Because of Kraker and Diaz, Caldwell Runs

Sometimes the world of OCR can touch the lives of those who are not part of that world.  This is the continuing story of my son Aaron and his journey towards a better world for himself and others.  You may recall that Aaron is autistic.  He has a dream to be a part of something big.  Just like us.  That’s what I love about OCR.  Everyone is welcome.  Everyone gets a shot.

Last year I started training Aaron in OCR.  I invited him up on the mountain at Palmerton where he saw it all with his own eyes and heart.  This year he is halfway to OCR.  He runs cross country on his high school team.  His progress is nothing short of phenomenal given the obstacles of autism he has to overcome.

He learned a lot from me on how to endure, overcome pain, and work hard.  He can still do all his pullups and pushups.  Now he is learning to run.  Thanks to Natural Running coach Richard Diaz, I take everything I learn from him and apply it not only to myself, but especially to my son.  Since he is a new runner without bad habits, I get to see him grasp and quickly apply critical running techniques like posture, lean, and foot strike.  I watch him, correct him, video tape him, and critique him.  He’s a sponge.  Thank you Richard.  One day Aaron will attend your clinic and I know you will not only be pleased, you’ll also help him shave another minute off his time.  Aaron might not know it, but because of you, he is a runner.  He has a big dream to compete in the 2020 Olympics.

Yesterday I met up with Brakken Kraker.  He just tore up the Citizen’s Bank Park Spartan Stadium Sprint with a blistering pace just over 24 minutes.  After talking for a few minutes, it became easily apparent why he didn’t even break a sweat.

Besides being a super nice guy and super fast, we have a few things in common.  I was curious why he ran CBP instead of Wintergreen.  He told me he was an 800m runner in college, so he loves the speed.  He said he would take a sprint like this over a mountain any time.  I told him my son Aaron also runs the 800 in winter and spring track and currently runs cross country at high school.  Then I mentioned that Aaron is autistic.  That really made Brakken’s eyes light up.  Turns out he is a special ed teacher.  So he kindly offered to help Aaron in any way he could.  That just made my day.

Aaron - 2nd from Left

Aaron – 2nd from Left

What I also did not know is that while I was having this conversation, my buddy behind me snapped a photo of me and Brakken.  He IM’d it to me and I immediately forwarded it to my son.  That was a real treat.

Brakken Kraker meets the OCRMudmaster

Brakken Kraker meets the OCRMudmaster

Perhaps one day Aaron will join me on the course.  Right now he is not allowed.  Coach’s rule.  But he is getting plenty of run time on the open course, single track, hills, and flats.  He’s learning his technique from the best OCR running coach Richard Diaz.  He’s learning his body weight training skills from the OCRMudmaster.  And soon, he’ll put it all together from the top elite OCR athlete, Brakken Kraker.  This grateful dad thanks you all.

Shoe Lost – Determination Gained

Abebe Bikila of Mendida, Ethiopia was added to his country’s Olympic team at the last minute just before they boarded a plane to the 1960 Rome games.  Bikila was the replacement for the team’s star marathoner.  The team sponsor, Adidas, gave Bikila a pair of shoes, but they were uncomfortable.  So Abebe Bikila ran shoeless.  This was no problem for he trained his whole life running barefoot.  He won the marathon in a record time and took home the gold medal.  During an interview, he explained why he ran barefoot.  “I wanted the whole world to know that my country, Ethiopia, has always won with determination and heroism.”

Yesterday afternoon my autistic son, running for the JV team in the 400m sprint, took his mark for the race.  The gun fired and immediately Aaron’s left foot came entirely out of his shoe.  He ran a few steps, stopped, and turned back around in dismay to see his empty sneaker.  The hearts of the spectators, teammates, and officials just sank.  No one felt it more than his mother and I and his grandfather as we stood by helpless.  I stopped the video recorder.  Deep down we expected to see our boy have a meltdown like he did so often when he was younger.  Many Aspies deal with emotional overload in this way.

Nearly ten seconds had elapsed since the start with the rest of the racers now nearly 100 meters ahead.  Aaron jammed his foot in and took off.  I re-started the video.  The voices of the crowd rose as Aaron miraculously started to catch up.  By the third turn he was in close contention.  He finished the race a mere fraction of a second behind third place.

Emboldened by this performance, the coach decided to have Aaron run again in the 200m coming up an hour later.  He’d never run that distance before. It was a bitter cold and wet afternoon.  But everyone stuck around to see what the kid would do with a second chance.  He won the heat.

Later that evening as we reflected on the meet, I was afraid to bring up the shoe thing.  I still did not know how he would react and I certainly did not want to cause my son to melt down.  But the conversation was as natural and positive as could be.  He was engaged and excited about what he had done.  So I asked him what was going through his head at this precise moment as I handed him the short blip of video showing him losing the shoe.  The video burst repeated over and over.  Aaron laughed but said nothing.

