The Rise of an Autistic Runner

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by Kevin Sheehan, intro and editing by Allison Lynch

Meet Kevin Sheehan. You might know him as the very blonde and very pale runner on the Greater Boston Track Club. This is rather common within the Caucasian runner demographic, and thus still leaves you with a lot of GBTC faces to choose from. Let’s narrow it down. Kevin has a mustache. Kevin is always meticulously up to date with weather information and statistics, just in case you want to know what Tuesday night practice will look like. His interests include checking weather from the National Weather Service website (NWS), playing golf, blueberry yogurt, shrimp scampi, and Galen Rupp (naturally). You might have gone for a few runs with Kevin, seen his name in the USATF results, or passed him by on the bleachers at a track meet. But if you’ve ever met Kevin, you can immediately tell that he is a unique character who takes running very seriously.

Kevin is a high-functioning Autistic individual who joined Greater Boston almost a year ago, and has been on the track (and XC courses) ever since. He is mainly a distance runner, but he also enjoys competing in sprinting relays when he can. Because the Autism spectrum is so vast in terms of development, it is a peculiar disability to relate to. Autism affects verbal and nonverbal communication, social interaction, and general awareness and intellectual interest. Depending on the outside stimulus and the biological capability of an autistic child, a significant amount of progress can be made in the early stages of diagnosis. Kevin belongs in the latter. When you meet Kevin, you will not view him solely as “an autistic person,” because his relationship with his so-called disability is one of appreciation, as opposed to resentment and awkwardness. Likewise, you start to appreciate his attitude, instead of relegating him into a zone of social discomfort, which is often an initial response people might have. Here, Kevin shares his story on why his Autism is actually a form of motivation, especially when it comes to running. Enjoy:

When I was three years old, I was diagnosed with Autism. As a young child, I was extremely active and loved any activity that involved motion, like going on the tire swing and spinning for what seemed like hours. I also had no fear of heights and would climb my swing set, to the tops of trees, and even over the fence around my yard. However, growing up I also had seizures at school and at home that I couldn’t control; usually three or four a month. So, I had to be put in a Special Educational class with other autistic children who had learning and speech problems like my own since the seizures caused a delay in my development.

A dual meet against East Bridgewater, junior year of High School.

In 4th grade I had made enough progress and was able to be integrated into the mainstream classroom. I started to learn more, and my social abilities and communication developed. I started to make new friends and slowly built friendships and relationships with my improved communication skills. For kids with Autism, maintaining relationships is often a difficult skill because it requires social awareness and accountability. Once college came around during my freshman year, I had broadened my social skills enough that I could to talk just about anyone I wanted to without much hesitation. From that point on, my disability of Autism became a useful strength instead of a weakness that helped me push forward and adapt to life itself. Sometimes I use this phrase when speaking to companions I knew from high school, college, and from coaching Special Olympics who have mild to severe learning disabilities. I do this to give them confidence the way my disability has done for me.

If they somehow find a cure for Autism, I would never want it to be taken away from me because it has gotten me so far in life. I don’t think I would be the same person, no matter how “normal” a life without Autism would be. It has made me an honest person who gives everything a 100% effort to reach my goals and always look up towards the endless sky. I’d like to share my story and explain just how valuable my disability has become, particularly in relation to my favorite sport: running.

It all began in 5th grade during my middle school years. My Special Education teacher suggested that I try track and field because all the other autistic students in my class were doing it too. At first, I had no idea what it was until the Special Ed teachers who were coaches explained it to me. The events I did throughout middle school were the 50m, long jump, 4x100m relay, and 100m. Track seemed to be a good fit for me because I had a variety of events to compete in; up until then I was used to not being very successful in other sports my classmates played.

The Special Olympics helped me receive recognition and, more importantly, respect from students who didn’t think I was capable of doing a sport. Back in middle school, kids would tease me because a few students thought that my Autism made me an easy target for their jokes. At that point, I didn’t really consider my Autism as a huge difference from other students; it was just a part of me, and I had never done anything wrong to the other students. However, being a part of the Special Olympics track team changed all of that. Not only did I have such a fun time being with my teammates, but it also allowed me to set running goals and fuel my passion for running that I’ve continued through high school and college up until now.

To me, running has been a successful builder and motivation tool to push myself beyond my perceived limitations. Not only has it allowed me to achieve personal records and satisfying race experiences, it has helped me achieve my life goals such as graduating high school, college, and one day grad school, because it has always added an underlying consistency to my days. Once you learn how to embrace your perceived limitations, these skills become the best attribute for you to be successful in life.

Events that solidified my determination occurred in high school when students teased me, bullied me, or even embarrassed me for how serious I was into the sport of running. During my junior year, when my school didn’t have a boys’ indoor track program but had a girls’ indoor track program, I decided to train with the girls’ team. This got me in the best shape for my outdoor season, which did have a boys’ team. This probably confused most of the girls on the team because I was the only guy who trained with them. But that never stopped me from training to get faster for my outdoor season. That instance has helped me prove that I’m not afraid to achieve what I want to do and to use my hard work ethic to get there. The more I surprise people who doubted me in the past, the more it gives me confidence to go faster and farther in reaching my life goals. That mantra got me to be a scoring athlete during my sophomore year of high school for Cross-Country, and for my junior year for outdoor track. It has also got me to be a captain for Cross-Country and track my senior year. By the end of my senior year in high school, I got an award at my school banquet for the Bulldog Pride Award: “Male Athlete that never gives up.”

My future running goal is to do the Boston Marathon. I’m going to give it a few more years so I can get some half marathon and long road racing experience, so that I feel comfortable running long distances at marathon goal pace. I also want to finish my education from graduate school for Atmospheric Science at UMass Lowell first. I figure the time commitment and focus for marathon training is something I’ll need to do outside of being in school to be a Meteorologist for the government.

My big influences who have motivated me to reach my goal for Boston are BAA’s Anthony Crudale (2:36:00 autistic marathoner), and my Uncle Robert Somers, who got me into long distance running in the first place, and did Boston multiple times in the late 80’s to mid 90’s with a PR around 3:21:00. When Anthony Crudale’s told me about his marathon times, it gave me the motivation to do a marathon. It also showed me that runners from the low end the spectrum can run for success too. My goal is first to beat my uncle’s record so that I can now own all the best running times for my family.

For the time being, I am going to continue getting faster on the roads, gearing up for cross country, and training for the track seasons. I would like to get my mile, 3k, 5k times down to 4:30, 9:30, and 16:40 with the same type of training that I have been doing since joining Greater Boston Track Club. I believe being on this team will help me reach those running goals, especially because I get to train with more experienced competitive runners who enjoy the sport of running just as much as I do.

Kevin and Allison both run for the Greater Boston Track Club. This article was originally published in the May 2013 edition of the GBTC newsletter The Wingfoot Express

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One Response to The Rise of an Autistic Runner

  1. Mike Doyle says:

    Kev you’re an inspiration bud. Keep up the great work.

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