For most people, running remains a hobby at the end of the practice, the end of the race, the end of the day.
Not for David Finland.
“Running was a key thing for me,” he said. “I didn’t have anything to do. [Life] was kind of boring.”
He’s now completed five marathons, including the ING New York City Marathon and the vaunted Marine Corps Marathon.
Finland, of McLean, was four or five when his autism was diagnosed. The family’s doctor prescribed medications, but the drugs caused bouts of Tourette syndrome.
“They seemed to undermine his natural body rhythms,” said Glen Finland, David’s mother.
The family had also begun reading about research that detailed the positive effects of exercise for autistic children. Glen enrolled her son in soccer because his two older brothers played. The game didn’t stick.
“But boy could he run,” Glen said. “A beautiful runner. It surprised us all. We decided to drop the meds he was on.”
They called the new regimen “David Unplugged.”
At McLean High School, Finland served as a water boy for the football team. The track coach noticed Finland sprinting on and off the field.
“The speed he had,” Glen said, “it was a natural grace.”
The best medicine
At its core, autism is a disease of brain development that also affects motor skills.
The American Psychiatric Association released a new edition of its diagnostic manual in 2013 and officially changed the definition and criteria for the condition. Autism disorder spectrum, now referenced as autism spectrum disorder, better encompasses the range of symptoms and severity individuals express.
“Autism is not static,” Glen said. “It changes all the time. There’s always some new battle to fight.”
Running allowed Finland to become part of the mainstream society at the high school, an immense step for anyone who seeks a niche within the social groups of that formative time period.
He competed for the varsity cross country team and ran several distance events for the track team.
“It was huge,” Glen said. “This was his first taste of being a regular guy and all the personal freedom that went along with running.”
Running didn’t cure everything, though.
Kids still noticed some of his muscle ticks. Teammates started calling him Crazy Dave.
“That made me sick at heart,” Glen said. “He said the nickname made him cool.”
Despite any negative encounters related to the sport, Finland continued to run. He moved on to marathons in the years after his high school running debut. His first event was Marine Corps.
“I was really nervous and really not sure if I actually wanted to be there that day,” he said. “It was overwhelming. Mile number eight I started to feel more comfortable, and toward the end I realized, ‘Hey, I really like doing this.’”
When he trained for marathons, Finland ran eight to 10 miles in the evenings.
“My favorite run is along the Potomac River and running along the National Mall,” he said.
He’s planning on running New York this fall, but also wants to continue racing 5ks and 10ks, with a potential half marathon in the mix. He’s cut his training to five- and six-mile runs, plus stair workouts.
This type of routine seems commonplace for most active runners in the area, but the sport has created exceptional benefits for Finland. Running is the medication that keeps him at his best.
“My whole mind is clear,” he said. “It feels like a brand new start for me. After I’m done, I’m not thinking at all. My head is empty.”
That vacancy disappears on days when he can’t work out.
“It doesn’t feel good at all,” he said. “I’m a little bit angry. I’m a little bit confused. I’m a little stressed. There’s too much going on in my mind. I can’t concentrate.”
And if running were taken from him completely, “that would ruin my life right there. I wouldn’t be the same again.”
The need to run
Physical activity for anyone with a disability can become a challenge, one that negatively affects overall well-being.
A February 2014 study published in the Maternal and Child Health Journal looked at weight issues and learning disabilities. The study evaluated data from 9,600 people ages 12 to 17, with and without disabilities, from 2008 to 2010. Researchers found that nearly one-third of adolescents with autism qualified as obese.
And the problem could escalate.
Researchers have not yet been able to explain the rising numbers of autism diagnoses in this country. For instance, the current estimate of autism’s prevalence in the U.S. population is based on 2010 census data for 8-year-old children. Those children are identified under the pre-2013 definition of the disease, when a diagnosis referred to separate conditions such as Asperger syndrome. Although improved detection could contribute to the recent surge, that explanation does not rule out an actual increase in cases.
Academic research has shown that kids with ASD typically have fewer options for recreational physical activity, but the disease doesn’t preclude children from exercise. Underdeveloped social skills can limit participation more than physical impairments. For example, schools often host team-based athletics that rely on social cues and constructs.
“That’s the beauty of running,” Susan Pereles said. “You can do it as a solo activity. You can do it as a group.” Pereles is the field development director in the National Capital Area office for Autism Speaks, an advocacy organization that funds research and awareness activities.
Researchers have also identified positive attributes of an activity like running, including the fact that the rhythms match repetitive motions sometimes associated with autistic individuals and that the sport remains available to people throughout their lifetimes.
Even if an autistic person doesn’t always run with a group, he or she can take part in warm-ups, cool-downs and stretching.
“Running with a lot of people doing the same thing I’m doing is kind of a thrill for me,” Finland said.
He’s tried a few running groups, but he still prefers to train alone.
“I find it easier to run when you’re alone,” he said. “You’re not distracted by who’s running with you.”