“I didn’t know what to think.  I thought I would have been disqualified.  But when nothing happened, I got my shoe and ran.  I knew it took me like nine seconds to get going since the gun so I had a lot to make up,” he said.

That number meant all the difference to Aaron.  He knew what his regular 400m time was and he had every intention of hitting it despite the circumstances.  He typically finishes between 0:59 and 1:00.  He finished yesterday in 1:09.  He knew in his heart he could have beaten the field had he not lost his shoe.  He proved it an hour later in the 200m.

Aaron 400

We talked about it again as I drove him to his youth group meeting that night.  “This has been such a good year for me in high school,” he said.  “I determined to do these things and they have all happened for me and I am so glad.”  He mentioned his many activities, clubs, and teams that he has engaged in this year, things we thought impossible a few years ago.  But yesterday, Aaron’s determination made him the hero of the meet.  As parents, my wife and I have to keep reminding ourselves and determine to put into practice that our Aspie son can do whatever he puts his mind to.  He is not locked in a world of his own.  There is no stereotype autistic person.  So we must always forget the past and realize that right now, despite the unknown, Aaron simply…can.

Fast Sets Up ‘n Coming Track and OCR Star

Delayed or diminished development is common among people on the autistic spectrum.  In Aaron’s case, his affected areas are physical and social.  Although in many ways he is physically like any other typical teenage boy, there are differences.  For instance, he is extremely aware of his body.  Each visit to the doctor requires more time than we expected because Aaron needs to dig in to all the details by exchanging volumes of information with the doctors.  This actually pleases the doctors because they appreciate the depth of his self-awareness as well as his ability to articulate his symptoms and responses to treatment.  This is in stark contrast to my other autistic son who says absolutely nothing to the doctors, usually requiring an advocate to assist in expressing his medical needs.

About two months ago, Aaron emerged as the top-seeded varsity chess player at his high school.  Like with his physical issues above, chess is another area where he really dug in.  He quickly out-learned, out-studied, out-paced, and ultimately out-played everyone else both at school and within the league.  For the first time in his life, Aaron expressed his ego when I asked him how a particular match went.  “Dad, I am the best player at school.  How do you think it went?” he replied.  He said it as if there was any other possible outcome.  I was delighted.  Aaron felt good about himself and his accomplishment.

A few weeks later he came home and announced another startling revelation.  “I knew I was fast.  But I didn’t know how fast.  But my gym teacher wants me to join track right away.”  This from a kid who does not run except maybe once or twice a year with his parents in a 5K just because it’s fun.  Now all of a sudden he’s a track star?

Well, some Aspies can be like that.  Aaron gets armed with knowledge, encouragement, and ego and he believes he is, by foregone conclusion, the greatest.  We (his mother and I) brought him slightly back down to earth and explained the steps to go through to back up his boast.

He joined the team and started doing trials for the coach.  Sure enough.  He is fast.  How fast is he?  Not as fast as he will be once he starts getting coached, trained, and strengthened.  By next season, if he sticks it out, he could be a star athlete in  mid-distance running (400m and 800m).

In the meantime, that physical thing has come back to haunt him.  He is six feet tall and weighs about 140.  Last weekend he was playing Knockerball.  Getting knocked around was an understatement for him.  Much larger kids whacked him around like a bowling pin.  Because of his slight frame, he was not snug inside the ball so he suffered double from the initial impact as well as the internal bouncing around (almost like whiplash and limbs crushed against the body).  He came home sore and with an ice pack on his neck.  While his injuries may have been somewhat exaggerated due to his acute body awareness, they were nonetheless real and sustained for a few days.

His conclusion was to start bulking up.  Which brings us full circle to OCR training again.  Now Aaron has motive to add muscle not just for play time, but also for track speed.  With targeted training, he’ll reap the benefits at the meets and on the playground.  His commitment to OCR is still undecided.  His coaches may ask him to defer until the season is over.  Runners gotta be runners without injury.  And with OCR, well, injury can be par for the course.  But I am hopeful, still holding onto some free race passes for him to join me this summer at Palmerton, Tuxedo, and CBP.  One thing is for sure, if he shows up, he will be fast, leaving his old man in the dust.

New gear for track

Fast gear for track speed

The Energy of Austism


In science class, we learn that that there are two kinds of energy – kinetic and potential.  The differences in life and on the course are profound.  For autistics, it’s another obstacle.

My son often sees himself as a budding expert.  Music is his current focus.  “People just have to give me a chance.  I’ll be great,” he says.  We tell him the “secret” is practice, practice, practice.  He says he has all the greatness bottled up inside.  Someone just has to give him a chance.  He does not understand the difference between doing and desiring, kinetic and potential.

