Facing challenges head-on

Wonder woman: Crans' story frightening, fascinating, inspiring

Living with multiple sclerosis, triathlete, swimmer stays strong with impressive fitness schedule
By Holly Vanorse Spicer | Apr 05, 2018
Photo by: Holly Vanorse Spicer Mara Crans

Camden — One cannot judge a book by its cover is an old adage, but a phrase that certainly applies to Mara Crans.

And when one gets the opportunity to turn back the pages of her almost unbelievable book and begins to read the chapters, an emotional, fascinating, scary, sad and especially inspirational story emerges for the adult swimmer and triathlete.

Crans, 51, of Camden, wears many hats. She is the mother of four young men, whose ages range from 23, to near 18. She has an education and background in pediatrics, and is the physician consultant for Stepping With the Stones in Camden. She is a yoga instructor. Many also know her as a triathlete and masters swimmer.

Watch video below.

At the core of it all, behind her figurative book cover, her pages have been, for more than two decades, filled with her living every day with a disease that attacks parts of her central nervous system. A disease that can, in some cases, lead to paralysis, and in rare cases, to death.

Crans was born outside of Boston, but raised in Gloucester, Mass. She attended her undergrad studies at Boston College, and completed her medical schooling for pediatrics at Tufts University.

It was in medical school she met Charles "Chuck" Crans, who at the time was lab partners with her roommates. Those roommates saw that the pair, Mara and Chuck, would be a perfect match, and went to work setting them up.

"He was a year ahead of me, and my roommates had been lab anatomy partners with him, and they fixed us up because they thought we’d be a perfect couple,” she said.

This June, the couple will celebrate their 27th year of marriage.

In the middle of 2000, they, along with their sons Alex, Chandler, Kyle and Conrad, moved to the Camden area.

The diagnosis and taking charge

Crans found herself looking at a different future than she had imagined near the end of her second pregnancy.

While walking up the stairs at seven and a half months pregnant, Crans said she had felt like she had just gotten off of the Stairmaster workout machine. Her legs felt like jello, and she said that was not like her. Her doctor assured her that it was just a part of pregnancy.

Within the week, several symptoms came on, one after the other.

The next symptom she experienced was to wake up one morning and realize a portion of her left hand was numb. The next morning, it was her right hand. Both instances, her doctor said the same, it was just pregnancy.

When Crans awoke and found both of her feet numb, that was when her doctor sent her for an MRI.

She said she knew from the drastic change in the MRI technicians actions towards her after the MRI that something serious was wrong. Before the MRI, the technician was a bit rough, and rushed, but after, she took care with helping Crans out of the machine and off the table. Crans said she told her husband as they left that there was something bad on the MRI image.

That night, they received the call.

“They called and said you have a spinal cord tumor. You need to have your husband watch you overnight because you could herniate at any time and stop breathing, and you’re going to be admitted tomorrow. You probably won’t make it home after the baby is born,” Crans said doctors told her.

“It’s what they said because it was so big, they thought it was a spinal cord tumor, and I was gonna stay in until I had the baby, then I wouldn’t live after,” she said.

That night, Crans said that she and her husband made the calls to their family to tell them about the diagnosis and what was happening.

“We end up at the hospital the next day, and I come in, and [the doctor] was so excited, she said, 'good news, we talked to the neuroradiologist and it looks like it’s multiple sclerosis not a tumor.' ”

Multiple sclerosis is the abnormal response of the body's immune system directed against the central nervous system. The central nervous system consists of the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves.

In MS, T-cells from the immune system pass from the blood stream into the central nervous system to attack myelin. Myelin is the protective coating around nerve fibers.

Crans said her husband was relieved at the news, but it was not a feeling that she shared. She saw the diagnosis of multiple sclerosis the same way in which she saw the spinal tumor.

"As a physician, I had only seen the bad cases of MS," she said. 

“I was horribly affected in the beginning. I had to use a cane for walking, and I was 20 pounds less than I am now. I was really weak, so I couldn’t even do basic care of the children,” she said.

“It was hard because I think having the medical background did us a disservice,” she said.

Crans said that she thinks she and her husband knew a little too much about the disease, but at the same time, it was good because then they were able to find the best specialists.

At the start of her life with her new diagnosis, Crans said she was hospitalized for awhile, and spent a lot of time on steroids. Even after she was able to leave the hospital, she faced several hospitalizations over that time.

“I just had a hard time in the beginning,” she said.

