“I wanted you to see what real courage is … It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.” – Harper Lee
Coaching an athlete on the autism spectrum to run cross-country is not for the faint of heart. You never know what you’re going to get from meet to meet. It could be a total meltdown or an epic moment of triumph. The only way to find out is to show up.
Take my son Harrison’s first high school season, for example. I call him “The Blur” because of the fuzzy line between his reality and everyone else’s, and, oh yeah, because he’s pretty fast, too.
To back up, Harrison has run on Custer County’s middle school cross country team for the past three years. I help out as a volunteer coach, which allows me to be there for him as well as work with the other young athletes.
What I really had not anticipated coming into this season was the higher level of competition he would face in high school. For starters, many kids from middle school do not continue in the sport. Secondly, as a freshman, he would run against top level juniors and seniors who were stronger and faster just by virtue of size, age and experience. To make things even more challenging, the distance increases from 3K (about 1.86 miles) to 5K (3.1 miles) in high school.
Nevertheless, we began.
Our small high school team consists of five boys and two girls. Our top boy runner is ranked top five in the state, and our second guy is no slouch either. After that the other three spots on the boys team are up for grabs. I’ve felt Harrison has the physical capacity to run third on his team, but it remained to be seen if he could mentally and emotionally put together such a race.
Our first stop was the Lake County Invitational in Leadville. The meet is held on the Colorado Mountain College cross-country ski trails at about 10,200 feet altitude. With the help of our athletic director Joy Parrish, we obtained a special accommodation from the state governing body for Harrison to use music headphones in the meets. It seems to make a big difference in his ability to focus. With the music soothing his mind, he ran smooth and steady over the entire challenging course, placing fourth on his team. I was already looking forward to great things this season and beyond.
However, the following week we drove several hours through insane Front Range traffic to his meet in Lyons only to have him develop severe side cramps early in the race. He went from running a fine first mile to a full-on autistic tantrum that I was surprised did not get us ejected from the premises. After trying to calm him and offering him a couple chances to continue the race, I realized he was too far over the edge and that discretion sometimes really is the better part of valor. It was the first DNF of his career in a cross-country race. The drive home was a long one, but we had an interesting discussion about the sense of accomplishment versus that of disappointment.
The following week, at the Mountaineer Cowboy Invitational in Gunnison, we nearly had a repeat of Lyons when he developed another side stitch. Somehow, through great effort and the miracle of patience, I was able to encourage him to finish the race despite his cramping and resulting tantrum. It was another disappointment, though he actually did not finish last, and I felt completing the course was a small victory.
What followed was a complete 180, with Harrison running a personal best by more than four minutes at the Pueblo Central Invitational. Four days later he ran another PR at the Rye Thunderbolt Invitational. Then the same week he ran a fine race at the Salida Cross Country Classic, where a big hill stood in the way of another PR.
Of course, success is as big an illusion as failure, and the following week at Fountain he had a huge meltdown in the gloomy cold at the starting line, resulting in his second DNF of the season. Later that week, he flipped out during the homecoming pep rally at school and had to be physically restrained and removed from the gym. His teachers, administrators, coaches, fellow students and teammates were left disturbed and drained, and I had to pay an uncomfortable visit to the school.
I really began to question what I was doing, but the very next morning – desperately needing some sort of win – we drove away in the dark for the Eric Wolff Invitational in Monte Vista, with no expectation other than we were not giving up and would accept any outcome. That morning The Blur turned it on for the most solid run of his career over a challenging wet-turf course at 7,664 feet altitude. It was not a PR, but it was the most determined effort I’d ever seen from him. I could not have been prouder knowing all that he had overcome.
However, this was only a preview. The following week at the Colorado 2A regional meet in Rocky Ford — hoping against all odds to help his team qualify for the state meet — Harrison destroyed his previous 5K PR by almost two minutes, and ran third on his five-man varsity team, scoring for the team and helping them to an eighth place in the meet.