I say to him, “People will judge you and remember you for your actions.  Not your words.  Don’t tell me how great you are or want to be.  Show me.  Turn that potential into action.”  At this time, neither of us are on the same page.  We don’t understand each other.  He does not grasp this concept.  I have a better understanding of where he is coming from.

Growing up I kind of had the same problem.  I had a tremendous desire to excel in sports and music.  But I did not like to practice.  I truly believed that the stronger the desire, the greater the chance of success because surely people would recognize that admirable trait in me, give me the big break, and then magic would happen.  But it never did until much later in life – after I learned the hard lessons and got over the self-inflicted hurts of rejection.  Will Aaron ever get there?  I don’t know if his autism will block it or not.

In the meantime, he came to me one night and said he wanted to get back into physical training.  But all the wrong words came out of his mouth, starting with – “But.”  I refrained from the usual lecture of kinetic/potential.  I needed a new approach.  I’m convinced of his potential.  He’s long, lean, and fast.  His body is hungry for growth and that showed during the summer as we trained together.  He got stronger.  He could be explosive.  He overcame a lot of autism-related obstacles.  We still haven’t gotten to the mud part.  Now, cold seems to be a factor.  He is convinced that the cold weather gives him severe headaches.  Now we may have to strike cold water obstacles too.

Kinetic/potential energy issues are not limited to people on the autistic spectrum.  I see people freeze all the time at obstacles.  Fear often induces a dead stop on the course.  That potential energy can either translate into burpees, try, or do.  Misdirected energy is nearly always harmful however.  The best performance is always pure directed energy that overcomes the obstacle.  Mixed energy often results in injury, bruised egos, and latent energy.

That latter is a negative energy that builds up over time.  It creates an electro-chemical reaction in the brain.  Every time it is stimulated, it invokes a memory of the first instance.  Your brain will remember the first time you injured something.  Every emotion, every pain, every circumstance.  Before you ever try again, all of that comes back and activates.  You re-live the entire event.  The latent energy builds up and turns into an opposition to potential.  At this point, you can either give-up or try another way to get to kinetic.

The best way is to let go.  I had to let go of all that negative crap built up over a childhood of failure.  The mean kids and adults.  Hurtful words.  Rejection.  Lost opportunities.  I had to let go of the feelings I had at the time of some injuries.  Like, “How could I have been so stupid?”  I learned this valuable lesson from a yoga master.

Will it work for my son?  I will try.  His brain is wired differently so he may not get it.  But I will try.  I want him on the course.  But my desire and potential for him only goes kinetic when he does.  My battle is to keep the latent, negative energy demons away from us.  Forget the last time and move forward.

Spartan Race Citizen’s Bank Park Philadelphia: Race Review

The Phillies rallied strong after the All-Star break.  Even in last place, they swept the Mets at the end of the season.  That bodes well for the Phils next year as they also picked up a lot of young talent.  It probably spelled doom for the Mets as they got swept again to lose the World Series against the Royals.

There was similar doom and drama at the Philadelphia Phillies’ Citizen’s Bank Park Spartan Race Stadium Sprint on Saturday, November 14, 2015.  This race review comes to you from the perspective of a course volunteer.  I have served at many OCRs, but this was my first stadium event.  It was a real treat for this Phillies fan to spend the day on the right field warning track.

Spartan Race Rope Climb - Last Obstacle!

My wife and I arrived for the afternoon shift and headed towards the center field service tunnel.  The first thing we saw was the outdoor (parking lot) portion of the course.  The spear throw was set up at the left field stadium corner.  Strong winds gusting to 40mph that day accelerated around that corner and the Bernoulli effect tossed the spears like toothpicks.  Before we could see what was happening, we could hear the missed spears clanking on the asphalt.

We entered the tunnel, went through bag check, and registered with Lizzy Dickey, the volunteer leader.  She assigned us to Zone 4, gave us lunch and a t-shirt, and then we waited for our crew chief to bring us out.  We deferred our races for next year.  An email from will come later to confirm it.

Zone 4 was the end of the course and included the cargo net A-frame, four 6-foot military walls, the rope climb, and the gauntlet.  My wife and I took the rope climb for the afternoon.  We noted during assignments that many volunteers with first-timers and also in their first year as OCR athletes.  I think that’s great to see such enthusiasm and support as newcomers go all out for this sport.

But I also noticed that with this newness comes the expected inexperience.  I’ve posted many times before on this subject so on with the review.

Technique. It's all technique!

Each obstacle had a crew chief armed with a walkie-talkie.  So if anything happened like an injury or other incident, help was imminent.  Fortunately, aside from a few inevitable rope burns, our obstacle was incident-free.   About thirty ropes were available so our job was to keep the athletes moving down the line to an open rope.  This is where things got interesting.

