By Hal Walter
“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, which features a big hill.
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 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. Stay tuned …