[Editor’s Note: This Community Voices submission was written by U.K. based ultrarunner, Ishmael Burdeau.]
As I write this, it’s only a few days to the start of the 2023 UTMB, and while I am interested in following the big names of the sport as they circle Mont Blanc, for me the real excitement will be tracking Zach Bates, the 21-year-old autistic superstar of ultrarunning. Like Zach, I too am an autistic ultrarunner. [Editor’s Note: Zach withdrew from the 2023 UTMB about 50 miles into the race due to illness.]
This year’s Western States 100 saw incredible performances by both Zach and John Almeda, who identifies as non-verbal autistic, and it’s hard to describe the emotion I felt watching each of these runners enter the track at Placer High to finish the race. For many, the stories of Zach and John might look like two young people “overcoming” their disability to achieve a goal that most would have thought impossible. But I’d like to take a little time to explain why this story is a lot more complicated and interesting.
Let’s start by looking at why autism is defined as a disability. I grew up thinking a disability was something that was easy to spot from the outside, maybe something physical like a visual or mobility impairment. But autism isn’t a physical disability and it’s not something that you can work out just by looking at someone. No, our disability is most commonly a hidden one, one which fits very well with the social model of disability.
The social model, unlike the medical model which I grew up with, considers that disability is created by the way society is designed and run. As an autistic person, I face huge barriers when it comes to “fitting in.” But I have found that trail running and ultrarunning doesn’t limit me in any way — in fact, running sets me free.
In this article I’d like you to explore with me why autism and ultrarunning are natural allies, and why many of the characteristics of autism — what mainstream society considers “disabilities” — are uniquely suited to the sport of ultrarunning and are even a source of strength and a competitive advantage. As we can see from the examples of Zach and John, as well as elite runners like Mikey Brannigan, who broke the four-minute mile in 2016, autistic athletes perceived as having higher support needs are capable of really extraordinary feats in the world of running.
But what makes running — and, I would argue, ultrarunning especially so — such a great sport for so many autistic people? Let’s break it down.
Struggles with Social Interactions and Communication
Like so many other autistic people, I find that social interactions, small talk, and day-to-day communication are generally a struggle. While I am fortunate in that I can communicate very well in some situations — for example when discussing a “special interest,” but more on that later — I can feel lost and adrift in most social settings. As a solo activity, running gives me a much-needed escape from the pressures of interacting with others. When I am out running there is no need for me to “mask” or behave as others expect.
But let us not forget that most autistic people do crave human company and interactions, it’s just that it’s an area where our skills can be weak. As a result, many of us struggle to find and keep friends. At school we were often loners, a habit we carry on into adulthood.
Despite this, many of us find ready-made friendship and connection in the ultrarunning community. Ultrarunning is already a community of outsiders, but it’s also one that is warm, welcoming, and non-judgmental. As an autistic person, I feel safe and accepted by the ultrarunning community.
Part of the official diagnostic criteria for autism, as laid out in the “American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fifth Edition (DSM-5),” refers to “highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus.” In autistic culture, these are typically known as “special interests,” which can be highly specific, very deep, and long-lasting.
In the neurotypical world, deep interests are often considered “unhealthy,” and even as children we are encouraged to develop a wide range of fairly shallow interests. Autistic minds just don’t work like that. Interests can quickly evolve into what society would call “obsessions.” But it’s our special interests that are a deep source of autistic joy.
Exceling in a sport as obscure, demanding, and unrewarding as ultrarunning requires a real passion and love for the activity. Ultrarunners, autistic or not, can all relate to the feeling on Monday morning at work when asked about their weekend. Even if we have just spent it running UTMB, there are few at the office who really want to hear about it, even if a few feign interest. Thankfully when I am lucky enough to spend time with others in the ultrarunning community, I can shamelessly info dump at length without fear of rejection, boredom, or derision.
Autism, Dyspraxia, and Mainstream Sports
In common with many others in the autistic community, I grew up hating sports. I just did not have the skill to hit, catch, or kick a ball with anything like the ability of my classmates. Although I probably wasn’t dyspraxic, moving my body in a graceful way was just something I wasn’t good at.
Most mainstream sports also involve some sense of anticipating the actions of others, being able to predict where a ball or a person will be milliseconds in the future. Reading the intentions of others is an important part of many team sports and even individual sports such as tennis or martial arts. Part of what makes running such a joyful experience for me is its simplicity, both in terms of its physical demands, but also the lack of emphasis on working out the intentions of others.
In common with many autistics, I can be highly sensitive and averse to unwanted physical contact. Even unwanted eye contact can invoke a sense of violation or intrusion. For many mainstream sports, physical contact is a key feature of success, and eye contact can also play an important role.
Aside from a potential handshake or maybe a hug from a fellow runner at the finish line, I know that in ultrarunning my physical boundaries are safe. I can still recall the countless hours I have spent in long ultras, deep in conversation with other runners, without ever needing to make eye contact.
