autism,  cross-country,  exercise,  track

J can do something most kids can’t

Headed out to winter running some day in early February. It must have been a really nice day, because we don’t have our heavy coats and neck gear 🙂 Can you believe he’s taller than me now!?

There are very few things that J can do that most kids can’t. In fact, there’s only really two things I can think of off the top of my head: the ability to remember the most obscure information and retain that information (like squaring and cubing numbers into the 10,000s, remembering dates and obscure facts of presidents of the United States, and remembering every exit number in ever state from North Dakota to Kansas). The other? running long distance.

The party trick memory is fun for a little bit, but it’s really hard to engage with someone when all you can do is spew random facts at them. And it gets old really fast–it’s like you only have 3 jokes to tell and you’ve already told all of your friends your 3 jokes already. It gets awkward and socially uncomfortable. We’ve been trying to help J be a little more aware of his autism and what his autism helps him with and what his autism makes really hard for him. “It’s like autism superpowers,” I say to him. “Your autism gives you a superpower of remembering facts and memorizing things really easily, let’s use your autism for good and try to remember the 4 steps you need to know in order to work through this algebraic equation,” or “You’re autism makes it hard for you to be patient. You’re going to have to work really hard to be patient right now. Your autism sometimes makes you get stuck on the same thing, you’re going to have to work really hard to get past that.”

The strange thing about running, is that I feel like it’s one of the few things J has an even playing field with anyone else. It’s just as hard for him as it is for every single other person on this planet. He has to work just as hard as anyone else in order to get better at it. Yes, he does have some things (like his floppy right arm) that make his running less efficient than it should be, but for the most part, J can put the same time and effort into it as anyone else, and improve just like anyone else. And right now, I feel like he’s making some headway.

As we drove to the last winter running practice (extra training for those runners who really want to keep up their training and endurance on the off season) J said to me, “I’m really going to miss winter running.” Which was really great, because we had some moments where I thought he really hated it. Those were the days I hated it too, because the rule is we run if it’s above 0F (-18C) and those “single digit days” were terrible. But even after those runs, he wanted to go the next day. Even though J runs all year now (no matter if he’s in the middle of XC or track season), it’s interesting what types of experiences he (and I) learn along the way. I’m so proud of this kid and the maturity he’s shown toward running over this last year–especially within this last month. We’ve been running for about a year and a half now, and I’m still watching and learning from J new things about this whole experience. Here are the top three things I’ve learned from J over winter running:

  1. It’s a really different type of running. When you run in the winter, it’s not your typical running experience. In fact, you’re going to be a lot slower than when you usually run. You’re running, at times, through ankle-deep, sometimes calf-deep snow, if you’re running down a street where someone hasn’t shoveled their sidewalk. At times you’re running on ice (this winter it was all ice under that snow), and it’s essentially a slip n slide down the street or sidewalk–you have to be paying attention at ALL TIMES. (I was reading this book: The Working Memory Advantage, and it was explaining how barefoot running helps your working memory, because you have to be aware of your environment as you are running. There is also a study here that explains it a little better, and I feel like running in snow and ice is much like running barefoot in some ways). You’re running with 2x, even 3x the amount of clothing, so it’s heavier, you’re breathing is more shallow when you have a neck gaiter on so you feel like you’re suffocating at times. A lot of the time you’re running in the dark, because in North Dakota, it’s dark at 4:30/5 pm. That was a lot, at first, for J to get used to. But he got used to it. And he was amazing.
  2. Running is mental. In the winter it’s REALLY REALLY MENTAL. This is an understatement for J. At first he really struggled doing the regular distance runs he did in XC (3-4 miles). Sometimes he’d just stop in the middle of a run and say, “I quit! It’s just to cold” to which I would respond, “You can’t stop now. You’re so sweaty, you’ll freeze, you just have to keep going.” And then he would start up again, and he would “finish the run” (that’s his new personal mantra) and he’d get back to the high school with a frozen face and frozen fingers. It was so awesome to see him really develop that mental grit of sticking through those barely above 0F days. I’m so grateful his coach was understanding of J during his mini meltdowns–sometimes J would say some mean things along the way.
  3. You can still have breakthroughs. Despite #1 and #2, J had some really great breakthroughs during winter running. He really broke that 5-6 mile mental barrier. To him 5 and 6 miles are now practically the same distance, and he’s happy to go 6, no problems at all! and that’s in the freezing weather! And despite the slow going of running through snow and ice, he’s gotten a lot faster. He runs so much faster than me now! Over the past month he’s been a block, almost two blocks ahead. Crossing streets responsibly and safely by himself (Ugh, this is the thing that makes me the most nervous). His last day of winter running it was like Lessons 1, 2, and 3 finally came together in a cosmic way and he was up with the pack, on a really cold day (in ND we had a really unseasonably warm week and a half and then BAM! back to cold). He ran his repeats up the bridge and back into a really cold wind and worked just as hard as the other kids and ran back to the school and I was just so proud of him. We’ll see how much longer he’ll need me around!

Something his XC coach said last season really stuck with me. He was telling the boys that “They are willing and doing something most kids can’t and won’t do. And that will make them strong in all areas in their life.” And that’s J. He’s doing those things. And he’s getting better. With running I get to see J in a whole different way I don’t usually get to see him. It’s like his autism is a non-factor. No autism powers for good or bad. Just J. Running. Putting in the work and getting stronger.

Oh, and those boys that ran with J all winter long and encouraged him along the way. Some of the most amazing kids on the planet.

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