Renne Gardner— Running With My Son

Autism He’s got the look of a runner: long, skinny legs and a slender build that shaves years off his age. Although he’s often reluctant to start a run, once I get him out the door, he skips and swerves and jumps with the joy of a newborn colt set free for the first time.

My 15 year old son, Garrett, is autistic. In the Gardner household, however, autism is not an excuse for doing anything less than one’s best, whether it be tackling classroom academics, doing chores around the house or participating in sports. Garrett is slower than most young men at processing auditory information and responding to instructions and requests. When he’s nervous or overwhelmed by sensory stimuli, Garrett will bow his head, focus his gaze intently on his hands and flap them like a crazed drummer.

And then there’s his speech: a sometimes incoherent random chattering to no one in particular. “Garrett, you’re jibber-jabbering again,” we say, to remind him that talking is something we do with other people. At times, Garrett can communicate with crystal clarity. Other times, it seems as if he’s speaking his own language. The more we question him, the more remote and jumbled the words seem to be.

Garrett was diagnosed as autistic when he was three years old. When he was four, after nearly four years in foster care, Garrett became our adopted son.

Over the last 10 years Garrett has run numerous 5K races and has joined the family for running and hiking workouts at the high school track and at local Orange County wilderness parks. Running always seems to ease his self-stimulation or stemming behavior (hand flapping) and counteract his ADHD symptoms, helping to increase his ability to focus and concentrate.

But Garrett has always been the reluctant runner. Like most kids his age, he’d rather play computer or video games than head out for a 10 mile run. Imagine his consternation when, last October, I informed him that Saturdays until March would mean getting up at six in the morning to join Dad and his friends for long runs. Instead of sleeping in and watching Saturday morning cartoons, Garrett would be training for the Los Angeles Marathon.

Long-time runners ourselves, Garrett’s mom and I firmly believed that Garrett could benefit from the discipline, goal-setting and fitness demanded of marathon training. As a 20 time finisher of the Los Angeles Marathon, I know the benefits of running and of setting running goals. I have followed the Students Run LA program closely and know how marathon training has helped many at-risk youth to stay in school and accomplish a variety of tasks.

However, I wondered if my 15 year old autistic son really could train for and run a marathon. After all, 26.2 miles is a long way for anyone to jog—and Garrett complains about the slightest discomfort caused by loud noises, flies, or a meal too quickly eaten. There is, of course, discomfort during any marathon. As I would be running with him, I knew I’d need to assist Garrett with drinking, eating and pacing. But many times it’s difficult to get my son to communicate how he feels or even if he’s in pain.

Nevertheless, we set up a running schedule and stuck to it. After some experimenting, we eventually hit on the right mixture of running and walking and learned that music and running were a great combination for Garrett. Eventually, Garrett and I ran three 20 milers as part of his training and on March 21, 2010 successfully reached the finish line at the Santa Monica Pier in a little over seven hours.

Garrett is proof that autism is not a barrier to achieving athletic success.

Our first marathon training run took place last September, on the trails of the Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park near our home. It’s a six mile run with some climbing and downhill sprinting. Though normally fearful of the wilderness—especially flying and buzzing insects— Garrett was thankfully able to focus on his running, even asking me several times how he was doing. He did great, and made not a single complaint about bugs!

Most of our weekday runs involved a mile jog down the hill from our house to Serrano Park, a large, city-operated expanse that features tennis courts, a playground, ball fields and a dirt path around its perimeter.

On one occasion, after our regular session of six loops around the park, Garrett asked me if autism is a disease. I told him his brain is just wired a little differently and that he is unique, with special talents and abilities. “It’s up to you,” I said to Garrett, “to find out what your special talents are.” I told him that some people with autism, because of their ability to focus on one thing at the exclusion of everything else, have become experts in their fields. I reminded Garrett of the story of autistic animal science professor Dr. Temple Grandin. (Garrett has been fascinated by Dr. Grandin’s “hugging machine” ever since watching the HBO movie that bears her name.)

In addition to being autistic, Garrett also has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), which often necessitates that his medications are changed, or that doses are lowered or increased. In October, at the Toyota of Orange 5K, Garrett was off of his medicine and very hyperactive. You might think that this hyperactivity could be channeled into fast running. On that particular day, however, Garrett did a lot of fast walking. “I’m saving my strength for the finish,” he said. Sure enough, Garrett was able to sprint away from me during the last few hundred yards, his head rocking back and forth like a bobble head doll to the cheering of the finish line spectators.

