Earlier this week I was struggling with what to write for this article. That is, until I heard the radio story about a young Island mother “celebrating” her one year anniversary with Young Onset Parkinson’s disease, and how she was going to run her 2nd PEI Marathon 5K the weekend of October 16-18. Her story got me thinking about how running transforms people.
At the elite level of the sport, an east African runner winning a major marathon not only transforms his family’s life with prize money equivalent to a Canadian winning the lottery, plus he also transforms his entire village. Most of these runners transform their impoverished villages by buying livestock, building medical care facilities, or erecting schools.
On a more local note, I don’t need to look any further than local runner Alex Bain. Most runners in the PEI running community know of Alex and how fast he can run. For those of you who don’t know him, he is a remarkable athlete who also happens to be autistic. The first time I met Alex, a little more than 10 years ago, it was hard not to notice that he liked to keep himself separate from the other runners before the race and he would distance himself from other runners once he crossed the finish line.
Over the next several years Alex began to change. He still kept to himself at the start of a race, but that is not unusual amongst runners. Nerves, jitters and wanting to focus even make me unsociable at times. Janet Norman-Bain, Alex’s mother, started noticing something at the finish line. “The big thrill for me was the first time I watched him initiate the post finish line handshake with the runners he'd finished just behind. I still get a little thrill and smile every time I see it happen.” Now, in close races the finish line handshake sometimes turns into a full hug with whomever he has been battling with, sometimes to his competitor’s surprise.
“Running makes me more confident and up to taking on new challenges. I've met lots of runners and made many friends,” wrote Alex when asked how running has changed him. Janet pointed out that running has drastically changed his eating habits to that of an athlete and helped him overcome a lot of sensory issues such as wind, wet clothes, and crowds. Alex showed this this past year by running in the Boston Marathon. Imagine being in a crowded start corral with several thousand other anxious runners. Even people without sensory issues get freaked out by that scenario but Alex handled it like a pro.
There is more to this story than Alex’s personal transformation, though. He has transformed a lot of runners around him. Some runners (including myself) gain inspiration from his running ability, but more importantly, most runners see him as an athlete first. I know I do. Out on the race route he is just like anyone else, trying to get the best out of him/herself. A good way to describe his compete level is “He knows how to suffer”. He may not communicate the same way as other runners, but his running shoes do a lot of the talking. “I think it has changed some people's perceptions. After all the rhetoric in the media he grew up with, knowing him even just a little, do people thing he's really ‘a parents' worst nightmare’ or ‘suffering’ from autism? I can't imagine anyone, even strangers, seeing Alex at a race and thinking that,” stated Janet.
One of the biggest moments in Alex’s transformation that sticks out in my mind happened at the 2013 PEI Marathon. Alex had been having a great season racing the shorter distances but had struggled with pacing and fueling in previous marathons, just like many other runners. Also, like most competitive runners, he wanted a Boston Marathon qualifying time, but because of his age it meant that he had to run a time of 3:05 or faster, which was much quicker than his previous attempts at the distance. Anyone who was at the finish line that day at the 2:53:47 mark would have seen not an autistic runner crossing the finish line, but a runner overjoyed with setting a personal best while qualifying for Boston. Alex transformed into a Boston qualifier that day, and hundreds of people witnessed an athlete who had reached a huge milestone.
Back to the inspiration for this story; the young Island mother with Young Onset Parkinson’s. How is her running a 5K transformational? It’s quite simple; she has made the choice to transform herself from someone who is a victim of the disease to someone who is a fighter. Alex has transformed himself into an athlete as well as people’s perceptions of him. Let running transform you. You may be surprised where it may take you. It may even get you to the finish line of the PEI Marathon!