By Hal Walter
I was never much of an athlete in high school. It wasn’t for lack of trying.
At my mega high school in Northern Virginia, just outside of the Capital Beltway, I went out for football and baseball for the Lake Braddock Bruins, as did dozens of other boys with testosterone-fueled hopes and dreams of glory. I was a gangly and awkward kid who the football coaches moved around, trying to fill backup spots on a team that was grooming first-string players to play at big colleges. I walked the sidelines and subbed for the better players as wide receiver, slotback and, on the other side of the ball, defensive line.
Each spring I would make a gallant but futile attempt to join the baseball squad. To put this into perspective, our pitcher had already been drafted in the minors. I would get to the second cut and then that would be that. The truth was I could smash a 90-mph pitching-machine fastball out of the park, but I could not field a ground ball in right field to save my life.
When my parents packed up the family and moved to Craig, Colorado, between my junior and senior years, I spent the first several weeks fishing in the surrounding mountains with our dog. Then I went out for the Moffat County Bulldogs football team. While my skills were on a more level plane there, in a small town some of these positions had been filled long before there was a “new kid in town.” My most memorable play was holding for a field goal when a botched snap came bouncing from center. I yelled, “Fire, fire, fire” and sprinted right, then passed to the “open” receiver only to have a defensive back step right in front of the ball and intercept. Fortunately, I made a great tackle before he ran it back for six.
Through all this I was a runner. Running was always a part of my program to stay in shape for sports I wasn’t any good at playing. That and weight training. These were perhaps part of a larger coping mechanism as well. Later I would become a competitive distance runner and pack-burro racer. My program remains much the same to this day.
This year when my son Harrison began running for the varsity cross-country team here at Custer County School, the irony of a youth misspent on ball sports was not lost on me. It’s clear I’m vicariously reliving through him what I really should have been. They say he has autism, but I honestly don’t know if that’s true since nobody knows what autism really is. It’s merely a label to explain his erratic and outrageous behaviors, and differences in processing information.
Regardless, the kid can run.
After a season which saw him confront many challenges and explore his true potential, he placed third on his team at regionals and improved his best time by almost two minutes in the 5K varsity distance. This was not enough to qualify individually for the state championship meet, or to boost his team to the meet, though three of his teammates did make the cut as individuals.
After regionals he was tremendously disappointed, but another coach suggested we take him to the state meet to run in the Unified Race for special needs athletes. I initially struggled with this notion. Here was a kid who’d been running varsity all season and it was difficult to wrap my mind around.
But it was state, after all. How could I deny him this opportunity?
The day before we left, the school sent the athletes off with a “pep-rally” style run through the hallway. The next morning a band of well-wishers gathered in the school parking lot to see our athletes, along with coaches Jesse and Ruth and myself, away. Our team is so small we took a school Suburban rather than a bus. This experience of a lifetime would also include dinner out, a movie at a theater and a night in a hotel before the big event the next day at the Norris Penrose Events Center in Colorado Springs.
With two boys, Micah and Jeremiah, and one girl, Kyleigh, in the varsity 2A races, and Harrison and teammate Caleb, whose non-autistic learning disability also qualified him for the Unified Race, we arrived at the event site the afternoon before the race to preview the courses. We as coaches always walk our athletes over the race routes before each meet, paying attention to places that could pose problems or where runners can use the terrain in their favor.
The Unified Race distance was 3K (1.86 miles). We were told all runners would ford a small creek later in the race. For the course preview, organizers had taped off the water crossing so we could only get a look from the bridge. I explained to Harrison that the next day he would use the bridge on the way out and then go through the water on the way back.
I had no idea what we would encounter in the way of competition in the Unified Race. I could find no results from previous years. I assumed there would be a mixture of athletes with both intellectual and physical challenges. I thought there could also be runners just like Harrison and Caleb – perhaps members of bigger 4A or 5A varsity squads – only older and faster. There might also be Paralympic athletes with serious physical disabilities. I did not know how to prepare Harrison and Caleb for what they might encounter. In addition, it was clear both of these guys were feeling some pressure with all the hype surrounding this big event.
A beautiful warm fall morning greeted us for the race. When at last Harrison and Caleb lined up at the start, I looked around at the small field trying to size up the competition. It was much as I had expected. There were clearly athletes of varying abilities, ranging from some fast-looking older kids, to some who were clearly on the autism spectrum, to one boy with cerebral palsy being pushed in a jogger by his coach. I thought Harrison and Caleb both had a good chance to be top-10, but then as always, I really had no idea what Harrison would even do when the gun went off.
Standing there I thought about the level of courage it took for each of these athletes to run in this race – something far beyond those who were running the regular varsity races. Regardless of what happened, I was super proud of Harrison and Caleb.
The race started and Harrison paced himself with Caleb for almost the first mile before picking up speed. At the bridge he was in fifth place. He then disappeared among the trees. I waited at the water crossing. That’s about when I realized that in the Unified Race the athletes were given the choice of the bridge or the water on the return loop. I had a panicked thought this might confuse Harrison and cause a problem.
I stood there waiting until Harrison came running back into view – now in fourth place. The third-place guy just ahead opted for the bridge. I watched Harrison’s eyes shift as he ran, back and forth from the bridge to the creek crossing, back to the bridge and back to the creek.
Suddenly his eyes fixed on the water. He rambled down the bank and jumped to a sandbar, splashing one foot in the creek and then bounded up the other side. He was now only a few steps behind third place with the steep hill looming up to the stadium entrance.
Coaches are not allowed on the course or to run along with athletes during the races. I frantically sprinted another route up the hill, ran across the field where the race had started, dodged through spectators, and raced up a ramp into the grandstand.
I arrived only in time to see Harrison cross the finish line. I began making my way down to try to get to him. Coach Jesse came running toward me yelling excitedly, “Harrison placed third!” A podium finish. I was stunned.
Caleb’s dad appeared with a video of the finish. Harrison had entered the stadium just off the third-place guy’s shoulder, then with the crowd cheering, passed and left him behind in a sprint to the finish. I’ve since watched this video over and over, and all questions about whether Harrison should have been in this race have been put to rest.
It was a moment of triumph for Harrison, for me, and for his teammates and coaches, many of whom had experienced first-hand all the ups and downs of his entire running career. (Caleb finished 8th in the Unified, while Kyleigh was 47th for the 2A girls, and Micah was 2nd and Jeremiah 69th for the 2A boys.)
I don’t know that Harrison will ever qualify to compete in the varsity level at state. I don’t know that he’ll ever run the Unified Race again either. None of that matters. All I know is that for one fall day, we lived a dream that will stick with us forever.