Things began to turn around for Crans after she began exercising regularly, focusing on nutrition, and getting enough sleep. She said that once she had those three key elements down, she has been great. She added that she has been off doctor-prescribed steroids for 15 or 20 years now.

Crans said it was her oldest son, Alex, that really got her motivated to get healthy, and start exercising.

"I’ll never forget, he was about 2 years old, and Chandler was a little baby because I was nursing. Alex walked in and said, 'Can we go to the park today?' And I said, 'Oh momma’s too tired' because the fatigue was horrible, so basically all I did was nurse the baby all day. That was the most I could do. And he stamped his little foot and said, 'Momma's always too tired!' And he storms off so of course I’m crying and feeling horrible,” she said

The following day, she made an appointment with the physiatrist, physical medicine and rehabilitation physicians, who treat a wide variety of medical conditions affecting the brain, spinal cord, nerves, bones, joints, ligaments, muscles, and tendons. He created a training program that would help her get stronger.

"I really started to exercise to get strong enough to take care of the boys really and to make my MS better," Crans said.

The more she did, the better she began to feel.

“I sort of had to start with drinking an entire pot of coffee in the morning to get the boys to the park, but then once I started exercising and getting stronger, lifting weights, I got stronger and stronger,” she said.

Taking on triathlons

Competing in triathlons was something that did not come across her mind until much later in her life.

In her younger years, she had always been a swimmer. At the age of 13, she made the national team, and that's where swimming stopped for her.

“I stopped swimming all together, because it was way too much time," Crans said. She added that at that time, one would train by virtually staying in the pool for six hours.

"So it was too much. When I went to high school, I just did three varsity sports," she said.

While she was in college, Crans did not partake in any organized sports. Instead, she became a personal trainer, had clients and taught aerobics throughout college and medical school. She also minored in exercise physiology while working towards her major.

Thirty years after Crans stepped foot in a pool for the last time, she found herself jumping — and diving — back in.

Her third son, Kyle, had wanted to swim, and at first she was hesitant. She had considered their family a basketball family to that point. After taking him, she said she realized they also were a swim family as well.

"He got into the pool that first year and made it to Zones, and made it to this big championship meet, he was a natural," Crans said. Kyle eventually turned out to be one of the most talented swimmers in Penobscot Bay YMCA Sailfish and Camden Hills Regional High School history.

“Once he started swimming, I got back into it. Not until I was 43 did I start swimming again,” she said.

“It was just, you know, I’m going to the gym every day, I may as well train for something,” she said of the decision.

She had done a couple long road races in college, and admits that she was not a great runner. She reasoned the triathlon had three events to compete in. However, there was just one problem, she had never ridden a bicycle before.

After setting her sights on the Waldo County YMCA's triathlon in spring of 2010, she took one of the sons' mountain bikes out on the road a few of times, and the day of, she rented a bike from Sidecountry Sports in Rockland.

Crans finished 24th with a time of 1:33:17.4 in the event which consisted of a 525-yard pool swim, 12.2-mile bicycle ride and 3.5-mile run.

"It was really fun, everyone was super supportive. I guess I've gotta buy a bike now," she said of her thoughts after finishing that first "sprint" triathlon.

"People are just so nice and helpful in the triathlon community," she said.

Since that first triathlon, Crans said she has done a few half-Ironman, or Ironman 70.3s (70.3 refers to the total distance in miles covered in the race, consisting of a 1.2-mile swim, a 56-mile bike ride and 13.1-mile run, with each distance of the swim, bike, and run segments being half the distance of a true Ironman). In 2014 and 2015, she completed full Ironman races.

The decision to compete in her first half Ironman race came after her oldest son, Alex, went to the United States Naval Academy five years ago. She knew she would be unable to talk to him for that entire summer while he was there.

"I woke up at five every morning, and knew he'd be doing his physical training, so it sorta made me feel better," she said.

During her triathlon off-season, she competes in swimming, and swims in masters events, throughout the winter. She said it gives her something fun to do.

“It’s a little easier on your joints to swim more in the winter, because when you’re training for the long races, it’s a lot of running and as I get older it’s harder on my body,” she said.

Recovery for Crans is important, and she has found that nutrition is just as important, along with sleep. She said that all of those key things make a large difference in her MS, and adds that as she gets older, the need for the three increases as well.

“It’s a fine line, and that’s where I do run into trouble because one thing that really exacerbates MS is heat and humidity,” she said.