While this was a bold exclamation point on his season, it was overshadowed by his disappointment in not advancing to state. Despite his best effort, and best race ever, his team did not qualify, though some teammates did advance as individuals.
Following the Rocky Ford race, it was brought to my attention that he actually could run at state in the Unified Race for special needs and Paralympic athletes. I was torn over this for a couple of reasons. For starters, everything I’ve tried to do with Harrison in running has been to dispel stereotyping, and prove that he can compete alongside neurotypical kids. Secondly, despite a couple disappointments, he’d been running on his varsity team all season. Was it even fair for him to run in a special-needs division?
Balancing out this argument was the very real fact that he does have an intellectual disability and has every right to run in this Unified Race. After much internal dialogue and discussion with friends, family, and of course The Blur, I reached the conclusion that he should seize this opportunity to join his teammates at the state meet. Perhaps there’s some larger lesson for us all between these blurred lines. He’s writing his own rules.
As his coach and father, being a co-creator of this improbable story continues to be an immensely rewarding experience, wherever it may lead.
Onward to state
I was never much of an athlete in high school. It wasn’t for lack of trying.
At my mega high school in Northern Virginia, just outside of the Capital Beltway, I went out for football and baseball for the Lake Braddock Bruins, as did dozens of other boys with testosterone-fueled hopes and dreams of glory. I was a gangly and awkward kid who the football coaches moved around, trying to fill backup spots on a team that was grooming first-string players to play at big colleges. I walked the sidelines and subbed for the better players as wide receiver, slotback and, on the other side of the ball, defensive line.
Each spring I would make a gallant but futile attempt to join the baseball squad. To put this into perspective, our pitcher had already been drafted in the minors. I would get to the second cut and then that would be that. The truth was I could smash a 90-mph pitching-machine fastball out of the park, but I could not field a ground ball in right field to save my life.
When my parents packed up the family and moved to Craig, Colorado, between my junior and senior years, I spent the first several weeks fishing in the surrounding mountains with our dog. Then I went out for the Moffat County Bulldogs football team. While my skills were on a more level plane there, in a small town some of these positions had been filled long before there was a “new kid in town.” My most memorable play was holding for a field goal when a botched snap came bouncing from center. I yelled, “Fire, fire, fire” and sprinted right, then passed to the “open” receiver only to have a defensive back step right in front of the ball and intercept. Fortunately, I made a great tackle before he ran it back for six.
Through all this I was a runner. Running was always a part of my program to stay in shape for sports I wasn’t any good at playing. That and weight training. These were perhaps part of a larger coping mechanism as well. Later I would become a competitive distance runner and pack-burro racer. My program remains much the same to this day.
This year when my son Harrison began running for the varsity cross-country team here at Custer County School, the irony of a youth misspent on ball sports was not lost on me. It’s clear I’m vicariously reliving through him what I really should have been. They say he has autism, but I honestly don’t know if that’s true since nobody knows what autism really is. It’s merely a label to explain his erratic and outrageous behaviors, and differences in processing information.
Regardless, the kid can run.
After a season which saw him confront many challenges and explore his true potential, he placed third on his team at regionals and improved his best time by almost two minutes in the 5K varsity distance. This was not enough to qualify individually for the state championship meet, or to boost his team to the meet, though three of his teammates did make the cut as individuals.
After regionals he was tremendously disappointed, but another coach suggested we take him to the state meet to run in the Unified Race for special needs athletes. I initially struggled with this notion. Here was a kid who’d been running varsity all season and it was difficult to wrap my mind around.
But it was state, after all. How could I deny him this opportunity?
The day before we left, the school sent the athletes off with a “pep-rally” style run through the hallway. The next morning a band of well-wishers gathered in the school parking lot to see our athletes, along with coaches Jesse and Ruth and myself, away. Our team is so small we took a school Suburban rather than a bus. This experience of a lifetime would also include dinner out, a movie at a theater and a night in a hotel before the big event the next day at the Norris Penrose Events Center in Colorado Springs.
