The Hardest Obstacle

Aaron on his first OCR course – Spartan Sprint Palmerton, PA 2015
Aaron on his first OCR course - Spartan Sprint Palmerton, PA 2015
Aaron on his first OCR course – Spartan Sprint Palmerton, PA 2015

The hardest obstacle by far for me is my son. I’m training him for his first OCR. He is autistic. One could take the dogmatic approach and train him like anybody else with autism. But that is a myth. Autism is a spectrum disorder and that makes everyone with the disorder different. Therefore, the obstacles are infinite. And these obstacles are not just mental and physical for him. I am also an obstacle. As his parent and trainer, my knowledge of his capabilities and limitations is limited. Each step is a discovery. So, as with anyone on the autistic spectrum, the approach to training is pragmatic. We try what works, discard what does not. And then, it might all change.

My wife and I knew right away that mud would be an issue. My son has a sensory issue with mud. So, we all agreed to remove that obstacle from his initial training. Sensory issues are common on the autism spectrum. Since sensory overstimulation is common on the course, this could lead to undesirable consequences – like a shutdown.

Social skills are also difficult for him. Expressing feelings and problems are a major struggle. So when he shuts down, communication comes to a stop and the guessing game begins as I try to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it. Cuts and scrapes surprised me as the next obstacle. My son got a little bloody scrape and shut down. I thought training was over before we barely started. “You can’t do OCR if you can’t handle cuts,” I said. That broke the spell. He became angry. “Don’t tell me I can’t. I’m tired of everybody telling me I can’t do this. Wait another year and we’ll see. I’m doing OCR!” And that was it. He made up his mind. We trained again the next day as scheduled. He fell, got a scrape, stood up, and instead of shutting down, pointed to it and said, “See. I’m fine.” And on we went. I did a little victory dance.

He surprised me a few other times. It seems that when he sets a goal, nothing stops him. Not even things that would normally shut him down. We started his training with the basics. Pushups, pullups, situps. He couldn’t do

Mud on the face - like this - is a major sensory issue for some autistics
Mud on the face – like this – is a major sensory issue for some autistics

any of them. But he wanted to. He had a goal. “I will do at least one pushup and one pull-up unassisted in the next thirty days,” he said. And he did. I just didn’t really expect it. He waited until the end of some very strenuous training sessions to do them. More victory dances. I even called my wife out to see him do it again. And he did.

Encouragement like that gives me hope. I can see the OCR spirit in him. The strength. Competitiveness. The will to overcome. But there are still more obstacles ahead.

We wanted his first OCR opportunity to be as a volunteer. That way, when nobody was around, I could take him on obstacles and train him, but it rained that day and I did not take him with me – MUD. He agreed it was a good decision. Now the season is over, school started, and the obstacle of time crept in. His training skidded from six days a week for an hour each to maybe two or three days a week for twenty minutes. OCR will have to wait.

Perhaps you have or know of autistic children. I encourage you to train them. They are out there on the course. They are champions of the mud just like us. They may need a special kind of help and thankfully there are lots of wonderful volunteers on the course who do help. I see the tears of the parents, the smiles of the children who otherwise rarely show any emotion, the gasps of the onlookers as they see these kids do the impossible.

That is by far the hardest obstacle of all. The will to never give up. Every meltdown raises that question. But the power of the human spirit of my son always proves that we will both try again. I’m confident we’ll see you on the course.

Aaron placed second in his age category at the Freedom 5K Aaron placed second in his age category at the Freedom 5K


Mr. Caldwell, aka the OCRMudmaster, is an competitive master's division OCR athlete.He lives in Medford Lakes, NJ with his wife and three sons.He trains in his backyard on his DIY gym.

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  1. Thanks for writing this. My son was diagnosed with Aspergers at 5. I totally get it. Sensory processing is huge deal that people can’t grasp until you live it.

  2. I loved this article. I have a son on the spectrum as well. Training him to run an OCR would be quite a challenge. It sounds like you’re doing that with wisdom and grace. Well done!

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