Gerard Atkinson

My Activity Tracking

42
kms

My target 42 kms

422 lengths done!

It's done. 

422 lengths of a rugby field, 42.2km, one marathon distance. 

A day later I'm sore, blistered and sunburned (despite using sunscreen). My feet hurt, and this morning I could barely get up and down the stairs to my apartment. By this afternoon I've been able to at least walk at a near normal pace, but it's going to take a few days before the soreness subsides. It doesn't matter, it was worth it. As of today we've raised well over $2,500 for Autism Spectrum Australia thanks to your support. 

But yesterday was a long day.

It started with a 5:30am alarm and fuelling up on food, before sneaking over the road for an espresso at the local cafe. At 6:30am my wife and I got a taxi across to the field. The sun was already coming up, and a few people were getting in some early morning exercise on the other side of the ground. We set ourselves up, making sure I had ready access to food and drinks, along with first aid. I hooked up my phone to a small speaker to play a hand-selected playlist of motivational music... okay, just a playlist of songs with the word "run" or "walk" in the title, just to be punny. You'd be hard pressed otherwise to find a playlist featuring Johnny Cash, Run DMC, Pantera and the Wiggles.

At 7am two friends from the rugby club arrived to lend a hand, and not long after, we set off on the run from the northern try line, making our way 100m south to the opposite tryline - one length. Turn around, head back again. Repeat 421 more times. The club had lent its official scoreboard for the day, and my wife kept track of the distance run, flipping over the numbers as I went.

The early pace was good, a little too good. My pacers said I was slowing down to keep pace with them. I had to keep remembering to hold back and take it easy, and not go out too fast in the first two hours, lest I collapse in the later stages. But I was feeling good, and was happily chatting with my pacers, singing along to the music, and doing passing drills up and down the field.

100 lengths rolled by pretty quickly, and soon I was pushing towards 200, only slowing down for quick pits tops to stretch, refuel and rehydrate. My early pace was good, on track for a 5 hour marathon, though I wasn't trying to set a time, it was more about survival. As I chatted with my teammates who had come along to pace me, I learned about why they were getting involved in the event. One had an autistic brother, another, an autistic nephew, others, autistic friends. It was a reminder that it's more than likely that you know an autistic person.

As the morning wore on, the sun started to get stronger, and my pace started to get slower. It felt like the degree of difficulty had doubled. My calves were in constant pain, and stretching did little to dissipate the aches. Every time I went back to running after a pit stop it was a struggle to get up to speed, as if my legs couldn't move. I could feel the heat coming off the ground as I pushed forward. Every now and again the heat would be blown away by a passing sea breeze, but that would mean a fierce headwind to run against. 

It felt like the 100 lengths between 200 and 300 took as long as the first 200. The next 10km felt as long again. I felt low on mental energy. All I could do was focus on moving forward. I was trying hard not to get snappy at anyone. I knew they were here to encourage me but at that point I just wanted to retreat into my shell. Needless to say that the chatting had stopped, along with the passing drills. I cradled the rugby ball under my right arm and just kept pushing forward. 

At 360 lengths I entered into unknown territory. Never in my life had I run or hiked this far in a single day. Prior to signing up for this run I had never run more than a half marathon (and even then, nearly 25 years ago in high school), and my longest hike was last year, a full day hike from Hobart to kunanyi (Mt Wellington) and back. And that hike had wrecked me, I could barely stand by the time I made it back. I didn't know whether I could run further than this.

At that point, I made myself focus on why I was doing this. It wasn't about me, or to say that I had done a marathon, or to prove I could push through the pain. It was about the cause. I had spent the week reading about the other runners and their stories. I remembered what it was like growing up without a diagnosis, not fitting in schools, feeling lonely, feeling different. I remembered my autistic friends and the challenges they faced in living independently, finding work and making a career. I also remembered what those friends were like as people - witty, intelligent, caring. I knew there were a lot of people growing up just like I did. I knew that if I kept running I'd be helping to give them a chance.

So I kept going.

By this point I was taking pit stops every 20 lengths (2km), slowing down only as long as it took to get some water and stretch quickly, lest I risk seizing up. Then back out onto the field. 

The scoreboard ticked over. 392...402...412... 

As I entered the final kilometre it started to feel a little easier, the pain in the legs lessened and the pace quickened. But I was worried. I was worried that I would fail at the final stretch and let everyone down. 

It was only when I turned around to run the final length of the field that I felt I was able to make it. I picked up my pace, ball in hand, shouting at myself to leave nothing in the tank. I broke away from the pacers and ran ahead all the way to the tryline, only stopping to put the ball down under the posts in a symbolic try 42.2km and just over five and a half hours in the making. I picked the ball back up, and in true rugby fashion, I walked back out ten paces and attempted the conversion. Unfortunately in my fatigue I skewed it left and missed by a good foot, falling on my backside to add insult to injury. 

My teammates picked me up and brought me back to the sideline for a few photos and interviews, before I took off my shoes, inspected the damage, got myself cleaned up and hobbled over to a waiting taxi to head home. A part of me wanted to go and grab a celebratory beer, but my body was broken. So I headed home and had a long bath accompanied by plenty of replenishing water and food. I barely slept that night from the aching muscles, but I didn't care. 