Still, he hasn’t abandoned the prospect of having someone to match him stride for stride.
“Hopefully one day I‘ll have a running partner,” he said.
Until then, what Finland has acquired through running is a concrete sense of self-sufficiency. “You’re the only person you are in charge of. You don’t have anybody to tell you what to do or where to go. You’re running at your own convenience.”
That autonomy was something his mother both wanted and feared.
“It’s helped me learn to let him go,” Glen said, “to trust him more on his own.”
She wrote about that process — including her son’s first solo Metro rides and his pursuit of a driver’s license — in a memoir called Next Stop.
“On one hand,” she said, “I’m pushing him to do it. On the other hand, I’m crouching behind saying careful, careful. Parents of special needs kids find it a little more difficult because the stressors, the challenges are different.”
Many people contend that the car represents the quintessential American freedoms of movement and expansion. Runners might match their sport with the car. Finland accomplishes a bit of both.
His license plate reads MST FNSH.
Late into the Napa Valley Marathon, Alana Miller was hurting. She typically starts out strong, but fades after 15 miles. Beside her, Ashley Vaughan delivered a steady stream of consciousness that kept her friend focused on the miles ahead.
“She came up with these ridiculous stories to tell me,” Miller said, “as if I don’t know everything about every moment of her life already.”
Those coworkers, friends and now marathon partners got to that finish line.
“I heard someone say that distance running is a truth serum, I think that’s right,” Vaughan, of Falls Church, said. “Over the course of dozens of miles together, you share things you didn’t think you’d share with anyone.”
Putting themselves through a marathon together has worked for more than a handful of runners and added a layer to their friendships and relationships.
It has for Carl and Edie Belso. The Centreville residents have paired up to run 26 marathons together, side by side. Usually Edie learns more about Carl, more than she probably wants to know.
“I just babble a lot,” he said. “I have a little more lung capacity, so I go until she tells me to stop.”
“He doesn’t know when to shut up!” Edie said with a chuckle.
“I just usually talk about work — I’m an IT geek — so the conversation is less than entertaining,” he added.
That hasn’t stopped them, as they work their way through all 50 states. They’ll run at least one in each state together, though sometimes, usually at Marine Corps, Carl lets loose and runs ahead. It’s a commitment, one that may involve holding back for a partner having a bad race or throwing every conversation topic in the book out there to maintain contact with reality as the race takes its toll.
“They’re much more enjoyable when we run them together, at least for me,” Carl said. Edie agreed, though she admitted it wasn’t always fun and smiles.
“We barely talked during Rhode Island,” Edie said about the couple’s October 2013 race at the Newport Marathon. That distinction is important, because Newport was their fourth marathon in nine days, following the New Hampshire, Maine and Hartford. “It was a long nine days, and we were so happy to be done. You know that feeling you get when you just want to cry at the end of your first marathon? That’s how we felt finishing number four.”
“It was absolute sheer misery and pain,” Carl said.
It’s safe to assume they’re Marathon Maniacs, a fraternity of runners who hit multiple marathons in short stretches of time.
Years ago they were out of shape, and Edie started running more seriously until Carl realized, while cheering at one of her races, that he could run, too. It took some work for him to get up to speed.
“I used to end every marathon puking and needing an IV,” he said.
Edie would comfort him. “I’d sit there and hold his hand,” she said, “while drinking a beer.”
But it’s not all about the race, just like how a race doesn’t overshadow the work it took to get there.
“It’s just great,” Edie Belso said. “We travel together, spend time with each other. It’s going on an adventure with somebody. Sometimes we discuss problems and stuff, but when you’re running, it’s hard to stay mad and those issues don’t seem so bad.”
Carl summed it up, “the running sucks more than the problems do.”
Milestones all Around
Last fall, Dan and Mike McDonnell ran the Jackson Hole Marathon with their mother, Pat.
Dan, of Oak Hill, had run his first marathon at his mom’s suggestion — Steamtown — back in 1997. In 2013, Reston-resident Pat was closing in on her 50th state in Wyoming and Dan decided to run it with her. Younger brother Mike, who lives in D.C., came along to do his first marathon.
“We had a blast,” Dan said. “Mom and I knew it wasn’t going to be like any marathon we had done before.”
Mom loved it.
“They were doing cartwheels along the course, and just having a great time,” she said. “It was at elevation and we didn’t have time to acclimate, so we just ran together and enjoyed it. They were pricing farms and discussing what they’d trade to get cattle. They just kept encouraging me; they kept me entertained. We didn’t have any bears or moose chasing us, but you wouldn’t know it from listening to them.”
Dan: “Spectators were handing out beer, so we were drinking beer along the way. We were taking it all in for mom.”
The running bug is hereditary. The trio packed up with Dan’s 12-year-old son, Gavin, to run the Rock ‘n’ Roll USA Half Marathon in March 2014. Now, Pat is eyeing the 2015 Marine Corps Marathon.
