forward.”
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