I had made it.

There's a lot of people that need to be thanked for making this possible. It's not recommended to run a marathon distance with only a month's training, and to do so requires good support. First of all, my rugby club the Alexandria Dukes (and the Alexandria Duchesses netball club), who were behind me from the day I announced it and turned up on the day to take turns pacing me up and down the field. My workmates for being so enthusiastic about the idea and giving me plenty of distance running advice (it's good to have a few marathon runners and professional athletes in your office). The Subbies Rugby Podcast and Brumbies Rugby for the interviews and promotion of the run, and Legendborne Sportswear for the incredible shorts (42.2k and no chafing). And most of all, my family and friends, especially my wife, who supported me and encouraged me the whole journey, and got up with me at 5:30am on a Saturday morning to get me to the field when she would have been well within her rights to sleep in.

At the end of the day, this was a run for an important cause. The work that Autism Spectrum Australia does changes lives and helps build a better world, one where autistic people have the chance to be the best person they can be. When we help people to make the most of their potential, we all benefit. By donating to Autism Spectrum Australia you can help them to keep providing information and support to all people, whether diagnosed as autistic, unsure if they are autistic, or parents, family and friends of autistic people.

Thanks for following my journey. See you on the next one.

Time to bust some myths on the home stretch

Tomorrow morning will be the first day in the last month that I haven't had to do any training. It's a true rest day - I'm even advised to avoid any significant walking. Which sounds counter-intuitive, but every training program I looked at had the same advice. The last week is about tapering off the intensity, with the last 72 hours being rest ahead of the marathon. That way the body can both recover and prepare for the long distance effort.

The idea of training heavily up to and including the day of a marathon is a bit of a myth. Unless you're a professional athlete, and even then, if you are running heavily close to a marathon you're depleting energy and lowering your potential performance.

Speaking of myths, when it comes to autism and neurodivergent people there are a LOT of myths out there. Some are ostensibly positive, but many are quite negative, and lead to stereotyping, exclusion, and mistreatment. That's why it's important for people to find and dispel these myths. Autism Spectrum Australia have created their own myth-busting fact sheet here:
https://www.runforautism.org.au/getasset/GGPS19

But I thought I would help enliven it by going through these for you, in light of my personal experiences and those of the autistic people I know. Of course, the experiences of autistic and neurodiverse people vary - that's why it's a spectrum, and a rich one at that. But hopefully these examples will illustrate that these myths are just that - myths.

Myth #1: Autism is a form of intellectual disability.

Intellectual disability is a separate class of conditions to autism spectrum disorder. While some autistic people may have an intellectual disability, many do not. In fact most autistic people I know have IQs that broadly mirror the general population. And as for me? At last measurement my IQ was rated at 164.

Myth #2: There is a simple spectrum of autism from high functioning to low functioning.

Speaking of which, because of that IQ score people sometimes describe me as "high-functioning", whatever that means. Remember what I wrote about a "rich spectrum"? If you asked me to place myself or any autistic person I know on a spectrum I couldn't do it - each person is so different that comparing on the basis of one or two factors doesn't make sense. Classifying people on a simple, linear spectrum can also limit opportunities and support for all people on it.

Myth #3: Autism is something to be ashamed of.

Absolutely not. Yes, I'm autistic, but I'm not ashamed of it. Knowing that I am autistic can help me better understand how I, as well as other people see and engage with the world. It doesn't make me, or anyone else a lesser person for it. And greater understanding of autism helps us to bring out the best in all people, by finding the areas where they do best and working positively with it.

Myth #4: All autistic people have special skills like Rain Man.

Not really. Sure, there are some autistic people who do possess incredibly honed skills and knowledge, but it's just one factor of the rich spectrum, and most autistic people I have met don't. Some are definitely knowledgeable, some are creative dynamos, some are good with numbers, and some could make great members of a pub trivia team (yours truly), but it's not a universal feature. However, reading the stories of parents doing the Run for Autism it's incredible how often I hear that their autistic children teach them a different, more positive way of seeing the world, and of living. That is a special skill, but we all have that one if we're willing to cultivate it.

Myth #5: All autistic people are violent.

This is an awful myth, sadly perpetuated by the occasional high-profile media case or the occasional attempts to use autism as a criminal defence. But the statistics show the opposite. Autistic people are more likely to be victims of aggression, and less likely to be the aggressor as compared to the general population. 

Myth #6: You can't be autistic because you talk/make eye contact/are a girl.

What? People believe these? Well I do know that people believe these statements because I've seen the statistics. But I can also talk (in multiple languages, at length), make eye contact (though I will say it's something I have trained myself to do), and while I am not a girl, I know enough autistic women to know that autistic women are not a statistical outlier. The problem is that myths like these mean that autistic people can fall through the gaps when it comes to diagnosis and getting access to support. Especially women.

Myth #7: People on the autism spectrum don't experience emotions.

