People give me strange looks when I say I have autism. Most
people don't know much about it except what they saw in the movie
Rain Man, in which Dustin Hoffman's character has the disorder.
By definition, autism is a condition characterized by repetitive
behavior, language dysfunction and an inability to interact
socially. I explain it like this: Everything is in my head--all
the thoughts, emotions and dreams anyone might have; I just have
trouble getting it out.
Running helps me. The repetitive act of putting one foot in front
of the other helps me focus my thoughts. It's the perfect
exercise for people with autism: It's solitary, and it requires
determination and stamina, traits that most autistic people have.
I'm 24 now, and I started distance running about seven years ago.
In March, I got my first marathon victory when I won the Napa
Valley Marathon in two hours and 42 minutes. When I run well, I
feel as if people accept me. That's why I train so hard. Almost
every morning I'm out of the house by 5:30. I usually jog 15 to
21 miles through Nevada's Red Rock Canyon, which is challenging
because of the hills. In a typical week I'll cover 115 miles.
Last December, I became the first autistic person to graduate
from the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, and I now work in an
art gallery. I'm more functional than a typical person with
autism, mostly because I was only 18 months old when doctors
diagnosed the disorder. If I hadn't received therapy at an early
age, I may have ended up in an institution.
Another characteristic of people with autism is that they try to
master everything they do. That's me. I want to be the best
runner I can be. I'll watch tapes of marathons all day and all
night, over and over, to try to learn about strategy and
technique. My goal is to finish a race in two hours and 20
But winning marathons isn't the only reason I like to run. The
sport has helped me make close friends, which is hard to do when
you have autism. Running has even changed my family life. My
father died in 1994 from cancer, and after a race two years ago
one of my running partners, a man named Deloy Martinez, saw my
mother and asked me who she was. I introduced them--and 12 months
later they were married. My running partner is now my stepfather.
You can see why, for me, there's a lot more to marathon running
than crossing the finish line.
COLOR PHOTO: PAUL JASIENSKI