I’m not big into race recaps unless its for a big (longer) race. I do find recaps from other runners helpful for longer races and I’ve used them in the past to pick out and/or prep for a new race I’ve never run before. But, this past weekend’s Dodge the Deer 5K was special because it was my 7 year old’s first 5K! My firstborn, let’s call him “Tiger,” has autism, ADHD and anxiety. He was first diagnosed with autism when he was 2 1/2. His dad and I noticed he walked in circles, telling stories and “scripting” (also known as “echolalia“). We also noticed he seemed to perceive pain differently and a few other “quirky” symptoms. We were lucky to get an early diagnosis and support. Tiger has made tremendous progress over the years due to amazing providers and educational environments. For the most part, if you met him, you might not notice anything beyond the fact that he talks a lot without regard for who he is talking to or whether that person is talking to someone else, and that he has some tics (throat clearing and the need for oral stimulation). You may think he’s just “quirky.”
Over my last 4 years of running, both of my kids (Tiger has a younger brother we’ll call “Dragon,” who is 5), have shown an interest in the sport. I have never pushed them, but they’ve seen me lacing up to go out for a run (and leave them with a babysitter, which they find endlessly exciting) many many times. They’ve joined me in stretching before runs, and a few years ago, basically as soon as Dragon could walk, I started taking them to the occasional race and giving them the option to run whatever kids’ race was offered. Both have run races with distances of up to 1 1/2 miles.
Our favorite race is my running club’s yearly kick off to spring – Dodge the Deer 5K and kids’ races. This race is a family-friendly race run on easy trails with distances of a 200 meter sprint and 1 mile option for the little kids, and a 5K for the bigger kids and adults. There are people dressed up in character costumes (Dodge the Deer, Bully the Bear, and Chase the Chipmunk), ribbons for the kids’ races, and a BBQ after.
There’s also a playground right by the start line to keep the kids busy. It’s a great time every year and is inviting to runners of all ages and paces. 3 years ago, I brought my kids (Tiger was 4 and Dragon was 2) to this race for the first time. We had talked about both of them running the sprint (I would run with them) and getting a ribbon. Both were very excited (especially about the ribbon and hot dogs – who among us isn’t motivated by bling and food?) But, when we arrived, Tiger’s sensory issues kicked in – there was loud music and announcements over the loudspeakers. There were lots of people he didn’t know. He was scared of the people in costumes, even when I told him they were just my friends dressed up. And there were the elements – April can be chilly and windy in Upstate NY. I tried to see if having his hood up to muffle the noise would help. I tried to walk him around so he could get accustomed to the environment, but, in the end, he didn’t want to run and I wasn’t going to force him. He stayed behind with my then-boyfriend who had come with us and played on the playground while I ran the with his brother. Dragon fell early into the 200 meter race and I had to carry him crying over the finish line, but he loved the ribbon. After I was done running the 5K, we all had hot dogs and went home happy.
The next year, we showed up at DTD with a babysitter and plans for Tiger (now 5) to run the mile and Dragon (now 3) to run the 200 meters again, but NOT fall this time because I assured him I was DONE carrying him during races. During the intervening year, I had brought the kids to a couple more local kids’ races and both had run distances up to 1 1/2 miles (although, Dragon still required carrying during the longer distances, much to the displeasure of mommy’s back). Tiger had slowly gotten more accustomed to the race environment and this year, he really wanted that ribbon from Dodge! He had really started to love running and, in his own words, “how it makes my body and mind feel. It makes me feel calm.” We talked before DTD about the people in costumes. He said they still made him “nervous,” but that he knew my friend John was in the deer costume and asked simply that he not have to talk to them or go near them. I assured him that was fine. That year (2016), both kids successfully completed their races – and they did the same in 2017.
At the end of last year’s race, I realized Tiger was probably ready to run the whole 5K with me and planted the seed in his head – he seemed enthusiastic. In the last month or so, as the race drew closer, I started talking up the 5K again. I started taking the kids to the track so we could practice for their race – Dragon was moving up to the mile and Tiger would run the 5K with me. Turned out, they loved the track, and it allowed me to sneak in speedwork too!
Race day approached and both were excited for their big races – for the first time they would both have a bib and be chip timed!