Nobody who has met me (or any of the autistic people I know) would say that. We might experience emotions differently, and we may have different emotional triggers, but we definitely experience emotions, sometimes incredibly intensely. A big challenge I have had when I have trained and performed as an actor is to balance emotional engagement with the work and the character with not becoming overwhelmed by it. This is a challenge that many actors face but for some autistic people including myself it can be a big one. Similarly, I have to work hard to constrain my initial reactions to bad news, because I can risk overreacting - I need time to intellectually and emotionally process it.

Myth #8: "Everyone's a little bit autistic."

It sounds like a certain Avenue Q song... and sure, just because Hannah Gadsby and I both find filling out forms difficult doesn't mean that we or any other autistic people have the exclusive rights to that. We can (and do) share traits with neurotypical people, and we sympathise with them. But at the end of the day, sentiments like the above can be seen as minimising the issue, and similarities on a handful of behaviours doesn't necessarily mean that a person is or is not autistic. It's more complicated than that. But if you're reading this and thinking that you might be on the spectrum, do your research, find out more, and maybe consider a formal assessment. 

A good place to start on the research process is Autism Spectrum Australia - their website can point you in the right direction to find out more about autism. By donating to Autism Spectrum Australia you can help them to keep providing information and support to all people, whether diagnosed as autistic, unsure if they are autistic, or parents, family and friends of autistic people.

There are plenty of other myths out there. If you want to know if what you heard is myth or fact, feel free to reach out to me on LinkedIn. We can figure the answer out together.

The final week

This time next week I'll be recovering. Hopefully after completing a full marathon on only a month's training. Even more hopefully after completing a full marathon on only a month's training in a not embarrassing time and without any major injury. Hopefully...

Physically, I seem to have recovered a bit from Thursday's 24k run which is a positive sign. But the next few days are all about preparing for Saturday. It's been a good chance to take stock of the work that has been done so far in such a short time. I decided to use my skills in data visualization to make a chart of my marathon program, which you can see above. It shows the daily run length, along with the type of run, and a running total of distance over the past month. The greyed out part is what is left to go.

It was a surprise to realise that up to today, I have already put in over 175km of training. Even without the recovery sessions, it is over 150km of running. I don't think I would have believed I would do that at the beginning of the year. But the toughest run is yet to come.

For this last week I am focusing on mental, physical and dietary preparation. My food intake has been steadily increasing over the past few weeks, to make sure that I have enough energy on the day to power through to the end, and getting enough protein to repair and recover from each session. It seems to be working; last night I ended up eating two main courses at a restaurant and then contemplating dessert. I've also become a fan of second breakfasts. 

Physically, the running will start to taper off, with tomorrow being the last major training run. It'll be an early morning 8k loop down to the beach and back. During the week there'll be stretching and rolling to keep the muscles ready.

Mentally, I'm trying to stay relaxed and focused, and to keep my confidence up. It's all too easy to let doubt creep into the picture. I've tried to plan as much ahead so that on the day I can just turn up and go straight into running. I'm also trying to stay positive through reading about all the other people doing this run, and encouraging them in their endeavours. 

From what I've read so far, a large proportion of the people running are doing it for their child or a close family member who is on the spectrum. They want to help give them the best chance at leading a meaningful and fulfilled life. I'm running for them too, as an autistic person who understands the challenges they face and hopes one day to be an advocate and role model for autistic people in society.

You can help too by donating to Autism Spectrum Australia to support their services to autistic people and their families. Your support really does make a difference.

Confronting imposter syndrome through a long run

Today was the toughest test before the marathon. A 24k slog in the rain, on a muddy rugby field, ball in hand. I wanted to get as close to simulating the marathon conditions as I could, but it was lonely out there at 5:30am. No music, no companion runners, just me and a flashing beacon at the other end of the field to make sure I ran the full distance. It was brutal, and I could feel my pace slowing over the three hours that I ran. By the time I finished, I could barely walk.

The toughness of the run and my slower than expected pace made me start to question whether I will be able to do the marathon. But in a way, that was the point of the run. To set myself a psychological test, to see if I could survive my own thoughts long enough. Endurance running is as much a psychological test as a physical test. You're pushing your body to do something it doesn't want to do, hurling yourself against the pain barrier for hour on hour. It takes a lot of mettle to not just give up.

Being autistic can make that more difficult; many autistic people grapple with mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, which can cause unwanted thoughts and negative self-talk. When you're running by yourself you have to manage those thoughts on top of all the physical response. For me it mean putting myself in a state of hyperfocus, blocking out all extraneous thoughts and concentrating only on what mattered in the run. I would focus on my footsteps, whispering to myself to keep "springy", to focus on launching off the ball of the foot, lift my legs, and not overpronate (roll my foot out) when landing. I would focus on the number of up-and-back laps I had completed, calculating in my head percentages of the overall run and counting myself down to the finish. I would focus on each end of the field, the flashing beacon drawing ever closer.

Anything to stop my mind wandering.

But in some ways, that is what I have to do a lot in life. Block out the negative self-talk. Growing up, I didn't know I was autistic, just that I didn't feel like I fitted in. To get by, I learned to imitate the social conventions and norms of others, and pay close attention to social contexts. I would be constantly conscious of my behaviour and try to avoid anything that could be perceived as "weird", from body language and facial expressions to choices of words. I would later learn that this is called "masking". It is a tiring endeavour. 