Crans feels that because she lives in an area where it tends to stay relatively cool, even in the summer, she does well in her training. She adds that if the day is going to get hot, she can get out and get her training in early, before the heat and humidity rise.

“But the actual races, you’re out there for 15 and 14 hours in an Ironman and it’s 95 degrees with the sun beating down on you, so the two Ironmen I’ve done, I’ve flared up. But the training goes well.” she said.

It is not just in her training that she has to make sure to allow for proper recovery. Before and after competitions, she has learned the best approaches for her body to keep flares from the MS at bay.

During the races, since keeping cool is the ultimate goal, aside from finishing, and finishing well, she gets ice from stations and dumps them in her shirt to help her keep cool.

She said for her full Ironman competitions, she always goes three days early. It gives her time to get used to the area, and to start sleeping normally. She adds that she always makes sure that she has a full kitchen so that she can make all of her own food.

Post competition, she gives herself the room of a day or two extra for her recovery.

For her half-Ironman competitions, she typically can travel to them the day before, as with halves, she usually does them closer to home. Crans said that the farthest she has traveled for a half-Ironman was Syracuse, N.Y.

With her ultimate goal being the Ironman world championships in Honolulu, Hawaii, she knows that it would put a completely different spin on her approach to prerace and recovery.

Her training schedule varies, as everything depends on the length of the race she is training for, and where she is in her training season.

In her off-season, Crans said she swims four to five times a week, and runs and bikes two to three times a week, then it will shift.

“Right now I have my last big swim meet [the New England masters championships in Cambridge, Mass., held in March] of the season, the after that it’ll shift over because I’m training for a half-Ironman,” she said.

The amount of time she dedicates to training varies. Crans said it could be anywhere from 15 hours a week, to 40 hours a week at the highest when she trains for an Ironman.

“My body definitely does well with the long amounts of training. My MS's great with that. People say how do you stay motivated, what keeps you working out daily, but I’m lucky because if I don’t work out, my MS always flares, so it sort of gives me reason to keep doing this,” she said.

Crans also does weight training twice a week, sometimes more. Yoga, stretching and mobility work also are things she does regularly.

Crans, after having done so much yoga, and regularly, since becoming active after her diagnosis, became a certified yoga instructor. She teaches the anatomy and physiology at the ShivaShakti School of Yoga and Healing Arts in Union. She also instructs Yoga for Athletes at Stone Coast Wellness in Rockport, and teaches yoga for children.

Crans attributes the supportive community and local athletes who swim, run and bike, to helping her training be successful.

“The beautiful thing about this area is there’s so many amazing athletes, like the people I swim with are just swimmers. I train with them, it pushes me to be a better swimmer.”

Crans said that when it comes to running, Camden resident Emily McDevitt really has built up the trail running group in the area, so she heads out with them to get her running training.

"They’re all ultra running, trail marathon people, and so I just try to keep up with them,” Crans said.

She said she trail runs all winter. Sometimes she uses snowshoes on her runs, other times she opts for spikes on her running shoes.

Scott Layton of Rockport, who competes in Ironman events, as well as local, smaller triathlon events, and has competed in Ironman World events, has helped Crans as a coach.

"I bring him food, and he gives me tips," she said.

Of her triathlon experiences from the very first race, to the current, she feels she is still not great at any of the three events.

“I’m not horrible either, which is why I do O.K.,” she said.

She said that two races that she always participates in are the Waldo County YMCAs triathlon where she got her triathlete start, and the Megunticook Triathlon held in Camden each September. The Waldo County YMCA event has stopped, but the Megunticook event continues.

After her first triathlon, the one thing Crans said stood out the most that she needed to improve was transitions, and despite having competed in several more races over the years, she said she still struggles the most with them. Part of that is because of her MS.

“With my MS that’s the one thing is, I can’t really feel my feet because I’ve had nerve damage to them,” she said.

When she was competing at an Ironman in Lake Placid, she had not realized that she had a small stone in her shoe, and did the entire bike distance with the stone. By the time she returned to the transition area for the run portion, she had a large blister on her foot. Now, Crans said that she is careful and wears socks every time to make sure that the pebbles stay off her feet. She said she also brings a bucket of water for her feet.

One other thing that slows her down is the extra layer she will have to put on before heading out for the bicycle portion of her races.

Despite her struggle with triathlon transitions, she is still finding herself improving each race.

"I do know I have taken time off every year. I have not gone slower yet. Last year, every tri I did was a personal-best," she said.

On whether she prefers pool swims or lake swims when competing, she leans towards pool swims.