Routines and Repetition
An important part of becoming a successful runner is sticking to a routine. Success in endurance sports is typically the result of many years of consistent effort — making a plan and sticking to it. For many autistics, routine and repetition are important for our sense of safety and can even bring us happiness and joy. Many neurotypicals will express confusion and doubt about the very act of running — “but it’s so boring,” we hear them say. Is running boring? On the contrary, I can’t recall a single time when I have felt bored while on a run.
In more than 30 years as an endurance athlete, I have drawn a great deal of happiness and contentment stemming from the routines that come naturally as part of my “special interest.” The DSM-5 diagnostic criteria for autism describes these as “restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities,” but it is this very repetition which is a source of enjoyment.
From the macro to the micro, few things give me more pleasure than creating a training plan and sticking to it. Although I live in an area with beautiful trails in every direction, for some reason I find myself endlessly repeating the same 5.2-mile loop every day — and on some days, twice — never tiring of the endless and soothing repetition of my routines.
One of the more stereotypical features of autism, especially in children, is “stimming,” which is another term for “self-stimulatory behavior.” Examples of stimming in autistic children and some adults might include hand-flapping, rocking, or spinning.
But we need to understand the purpose of stimming because, if we are honest with ourselves, almost all of us stim — whether we are autistic or not. Less obvious examples of stimming might include twirling a piece of string, nibbling on a pencil, or tapping one’s fingers on the table. Stimming in public is generally frowned upon, and from an early age, children are often punished for stimming.
Yet there are excellent reasons for stimming, and it’s often important to maintain our wellbeing. You see, stimming acts as a stress reliever and helps us deal with sensory or emotional overload. Going back to the social model of disability, autistic people are often highly anxious due to the pressures that society puts upon us.
For me, running is the ultimate stim, and the full-body, repetitive nature of the activity does wonders in soothing my anxious, autistic brain.
Tenacity, Resilience, and Focus
One of the more unusual features of the autistic mind is our tenacity and resilience in the face of overwhelming odds. I am not sure if there is a single reason for this, but my own experience suggests that we become used to being told our way of doing things is wrong from an early age. We often experience higher than average levels of trauma as a result, and we have general struggles with “fitting in.”
As a result, we tend not to give up easily and have very high levels of tenacity and resilience. Every ultrarunner knows that the sport is at least 90% mental, and my own observation is that this grit gets us to the finish line. I cannot speak for other autistic runners, but I have yet to experience a DNF in a running race.
The ultrarunner and naturalist, Bernd Heinrich, in his book “Why We Run,” hypothesized that early humans had a distinct advantage over the rest of the animal kingdom. It was not our intelligence that enabled us to survive, he argued, but rather our ability to focus our attention to a single goal and maintain this state of mind for extraordinary periods of time.
Autistic hyperfocus is legendary, and the parents of both Western States 100 finishers John Almeda and Zach Bates put the success of their children down to their ability to focus. In my own life, there have been few more joyful experiences than those I have felt hours into a 100- or 200-mile event, focused purely on my own breathing, movement, and footsteps.
Autistic Traits are Human Traits
For many, the word “autism” is still a big, scary thing, invoking fear, pity, or possibly shame. Even today, many still hold outdated ideas and prejudices about autism. Yet the reader may identify with many of the examples given above and wonder if they too are “on the spectrum.” It’s vital to understand that all autistic traits are also general human traits.
I was fortunate to have my autism officially confirmed later in life, but for many — especially women, people of color, and others marginalized by our society, receiving a diagnosis and support are sadly rare privileges.
Autism is a spectrum condition, which means not that we exist on a scale of one to 10, but rather that our disability is linked to a cluster of some or all of the features described above, as well as a few I haven’t touched upon. Understanding my own autism has given me a much deeper appreciation of the close links between how my brain works, the joys of ultrarunning, and the challenges of surviving and navigating in a neurotypical world.
Call for Comments
- Are you or is someone close to you an autistic ultrarunner?
- Can you relate to the ways Ishmael has highlighted in which the sport suits an autistic mind?
Links to Further Reading
- 19-year-old achieves ultramarathon dream of running 100 miles
- For Many With Autism, Running Is A Sport That Fits
- Michael Brannigan
- Running Fast and Overcoming Obstacles Continues to Define Zoe Jarvis
- How Running Has Been A Gift
- Autistic Runner Zach Bates, Youngest Finisher at the 2023 Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run
- Tommy Des Brisay, a young runner with autism, finishes first marathon
- Run! Run! Run! Stim! Stim! Stim!
- Chasing Olympic Dreams: From Autism to 2:27 Boston Marathon Triumph – Meet Ryan Gehman
- Me, Autism, Mental Health and Running
- Runner with Nonverbal Autism Completes 100-Mile Race, Isn’t Done Yet
- Zach Bates: Ultramarathoner with autism inspiring others after crushing 100 mile goal
- Toward the Finish Line
- Autistic? Non-Verbal? No Problem