Furthermore, masking a lot of the time can make you overly prone to imposter syndrome - you're acutely aware both of your behaviours and that you are trying to behave to fit a social norm. You can become scared that people can see right through you, that they're just waiting for a moment to call you out as a fraud. It can be paralysing, especially if you're also prone to perfectionism.

It's something I deal with every day, at work, at home, in social situations, even as I write this. And it requires me to continually use strategies to manage it. But the run is one way for me to challenge it, and myself. Training myself to push myself, to concentrate and challenge the negative talk. 

On the final few laps, even though my energy was sapped, I kept pushing. I knew I was close to the finish and that I could make it. Getting through it has bolstered my confidence that I can do the run. It won't be a fast run, but it will be a run.

I'm running this marathon to help others overcome these challenges. Autism Spectrum Australia provides programs that help children and adults get tailored support that allows them to be the person that they are, and be confident about that. Your donation to the cause will help them to continue that support.

A great resource on what imposter syndrome is and some good strategies to deal with it is here (it affects people from all walks of life, neurotypical and neurodivergent):
https://www.latrobe.edu.au/nest/dealing-with-imposter-syndrome/

The benefits of neurodiversity

(Photo: Me outside my business school, 2015)

Today marked another major test on the way to training for a marathon in a month. It was the first long distance test on a turf surface, and the first test with a rugby ball in hand. I covered 18km in 2 hours, which is about on par with the pace I expect to set across the full marathon distance. However the weather put me at a disadvantage, with some severe crosswinds and driving rain for most of the run, even after postponing the trial until later in the day. I've pulled up a bit sore in the feet and calves, but we'll see how I feel come tomorrow morning.

In the meanwhile I've been preparing to facilitate a workshop later this week on behalf of my alma mater in the USA, Southern Methodist University. Their business school delivers a program of diversity training to undergraduate business students, and I was asked this year to take part as a facilitator for one of the groups. In some ways it has felt like being back at business school, going over readings and preparing responses to questions.

What is interesting though is what isn't part of the supplied readings. While they focus (quite rightly) on the manifold benefits of gender and racial diversity for companies and teams, the readings don't yet incorporate discussions of neurodiversity and its benefits for working environments. It's still an emerging topic, but one that forward-thinking workplaces are starting to embrace. Based on the evidence I have seen, encouraging and supporting a neurodiverse workplace can improve innovation and decision making (which in turn improves profitability). Not only that, people have come to realise that the accommodations made for neurodivergent people can also be beneficial for other staff and for customers.

Firstly, it's worth identifying what people mean by neurodiversity. The word embraces a number of conditions, including autism, ADHD, dyslexia, Tourette's and others. What unites them is the philosophy of seeing these conditions through a strength-based lens, identifying skills and behaviours that are highly developed, and supporting people to best make use of these strengths.

That's a bit abstract, so let's use myself as an example. One of the manifestations of my autism is that I tend to operate on a well-designed schedule - I like to know what needs to be done and when I will do it. Some people have even joked behind my back that I schedule toilet breaks in my calendar (not true, if only because most calendars don't allow you to schedule in less than 5-minute increments). Prolonged uncertainty and "go with the flow" approaches make me physically anxious - my shoulders are tensing up as I write this just thinking about it. 

Traditionally this would be seen through a lens of disadvantage; I would be seen as too rigid, potentially change resistant and therefore not a team player. Not exactly employable qualities. However, a neurodiverse approach recognises the advantages while identifying ways to accommodate and mitigate the downsides of such behaviours.

So how does that work for me? Well, all those years of scheduling have made me quite adept at project planning and management, and by optimising my schedule I can maximise my productivity. These are both highly desirable qualities in my work as a management consultant, but are equally valuable in engineering, logistics and a range of other fields. I've also learned ways to manage the flipside of these behaviours, through a combination of risk assessment and planning (a valuable skill in itself) and putting in place strategies to manage my response to unexpected changes and interruptions, such as taking a brief break before responding, or building in "buffer time" to my calendar. It's a task requiring perpetual vigilance, but it has paid dividends in my work.

There are plenty of other ways that a neurodiverse approach can recognise advantages, but the most exciting value that it brings is the discovery that accommodations and strategies used by neurodivergent people can benefit everyone. 

And I'll give you an example.

Hands up who likes open offices? I'm guessing not many of you. They're loud, bright, lack privacy and are filled with distractions. But they're the norm in so many workplaces. For people with autism open offices can be anxiety inducing and a brake on productivity. But a neurodiverse approach identifies ways to manage such situations. Noise-cancelling headphones to focus, desk and seating positions that reduce visible distractions and increase privacy, and in some cases adjusting the lighting to be more natural. It turns out that these kinds of changes improve productivity for most employees! Employers are realising that making these accommodations can improve the workplace while being a lot less expensive than a full office refit or adding floor space.

