People give me strange looks when I say I have autism. Most people don't know much about it except what they saw in the movie Rain Man, in which Dustin Hoffman's character has the disorder. By definition, autism is a condition characterized by repetitive behavior, language dysfunction and an inability to interact socially. I explain it like this: Everything is in my head—all the thoughts, emotions and dreams anyone might have; I just have trouble getting it out.
Running helps me. The repetitive act of putting one foot in front of the other helps me focus my thoughts. It's the perfect exercise for people with autism: It's solitary, and it requires determination and stamina, traits that most autistic people have.
I'm 24 now, and I started distance running about seven years ago. In March, I got my first marathon victory when I won the Napa Valley Marathon in two hours and 42 minutes. When I run well, I feel as if people accept me. That's why I train so hard. Almost every morning I'm out of the house by 5:30. I usually jog 15 to 21 miles through Nevada's Red Rock Canyon, which is challenging because of the hills. In a typical week I'll cover 115 miles.
Last December, I became the first autistic person to graduate from the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, and I now work in an art gallery. I'm more functional than a typical person with autism, mostly because I was only 18 months old when doctors diagnosed the disorder. If I hadn't received therapy at an early age, I may have ended up in an institution.
Another characteristic of people with autism is that they try to master everything they do. That's me. I want to be the best runner I can be. I'll watch tapes of marathons all day and all night, over and over, to try to learn about strategy and technique. My goal is to finish a race in two hours and 20 minutes.
But winning marathons isn't the only reason I like to run. The sport has helped me make close friends, which is hard to do when you have autism. Running has even changed my family life. My father died in 1994 from cancer, and after a race two years ago one of my running partners, a man named Deloy Martinez, saw my mother and asked me who she was. I introduced them—and 12 months later they were married. My running partner is now my stepfather.
You can see why, for me, there's a lot more to marathon running than crossing the finish line.