The Running Man – Wrong Planet’s New Health Column

My name is Matt Aber and I’m a new columnist on WrongPlanet.net. I will cover the subjects of physical fitness, nutrition, healthy lifestyle, and college life, and how they relate to people with Asperger’s Syndome. I’m a 21-year-old college student currently on extended vacation in Hawaii.

My three biggest accomplishments so far have been receiving my Associate of Arts Degree, High School Diploma, and rising to a level of physical fitness I never thought I could reach. I like many of you on this site am an Aspergian, and this is my story:

Read on for Matthew’s article!
When I was 10-years-old, I was a vulnerable fourth grader with Aspergers in public school. I was clinically depressed, overweight, had little endurance, strength, or muscle tone. I was picked on a lot due to my “strange” and inappropriate behaviors. My fourth grade teacher believed that having the diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome was simply a license to be a defiant child. She was constantly criticizing me and my self-esteem suffered greatly. I hated school with a passion.

Even though being in the classroom was very difficult and stressful, the most torturous time of the day was P.E. I was correctly place in adaptive P.E. until fourth grade when I insisted on joining the “normal” kids in a regular class and this was a big mistake. I couldn’t run around the field without losing my breath after only a few minutes. I was not only in poor cardiovascular condition, but I was also never taught the concept of pacing. I had both fine and gross motor skill delays and was uncoordinated which made playing sports impossible. I also have a hard time with my auditory processing so following and remembering directions was very difficult. The cleaning lady, whom they made P.E. teacher, didn’t understand the concept of building a fitness base BEFORE having the students participate in sports (just an appraisal). Like my fourth grade teacher, she also believed that I was a defiant child. She didn’t believe that I couldn’t touch my toes or not play soccer as well as the other kids. This experience switched me off to athletics for many years.

By age thirteen, I was a very sedentary, depressed, stressed teenager and I had a hard time falling asleep at night. My parents encouraged me to join their gym and this was my initial exposure to the health and fitness world. I began with a basic workout routine of thirty minutes of cardio on the stair master every other day. However, like with running, I didn’t understand the concept of pacing and I would sometimes burn myself out before my thirty minutes were up. Before long, I noticed a considerable improvement in my sleep patterns and my stress levels decreased slightly. By age fourteen, I incorporated weights into my routine. I followed the 3×10 rule or 3 sets of ten repetitions that I learned from my dad.

I also enjoyed walks through our neighborhood in Scotts Valley which involved very steep inclines and some flat terrain. I think the beauty of the pines and nature was a great distraction and motivated me to keep walking. Over time, I built up enough endurance to trek the steepest hills with modest effort. These experiences are what helped teach me the value of pacing oneself in order to get from point A to point B in a reasonable amount of time.

When I was sixteen, my family and I moved to a neighborhood adjacent to Henry Cowell State Park, a hiker’s paradise with many miles of trails through the lush and rugged Santa Cruz Mountains. It was here where I refined my hiking by spending countless hours trekking the steep mountains and hills of the park. I began hiking the main and longest trail, Pipeline Road. Eventually, I started throwing in other trails to increase my mileage in addition to improving my endurance. The natural beauty of the redwoods, the San Lorenzo River, the wildlife and the sounds of nature inspired me to return often where I could escape into a meditative landscape.

By age twenty, I had already done some running on the treadmill; however, I had never seriously run any of the trails in the park. One morning after a large serving of pancakes, I felt a little more energized than usual and I decided I wanted to run the trails instead of hiking. I challenged myself to run ten miles through the steep terrain of Henry Cowell. I surprised myself when I managed to run that without even stopping. I knew I was ready to seriously pursue trail running and take my workouts to the next level. I began to study nutrition and focus more on what I ate. I wanted everything that I ate to nourish my body and so I decided to minimize refined carbohydrates, empty calories and saturated fats. I focused on consuming a Mediterranean diet consisting of whole grains, organic fruits and vegetables, fish and poultry and unsaturated fats. I also developed a more consistent and balanced workout regimen as opposed to extremes of doing too much of one exercise one day and nothing the next.