But despite these advantages, neurodivergent people remain underemployed. Just this week I read an ABC article* about a man with a science degree, hundreds of job applications, but no luck in finding employment. It's an all too common story.

And it's because of people like him that I'm running this marathon. Autism Spectrum Australia provides programs that mentor autistic people and help them gain employment. Not only that, they provide training and services to employers to help them hire and support autistic people in the workplace, and thereby gain the benefits of having a neurodiverse workforce. Your donation to the cause will help them to continue that support.

If you want to find out more about neurodiversity in the workplace, check out these two articles (in true business school graduate fashion one is from HBR):
https://www.fastcompany.com/90558885/im-a-founder-with-adhd-here-are-5-ways-to-achieve-more-neurodiversity-in-the-workplace
https://hbr.org/2017/05/neurodiversity-as-a-competitive-advantage

*The article referenced is here: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-10-23/autistic-adult-josh-mckeiver-cant-find-a-job/12703848

The first real tests

It's been a week of ups and downs in a literal and figurative sense. On Sunday I went to Canberra for work, which turned out to be a far more stressful and anxiety inducing journey than anticipated. I won't go into the details, because that's not the point of this blog.

What is the point of the blog is to update you on progress towards the marathon, and Canberra represented the first big tests as part of the training program, with substantial dirt and grass running training, along with some big hill sections to test the stamina. Monday morning started early, with a 0530 ascent of Urambi Hill. I thought I had plotted out the easier route which circled around the hill before a longer ascent, but the hill turned out to be two hills, and the longer ascent meant a steep climb of the slightly smaller peak before dropping down the saddle and then reascending to Urambi Hill proper. The views across to the Brindabella ranges were beautiful, but there was little time to absorb it before a tricky descent to Tuggeranong Creek and having to ford the crossing. I ran the next seven kilometres along the foreshore of Lake Tuggeranong in soggy sneakers. It ended up being a total of 14k on day one.

The next day was an opportunity to rest slightly, with a 4k walk to a nearby reserve. The calves have been aching quite a bit from all the exercises, and despite plenty of stretching they are still putting up a protest. But the walk helped stretch them out without straining them.

This was good because the next day I miscalculated the route and what was meant to be a 10k training run on flat trails turned out to be nearly 15k on undulating goat tracks. It was a steady descent down to the Point Hut crossing, followed by a long section of the Point Hut trail along the banks of the Murrumbidgee River, with the track having to head up and down steep banks to avoid overgrown sections of the river. At 6am it was nice though, just myself, some suspicious kangaroos, the occasional fox being harassed by a magpie, and even the odd wallaby. You just had to keep an eye out for wombat burrows, where a wrong step could lead to a broken leg pretty quickly.

But I got through the track and completed the run. Thursday was my last day in Canberra, and it started with a solid 7k run on concrete paths to the peak of Oxley Hill. The strain of the previous day was catching up with me, and the body was starting to hurt. At one point I stopped to stretch and it felt like my muscles were tearing apart. I slowed down after that to limit the damage, but I pulled up fine today, and completed my training program back in Sydney of a 4.5k run in the middle of the day to simulate the hot conditions I am expecting at the end of the marathon. Let's just say it was... sweaty.

So I made it through the first major tests of the training program, and I feel as if I am on track to get through the marathon. Still, I have to look after my body if I am going to make it the full 42.2k. The two biggest tests come in the next week with a 14k run on a rugby field, followed two days later by 24k on a rugby field, possibly in wet conditions. But I'm cautiously optimistic about my fitness.

However, I am a bit less optimistic about getting the event together as I had originally planned. News came through this week that I am not allowed to run the marathon at my homeground of Booralee Park due to the nearby fields being used for cricket games on that day. I've been spending the last day trying to identify alternative places to run and getting permissions. One option has opened up, but it hasn't been confirmed yet. Which means we can't yet promote the event and organise pacers for the day. 

Moreover, I've reached out to a bunch of organisations and rugby corporations and gotten no response from most of them, not even a polite "sorry" or "thanks but no thanks". The only company that got back to me was the one company I hadn't asked for any support as they already donate a percentage of their profits to support autistic people. I just wanted to let them know that I would be wearing their rugby shorts on the day (they're really comfortable!). I also had a great response from the Subbies Rugby Podcast, and did an interview with them last night which was great fun. They've been really enthusiastic about the idea, reflecting the kind of support for each other that rugby is about.

Hopefully I'll firm up some more support next week, and maybe even confirm a venue for the run. In the meantime, tomorrow is a rest day and I am looking forward to a stroll down to a cafe in a nearby suburb for a big breakfast and a strong coffee.

So what does rugby have to do with all of this?

First off, a training update - I've survived the first week of the training program. My calves are sore but stable, and even though it doesn't feel like it, I know I am making progress. A quick ride on the bike this morning made me realise that there's a bit more strength and stamina in the legs than I've had previously. Still, this is the easy phase of the program. Tomorrow kicks off with an 8k run to the beach, followed by an 11k trail run up a mountain in Canberra (I am heading down there for work). The next day is a 3k recovery walk, followed by a 10k run the next day and a 6.5k run the day after. It's the first big test of my body and my endurance. Wish me luck.

