When Webster University freshman Clayton Roll was in seventh grade, he told his parents he wanted to run cross-country. His dad gave him a challenge: if Roll could run with him to a school a couple of miles away from their home in Quincy, Ill., and win, he would allow Roll to run. Plus, he would have to stick with running.
“I absolutely annihilated him,” Roll said. “I beat him the way there and I beat him the way back. (My dad) came in and my mom asked how it went and he said, ‘Well, he’s going to run cross-country.’”
Now, at the age of 19, Roll, a member of the Webster men’s cross-country and track and field team, still runs — and he does it while fighting cystic fibrosis.
CF is a congenital disease that causes the lungs to fill up with mucus before the mucus is broken down and flushed out of the body. Roll said the process feels “like drowning from the inside.” He said lots of patients with CF often have problems with diabetes in addition to CF. No one in Roll’s family has a history of the disease.
“Whenever he came home and said, ‘Mom, I think I’m going to run,’ I was like ‘Oh, my goodness,’” Lynette Roll, Clayton’s mother, said. “I was worried to death, and then he stepped up to the plate and proved that he could take care of himself. Honest to goodness, in hindsight, it was the best thing for him because it really helps build his lung capacity and keeps himself healthy.”
The fight with cystic fibrosis
Due to his condition, Clayton Roll, a photography major, has to take certain procedures throughout each day to ensure he stays healthy. Lynette Roll said her son takes anywhere between 60-80 pills a day, depending on which regimen he’s on. She said Clayton Roll has what’s known as an easy cycle and a difficult cycle.
The two different cycles are used so his system doesn’t build immunity to the drugs he takes. Clayton Roll has a 28-day cycle on and a 28-day cycle off. In the 28-day cycle on, he adds three extra aerosols a day in addition to his percussion treatments, and on his 28 days off he takes one less aerosol a day.
Clayton Roll wears his percussion vest twice a day for 45 minutes at a time, officially known as the high frequency chest wall oscillation (HFCWO) device. He said he buckles the vest to his body like a jacket and the vest inflates with air that comes from a machine. As the vest fills with air, it will start to shake, and he will then cough up the excess mucus from his lungs. He also takes Albuterol — a drug that helps loosen the mucus — concurrently with his percussion treatment.
“My day begins a little bit earlier than everybody else’s, and ends a little bit later,” Clayton Roll said.
Each day Clayton Roll packs medications in his bag for his mealtimes. He takes pills if anything he eats has fat. If he doesn’t, Clayton Roll said his stomach will cramp up and cause him to have a really bad day. Some of his medications include:
—Seven Creon pills. Creon assists in food digestion.
—Two different types of vitamins.
—A weight-gain pill.
—Prilosec, which treats symptoms caused by excess stomach acid.
“Anything I know now, I’ve known my whole life,” Clayton Roll said. “I kind of laugh when I watch people have to take one pill a day and they’re, like, dropping it down their throat, but I can take all my pills at once.”
Inspiration for running
Before track and cross-country, Clayton Roll was a hockey fan — both roller and ice hockey. He said he plays hockey anytime he is back home. Clayton Roll said if Webster had a hockey team, he would not be running track.
“I feel like hockey got me very involved in track,” Clayton Roll said. “I became very fond of just, like, skating around. Sometimes I would just skate to school because I knew I was faster skating than I was running.”
But Clayton Roll has proven over the years he’s fast. In his freshman year of high school, he ran the mile in 4 minutes, 59 seconds. In track, Clayton Roll said he usually does the 800-meter run. His current time for the 800 indoors is 2 minutes, 6 seconds for Webster. He also runs the 400-meter run, which he ran at 51 seconds at his high school.
Webster track and field coach Kelly Parsley said not many athletes have CF.
“He has to work extra hard to be able to combat cystic fibrosis and being able to keep up with our top athletes, and he does it effortlessly,” Parsley said.
Within his short time at Webster, Clayton Roll has already broken three different records. He hasn’t won any individual events, but has placed in races.
“Not only was he breaking school records for us, but he was doing it at 70 percent lung capacity — so he really is amazing,” Parsley said.
Parsley said because patients with CF lose weight quickly, Clayton Roll tries to bulk up before track season. Once he starts to run, Clayton Roll knows he will lose the weight he put on.
When Clayton Roll began school at Webster, he dropped from 151 pounds to 131 pounds because he was training for cross-country over the summer.
The weight loss caused Clayton Roll to take cross-county season off this past year due to body weakness. Clayton Roll said he eats about 8,000-10,000 calories per day.
Students with medical conditions are allowed to run track as long as their doctor clears them for the activity beforehand.
Clayton Roll doesn’t want any pity because of his condition.
“I wasn’t running for anybody else,” Clayton Roll said. “I wasn’t running for the school. I wasn’t even running for myself. I was running to prove everybody else wrong because everybody who says, ‘You can’t do this,’ and, ‘You can’t do that,’ only says it because it’s what they know.
“Once somebody comes around to prove them wrong, that’s when the stereotype starts to change, and that’s what I was going for. The most gratifying thing in the world is when you can look somebody in the eye and say, ‘I told you so,’ in a competitive sense.”
Making each day count
In his nearly two decades of life, Clayton Roll has acted as his high school mascot, traveled overseas to different countries and saw the queen of England.
Clayton Roll hopes to study abroad in the future. Webster’s study-abroad program was one of the main reasons Clayton Roll came to Webster. He said he hopes to spend two weeks every summer somewhere abroad, because he can’t have his medications shipped overseas.
Some CF patients aren’t as fortunate.
Clayton Roll said CF patients are usually in and out of hospitals. However, as a patient of St. Louis Children’s Hospital, he has only been hospitalized once — over spring break.
When he was ill, his lung function went down, and Clayton Roll was in the hospital for three days with an additional three weeks on medication. The hospitalization caused Clayton Roll’s lung capacity to drop to 77 percent and ultimately made him unable to participate in track meets for a few weeks. Clayton Roll was cleared to run again, and got his lung capacity back up to 89 percent.
As a child, Clayton Roll’s parents told him he wasn’t supposed to live past his teenage years.
“There is no way that I’ll ever stop running,” Clayton Roll said. “Until I’m on my death bed, I won’t stop running because it’s something I care about. I feel like it’s a positive thing to do when you’re fighting any condition — whether it’s cancer (or) any form of disease. I feel like you need something to take your mind off of what everybody tells you you can’t do.”