On the Monday after the 5K, Garrett wore his race tshirt and medal to his junior high special education class, for show-and-tell. I still don’t know which one of us was prouder of his achievement.

Toward the end of October, Garrett seemed to be getting stronger, often doing our weekday run to the big park and back (including the climb back up the hill) without stopping. I told him that, if he was getting tired, he should simply slow down. When I asked him if running is getting easier, he said it was.

During an early November training run of two loops around Lake Mission Viejo (totaling about three miles), I let Garrett run with a youth marathon training group called We Run Orange County’s Kids (WEROCK). Given his training, I estimated that Garrett should finish the two loops in 65 or 70 minutes. When he didn’t show up at the finish within that time, I ran out onto the course to look for him, worried, of course, that something horrible may have happened.

As it turned out, I needn’t have worried: my son was simply walking and slow running with the other kids. Socializing and making friends is not easy for Garrett or for anyone with autism. To see him hanging with other kids his age was an encouraging sign.

I later learned, however, that I may have been pushing Garrett a little too hard. My wife told me that Garrett had confided in her that he didn’t like running with me because I forced him to work harder and run faster. Although I had thought my discipline was good for Garrett and his training, I decided to ease back a bit and let Garrett run at his own pace. I knew that a 10K race was coming up in November and, although I thought 70 minutes a reasonable goal for him, I decided to let him manage his own speed. I resolved simply to make sure he drank and walked a little at each mile.

AutismAt Tustin’s Dino Dash 10K, regular walking seemed a good way to extend Garrett’s ability to go long distances. He finished in 66:57, for an average mile pace of 10:45. As he had done at other races, Garrett sprinted the last 50 yards or so. I started to consider lowering his 10K race goals, then remembered the conversation I’d had with my wife. Just let Garrett run like Garrett, I reminded myself.

Garrett performed well at the Dino Dash, drinking water at all the aid stations, and ended the race amazed he was able to pass some runners we know. “Do the work,” I told him, “and any goal can be achieved.”

Increasingly longer weekend runs were planned all through the months of November, December and January, culminating with a few 20 milers in February. We decided to stay consistent with our schedule of short weekday runs and long runs on the weekend. In short time, Garrett grew in confidence as he learned a better sense of pacing and how to tend to water and calorie needs.

In early December Garrett ran a 12 miler in 2:38 with the WEROCK kids. When I finished my own run, I headed back on the course to catch up with Garrett to run the last few miles alongside him. When I met up with Garrett, he was walking with one of the other kids, helping him out, supporting him, he said. Then, when we started running the last couple of miles, Garrett sprinted away just as he does at the finish of a race. I realized I couldn’t keep up with him.

At the finish, Garrett asked me, “Am I faster than you now, Dad?”

“At times,” I answered, “you certainly are.”

In January Garrett and I started joining some of my friends for long weekend runs on the boardwalk at Huntington Beach and on the Santa Ana River trail. Garrett told me it’s easier running at night than during the day—a comment that may have had something to do with the fact our long weekend runs took place during the day.

Because the river trail has painted white mile markers, Garrett enjoys running it more than he enjoys running the Huntington Beach boardwalk. Although I’ve told him that the distance from our car to the Huntington Beach pier is approximately three miles, Garrett trusts the painted mile markers more than Dad’s estimate.

Our long runs in January and February helped us finetune our ratio of running to walking. The walking breaks allowed a needed rest for our running muscles and helped extend the distance we could run. Walking each mile often helps Garrett finish the long runs.

Garrett did quite well during the opening 12 miles of our first 18 miler. He struggled during the final six miles but—with the help of walking breaks, Gatorade, gels, gummy candies, and his mp3 player—was able to finish.

Although some running experts frown on the use of music players during runs, noting that a runner could be distracted from safety considerations, Garrett enjoys listening to his tunes and commenting on songs or on what he hears on the news. He also enjoys the camaraderie of running with the guys and sharing comments about the natural and bikini-clad scenery of the beach.

