Running with Aspergers, Pt 2

Salton Sea Stop

Attention. Stop. Stop Here. All Cars Must Stop.

A few weeks before Black Canyon 100K, race director Jamil Coury let me know that they’d extended the cut-off to 18 hours, from 16. I was relieved by this. Sixteen hours had proven to be just out of reach on past attempts, and I liked knowing I had 10 or 15 minutes of padding. It’s a tough course, and last year about a third of the finishers crossed the line in the last hour. I dropped at 25 miles, sick and dehydrated.

Andrea scoffed at my relief. She said I should just rise to the challenge.

Andrea says part of the reason she runs is because of the challenge. She likes to push herself, the challenge and overcome her fears, to test her limits. It’s an important part of ultra running to her, and, is seems to many others.

I am not sure that’s why I run ultras. Day-to-day life has enough challenges for me. I run long distances alone in the mountains or desert with a principal aim of getting away from all of that.

This is the deal: If I want to test my limits, to overcome my fears, and to confront my demons, all I need to do is leave the house, and sometimes that’s not even necessary. Almost all human interaction is a test of my limits. The workplace, with all its distractions and sudden, loud noises, and fellow employees who grate on every nerve is a sometimes overwhelming challenge to someone on the spectrum, like me.

It’s called Asperger’s Syndrome. My brain processes information differently than a normal person’s. I see patterns in everything, I am literal in my thinking and speech, I find the half-assed way people sling words around without any regard to their meaning to be a bit infuriating, social cues are kind of lost on me, I am pathologically honest and think sugar coating stuff is lying, and so communication can be challenging.

The filter system in my brain is not so great. Stuff that most people’s brains ignore (even when they are not on their iphones) my brain amplifies. I have problems with sensory overload.

Here’s how it works. There are five traditional primary senses – sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. Sensory input from the eyes, ears, nose, skin, joints & muscles is sent to the brain, which first evaluates this information and decides whether or not to keep it or toss it. If the brain tosses it, it goes nowhere, kind of like the faxes I keep attempting to send to the Permit Manager in hopes of getting a permit to hike the John Muir Trail this summer. Background noise, like the sound of my fridge, is a good example. My ears hear the sound and my brain ignores it.

The process of evaluation is called modulation. The signal that is accepted, or registered, gets amplified. The signal that is ignored gets tuned out. Modulation involves two processes: habituation and sensitization.

Habituation is just what it sounds like: the brain ignores something because it’s heard (or felt or seen or smelled) it over and over and knows it doesn’t mean anything. Sensitization is the opposite process, where the brain turns up the volume or intensity of a signal because it is novel or unexpected and the brain says whoa – we’ve got to bring this to his attention just in case it’s a threat.

Habituation and sensitization are supposed to be in balance but they’re not, for me. For many people on the spectrum, the brain tends to amplification rather than habituation. It perceives the slightest change and amplifies it as a threat. There’s not so much background noise to me. Everything is turned up to 11. Amplified signals flow into my brain like a constant flooding river of information. The brain is not designed to handle that much stuff. The levees break.

It works like this: I’m in a meeting room. A few people are talking. My brain is unable to tune out either conversation. More people come into the room and start conversations. Everyone raises their voice a little because each conversation is in competition with the others. The volume increases in an exponential curve. At some point the room is about half to two thirds full and the noise has become a cacophony that is almost unbearable. I Need To Concentrate Hard and Focus Inward In An Attempt To Ignore The NOISE, WHICH TO MY EARS IS LIKE BEING IN A WARZONE.

This means a few things. It means my ability to function within that setting is pretty much nil. It means that I need to isolate myself as much as possible when in that setting. The perception of me, then, is of an arrogant prick who thinks he’s too good to hang.

Aspie Test Results

Aspie (Neurodiverse) Test Results

It’s why I avoid parties, bars, and any large gatherings of people. Even so, I experience it at least twice a week.

The graph on the left shows my test results. Neurodiverse is Asperger’s. Neurotypical is the regular brain. You’ll see I scored very high neurodiverse, and pretty low as neurotypical. In terms of social skills, I register a 0 on this test.