My parents knew I was serious about my physical fitness and diet when I completed the Forest of Nisene Marks Half Marathon on June 6, 2009. I had trained exhaustively for this race, running up to forty miles a week on the trails of Henry Cowell. My discipline and hard work paid off, I placed 13th out of 167 runners with a time of 1:41:25. This then inspired me to tackle an even more challenging trail race. I felt that the half marathon wasn’t quite challenging enough, however, I knew that a full marathon would just about kill me. I wanted to find a race somewhere in between. I did some research and was eventually drawn to the 29k (18 miles) race through the Santa Cruz Mountains. I embarked on an even more intense training regimen, running sometimes up to sixteen miles in a given day. On one occasion, I managed to push myself to run approximately 23 miles through Nisene Marks State Forest. Again my hard work and Aspergian focus paid off, I completed The Santa Cruz Mountains 29k in 2:43:27 and I placed 10th out of 82 runners. It was the most brutal and intense run of my life, some hills were so steep and sandy, that they turned me and most of the other runners into hikers for a while. By the time I completed the race, I was voracious, dehydrated and exhausted but what a feeling of accomplishment!

Four months later in January while on vacation in Hawaii, my family and I were all struck by Swine Flu. We were all sick for a month and I was unable to train. When I finally recovered, the virus took a toll on my physical condition and I was unable to run for even three miles without getting out of breath. As the months went by, I built up a considerable amount of endurance but I was not quite as cardiovascularly fit as I was before I was infected with Swine Flu. I was so blinded by my desire to run like I did before that I wasn’t working out productively to get myself back there.

I eventually realized that there had to be a more efficient way to train for long distance races than doing long slow runs every other day for 10 – 14 miles. I did some research and realized that it was how many miles PER WEEK that you run which really matters, not how much you do in a single run. I shortened my weekly mileage from 40+ miles per week to 24. I also increased the speed of my runs and mixed in very intense strength training. In three weeks, I felt even better than I did before I had Swine Flu.

I moved to Maui with my family in June 2010 and soon heard about the world famous Maui Marathon that was to take place in September. I decided I was once again, ready for my next challenge. I had a crystal clear objective: I wanted to run it under three hours and thirty minutes. Sixteen days before the race I embarked on an intense pre-race training regimen. I ran a total of forty miles the first week and thirty the following week. I was sure to relax two days before the race with no training in order to give my muscles a rest. The day before the race I consumed all the complex carbohydrates and protein I could, and had a blast indulging on all the whole wheat spaghetti, grapes, yogurt, and barbequed chicken I wanted.

The marathon began at 5:30 A.M., well before sunrise, so I had to get up at 2:00 AM. But that didn’t matter, I had gone to bed early the night before and I felt that every muscle in my body had been rested, regenerated, and energized for this race. I was on a mission to complete the Maui Marathon under 3:30. I wore my watch to help me with my pace and it worked like a charm. I departed from Lahaina to Kahaluhi on a bus provided by the race sponsers. There were a little over thirty other runners on the bus and I could feel the excitement and energy in the air. When we finally reached the Queen Kaahumanu Center Mall in Kahaluhi, I was playing a waiting game for over an hour. While everyone was chatting with one another and taking their sweet time, I was anxious to begin the race. FINALLY, at 5:10, they had us all line up in designated sections according to what our expected race time was. There was a traditional Hawaiian dance show ten minutes before we all took off, which included the use of pyrotechnics. It was fun but and I just wanted to run!

When we finally took off at 5:30, most people were running very fast, as if they were running a short 5k race. People passed me up and I was tempted to run faster to try and pass them up but I didn’t let my ego get the best of me. I knew I would burn myself out early if I was not carefully pacing myself throughout the entire race. As the mile markers got higher, a lot of the smug sprinters at the beginning of the race got slower. One by one, mile marker by mile marker, I managed to pass up most of the people who took off ahead of me. Unlike most of the NT runners, I wasn’t noticing the natural beauty around me. I was focused on only four factors: my overall race time, maintaining a comfortable pace, checking my watch to see when it was time to consume another energy bar, and staying hydrated throughout the race. By the time I reached the finish line, I didn’t run the marathon under 3:30 or over 3:30; I ran it in EXACTLY 3:30! My timing was so precise I didn’t believe it initially. It wasn’t until I checked the official race results that I realized that my timing was that exact.

That night, I went to the post-marathon dinner celebration at the Westin Maui Resort in Lahaina. There was a band playing some great rock n’ roll classics and an impressive pizza and beer buffet. I was very surprised when I received an award for finishing in second place for the male age group 20-24. Currently, I reside in Lahaina, Hawaii with my parents. I plan on running the Phoenix Half Marathon in January 2011 and I hope to begin attending Arizona State University in the spring.

Leave a Reply