Marathon morning could not come quickly enough for Garrett. In his mind, a race day means the end of Saturday morning torture-athons. Finish the marathon, he figures, and Saturday mornings are his once again. He’d be able to return to his favorite habit of staying folded in a warm blanket until hunger for bacon and peanut butter toast gets the better of him—or until it’s time for Yugioh, Dragonball-Z or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

I, on the other hand, absolutely relish our running times together. I’m not much of a Yugioh card player, video game player or fan of Saturday morning cartoons, but running is an activity that my son and I can do together. As we trained I knew that four days a week, father and son would get some time to talk about school, and goals and dreams and problems.

During our runs, Garrett sometimes told me about kids who teased him or chased him or called him names. He would tell me about girls he liked and ask me how he could get them to like him.

“Be yourself, Garrett,” I told him. “Just be yourself. Tell your goofy jokes—jokes that sometimes only you understand. Talk endlessly about the latest video game you’ve played. Be your kind and generous and friendly self.”

Because marathon training had been such a positive experience for father and son, I was determined to make sure that the marathon itself would also be a good one. Too often I’ve heard first-time marathon runners lament, after suffering through a race, “Never again!” I did not want this to be Garrett’s experience. I didn’t want this to be our memory.

Although I harbored notions of Garrett running a fast time, I realized that if I were to sustain our regular runs, first and foremost, Garrett would need to have a great experience. He needed to have lots of fun. (The idea of using the words fun and marathon in the same sentence may seem outrageous to some, but Garrett had put in his miles. He was well-trained to go the distance.)

The Saturday before the race, we attended the marathon expo at Dodger Stadium and—like 30,000 other runners— loaded up with free samples of soy milk, energy bars and sports drinks. The expo was crowded and noisy and probably not the greatest place for an autistic boy who can be overwhelmed by the sound of a passing car, a shout from kids in the neighborhood or a flushing toilet. With his mother and sister, and friends Kent and Loretta Street, we left for our hotel room near the Santa Monica Pier. Our plan was to rest, see a few sights, eat some pasta and get to sleep early. In the morning, we’d get up early and catch the bus to the start at Dodger Stadium.

Garrett counted all of his free samples, then counted them again. He read all the brochures and maps, then read them again. I was just as fastidious, laying out our running clothes and shoes, pinning our race numbers on our shirts, locating the bus pickup location on the map, setting the alarm clock and ordering a wake up call.

Garrett fell asleep quickly that night, but I tossed and turned, worrying about the next day’s run. How would Garrett react around 25,000 runners? How would he react during a bad stretch? How would I react when Garrett started to tire or bonk?

So many things can go wrong during the running of 26.2 miles: blisters, dehydration, bonking, chafing. Heck, a runner could easily fall and twist an ankle. As prepared as an athlete tries to be for any contingency, sometimes finishing a marathon is just out of his hands.

I still remember a Los Angeles marathon during which I fell behind on fluids and electrolytes and, at mile 18, felt every single muscle in both legs suddenly seize with cramps. I fell to the ground hard, unable to get up. It took large quantities of Gatorade (and several minutes of massage by an aid station volunteer) before I was able to get up and hobble to the finish line.

Fortunately I had a plan that would help us avoid a similar fate for Garrett. Eat and drink at regular intervals. Mix in a lot of walking. Enjoy the sites and the cheering crowds. If those plans happened to go awry—well, just try to keep a good attitude and take away lessons for future attempts.

Unfortunately, things seemed to go badly before Garrett had run even a single step. Because of limited access points into Dodger Stadium (and 25,000 runners all trying to get to the venue at the same time), there was nothing but “stop and stop” traffic on the freeways within five miles of the stadium. Some runners even abandoned their rides, opting to run and walk along the side of the freeway.

It was at this point that I began to panic about potentially missing the start of the race. There was no panic in Garrett, however. He simply enjoyed the ride: remarking on the skyline of downtown Los Angeles, the beauty of the sunrise, and waving to the passengers in the other buses. I took a lesson from Garrett and relaxed. After the stress of the bus ride, I thought, running 26.2 miles might be a breeze.

We entered the start chute just in time to hear an announcement regarding a late start to accommodate heavy traffic. Allison Iraheta, a former American Idol competitor, sang the national anthem. Then, we were off to the inspiring “I Love LA” by Randy Newman. (More accurately, we heard the start gun and were only able to rock in place for another 10 minutes or so before finally inching forward.)

