People always ask me how I managed to run 250km across remote Iceland. To be honest I don’t understand the question. For me it was never a matter of how. One day I decided to commit to the event and 6 months later I knew I would finish it. Perhaps a better question is why did I decide to do it? Having been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) from an early age, I always felt like I was put in a box. Growing up I certainly felt pressures to behave or think in a certain way. I felt there was a lack of understanding and appreciation of ASD and what it really meant for many people on the spectrum. It has taken me a long time to feel comfortable to recognise and speak openly about my journey with ASD. Recently, I have come to appreciate that perhaps the box that people once placed me in, is the very box that allows me to achieve what other people think to be impossible.
The first 10km
I vividly remember the first day of my big challenge. I was about 10km into the 250km event. I was running alone up a huge sand dune, running into perhaps the strongest wind I have ever felt, sand and ash were lashing my face. I felt alone and worried that I had bitten off more than I could chew. I had to remind myself why I was running! After a few minutes of reflection it became clear. I was running to show myself and everyone with ASD, that no matter what people say we can do, we are always far more capable than we think. Thankfully with that thought in my mind the next 240km flew by without too much challenge.
The 2019 Fire and Ice Ultra consisted of running 250km over 6 days, across wild and untamed remote Iceland. We had to carry on our back, everything that we required for the entire week. My pack unfortunately weighed about 12kg, much heavier than most!. On average we ran 6 – 10 hours per day and during the week we encountered everything from sun, torrential rain, gale force winds and even an ash storm! Daily life was simple… run, eat and sleep. Each day, after crossing the finish line, the routine would consist of eating as much food as we could stomach, climbing into a warm sleeping bag, comparing aches and pains with fellow runners and trying to move as much as possible to avoid cramping!! There were hours of solitude and quiet, allowing me to think back to my younger years and ultimately what led me to think that running an ultra marathon would be a good idea!
Not quite the right fit
I was diagnosed with ASD at the beginning of high school but as long as I can remember, school was always a struggle for me. Although I never thought myself to be different or special from anyone else, I did always feel slightly out of place in the school environment. In the early school years my concentration span was poor, I was easily distracted and I struggled to follow lengthy instructions, which often resulted in me appearing disruptive. I remember hearing everything very literally. When the teacher said ”Look at the blackboard & I’ll go through it again” I remember laughing and saying “How can you do that? It’s solid”.
Basic social skills, making eye contact and difficulty with conversational skills made school and socialising challenging and anxiety provoking. Like many people on the spectrum, I struggled with sensory overload. Loud noises, crowds, people talking over each other, certain clothing textures, physical contact and the texture of certain foods caused me much stress and often led me to react abruptly or with some sort of compulsive body movement.
As I got older, school life became more challenging for me. Most mornings I would wake up and spend 15 minutes crying in the shower. At the time I didn’t really know why I felt so distressed but upon reflection I think I just felt out of place and didn’t comprehend why I had to spend all day in a place that I didn’t understand and that didn’t understand me. I remember saying to my mum that “I wasn’t born to go to school”. On the whole, I had mostly positive support from teachers and students throughout my time at school, however there were times when my subtle differences became apparent to other students and life wasn’t always easy. At the time I just accepted it but I now realise that those experiences definitely impacted the later years of my school life.
Although many of these challenges are still with me today, I do not find that they have a major impact on my day-to-day life. My parents, and more recently my wife, have always been incredibly supportive and pushed me to work hard to become the best possible version of myself. They never expected me to get an ‘A’ in an exam or to go to university (the fact that I am even writing this article may come as a surprise to them!). All they expected was my best effort and a positive attitude, a philosophy that has stayed with me to this day. It took me a while to realise that what I once thought to be a weakness could actually be my greatest strength. The intense focus, drive and dedication that I have developed, now allows me to achieve certain goals and objectives that other people may deem impossible.
I am sure that most people reading this article will think the idea of running an ultra marathon to be crazy! And to be honest, that is probably very fair. However to me, the challenge was far more than just a physical pursuit. Only a few years ago the idea of travelling to a new country, meeting new people, eating different foods and waking up each day to the unknown, would have been too daunting to even consider. Looking back I am proud of how far I have come and have enjoyed many conversations about the event and my charity fund raising. I am still surprised however, by the lack of understanding and awareness of ASD. Common remarks to me were “but you don’t look like you have autism” or “but you’re not super smart are you”. Whilst I do not think these comments were ill-intended, it has highlighted to me the importance of increasing community awareness and understanding of ASD and hence, I am proud to be able to support Autism Awareness Australia.
Perhaps most worrying to the people close to me, is the fact that I am now motivated more than ever to challenge and push myself to achieve things that other people see as impossible. It’s not because I want to prove anybody wrong but because I want to demonstrate that we are all capable of achieving so much more than we think and that through these challenges we can develop into better versions of ourselves.
Autistic self advocate and marathon enthusiast