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The Heart of the Race is in Corral 7

By Rebecca Fehlig the National Director, Field & Chapter Development

So my friends who don’t run hear that I’ve completed 6 marathons and usually say, “wow, you must be in really great shape.” Or “I could never do that.” And those who have run with me know my response is very appropriately, “nah, I just run slow.” Sunday morning I stood huddled in my corral waiting for the anthem to kick off a 26.2 journey will thousands of fellow runners in beautiful downtown Phoenix. As I waited in my goodwill warm up throw-aways, I looked behind me curious how many more corrals were behind me. That’s when it hit home….I was in the last corral. You see, runners are assigned to a corral based on their estimated finish time. In other words, they want to make sure the slow runners down get trampled by the clock watching, Boston seeking athletes. 

As I continued to size my fellow corral 7ers up and down since I know we’d be spending quite some time (5 hours actually) together, I started to get sentimental about how much I enjoy this group. Don’t get me wrong, I sincerely admire the stamina and focus it takes to earn a spot in the front corrals. But I personally never felt the joy from watching a clock as my gauge on a meaningful running experience. If you hang out in corral 7 you’ll see a group that is competitive, but I suspect we don’t strike you as the typical long distance runner. And I strongly suspect most, like me, are there for a much higher purpose that their clock time.

My corral mates are definitely a more ‘mature’ crowd. Many are recovering from a variety of injuries, some actually quite serious. And quite a few of us are there because we are not particularly good runners, but we want to support a cause ad agreeing to run 26.2 miles is an easy way to show your dedication for a charity and raise funds to support it. Around me are tribute signs for Cancer, MS, Leukemia & Lymphoma. This is my crowd. I run for autism…and more specifically, I run for Autism Speaks. I cannot express how powerful and uniting a marathon is amongst runners. And when you display your passion to support a mission through a sport, well, we runners just can’t help but start talking and sharing throughout the 26.2 mile trek.

The upside to having a slow race is you just have more time to spread awareness amongst thousands of new running friends. And when they see the blue puzzle piece on my shirt, many inquire I suspect the charity runners in corral 7 chose there marathons as their distance of choice for another reason beyond fundraising. For this distance does something to your mind, body and spirit that you cannot identify with until you get to mile 24. For some the infamous ‘wall’ is mile 20. My struggle begins at 24. Mile 24 is my wall, or more appropriately, it is my meltdown. If you are in the autism community, the term ‘meltdown’ is a familiar term. Often confused with a tantrum to those who are not familiar, an actual meltdown, if you ask any parent, is much more serious.

When I think of what a person with autism must experience mentally when a meltdown strikes, the following comes to mind: last resort, irritated, uncomfortable, stuck, frustrated, help me, I can’t, stop. Now please understand that I don’t intent to diminish the severity and spectrum of this neurological disorder by comparing it to a race. But in my attempt to understand those Autism Speaks serves, I can only identify with the ‘meltdown’ that I experience at mile 24. “But there are only 2 miles left. Buck up and just get through it.” Yes- that is what I think my logical reaction should be at this point, but when your body is depleted, your mind does not always cooperate. In fact, mine searches for an escape. My escape includes me romanticizing the idea if the medics taking me away on a stretcher, sharing some colorful 4 letter words, and a few times…even tears. (I am thankful that mile 24 has few photographers.

For as many a fellow runner and obviously a fellow fan of Tom Hank’s League of their Own, have shared, “There’s no crying in running.”) Training for and the race itself can be hard on your body, especially as I zone in on the “40 and 49” age category, yet it is essential for my mental health. Before each race, I go in knowing it may be my last. And I always go into it with every intention of being ‘meltdown-free’. I suspect my fellow corral 7ers are thinking about the pain felt at their miles 24 as a way to connect to loved ones’ or their own challenges-be it fighting cancer, MS or autism. Getting to mile 25…that is the key.

Just as individuals with special needs have their own desired outcomes unique to their abilities, getting to mile 25 is mine. For once that hurdle of mile 24 is behind me, mile 25 is the light at the end of the tunnel. My spirits lift, my posture improves and my pace increases. “I got through Mile 24…I can do this!” I don’t know if this is how someone with autism feels when they avoid or maybe just survive a meltdown, but I’d like to believe at the end of it, they come out feeling a tinge of hope. In fact, I imagine the reason my fellow corral 7ers decided to run in Phoenix with me last Sunday was for that one reason…Hope.

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CHICAGO MARATHON - October 6, 2012 - 

NYC MARATHON - November 4, 2012-

"Autism is like running a marathon, it isn't a sprint. Patience, focus, persistence and advocacy are the keys to providing our children a brighter future than today." - Pat Kemp

The Autism Speaks blog features opinions from people throughout the autism community. Each blog represents the point of view of the author and does not necessarily reflect Autism Speaks' beliefs or point of view.