Overresponsiveness is really typical of people on the spectrum, like me. All my senses are a more than a little jittery, but hearing is the most difficult. I have an exaggerated startle response to any loud or sudden noise, and background noise doesn’t habituate – it’s just a dull roar – all of which means I am jumpy a lot of the time and things can easily escalate into an intolerable cacophony.

The exaggerated startle response can be difficult even with isolated sounds. The other day, on a narrow stretch of trail with steep drop-offs on one side, Andrea was behind me recounting a story. Her voice escalated into a shout! as she imitated the reaction of one of the people. It frightened me so much I jumped, which is not a good thing to have happen on a narrow stretch of trail like that. I jumped because my brain heard a sudden change in sound and registered it as a shout. My brain also has trouble with abrupt emotional shifts, which it finds alarming, and it didn’t register that Andrea was acting out a story until after I responded.

When I say I need quiet, I mean exactly that.

Quiet is the Holy Grail for me.

I used to deal with what for me is a bat-shit-crazy-to-the-nth-degree world of noise and drama and weird people standing next to me on street corners and all around sensory overload by using narcotics or just plain old booze to deaden those senses. I would hear people talk about mind expanding drugs and wonder why in the fuck anyone would want to do that?! My mind was sufficiently expanded on its own. What I needed was something that would put the brakes on it.

Like most medications, heroin and alcohol have adverse side-effects. Homelessness is one. Hep C is another. Arrest warrants, paranoia, liver failure…these are just a sampling of the things that can happen.

Now, instead, I run. I like to push myself. I like the feeling of complete physical exhaustion. I feel purged when that happens. I enjoy a good challenge, and I run difficult races, not fast, easy ones. That said, I don’t run to challenge myself. Instead, I run to get away from all the pressures and challenges and sensory overload that life in the big city brings to someone like me, a person whose mind naturally races all the time.

Quiet brings me joy.

Oh. Yeah. I finished Black Canyon 100K in 14:35, and that after getting lost. You can read about it here. And Part 1 of this piece? I haven’t written yet.

4 replies
  1. Cinthia
    Cinthia says:

    Hi, Geoff! Just discovered your blog (was reading up on ultra races and one link led to another to another …). Anyway, just wanted to say that I love this post.
    I also run for the silence. I’m not on the spectrum but oh (oh!), being out in the mountains alone, no one around for miles, nothing but peaks and valleys and sky and the occasional pile of bear scat is like nothing (nothing!) else.
    Cheers and happy running.

    Reply
  2. Tiffany
    Tiffany says:

    I also have asperger’s, and would like to start running even though the thought of it pains me. I’m a toe walker and always have been. (I’m 37 now. ) I’m worried that my form is way off. I tried a couch to 5k program, but after a week of going out every day, my ankle got pretty bad. Not swollen, but painful. Thought maybe a stress fracture because I’m sedentary. Do you have any advice or know of some resources to help with form and gait?

    Reply
    • Geoff
      Geoff says:

      First suggestion is ease into it. Running every day might be a bit too much.

      Before I start, I’m not a coach, so don’t take what I say as the gospel. I don’t know too much about toe walking, but your form might not be as off as you think. If I try to walk the way I run, landing on my forefoot, planting my foot beneath me instead of in front of me, I end up doing what is probably pretty close to toe walking. Sprinters in particular are toe strikers when they run, and there are a lot of folks (the barefoot running community in particular) who believe a forefoot strike, which isn’t exactly the same as a toe strike, is the correct way to run, and a heel strike (which is the normal foot strike when walking) is a terrible thing. Running is different from walking. In running, you do not want to overstride, or have your foot touch the ground ahead of you. Instead, you want your foot to land more or less directly beneath you, and it’s recommended to land on your midfoot or forefoot.

      If your ankle feels sore, just rest, ice, and take it slow. There are exercises you can do to strengthen your ankle. Also make sure your achilles is well stretched.

      Google barefoot running technique and you’ll get tons of information. One link that seemed decent is http://www.barefootrunning.fas.harvard.edu/5BarefootRunning&TrainingTips.html Another is from REI: https://www.rei.com/learn/expert-advice/basics-of-barefoot-minimalist-running.html

      take it easy and have fun!

      Reply

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