Race day morning didn’t go as planned. My parents were in town and we all piled into their car to go together. They aren’t from here and didn’t know where they were going and, for some reason, the GPS’ on all of our phones kept conking out. We got lost going to a place I’ve been a dozen times. It became apparent we were going to miss Dragon’s race and we ended up being in the car for way longer than expected. I didn’t handle it well. I was so caught up in what I wanted to happen for my boys on that day, that I yelled at people and got upset. That got Tiger upset. Sigh. Basically, I acted like a kid instead of an adult because I was caught up in expectations and what I had dreamed this day to look like for everyone. In the end, Dragon handled missing his race well. He was clearly disappointed but asked if we could run a race, just me, him and Tiger, later in the day, and I told him we could. When we arrived at the park, I made sure to get Dragon a ribbon from my friends to help assuage his disappointment. We did make it in time for the 5K, though! Even with enough time for the much-needed stops at the bathrooms and some quick hugs from friends before heading to the starting line. Tiger was nervous and excited. He kept saying “we should go to the start line now. I don’t want to miss the start!” way before we needed to. Despite all his nervous energy, I got him to snap a pic with Chase on our way to the start. He reminded me he was “still nervous of the people in costumes,” but handled the whole thing OK and told me he was going to “dodge the deer this year.” I hugged hello to some more friends at the start and they wished Tiger good luck. We lined up at the back so as not to be in anyone’s way and the start was announced – off we went!
This was not only Tiger’s first 5K, but it was my first race running with a child, and I didn’t know what to expect. I had told my boys the rules – no one gets left behind and I would stick with them in their respective races. I knew we would need to go slower than I was used to going (even though I’m not a speed demon by any definition) and that he may meltdown half-way through and there would be no choice but to press on. I knew we may come in last and I hoped I could teach him that was OK. Race day was even colder than usual and windy. It was a little muddy since there had been some rain the day before. As we began running, I wondered how Tiger would respond to running in these conditions? It turned out Tiger wasn’t the only one who was a little nervous, Mommy was too! The race itself was both remarkable and totally normal. I ran in the woods with my kid. We talked about all manner of things, from running strategies and rules we follow on trail runs (always verbally note when you are passing someone and on which side), to Super Mario, to what he was going to eat after the race (“a hot dog”). There were times I wanted him to go faster and found myself pushing him more than I probably should have. I talked to him about trying to run a slower, more consistent pace, rather than sprinting for a while and then walking (like kids naturally do). At one point, I was pushing him to start running after a walk break, and I heard my own voice and thought “when did I become that stage parent demanding my kid do better?” so I changed tactics. I told him to set the pace and I would follow, after all, my legs are at least 3 times longer than his! When that didn’t cure the sprint/walk/sprint problem, I told him we were going to play a game “let’s run to that flag up there.” Then, we ran to a tree. Then a sign. In between, we’d walk if we needed too. This got us through the back half of the race.
Mostly, we just talked. He hummed as a self-comfort technique in between conversations. He verbalized when he was tired and repeated “you ain’t kidding, this is a loooong race,” but he never complained, never said he couldn’t do it. Amazingly, we were never alone out there. I’ve always considered myself a “back of the pack” runner, but this was a new level of back of the pack I hadn’t experienced. Everyone was working hard, everyone was friendly, but it gave me a new appreciation for being out there for that long (our official times were 41:46 & 41:47, with Tiger getting the faster time). It was hard. But, a good hard, a rewarding hard. As we came to the end of the race, I taught Tiger about “the kick” and we sprinted across the finish line hand in hand while he high-fived Chase, Bully and Dodge in the finishing chute (something he has specifically avoided doing at this race in past years).
Triumphant, but tired, he immediately declared his hunger and we headed over to the food line. At the end of it all, I asked if he liked running that far of a race and he said “yes,” and that he particularly liked “the early lunch.” I asked if he’d like to do it again, maybe on a warmer day and he said “yes, on a warmer day. I think I could run an even better time! But, first, let’s get some more food.” Thus, a runner is born. If he never runs another race again, I know this is an experience we will both carry with us and remember for our lives. I’m so happy I got to share it with him and, selfishly, I was pretty damn happy to get on trails a couple evenings later when the boys were with my ex and get in some running time on the trails with my adult RBFs that included way less walking, but a slow, steady pace and some great conversation that didn’t include the intricacies of Super Mario.