With two boys, Micah and Jeremiah, and one girl, Kyleigh, in the varsity 2A races, and Harrison and teammate Caleb, whose non-autistic learning disability also qualified him for the Unified Race, we arrived at the event site the afternoon before the race to preview the courses. We as coaches always walk our athletes over the race routes before each meet, paying attention to places that could pose problems or where runners can use the terrain in their favor.
The Unified Race distance was 3K (1.86 miles). We were told all runners would ford a small creek later in the race. For the course preview, organizers had taped off the water crossing so we could only get a look from the bridge. I explained to Harrison that the next day he would use the bridge on the way out and then go through the water on the way back.
I had no idea what we would encounter in the way of competition in the Unified Race. I could find no results from previous years. I assumed there would be a mixture of athletes with both intellectual and physical challenges. I thought there could also be runners just like Harrison and Caleb – perhaps members of bigger 4A or 5A varsity squads – only older and faster. There might also be Paralympic athletes with serious physical disabilities. I did not know how to prepare Harrison and Caleb for what they might encounter. In addition, it was clear both of these guys were feeling some pressure with all the hype surrounding this big event.
A beautiful warm fall morning greeted us for the race. When at last Harrison and Caleb lined up at the start, I looked around at the small field trying to size up the competition. It was much as I had expected. There were clearly athletes of varying abilities, ranging from some fast-looking older kids, to some who were clearly on the autism spectrum, to one boy with cerebral palsy being pushed in a jogger by his coach. I thought Harrison and Caleb both had a good chance to be top-10, but then as always, I really had no idea what Harrison would even do when the gun went off.
Standing there I thought about the level of courage it took for each of these athletes to run in this race – something far beyond those who were running the regular varsity races. Regardless of what happened, I was super proud of Harrison and Caleb.
The race started and Harrison paced himself with Caleb for almost the first mile before picking up speed. At the bridge he was in fifth place. He then disappeared among the trees. I waited at the water crossing. That’s about when I realized that in the Unified Race the athletes were given the choice of the bridge or the water on the return loop. I had a panicked thought this might confuse Harrison and cause a problem.
I stood there waiting until Harrison came running back into view – now in fourth place. The third-place guy just ahead opted for the bridge. I watched Harrison’s eyes shift as he ran, back and forth from the bridge to the creek crossing, back to the bridge and back to the creek.
Suddenly his eyes fixed on the water. He rambled down the bank and jumped to a sandbar, splashing one foot in the creek and then bounded up the other side. He was now only a few steps behind third place with the steep hill looming up to the stadium entrance.
Video by Nancy Hobbs
Coaches are not allowed on the course or to run along with athletes during the races. I frantically sprinted another route up the hill, ran across the field where the race had started, dodged through spectators, and raced up a ramp into the grandstand.
I arrived only in time to see Harrison cross the finish line. I began making my way down to try to get to him. Coach Jesse came running toward me yelling excitedly, “Harrison placed third!” A podium finish. I was stunned.
Caleb’s dad appeared with a video of the finish. Harrison had entered the stadium just off the third-place guy’s shoulder, then with the crowd cheering, passed and left him behind in a sprint to the finish. I’ve since watched this video over and over, and all questions about whether Harrison should have been in this race have been put to rest.
It was a moment of triumph for Harrison, for me, and for his teammates and coaches, many of whom had experienced first-hand all the ups and downs of his entire running career. (Caleb finished 8th in the Unified, while Kyleigh was 47th for the 2A girls, and Micah was 2nd and Jeremiah 69th for the 2A boys.)
I don’t know that Harrison will ever qualify to compete in the varsity level at state. I don’t know that he’ll ever run the Unified Race again either. None of that matters. All I know is that for one fall day, we lived a dream that will stick with us forever.