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Ishmael Burdeau - Ultra Running - Autistic

This blog post features a story written by Autistic ultra runner and UESCA certified running coach Ishmael Burdeau. Ishmael writes about his life, his sport, and his observations of Autism in sport.

I came across Ishmael after reading an article he had written for the online magazine I Run Far. In the article Ishmael comments on the number of Autistic people both drawn to and excelling in ultra long distance sports such as ultrarunning. We were thrilled to see Autism in sport so positively framed and couldn't wait to get in touch with the author!

Ishmael and I had a great chat, and we're hoping he'll write for us again in the future. 🙏

Follow @sublimechaser on Instagram to keep up to date with Ishmael's races! If you're a dot watcher, you'll have something to entertain you most weekends! 😉

Ishmael's Story

"As a kid growing up in the USA in the 1970s and 80s, being good at sports was the easiest and most effective way to be accepted by one’s peers, and even more so for boys. The stereotypes often seen in American films and TV shows were certainly accurate, at least in my experience. As an undiagnosed and unrecognised young autistic who really struggled with social acceptance and spent most of his time avoiding bullies, I longed to be good at a sport, any sport. Unfortunately for me, and many other autistics, I had a degree of dyspraxia and physical awkwardness that meant I was generally far behind my peers in my ability to catch, throw and sprint, which are the building blocks of nearly all popular sports in America and in fact most countries.

Even while seeking refuge in the library, I still longed to use my body and physicality the way I had done as a small child, before the need to ‘fit in’. In this time there were a few small glimpses of the athlete-to-be, even if these went mostly unrecognised. One very distinct and early memory I have of this was during a PE class, when I was aged about 9. In a change from the usual lessons which were spent in teams, catching, throwing and sprinting, this lesson was different - we were simply told to run laps around the field for an indeterminate period of time. I remember setting off with my classmates, enjoying this somewhat novel and less structured activity. After only a lap or two, I found myself far out in front, just moving along at my natural pace. It felt fairly effortless, I was certainly not that fast, but I also had something else which the other kids didn’t.

Sadly this lesson was a one-off, and aside from a few tiny moments of sporting joy (which generally involved simple, aimless running) it would be many years before I began to learn that far from being a hopeless athlete I would become a lifelong one. Looking back, it’s a little odd to think that none of my teachers or PE coaches picked up on this. Doubtless things would have turned out quite differently if they had. Instead, I was strangely drawn to an even odder and more marginal endurance sport: cycling. This was indeed very strange for a young teenager in southeast Alaska, where basketball, baseball and American football were the only socially acceptable forms of sporting activity.

Despite the fact that I was a fairly good cyclist - I was invited to the US Olympic Training Center and raced at a high level in France and Italy - something was missing. While I loved many aspects of the sport, especially long days training alone in the mountains and the simple yet strict and regimented life of an athlete, many other aspects of the sport held little appeal or were actively in opposition to my sense of self. Cycling is a strange hybrid activity, combining both individual and team skills. I had little interest in riding as part of a team, and reading the rhythm of the peloton and anticipating the tactics of others held little appeal. I also lacked the bike handling skills of many of the other riders and had a strong dislike for group riding. My preferred terrain was the long uphill, where skills, tactics and teamwork fell away.

Hampered by these limitations, I also found myself in frequent opposition to my team coaches. Partly through a level of autistic focus on my ‘special interest’ (I was an avid student of sports science) and partly through a generalised defiance towards many authority figures (especially those granted this status through no obvious knowledge or talent) I refused to fit in or do as I was told by these authority figures. By the age of 20 I had given up all thoughts of competitive sport, feeling burned out and somewhat disgusted by the very notion of competitive, elite-level sport.

After a decade lost to masking, I felt the urgent need to return to an athletic life in my early 30s, for both my physical and mental health. This time I took up marathon running in a fairly serious way, dedicating most of my free time to planning, executing and recovering from training and racing, primarily on the roads in the south of England. My focus and dedication paid off, with 34 minute 10Ks and a 2:46 marathon. By no means fast times in any absolute sense, but pretty quick by most standards. At this point in my life I was also beginning to hear of the term Asperger's Syndrome, but it was one I eventually rejected, based on the mistaken belief that there was no way that someone with Asperger’s Syndrome would be able to perform in any sport. How wrong I was.

15 years later, and I had spent each of these intervening years dedicated to the pursuit of endurance sports, first moving back into competitive cycling, and then ultracycling. Even by the standards of road racing cyclists, ultracycling is a tough sport. For me, it began with 24 hour time trials, in which I covered as many as 485 miles without stopping. This eventually led to two completions of the now-legendary Transcontinental Race, riding from London to Istanbul, self-supported.

After facing the often terrifying roads of eastern Europe and achieving my goals of racing across Europe, I knew it was time to return to the simple sport that had truly touched my heart: running. But, given my new-found inner strength and mental toughness, I knew that ‘normal’ running would not be something for me. Instead I turned to ultrarunning, beginning with ‘easy’ 50km races before eventually completing events such as the 268 mile Spine Race in January 2017 and, more recently, the North and South Wales 200 mile races, as well as many shorter events such as the Lakeland 100 and the West Highland Way race in Scotland.

But for some reason it was not until the global Covid pandemic that I began to fully acknowledge and eventually embrace my autism, and it took me a little while longer to see the connections between my deep appreciation of ultrarunning and its connection to my autistic experience. I now understand that my autism and athletic life are inextricably linked, in that my well being requires an athletic outlet, and my autistic strengths are a wonderful complement to my ultrasport endeavours.

Through the recent achievements of much younger autistic ultrarunners like Zach Bates and John Almeda, both of whom I followed to outstanding performances in this year’s gruelling Western States 100 mile run in California, I now see that in many ways the sport of ultrarunning is very well aligned to my autistic strengths. These include: resilience and the ability to stick things out; a love of routine which keeps us on track with our training and planning; the ability to focus our minds for extraordinary lengths of time to achieve our goals; and a willingness to do things which most others would consider very odd or even crazy.

Far from being a disability which impedes us, I have come to realise that once we find the right activity to match our autistic interests and we have the right support systems in place, it can be difficult to stop autistic athletes from achieving their goals, whatever they might be. In my own case, this has led me to aspire towards becoming a lifelong endurance athlete."

Thank you Ishmael 🙏🙏🙏

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