But training aside, you might be wondering what rugby has to do with the run and with autism. Hopefully, by explaining my journey with the sport I can show why rugby represents a great example of the kind of accepting environment that we are striving for with neurodiverse people, one where everyone has a place and is valued for their strengths. 

It's worth starting this story by pointing out that I'm not a good rugby player. Absolutely not. I can count the number of tries I have scored on one hand, and the number of good quality tackles I have made on the other, and still have room left over to order a round of beers at the pub. Part of it is physical, part of it is mental, part of it is just a lack of skill. I'm tall and skinny, which is good for running fast, but not so good for making tackles or carrying momentum into a ruck. The mental part relates to a facet of my autistic brain. I have difficulty processing information when multiple people are talking - my brain pretty much shuts down, no matter how hard I focus. On a rugby field you are trying to process shouts and visual information from multiple angles and make split-second decisions based on it. As for the lack of skill, well that's just my fault. 

But my nature of relentless self-improvement means that I like rugby precisely because I am not good at it. It's a challenge, something I feel like I could work at, and try to figure out. Moreover, there's a position in rugby for every body type and skill set. My lightness and speed made me good out on the wing, where that counts more, and out there the level of verbal and visual information you have to deal with is a bit less.

But I didn't really play rugby seriously growing up, I was more of a fan, going to Brumbies games when I lived in Canberra, and watching the world cup every four years.

However, in 2013 I moved to the USA to go to business school. During the first week, the alumni director came up to me and said "Hey Aussie, you know how to play rugby, right"? I told him that knowing how to do something and being physically capable of doing it were different things. This response didn't sway him, and not long after I was recruited into the business school's rugby club.

It turned out to be the best decision I made in business school. We would train late evenings after classes, until past 11pm when the city would shut the lights off at the field. The team was a mix of current students and alumni, which turned out to be a great way to learn about what to expect in courses, and to get support from people who had been through it before you.

But more than that, rugby became my family while living overseas. We'd go on trips to tournaments and no matter what happened, we looked after each other and made sure we had a great time. At one tournament I broke my collarbone in a ruck that went seriously wrong. You'd think that would be grounds for animosity, but this was rugby. After I had returned from the hospital, our team and the opposing team got together and had a drink and a laugh. There was even an impromptu ceremony where I swapped my jersey with the player who did the damage, as lasting memento of the occasion.

And it wasn't just that team. Rugby for me has continually been an instantly accepting space - after graduation I moved to just outside New York to take up a job. I didn't know anyone when I turned up at the AirBnB I was staying at while I looked for an apartment. The owner of the house greeted me and told me that I would have the place to myself for the weekend as he was going out of town for a tournament. I asked him what tournament and he replied "Do you know a sport called rugby"? I was still recovering from my broken collarbone, and pointed at the sling and exclaimed "Know it, how do you think I got this"? By the end of the week I had people helping me out with finding a place to live, furniture and and a car. I had even been put in touch with a few of the local clubs. I ended up joining the Fairfield Yankees, who became my family during that time. It didn't matter if work was stressful, I knew I could count on my teammates. It was a lot of training (they were making a run on the national title, so we trained up to six days a week), but we didn't complain or let up, we were all in it for each other.

When I moved back to Australia it took me a while to settle back in and make the call to go back to rugby, but I eventually rocked up to a preseason training session for the Alexandria Dukes. Again, I didn't know anyone, but I was instantly accepted into the fold. When I retired due to needing a shoulder reconstruction (because I can't tackle to save my life), I was still welcome as a volunteer, something I felt I owed to the club and the game for all the support it had shown me. I trained as an assistant referee so that the club would have someone to help adjudicate games, and would help set up and pack down the field. I've been doing that for the last three seasons.

But what does this have to do with the run? Rugby to me represents a place where it doesn't matter where you're from or how good you are, you can be accepted. For other autistic people, it's not been as easy to find that acceptance. That's why Autism Spectrum Australia invests in education, employment programs, and support services for autistic people. The work that they do keeps autistic children and adults from being left behind, and enables them to live up to their potential. 

And that's why I decided to combine the Run for Autism with my love for rugby and attempt to run 422 lengths of the Dukes' home ground, ball in hand. Already the rugby community are getting behind it; many of my teammates, and players from other teams have offered to help pace me, hopefully making it into what might be the longest passing drill ever. 

Maybe it'll even improve my skills, who knows...

My autism diagnosis

When I was growing up, autism wasn't that well known. The first time I even heard of it was around age 10; another kid at Little Athletics used to tote around a backpack with the name of an autism society on it. I didn't know what autism was (or if he was even autistic), but he was a nice enough kid. 

But by age 10 I had already been through a barrage of tests and appointments with child psychologists. I was preternaturally smart, and had been as long as I could remember. As an example, I was doing tech support for my parents' computer at age 4, when I wasn't dressing up as my favourite Sesame Street character. 