“Running has been such a big part of my life,” Pat said. “It was special to have them with me when I finished number 50, just like it was special to be there for Gavin’s first big race.”
Last Chance to Bail Out
Marathons have also been testing grounds for developing relationships.
Matt McCoy started dating a runner, Maura, and slowly her pastime drew him in as their relationship developed. He found himself running halves and aspiring to the marathon.
A month before their wedding, they ran the Triple Lakes Trail Marathon in North Carolina, a bold move, considering their lack of trail running experience. Though the humid conditions made them focus more on finishing than running fast, they managed to endure and come out the other side ready to tackle marriage, though his finish was not a prerequisite.
“I never doubted that we’d be able to get through it,” Maura said. “I just didn’t know how long it would take. It was muggier than we expected in October.”
The couple is in grad school and, with limited time off, they aimed to find a race within driving distance from their home in D.C.
“There were different parts when one of us was doing better than the other, so we just had to lend that support and now our turn would come when we needed help,” Matt said.
They weren’t as chatty as the Belsos. Matt’s ipod died in the middle of the race in the middle of a Car Talk podcast, but he found himself enjoying the sounds of his fiancee’s footsteps.
She stuck to her own ipod.
A Little Help?
Lark Dunham, formerly of Bethesda and now of Boulder, ran the St. George Marathon in Utah in hopes of pacing her friend, Anny Rosenthal, then and now a Bethesdan, to a sub-4.
Their strategy was non-negotiable — avoid going out too hard at the beginning of a drastically downhill race and keep pushing when the course’s punishment caught up to Anny.
“She’s gone out too fast in the beginning, so my main goal was to keep her in check,” Dunham said.
Dunham kept a steady stream of encouraging words flowing throughout the race, peppered with reminders of how they would attack the course.
“After a while, we talked to cut through the delirium,” Dunham said. “As we got to the end, I started to make a fool of myself, jumping around and yelling ‘you can do this.’”
Though Rosenthal fell short of her goal, she set a seven-minute PR.
“I’m proud of her,” Dunham said. “Toward the latter parts of the race, the course flattens out and your quads are beaten up from going downhill, but she never gave up. She pushed the whole way.”
Since early on in their tenures at the Government Accountability Office, Vaughan and Miller were lunchtime running partners.
When Vaughan was in a boot, recovering from a stress fracture in her ankle, she felt the itch to run a marathon. She found her mark, or, rather, partner, in Miller.
“She was limping around in a boot, I couldn’t say no,” Miller said. “A marathon was the last thing I wanted to do — I like my knees.”
But they found that though running was tough on the body, it was good for the soul, Miller added.
They first traveled to the Memphis Marathon in 2011, but Vaughan moved ahead in the second half of the race when Miller’s friends showed up. They tried another trip to Napa in 2013 and planned to stay together the whole time.
“We spent the first seven miles talking about what we’re grateful for,” Miller said. “That got us started on a good note.”
Vaughan said that discussion was representative of the insight the pair gets from each other on their runs.
“We come from very different religious backgrounds, but over the course of our runs we found a lot of common ground in our spirituality,” she said.
Finding the Last Bit of Normalcy on the Back End of a Marathon
Amy Dunning was listening to her FM radio while she and her partner Caroline Krewson ran the Chicago Marathon. It was Oct. 7, 2001, three weeks after 9/11. Amy learned of the United States launch of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan over the radio, and Caroline heard the news when several people running ahead of them began talking about it.
“There were people waving American flags the entire 26.2 mile course and I felt like I was running in a parade,” Caroline said. “It was overwhelming patriotism.”
As they closed in on the last miles, they knew their lives would be changing. Both were reservists, Caroline Krewson with the Air Force, Amy Dunning with the Marine Corps, and they would be deployed soon. Before they crossed an ocean, they had to finish their trip through Chicago. It was Caroline’s first marathon, and Amy had been her running guru, thanks to her six marathons of experience.
Caroline Krewson started off biking along while Amy Dunning ran and then started running, working her way up the distances until Chicago.
Amy held back in the race for Caroline, but with less than a quarter-mile to go, Caroline took off sprinting.
“Even though I had never run more than 17 miles before Chicago, I felt like the crowd kept propelling me forward. I never stopped running the entire marathon except for one brief restroom visit,” Caroline said. “We ran the whole marathon together except for the final tenth of a mile… It is the only marathon we have run where I finished first. Amy helped me the whole way. She taught me so much for my first marathon that when it came time for the race, it went very smoothly.”
The couple now lives in Alexandria, and trains together.
“It’s quality time,” Amy Dunning said. “We both have busy professional lives, so being able to spend time together outdoors, which we love, is important.”
They do take some time apart for themselves.
“We start off running races together, and then I go ahead,” Amy said. “It works well that way.”
Like at last year’s Munich, Germany Marathon, Amy ran ahead after 10 miles, but when Caroline Krewson crossed the finish line, her partner was there waiting with a cold bottle of chocolate milk.
After all, you don’t have to run the whole race together.