I’ve blogged much less in recent months because after The Great Burnout I’ve had to be really intentional about doing the kinds of things I need to do to keep moving in a much better direction. During The Great Burnout, I may or may not have been down to a matter of weeks until I completely came undone – though in hindsight I was going down a pretty bad road – but I know now that I was headed that way sooner than later.
The realization of this wasn’t quite the kind of life-altering moment when a doctor comes up to you to inform you of your terminal condition or an officer coming to your door to tell you your loved one is dead. But during that week Mary and I took apart from the kids, I realized I had to make a choice about myself and my health.
So I decided to return to the sport of my youth – running. I used the Autism Run 5K in October to motivate me as this is the one event each year I love doing regardless of how out of shape I am. (In 2009, I walked it wearing a low back brace!) To me it’s an annual celebration of our autistic superstars, and this year I wanted to run that way. I started running 30-60 seconds at a time then walking 90 seconds, and I worked up from there. During those 10 weeks between coming home from that trip and the race, I struggled through two wretched knees, a belly that looked a few months pregnant, and a body in full rebellion. I had just picked it up off the floor, and my body didn’t care for this new life. I told it, tough shit, suck it up.
I kept running through wincing knee pain. My doctor said there was no damage, just guitar string-tight muscles and tendons everywhere. Good enough for me. I’m used to physical discomfort now in my life as a parent. Screw it, play hurt. I gave it two weeks off, but I put my body on notice that we were going to run this 5K. But yes I did have a lot of doubts about whether my rebelling body or my newfound spirit would win out.
I’ve chronicled that race and others in previous posts. For me, the Autism Run on October 9th was a huge success, a feeling that I was coming back out of that hole I’d let myself fall in. And I kept running. I’ve run regularly ever since for 4 1/2 months total now. I ran a 5K around Halloween and bettered my time from the Autism Run by over two minutes. That 10K for Operation Orange in mid-November was brutally hard. I overestimated my ability and got humbled by a challenging course, but I finished my first 10K in well over a decade. I thought about ending my ‘season’ then, but I wanted to find a race to end the year on a real high.
I recovered quickly from that 10K and opted for one more race this year. I entered a small, local 5K a couple of weeks ago. It was butt cold and cloudy, and I loved it. I’d been injury free for a while, and running was starting to feel freeing like it used to so many years ago. I’m not anywhere near as fast as I was then, but I have felt my body getting stronger every week. I’ve slimmed down 20 pounds and about 3 inches on my waist. I have more energy, and lots of things in me hurt less – physically and emotionally.
I knew that was going to be a good race. I was perhaps a bit too excited as my scorching first mile set me up to get pummeled by all the hills after it, but I faced all that down and finished in a very respectable 24:25. But there was one surprise in store for me after the race. I hung around mostly to catch my breath, get some free food and hot chocolate, and see if I won the raffle. When they posted the results sheet on the table, I had to check it three times before I believed what I saw.
I’d won my age group. And I have a medal on the bulletin board over my desk to prove it! Yeah, that was a good way to end the year.
Running now is something very different than it used to be for me. For a long time it was an obligation; it was the only sport I was remotely competent at. Then as I gained weight in my 20s, I ran to fight off the version of me I didn’t want to become. In my late 20s, I ran in hopes of completing a marathon, but I wasn’t ready. My body crashed and burned in a blaze of hip injuries. Looking back, I lacked the self-care, wisdom, awareness, and patience needed for such a goal. Now I wake up and realize that I’m 37, husband and father of two amazing kids – and I think I do pretty well at both – and I have nothing really to prove to anyone anymore. I’m drawing from the pure joy of running, and that’s making all the difference.
So what’s the answer to the question in the title of this post? I do run for obvious health reasons and because I like how this newer me feels. I do run because I feel like I have so much more untapped goodness in running to discover. But while out on a long run last week, I had a revelatory moment in which I discovered the reason why I’m running harder each week and aiming for goals I had stopped dreaming about years ago.
Others expect parents of special needs kids to be worn down, stressed, living on the edge. Truth is we often are. But what part of it is us accepting that role unquestioned? Is there a better way of being the kind of parents we want to be?
I’m arguing that there is. I seek to test an ideal of mine, a personal thesis statement about my life and others like you and me. I’m at best an average athlete even in my best shape in the past. I’m still 40 pounds heavier and a lot creakier than I was in my track days. There is little to indicate that I have much of a physical advantage in running period. My glory days of running, meager and short-lived as they were, were almost 20 years ago.
I’m coming to believe that parenting and autism actually have not been something that have worn me down like many seem to expect should be happening to me. Instead, all this has made me stronger, wiser, often more joyful, definitely more inspired, and more determined.
I tried for years to train for a marathon and failed every time. I think now I failed because I lacked something essential. I didn’t have my family, my life as a proud father, my inspiring kids, and our journey with autism yet. The more I thought about it the more I realized, I’m not weak and worn down now nor was I before. I’m stronger than I’ve ever been. I’ve had to become so.
So I have this belief, and I plan to test it. I believe these adventures in my life have made me strong to the point that I can achieve running goals I’ve never been able to before, be a better dad and husband, advocate for autistic and all special needs children, and generally be more able to fulfill my day-to-day obligations – all at the same time.
I’ve already done something I’ve never done before – win my age group in an, albeit small, 5K. Just last week I ran 8 miles at one time for the first time in 10 years. Now my sights are set on a half-marathon in April and a full marathon in November. I haven’t run for one solid year ever. Who knows what I could do then?
Instead of the burned out shell I thought I was, I saw that what I needed was to haul my ass up off the ground and see myself for who I really am – a strong parent who believes that every part of my life can be made better by my family and our journey with autism.
So maybe I do have something to prove – take everyone who thinks we as parents of special needs kids can’t do anything but just struggle and survive and prove them wrong. For everyone else and for myself, I want to do this as a sort of creed. I believe the challenges we all face make us stronger, better able to appreciate life, and more aware of the courage and inspiration all around us and inside us. And I want to do it as a celebration of my family and yours.
Anyone wanna join me?