Being smart got me into a fair bit of trouble in school, I would get bullied and then lash out. Back then, they just figured I was 'gifted' and that was it. So I grew up a 'gifted' kid, working hard on trying to make friends, but tiring myself out doing it. I felt like everyone else knew the rules about social interaction but me, like there was a secret guidebook. But I tried my best to watch and learn, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing, sometimes losing my temper and digging myself into a hole. Over time I managed to get to a point where at least outwardly I was successful often enough to get by.

Fast forward 26 years, and I am reading a friend's blog, where he talks about being diagnosed as an autistic adult. My initial impression was of his openness to talk about his way of seeing the world. But it was quickly replaced by an unnerving familiarity. I saw myself in his story, I related more than I expected. So I did what I usually did and started researching about Autism Spectrum Disorder, from general websites to scientific articles. The more I looked, the more I started to wonder whether I too was on the spectrum.

I had long discussions with partner about it. Living with them for the previous three years had highlighted some characteristics in me that I hadn't really noticed before. You don't really notice a need for structure or order in your life is more than average, or that you're surprisingly touch or sound sensitive when you're living alone. It's often only until someone close points it out to you that you realise that maybe you're seeing things differently. We decided I should at least go ahead and get a professional opinion.

My diagnosis process was much more involved than your usual 15 minute visit to the GP. It was a series of appointments over a couple of weeks with a neuropsychologist. In the first appointment, we just talked, about my childhood and adult life, and what brought me to seeking a diagnosis. This was then followed by a series of mental tests, covering vocabulary, spatial reasoning, and reading emotions. 

In the final appointment, I got my diagnosis. I was above average intelligence (no news there), and scored highly on the IQ test component. But when it came to reading emotions my scores collapsed. Sarcasm was a particular blind spot - I kind of knew this already but to have it pointed out so clearly in test results was confronting. At the end of it the neuropsychologist told me their conclusion - I was definitely on the spectrum.

It was quite a lot of news to take, but by then I wasn't surprised. All the research I had done, all the conversations I had had, all the introspection and self-analysis pointed towards it. 

The first thing I did was seek support. I needed to find out how best to manage it. Years of seeking support from counsellors and psychologists had given me some good coping strategies, but I wanted to know if these were fit for purpose, or tailored more to neurotypical minds. I'd like to say that as a result of the support I've worked it all out, but we're still working on it. It's a process.

Speaking of which, it took me a long time to even be comfortable telling people about my diagnosis. I had told my partner, my family, a few close friends and workmates, but that was it. I didn't want it to be a label, and I definitely didn't want it to be a crutch for me to lean on. After all, I was still the same person after the diagnosis. 

So what changed? I started learning about neurodiversity, and the positive impacts that neurodiverse people can and do have on communities, businesses and on society at large. I stopped thinking of being autistic as a possible crutch, and started to see how the things that make me autistic have helped me to succeed in a lot of ways. Seeing the world differently has its advantages.

However, I also realised that I'm very privileged to be able to write this at all. Not everyone had the support I did growing up, or the opportunities to develop their potential, or the ability to go out and get a comprehensive diagnosis in a short time (it can be quite expensive, if you can find an available appointment at all). And because of that there are people and their families out there being left behind.

That's why organisations like Aspect exist. To try to make sure that autistic children and adults aren't left behind, and can use their strengths to build a better world. If a little bit of running (and your support) can help them better achieve that, then I'm in. If you also want to be in, please donate, or better yet join up.

How I'm training for a marathon in a month

So I hadn't really planned on doing this. At least not from a long time ahead enough to plan for it. It was something that popped up in an ad, and I thought "why not". It's a cause I care about, so I signed up. 

And then my ambition got ahead of me.

Next thing, I'm setting myself the target of running a marathon distance, not over the full 8 days of the Run for Autism event, but in a single day. And then I started thinking, "running on roads is boring, why not do it differently". After all, a rugby field is 100m end to end, so 422 lengths (or 211 up-and-back runs) is a marathon distance. Add a ball and some passing practice and it'll be just like training. 

Just one slight complication. I've not run a marathon before. That's not to say I'm not fit - I used to run a sub-25 minute 5k each Saturday morning, often after jogging 3k to Sydney Park as a warmup. In high school I'd even run a sub 2-hour half marathon without any prior training. And last year I hiked over 35k in a single day, from Salamanca Wharf in Hobart to the summit of kunanyi/Mt Wellington (elevation 1,271m) and back, including dealing with blizzard conditions at the summit.

But marathons are a whole different beast. I had heard the stories about needing to train for three months or more, about the physical toll on the body, and about the dreaded "wall" where the body runs out of glycogen stores and you slow to a dizzy walk. I had even watched the movie "Brittany Runs a Marathon", which while being a heartwarming film, doesn't make it look easy. So can a marathon even be trained for in a month?

A quick internet search later and I had an answer: maybe. It is going to take a lot of work, but it's theoretically possible with daily structured training and a good diet. Just to be sure I checked with my physiotherapist, who was supportive and gave me some exercises to build strength and flexibility to give me the best chance of preventing injury. The goal in her view was not to try for speed, but to get to the finish in as good a condition as possible.

