Rolling the Dice on Race Day

Lil D and his amazing team on Race Day.

We loaded the adaptive jogging stroller into my car as the rain started. I gathered a blanket and a bag with Lil D’s favorite snacks, water, a change of clothes and his go-to manipulatives (beads, natch!) and put everything on the kitchen counter, so we would be ready in the morning. As it was past 11 p.m. and we knew we had to be up at the crack of dawn, my husband headed up to bed. I stayed up and made a batch of mini-muffins, which I figured would be great for an early-morning on-the-go breakfast.

The house was quiet. But rain was humming outside. Steady, constant. I felt uneasy. Really uneasy. This can’t be good. Oh God, let this all work out.

The Backstory: A few months back, after listening to a friend of mine talk about how much her son (who has autism like Lil D) enjoyed doing races with a group called Inclusive Racing, I thought it might be a good thing for Lil D. There is very little he enjoys doing. Or rather, I should say that I’m still trying to figure out what activities he truly enjoys (beyond pool time).

What will make him happy? What will make him feel part of something? Or even if he doesn’t “love” an activity, what will be a good, healthy thing for him to do that helps others around him get to know him better?

Inclusive Racing here in Central Virginia, like other organizations I’ve heard of, helps people with physical, intellectual and developmental disabilities become athletes by partnering them with teams of runners who push them in adaptive strollers in races. It helps special needs individuals experience the thrill of the race, the high of being an athlete as best possible. The bigger picture goal is to help special needs individuals and their families live more active lives.

And finally, by participating in races, the organization seeks to increase awareness of the challenges that special needs people face, as well as creating opportunities for inclusion in the wider society.

Two things amazed me about this group: First is the whole-soul focus on the individual with special needs and his/her family. This group is all about the special needs athlete. In any race, if at any time the athlete wants out, they pull out of the race. If the athlete needs to stop and use the bathroom or get a drink of water, then the team stops. And the Inclusive Racing organizers tell the volunteer runners to make sure the special needs athlete crosses the finish line first, because this is about him/her – not the runners who are doing the pushing.

The adaptive stroller is donated (DONATED!) to the athlete’s family, and all we are asked to do is use it – not just in races around the year, but at home for walks and runs. With Lil D’s Baba taking up jogging two years back and often taking our other children with him for runs around a nearby lake, I thought this was a great way to get Lil D in on the action.

Secondly is the dedication to creating a truly inclusive environment for the special needs athletes and the community at large. The group works with race coordinators to make sure the special needs athletes and their teams are at the start (with the elite runners) of any race and go over what may or may not happen with their special needs athletes. (We  also filled out a questionnaire about our child for our volunteer team, and they took a lot of time to talk to Lil D, not just me. And I really appreciate that.)

So, after hearing all this from my friend, I thought – let’s give it a shot. I sent emails to the group several months ago. But at the time they didn’t have strollers available, so we put this on the back burner.

Until my friend messaged me several weeks ago and asked if we were still interested, because there was a race coming up and the group had some strollers to give.

It’s at times like these that I truly love and appreciate Lil D and my husband for gamely trying new things out that I pray will become a good activity for Lil D. I feel it so acutely, because I’ve had our other kids do activities in the past that I thought were good for them; that they would enjoy and that would have healthy benefits. But they have always been able to voice their opinions back to me.

Like I insisted that Amal play soccer for several years. She enjoyed it well enough, but it was never her “thing.” So after a few years, I told her that it was now her choice to play or not. But if she didn’t play soccer, she would have to dedicate some time to an outdoor physical activity of her choice. It’s the choice part that kills me with Lil D. Yes, he has choices too, but I’m often trying to figure out what that choice might be.

We went to a pre-race meeting and got our stroller and met Lil D’s volunteer running team. Two weeks later the team came out to our house and did a practice run. The sun was out, the weather was mild and his attitude was great. He seemed to really enjoy it. So, with great hope, lots of prayers and fingers crossed, we prepared for the race.

And then Friday night, the rain started.

Getting ready for the race to start.

We woke up on Saturday at 5 a.m., and the rain was holding steady. I kept waiting for my husband to say, let’s pull out. This does not look good. I don’t think we should make Lil D try this. But he didn’t.

We got to the meeting point near the starting line, and Alhumdullilah (thank God), Lil D seemed comfortable and settled into his stroller. The rain had slowed down, and while his team gathered, we attached the race bib to his blanket and got him all cozy.

But as his team started pushing him to the starting line, the rain picked up again. And then it started pouring. Like, a miserable, cold downpour. We quickly got soaked, and though Lil D had a hood on his stroller and his legs were covered in a blanket (and eventually a plastic covering), he was getting soaked too.

The words kept boring into my head: What are we doing here? Why are we doing this? Why am I exposing my son to this miserable rain? He is not going to like this. Any minute now he is going to lose it.

At the front of the starting line, the strollers and their teams gathered with other elite runners. And we waited an agonizing 10 minutes for it to begin. One of the runners on Lil D’s team pushed him back and forth, trying to keep him calm through constant motion.

And suddenly they called it – Runners take your mark. GO!

And like that, he was gone.

I can’t remember the last time I felt so sick to my stomach with a mixture of fear, excitement, anticipation, regret and hope. Please God. Please, please, please, please, please. Please let this work out. Please let this not have been the most epic mistake I’ve ever made by Lil D. Please let him enjoy.

If you can just imagine the moment when you let your child go — When you try so hard to do right by him and care for him and make sure he is safe and protected. And then you take a chance. You roll the dice and send him out into the world without you on a new adventure, one that you are unsure of, one you have little or no control over. One in which you are trusting other adults, who have just met your child, to listen to his nonverbal cues and take care of his needs.

You. Just. Let. Go.

It is, by far, one of the most scary, exhilarating and nerve-wracking feelings in this world.

My husband and I ran back to our cars and tried to drive closer to the finish line. Because Lil D was doing an 8K, we knew we had about 45 minutes to get there. But so many roads were blocked and traffic was at a standstill. We put the cars back into a garage and beat a fast path on foot to the finish line.

The rule of the race was this – one mile before, we would get a text from Lil D’s team so that we would know they were close to the end. And if at any time they decided to pull out, we would get a text so we could meet them. I kept nervously scanning my phone: No text. No text. No text.

And then, as we were sprinting through back streets and nearing the finish line, at 7:41 a.m., 45 minutes after they had took off, we got the text:

1 mile.

And a few minutes after we positioned ourselves at the finish line, as other strollers and teams began passing through, with my phone’s camera at the ready, I saw them come down the hill.

And, though the din of the crowd was loud, his noises pierced through to my ears.

Happy noises.

His team – four vibrant, energetic, amazing ladies, pushed Lil D through the finish line, where we were breathlessly waiting . They had pushed all 110 pounds of Lil D for 8 kilometers and gave him a runner’s high. It was as plain as day on his smiling face.

One of the ladies told me that a mile into the race, with the pouring rain, they almost pulled out. Up until then, Lil D was showing signs of distress and a building meltdown. But then miraculously the rain stopped. And with that, everything righted itself and he started enjoying it.

As soon as we heard the happy noises, we knew we were good to go, she told me.

Later that day, my husband texted to me: “D absolutely knows when we try and do something special for him And more often than not, he obliges … whether he likes it or not!”

That boy. Such a good son.

When you roll the dice and are about to lose … Then you win. That feeling.

Yeah. :)

About Dilshad Ali

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