By Ann Allen
“Find a group of people who challenge and inspire you, spend a lot of time with them, and it will change your life.” ~Amy Poehler
Ah, you made it through the holidays. Now what? Did you make a New Year’s resolution? Did it sound something like mine and contain words like healthy eating, exercise, less stress?
I know. We try. We’re busy. Our people come first.
I am not a personal trainer, motivational speaker, or a salesperson, but I do want to talk about how our family has benefitted from running.
Don’t stop reading! This isn’t a LOSE 10 POUNDS IN 2 WEEKS kind of entry. Rather, I am saying, “This worked for my kid. Maybe it will work for yours.”
You may have read my previous blog entry about our family running with the organization myTEAM Triumph. I want to elaborate on the physical and emotional benefits running has had on our son, family, and even our community.
Let me begin by telling you a little more about Eric. He was born with Alpha Thalassemia Mental Retardation syndrome (ATRX). This has required a great deal of patience from Eric and necessitates the use of a wheelchair. Eric is a creature of comfort. He doesn’t like to be too hot or too cold. He doesn’t like the wind. He won’t keep a hat on his head and we live in Wisconsin. He has lots of GI problems. He doesn’t like the sun in his eyes (remember, this is the kid who won’t keep a hat on his head). But, he LOVES to RUN!
When he is outdoors on the roads or trails, he is the happiest we ever see our little guy. Eric is nonverbal, but his face and body language convey a message of utter JOY when he runs. Lacing up our shoes is certain to elicit watchful eyes from Eric. With great effort he rises to a sitting position from his toy-spattered place on the floor. Finally, with hopeful anticipation he watches what will unfold next. As soon as Eric is placed in his running stroller, he rocks back and forth. This is his way of telling us; get this thing going!
Let me tell you about his hands. Eric explores his world by using his hands to place everything in his mouth, which satisfies his need for oral stimulation (except for food because he is fed via G-tube). However, when he is running, he is calm, hands are resting, and he shows very little desire to chew on things.
His face is animated. He is usually wearing an enormous grin and cheers on his fellow runners with a few low sounds coming deep from his belly. His mood is elevated and he is ready for action!
Sitting upright engages Eric’s core muscles and improves his posture and strength. For him, sitting for long periods of time takes endurance, which he is building with each run he does. Additionally, we have seen his abdominal muscles become stronger. When Eric is out on the road or trail, he has the opportunity to inhale the fragrances that each new season brings. The visual stimulation has him craning his neck left and right as he takes in the view. He is meeting people, which he LOVES to do. Socializing with other young people is something we feel is important, but was lacking after he graduated from high school.
When races are over Eric is exhausted. Many races require him to awaken early, sit for long periods of time, and take in a great deal of auditory, visual, and tactile stimuli. On days he runs, he sleeps better. As you know fellow parents, this means WE sleep better.
Our entire family benefits from Eric’s love of running. When he began running with myTEAM Triumph, we were told there would be volunteers, called angels, running with him. Being unsure of how Eric would do on his first race, we assumed the role of Eric’s angels. There is hardly a race he does now, that my husband and I are not part of Team Eric. We don’t want to miss the opportunity to see his face light up, his body rock back and forth in rhythm to the prerace music, and his feet slice the air in excitement. It would be heart breaking to miss the chuckle that seems to start at his toes and works its way up until it finally bubbles out of his mouth.
Eric’s sister, Tess, who is 2 years older than Eric, also joined our team of angels. Tess was an exchange student in Peru when Eric did his first race. When she came back, however, she, and 3 of her college roommates pushed Eric in the Madison Half Marathon. This allowed them to better understand the challenges Eric faces on a daily basis, while celebrating the joy of completing a rigorous athletic event. Trust me when I tell you that the winners in these races are not just the captains. The angels, fellow runners, and spectators have all been seen wiping a tear from their eyes as they witness the beauty of the human spirit.
If you are reading this blog from a parent’s perspective, you understand how alone we can feel as we navigate the muddy waters of special needs. Words such as, Nissen fundoplication, orthotics, scoliosis, and contracture, were probably not in your daily vocabulary before your child was born, but they are now. Being part of a team of MTT runners gave us an inclusive community of runners, yes. However, it also gave us a community of families who were also trudging through the mess of paperwork one finds themself buried under, when parenting a child with special needs. These families talked about training runs and upcoming races, but also discussed the benefits of hippotherapy, treatment options, service dogs, legislation, caregivers, and respite providers.
Our involvement in running doesn’t mean Eric goes home after a race and waits until the next one. He is now part of a TEAM and that means weekly training runs, team dinners, outdoor picnics, Packer games, swimming parties, and cheering together at basketball games. This means team jerseys that identify Eric as part of something bigger than himself, bigger than having special needs, bigger than sitting in a wheelchair.
Family members have asked to push Eric in races, friends have asked to push Eric, friends of friends have asked to push Eric, and one of my former students even asked to push Eric.
You see, we were never meant to live in isolation.
So, find an old pair of running shoes. Then put them on. I know it feels weird. And if your child is like Eric, he might complain at first. You will try again, because we aren’t quitters. Then call a friend, invite someone from school, speak to a neighbor, and eventually invite someone new along. When you are out on the road talk to each other, laugh, ask questions, and get to know someone else’s story. Remember to glance down at that person in the chair. I wouldn’t want you to miss the joy that you are sharing. Together.
2018 is full of possibilities. Happy New Year!
I can do things you cannot, you can do things I cannot; together we can do great things.
Ann Allen is mother to two children, Tess, 25 and Eric 23. Eric was born with a rare syndrome, Alpha Thalassemia Mental Retardation syndrome (ATR-X). Ann was a teacher for 28 years while raising her family, and just recently retired so she could be at home to care for Eric. Ann and her family love nature and outdoor activities. In traveling the road of parenting a child with special needs, Ann and her husband, Don, have had to be very purposeful in finding activities that were inclusive for Eric. If they didn’t find them, they created them. She has a passion to share some ideas that worked for her family and may work for yours, as well.
Ann, her husband, Don, and their children began running with myTEAM Triumph in 2013. MyTEAM Triumph’s mission statement is to enrich the health and well being of individuals with disabilities by fostering lasting, authentic relationships through the teamwork environment of endurance athletics. To learn more about myTEAM Triumph check out their website. http://myteamtriumph.org/
To find out if there is a chapter near you, Ann recommends this site. http://www.myteamtriumph.org/chapters.html