Attack survivor, 69, conquers Phila. Marathon in racing wheelchair, with helpers

Kerry Gruson was a 26-year-old journalist in 1974, interviewing a Green Beret veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder when he suddenly strangled her and left her for dead in a Hawaii hotel room.

The attack permanently damaged her brain and paralyzed her, reducing her voice to a whisper but leaving intact her razor-sharp intelligence, her journalist's powers of observation, and her extraordinary will to live a meaningful life.

Gruson, now 69, left the warmth of her Florida home to compete in Sunday's cold, windy, 26.2-mile Philadelphia Marathon, sitting in a three-wheel racing wheelchair, alternately pushed by friend and Philly native Erin McCloskey and by one of McCloskey's distance-running colleagues, Lorna Ciccone.

"I am one with my runner," Gruson said, "listening for the rhythm of her breath, punctuated by the drumbeat of her stride. We are both 'running' together, though I sit immobile in my cart. My neck pain and stiff leg muscle cramps are not forgotten but become tolerable, if not irrelevant."

"God knows just how strong we are," a shivering, exhausted McCloskey said at the finish line, "and he sure tested us today. At the end, the wind pushed us in. Philadelphia wanted us to finish together strong. We're all pretty stoked!"

Ciccone said pushing Gruson's wheelchair was a mixed bag. "We pushed her up the hills," she said. "She pulled us down the hills. She helped us as much as we helped her."

They crossed the finish line in 4.5 hours.

Gruson said that the crowd and her fellow marathoners' shouting "Go! Go! Go!" throughout the race was a big motivator for her and her support runner. "We both are carried along by the roar, the applause of the spectators, and the shouts of encouragement from our fellow athletes that always cheer us on," she said. "It is such a supportive, incredibly life-affirming response."

Gruson braved Sunday's 20-mph winds and "real feel" cold in the 30s to be living proof that her nonprofit ThumbsUp International - which pairs able-bodied and adaptive athletes working together to overcome physical challenges - works on many levels.

"It takes a team, a family to get us to the finish line, in a race as in life," Gruson said.

She was feeling pain in her shoulders and feet after the race but she wasn't complaining. "Pain means you are alive," she said. "So I welcome the pain."

Gruson has no memory of the 1974 attack or of her attacker, who was found mentally unfit to stand trial. She met McCloskey in Miami Beach last summer when McCloskey volunteered at an adaptive beach day and pushed Gruson's seaworthy big-wheel chair into the ocean to hang out in the waves.

"It was just love at first sight," McCloskey said. "Kerry's vocal chords are paralyzed. She can speak but you can barely hear her. But you're looking into this woman's eyes and you see it all. She's incredibly inspiring."

Gruson, who has been pursuing extreme challenges since 2013, completed a 140.8-mile Ironman Triathlon in Florida last year. She was strapped into a kayak for the swimming event and pulled by Caryn Lubetsky, who also pulled Gruson's racing wheelchair in the running and cycling events. It took them nearly 16 hours to finish.

Gruson said she saw the Philadelphia Marathon as her latest opportunity "to share my life's message that everybody has capabilities and disabilities, but by teaming up, we can accomplish so much more than we ever dreamed possible."

McCloskey said she and her partner Maria Concetta Cilluffo's organization, C3 No Limits, employs a similar team concept in its cognitive therapy/holistic health programs for military veterans suffering from PTSD and for people recovering from drug and alcohol addiction.

"Kerry is about inspiring others and so are we," McCloskey said. "It's all about empowerment."

geringd@phillynews.com

267-443-3540

@DanGeringer

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