In this presentation I am going to address the issue of how running, and being part of a specific community of committed, passionate runners has bolstered my self-esteem and enabled me to become a more socially centered person.
The foundation for much of my self-esteem rests upon two pillars that draw from specific talents with which I have been blessed: art and running/endurance sports. I would like to focus now on the 2nd pillar, that of running, as it has enabled me not just to stay physically and mentally fit, but provides me opportunities for “social fitness” as well. Specifically, membership in a particular community of people who share a passion for endurance sports and a healthy, outdoors, fitness based lifestyle, (and most of who, as far as I know, are neurotypical). Plus the opportunity to contribute to this community through competition and racing, as well as just showing up and being part of social events. This community is the AARC (or Athletic Alliance Running Club), out of Manchester, NH, which I accidentally fell into back in 2011 when an ultra-running buddy recruited me onto a male 40-and-over relay team the club was sponsoring in a 200-mile race.
Because of my long experience with running and racing, I was a valuable asset to the team from the start and was able to bring the best of my talent to bear in that first race, Reach the Beach Relay. I immediately hit it off and became good friends with the team captain (Captain John), as well as other hardcore runners who were my mates, and went on to forge additional connections from those original friendships. Being part of something bigger than myself, such as club or team, is key to my feeling a sense of belonging and connectedness. When it centers on an activity and way of life (running and fitness/athleticism) with which I am both passionate and well-adapted to excel, I feel a sense of completeness and being socially grounded. I gain a secure knowledge of who I am, where I belong, and what I need to continue striving for in the future: to be the best possible runner, athlete, team player, and friend.
Regarding Aspergers, running has been a perfect fit since adolescence, since long before I even knew I was on the spectrum. I started running seriously when I was 16 – finally a sport I intuitively knew I was good at. I wasn’t diagnosed with an Asperger profile until I was 49, but I just knew back then that running, as well as biking and swimming, were my best possible match and gateway into becoming an athlete and competitor. Running in and of itself is an “Aspie” sport – no other athletic event or activity is as simple, universal, individual or repetitive as running. One can disassociate while running, daydream, and be in their own world. And you are only being judged by the clock, which doesn’t care about your neurology, physical appearance, or facility for the sport. The numbers don’t discriminate. The main objective is to put one foot in front of the other as fast as one can, and keep doing it until reaching the finish, whether that line is pre-determined in a race, or self-determined in a training run. There is no physical contact with opponents as in football or boxing, no courting of physical danger as in downhill skiing or motor sports. And no equipment other than one’s body, and what it can do to get from point A to point B before anyone else, or as close to the front of the pack as possible.
However, at the same time running has opened a portal for me to create new friendships and connections with people with whom I might have never gotten to know or befriend had I not been a runner, and gifted with speed and endurance. People who are not necessarily on the spectrum, some of who are extroverted and mirror – at least for me – the American Dream, or American society’s image of “success” – high paying professional job, big house, spouse and kids, SUV, big screen TV, disposable income, and financial security. My personal experience of being an outlier and oddball who is still single and self-employed as a landscaper, house painter and artist, rents an apartment with no TV, does not have kids, hasn’t had a girlfriend since college, and can’t afford a car, but still uses a bike as primary transportation has been a huge challenge to my sense of self-esteem and belonging. But running and the athletic life has provided me that portal to being a valued part of a community that might otherwise be out of reach had I not received – and cultivated – this gift: being an athlete in body and mind, and living the active, athletic life in as many ways as possible.
It saddens me to see so many people on the spectrum, whether at AANE events or depicted in popular culture, who live their lives removed from their bodies and/or nature. They are missing out on the joys and satisfactions of physical exercise, unstructured play time involving creative movement, and just being outside.
So it gives me a sense of mission to model for others in my Asperger community the kind of active lifestyle that I believe is accessible to all of us, whether or not we are naturally coordinated or capable of participating in any team sports. In being an ambassador/evangelist for fitness and endurance activities like biking, hiking and running, I can pass on to others who really need it what has so generously been given me by my positive, fulfilling experiences with running and racing for Athletic Alliance, and forging deep personal connections with the running enthusiasts who constitute it.
To conclude, I believe it is absolutely imperative that each person on the spectrum transcend isolation and aloneness and find real, solid, physical communities of like-minded souls with whom they share a specific passion or talent, and forge real, physical friendships based on their calling or passion.