I worried about starting out too fast and expending too much energy during the first half of the run, an approach that would leave us with insufficient energy to finish. So at each aid station where we could take water and Gatorade, Garrett and I walked a little more than we had walked while in training. We took our time and enjoyed the initial sights. After circling Dodger Stadium, we ran toward downtown, passing Los Angeles City Hall, the Cathedral of Our Lady of Angels and the Disney Concert Hall. Garrett was unimpressed.

“Isn’t this a beautiful course?” I asked him.

“I can’t wait to see Hollywood,” was his response.

A lover of movies, Garrett has often expressed interest in acting and in making films. He enjoys drawing comics or storyboards about ugly aliens shooting even uglier aliens. His Star Wars or Bionicle action figures have frequently been the stars of home videos.

We jogged into Hollywood, passing the Capitol Records Building, Hollywood and Vine and Grauman’s Chinese Theater, and viewed the Hollywood sign in the distance. This was the highlight for Garrett.

It turned out I didn’t have to worry about Garrett being overstimulated by the crowds and activities. (He actually seemed to enjoy them!) At three or four points along Santa Monica boulevard, firefighters opened hydrants or aimed hoses at the runners to cool us off. Garrett ran a bee-line toward the spray each time.

Several of the aid stations offered foods that aren’t your typical marathon treats. Because of the long time spent traversing the course, solid food was necessary to sustain our energy levels. Garrett enjoyed Snickers bars, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and potato chips as we made our way toward the finish. We high-fived as many spectators as we could. At one point Garrett even got a warm hug from a cute aid station volunteer.

But this run wasn’t all fun and games. Twenty-six miles is a lot of ground to cover for anyone, and often runners don’t finish because they’ve failed to train sufficiently or get injured or just plain run out of steam. Many hit the so-called “wall” after 18 or 20 miles.

Garrett’s feet began aching around the twenty-second mile. Because he started grimacing with pain, we decided to walk much more than we ran. At times it was difficult for me to maintain a positive tone as I encouraged Garrett to keep moving. Hundreds of runners passed us as we continued along San Vicente boulevard toward the ocean. “The pain was extreme,” Garrett later told me. (Only much later did he inform me he had to go to the bathroom!

Although Garrett was hurting during much of our final four miles, he did not quit. I would like to believe his steely resolve during this test is something he will remember when he faces other challenges or problems in his life. I hope he will simply do his best.

The turn on to Ocean boulevard (which marked just one mile left to go!) was, for me, the most thrilling part of the race because it was then that I knew Garrett would finish the marathon. One step at a time was all it took.

There was no sprinting at this finish line—just lots of hugs and a very proud dad. My son and I finished the twenty-fifth running of the Los Angeles Marathon in 7:09:34.

During the car ride home, I asked Garrett if he would ever run another marathon. He said yes. “What part was the most fun?” I asked him.

“When it was over,” he said with a laugh.

Garrett sleeps in a little later on Saturday mornings now. Though our Saturdays no longer include a 15-20 mile run, I am happy to report that father and son continue to run regularly, putting in five or six miles each weekend. Garrett is still a reluctant runner, but he will always be a marathon finisher.

As I write this piece, Garrett is starting his first day of high school. Although I am a bit unsure if the lessons of the marathon will carry over into Garrett’s life, I know one thing for certain: with focus and hard work, Garrett will achieve great things.

by Renne Gardner

ABILITY Magazine
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Articles in the Greg Louganis Issue; Ashley’s Column — Bringing Home the Gold; Sen. Tom Harkin — Where Are the Jobs?; Renne Gardner — Running With My Son; The Pearls — Stories That Demand to Be Heard; Amy Edwards — A Living Special Effect; Adaptive Sports — Getting Back in the Game; X Games Uncovered — Taking the Inside Track; Cityzen — A Whole New Voice in Rock and Roll; Adaptive Sailing — Finding Your Sea Legs; Greg Louganis — Still Diving Into Life; HIV and AIDS — Battling a Fatal Disease; Bad Boys — Cracking Down on Discrimination; Healthy Hoops — Take Your Best Shot ; ABILITY's Crossword Puzzle; Events and Conferences... subscribe

Excerpts from the Greg Louganis Oct/Nov 2010 Issue:


Greg Louganis — Interview

The Pearls — Stories That Demand to Be Heard

Adaptive Sports — Getting Back in the Game

X Games Uncovered — Taking the Inside Track

Toby Forrest with the Band Cityzen

Renne Gardner — Running With My Son

Healthy Hoops — Take Your Best Shot

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