I have to say that better than 90% of the afternoon athletes failed this obstacle.  Technique varied all over from those who relied solely on upper body strength to haul themselves up (no legs/feet on rope), to one girl who obviously learned her moves on those silk curtains you see in aerialist performances.  Very few used the S- or J-hook techniques.

My wife said that the number one comment she got all day from athletes was, “Which way is the burpee mat?”  They didn’t even attempt to try to climb.  Well, if the backup wasn’t too bad, I would encourage some of them to take a moment and learn the basics.

Encouraging climbers. You got this!

It started out like this.  “Show me your technique,” I said.  They either said, “I don’t have one,” or they tried to haul themselves up using just their arms.  By the end of a race, I knew they would not get up that way.  The best outcome was a promise to practice and a “thanks for showing me.”  I also lamented that most folks I talked to did not have a rope to practice on.

As the very last athlete finished the course,  he came through with a dedicated SGX trainer by his side.  I went back to the military walls to run it with them and encourage them.  At the finish line gauntlet, the crew of about fifty volunteers lined up to cheer him on.  Cameras clicked and live video projected him right to the Jumbotron.  The latter was a very cool feature to watch the action throughout the day.

Ropes on the Jumbotron

Right after that we started course breakdown.  The crew chief gave us clear instructions and we got right to work on our obstacle, then helping palletize the hundreds of banners, flags, and signs around the stadium.  This all took less than an hour.  Then we checked out out with Lizzy and were on our way home.

The Hardest Obstacle

Aaron on his first OCR course - Spartan Sprint Palmerton, PA 2015

Aaron on his first OCR course – Spartan Sprint Palmerton, PA 2015

The hardest obstacle by far for me is my son. I’m training him for his first OCR. He is autistic. One could take the dogmatic approach and train him like anybody else with autism. But that is a myth. Autism is a spectrum disorder and that makes everyone with the disorder different. Therefore, the obstacles are infinite. And these obstacles are not just mental and physical for him. I am also an obstacle. As his parent and trainer, my knowledge of his capabilities and limitations is limited. Each step is a discovery. So, as with anyone on the autistic spectrum, the approach to training is pragmatic. We try what works, discard what does not. And then, it might all change.

My wife and I knew right away that mud would be an issue. My son has a sensory issue with mud. So, we all agreed to remove that obstacle from his initial training. Sensory issues are common on the autism spectrum. Since sensory overstimulation is common on the course, this could lead to undesirable consequences – like a shutdown.

Social skills are also difficult for him. Expressing feelings and problems are a major struggle. So when he shuts down, communication comes to a stop and the guessing game begins as I try to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it. Cuts and scrapes surprised me as the next obstacle. My son got a little bloody scrape and shut down. I thought training was over before we barely started. “You can’t do OCR if you can’t handle cuts,” I said. That broke the spell. He became angry. “Don’t tell me I can’t. I’m tired of everybody telling me I can’t do this. Wait another year and we’ll see. I’m doing OCR!” And that was it. He made up his mind. We trained again the next day as scheduled. He fell, got a scrape, stood up, and instead of shutting down, pointed to it and said, “See. I’m fine.” And on we went. I did a little victory dance.

He surprised me a few other times. It seems that when he sets a goal, nothing stops him. Not even things that would normally shut him down. We started his training with the basics. Pushups, pullups, situps. He couldn’t do

Mud on the face - like this - is a major sensory issue for some autistics

Mud on the face – like this – is a major sensory issue for some autistics

any of them. But he wanted to. He had a goal. “I will do at least one pushup and one pull-up unassisted in the next thirty days,” he said. And he did. I just didn’t really expect it. He waited until the end of some very strenuous training sessions to do them. More victory dances. I even called my wife out to see him do it again. And he did.

Encouragement like that gives me hope. I can see the OCR spirit in him. The strength. Competitiveness. The will to overcome. But there are still more obstacles ahead.

We wanted his first OCR opportunity to be as a volunteer. That way, when nobody was around, I could take him on obstacles and train him, but it rained that day and I did not take him with me – MUD. He agreed it was a good decision. Now the season is over, school started, and the obstacle of time crept in. His training skidded from six days a week for an hour each to maybe two or three days a week for twenty minutes. OCR will have to wait.

Perhaps you have or know of autistic children. I encourage you to train them. They are out there on the course. They are champions of the mud just like us. They may need a special kind of help and thankfully there are lots of wonderful volunteers on the course who do help. I see the tears of the parents, the smiles of the children who otherwise rarely show any emotion, the gasps of the onlookers as they see these kids do the impossible.

That is by far the hardest obstacle of all. The will to never give up. Every meltdown raises that question. But the power of the human spirit of my son always proves that we will both try again. I’m confident we’ll see you on the course.

Aaron placed second in his age category at the Freedom 5K Aaron placed second in his age category at the Freedom 5K