"It's nice because the pool swims are usually early in the season, and I'm just coming off my pool season," she said.

"It’s just a different swim because the open water ones it’s a whole other beast, because you have all the swimmers around you, and it takes awhile to get used to that. Big men will just literally push you right under. You have to learn to go out really fast and find your own space and swim it from there. So a pool one, nobody is in your lane, nobody’s going to hit you. So you can really work it,” she said.

Crans said that her first open water swim was just last year for the Old Orchard Beach half-Ironman. Other open water swims she has done were in St. Croix, and the Islesboro Crossing for LifeFlight of Maine.

"Every open water is different. Waves, the current," she said.

She said that is was what made them fun.

Being an inspiration

Crans said that through people who know her and have friends, family, or know someone who has been recently diagnosed, she has talked with many people over the years who are in their early stages of diagnosis of MS.

“I sort of reach out to them or they reach out to me, and I walk them through stuff because they are so overwhelmed. It’s not uncommon for the first couple years of the MS to be the worst until you figure out what works for you,” she said.

“I think like in anything, there’s no one right diet, no one right, you have to figure it out,” she said.

Crans said it can be very disconcerting, and depressing in the beginning being so affected, and when you go to the hospital, all you see are the people with MS who are greatly affected by the disease.

"[Others who have MS] can see someone who has had it as long as I’ve had it and is still functioning really well," she said.

"It feels really good, that makes me really happy when I can help them and let them know and it’s just nice for them too because I understand. Like when they hear, “Oh you were this bad and now look at you,” there’s hope for them,” she said.

Crans said it helps those others with MS to know that it is not going to always be the way it is right now for them, and that it can and will be better.

“I went to a couple of support groups and just found that it was not the right thing for me because a lot of the people there were very badly affected and they were just sort of wallowing, resigned to it I guess, and it was just overwhelmingly depressing for me. 
So I stopped going," Crans said.

Crans finds herself wishing she had a group put together in the area to show others with MS that there are people who have it, and are living active lifestyles, despite the diagnosis. She said there are several women in the area, with MS, that are active just as she is, and feels they could all show the "positive" side of the affliction.

Family support and motivation

Crans said that her most significant motivation to get active, stay active, and healthy was her boys.

"When little Alex said that to me, it just broke my heart.
 I didn’t want them to remember a mom always on the couch, I wanted them to remember an active mom," she said.

She said she taught all four of her sons how to ski, and said they all have even hiked Mount Katahdin.

“That was my main motivation, is to stay healthy for them. Keeping up with four boys is no easy task. 
Now, they don’t need me to motivate them, they motivate me now," she said.

She said that while she is training or competing, she often hears Alex's voice when she wants to quit, telling her: “This is what you trained for mom! You’ve got this!”

"Now, since I feel better, that's my motivator. If I take a few days off, or I have to take a few days off, my MS flares. So it keeps me going because it feels so good," she said.

Crans said her husband has been incredibly supportive, even competing in a couple half-Ironman races with her. She added that all of her sons have been at her Ironman races, supporting and cheering her on.

Her first full-Ironman, in Lake Placid, has been her favorite, so far, among her triathlon competitions.

"Finishing it and having all four boys there was a special, special race," she said.

Overall, of all of her competitions, she said her favorite race has been the SwimRun Casco Bay Islands race that she and Alex did together. She plans to do the race again, except the shorter version, this year with Kyle.

Going forward in 2018, Crans has plans for a half-Ironman in Canada in June, the Casco Bay Island SwimRun in July and a half-Ironman in Old Orchard Beach in August. She said she also has plans for sprint and Olympic distance triathlons mixed in with the larger events. There also is a chance of competing in a full-Ironman in October she said.

“Then my husband and I are traveling, that’s a big love of mine is to travel, so we’re going to France in October for a bike tour. A bike trip through Provence, and we’re going to celebrate the last one going off to college,” she said.

“Got a lot of the schedule for the year, should be a good season,” 

Crans said.

Beyond that, Crans said she plans to keep going, doing the races and meeting new people. Some day, she said, she will have grandchildren she will need to keep up with.

Mara Crans' story
Mara Crans' story. (Video by: Zack Miller)
Comments (2)
Posted by: LEE C MACFARLAND | Apr 06, 2018 13:40

You are truly awesome Mara!  So glad your doing well.

Posted by: Susan Vanorse | Apr 05, 2018 15:31

Nice in depth article on a very inspirational woman.

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