The challenges of parenting children with special needs are real – even more so when confronting alcohol in the womb or neglect after birth. And success is never guaranteed – regardless of Herculean efforts from moms or dads.
But families desperately need hope. They need to see the underdog overcome and then achieve. Perhaps, just perhaps, the same can happen for their own sons and daughters.
That’s why a Special Olympics athlete qualifying for the Boston Marathon is a big deal. It’s happened only once – and that was 35 years ago.
Over this past weekend, my son Andrew (diagnosed with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, developmental trauma, and an intellectual disability) became the second Special Olympics athlete to qualify for the prestigious Boston event – after four previous tries in the past year.
He completed the 26.2 mile course of the Indianapolis Monumental Marathon in 2:57. That was eight minutes faster than his previous best. And more than seven minutes below his 3:05 qualifying standard.
Out of 4675 participants who finished, he placed 133rd.
Each week for the past year, Andrew logged 75 miles. He ran the soles off six pairs of shoes – enjoying every stride.
On Tuesdays and Saturdays, he trains with Personal Best Training. Although this elite Indianapolis running club pushes him athletically, my son – with his intellectual and emotional deficits – struggles to connect socially.
On Thursdays and Sundays, he runs with fellow Special Olympics athletes. Instead of being pushed, he’s the one doing the pushing – leading by example and offering constant encouragement. A win-win for all.
Wednesdays and Fridays, however, are something entirely different and uniquely wonderful.
At 6am on both days, he works out with local “tribe” of November Project – a national free fitness movement. Intense yet fun. Accepting yet integrated. And most importantly, welcoming – as members greet each other with sincere hugs. Then they offer continual motivation to everyone, no matter the ability level.
Expectations matter. The right ones.
For a young man who’s felt like an outsider most of his life, the genuine sense of inclusion deeply affects him. They high-five him. In turn, he high-fives them and they truly bond. And the result? Andrew shows more confidence and does his best to keep up with everyone.
Never underestimate the power of role models in the community. Natural supports who aren’t being paid. Their reward is watching the impact they’re making. On someone who needs to be uplifted.
When learning about his Boston qualifying opportunity, the “tribe” committed themselves to making that lofty goal happen.
Within two weeks one of the co-leaders found Andrew a personal pacer from the Madison, Wisconsin tribe. Justin Dyszelski is an ultra-marathoner who quickly understood the importance of being Andrew’s external brain for the entire three-hour race. Running with him. Tracking his time. Answering questions. Reducing anxiety.
BEFORE THE RACE
Over the two days preceding the race, Andrew forced down a quart of beet juice in small gulps. Yes, beet juice! It supposedly decreases the amount of oxygen that muscles need during a marathon – thus reducing leg cramps when runners hit “the wall.”
Then every two hours before the big day, he ate huge plates of a high-protein pasta blend. Huge bowls of brown rice and quinoa. Both are complex carbs to maximize glycogen – which runners store in their muscles for endurance. Just a little fruit, a few steamed vegetables and absolutely no meat, because it’s difficult to fully digest before the race.
DURING THE RACE
Although the temperature at race time was 46°, Andrew ran topless to avoid a sweaty – and cold – shirt clinging to his body throughout the race. Those nagging sensory issues still alive and well.
For the first two miles through downtown Indianapolis, he carefully navigated the crowd of runners surrounding him – watching several runners trip and tumble to the ground. Probably the hardest part of course for him, while resisting the impulse to start too fast.
Sunrise happened after mile three.
When I saw him at mile 10, he passed his glasses to me. Between slipping on his face and fogging up, they had become a distraction. His pacer now served as his eyes for the remainder of the race, since he couldn’t see more than 20 yards in front of him.
Energized with fire in his gut, Andrew’s pace gradually increased as he ran – looking incredibly comfortable over the entire 26.2 miles.
As the finish line approached, he sprinted past his pacer Justin – not even breathing hard after three grueling hours.
The second Special Olympics athlete to qualify for the Boston Marathon on official time standards – and the first in 35 years.
History in the making.
Inspiration for all.
Paving the way for more individuals just like him. DCP
Here’s the pre-race and post-race television commentary, courtesy of RTV6 in Indianapolis.
Here are two additional blogs about Andrew overcoming his early trauma and developing into an elite runner.
Craig Peterson publishes EACH Child every Tuesday. To subscribe, open this link and “Like” the page. EACH Child is Special: Working Smarter Not Harder to Raise Every ONE
To follow Craig’s journey in raising his six children with special needs, click here: Adopting Faith: A Father’s Unconditional Love
To follow my son Andrew’s inspiring story, “Like” his special Facebook page Andrew Peterson Goes for the Gold