So I have a structured program in place. Each day for the next four weeks I am running/walking various distances, building the total amount run each week until the final week, where I prepare for the big day. At the moment I am building leg strength by running on concrete, but over time I'll start integrating grass running into the program. I've also dialled back my weights training to focus on maintenance rather than strength-building.

We'll see how it goes, the first few days have not been terrible, but the body is feeling it. The big tests will come over the next three weeks, firstly with an 11k run incorporating a long hill climb, then the next week an 18k run as the first test of running the rugby field, with an even tougher 24k test three days later. 

But I'm less worried about the physical aspect than the psychological aspect. A marathon is tough enough on the neurotypical mind; you're pushing yourself through self-doubt and pain and yes, the boredom of 42.2 kilometres with nothing but your own thoughts. For an autistic person like me, and with my overactive, anxious brain, it's likely to be even tougher. And there won't be a change in scenery to help distract me. I already know the field well - I've trained and played rugby on it, and spent many a game running the sideline as an assistant referee. 

The same stretch of grass. Up-and-back, 211 times. 

It'll be a test of will. Perhaps that's why I'm trying to make an event of it, create some distractions (and maybe get a few passing drill partners). We'll see.

I'll be blogging more here during the lead up to the event, including photos from training runs, a bit about what it's like being diagnosed as autistic as an adult, what rugby has to do with all of this, and why neurodiversity is a strength that can benefit everyone. Follow along, and most of all, please donate to the cause. By donating you'll be helping autistic people to achieve their potential, and you'll be enabling my reckless behaviour. It's a win-win.

Early morning training

Up before dawn to get a training run in. I've never run a full marathon before (only 5k's, a half marathon and some epic day hikes), so I'm completing an intensive preparation program to make sure that I can get through the full 422 lengths of the rugby field.

I'm running for....

About a year ago at age 36 I was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. I had always felt like I saw the world through different eyes to others, like everyone else magically knew the rules. Growing up, autism was far less known and in my case it was complicated by having a high IQ. People just put me into the "gifted" box and left it at that.

While diagnosis has been a relief in ways, it has changed how I approach the world. Before my diagnosis my response was to try and better myself, thinking if I just work that little bit harder I'll get it. I'm ambitious by nature and that hasn't changed. I still work hard and believe in self-improvement. What is changing is my understanding of how to do that, to make the most of my strengths rather than relentlessly focussing on my weaknesses.

And this run is part of that ambitious streak. Instead of just running 42.2k, I'm going to combine it with my love of rugby and attempt to run 422 lengths of my club's home ground, ball in hand. Every rugby club I have been a part of has accepted me for who I am (and even my lack of tackling ability). This run is about helping society to be more accepting like that.

Help make my run challenge count and show your support by donating today!

My Achievements

Uploaded a profile picture

Shared page on social media

Personal donation made

Halfway to fundraising goal

Reached fundraising goal

Reached total KM goal

Raised $100

Raised $500

Thank you to my Sponsors

$265

Graham Atkinson

Go for it Ged. So proud.

$265

Anne Atkinson

All power and strength to you!!

$150

Charlotte Bryant

Such an incredible effort and awareness raised for such an important cause. Well done :)

$106

Aaron Smith

Mate, so proud of your efforts! Well done to achieve the run and the money you've raised!!

$106

Kevin And Laura Morris

That was a champion effort, well done mate.

$106

Fiona

Go Cat Go!

$106

Mr Phillip Tovey

Good on you Master Penguin. Your an amazing part of the Dukes.

$106

Alex Schulz

Best of luck mate. The Dukes are lucky to have you.

$106

Gerard Atkinson

$100

Phil Hughes

Good luck. See you tomorrow.

$100

Kevin And Jan Tyra

Go get 'em, Gerard!

$100

Pearson

$53

Jason Atkinson

All the best with the run and sharing your experiences.

$53

Craig & Maz

Amazing effort! Sure all that parkrun practice will pay off!

$53

Carl Rohde

Love you mate and glad you're helping out even when the world is crazy! Can't wait to visit you someday soon!

$53

Peter & Elaine Atkinson

All the best Gerard........It will be a terrific effort.

$53

Simon Atkinson

Yew!

$53

Marg Weston

Awesome effort Gerard! Lots of love. Marg and Mike and the family.

$53

Janet Kidson

Believe you can and you are halfway there

$53

Steph Quail

This is both slighlty bonkers and very impressive - good luck!

$53

Andrew Hawkins

$53

Sami Zaidi

$50

Penguin ?

Run Gerard Run!

$50

Marita

more power to you Gerard

$50

Simon Jordan

All the best for the run. Cheers Simon

$30

Nathaniel Kong

$26.50

Sambhav Puri

Sending all of my support your way!

$26.50

Natalia Melnik

$26.50

Varisht Gosain

Best of luck brother.

$26.50

Kerry Hart

Well done Gerard, enjoy the run on Saturday.

$26.50

Colcott

You are a legend mate!

$26.50

Imogen W

Good luck Gerard!

$26.50

Billy Hodgetts

GREAT JOB! A very interesting story! I hope you will sing some of they way! Good luck :)

$26.50

Liese

Great work and good luck!

$26.50

Tash

Goodluck Gerard :)!

$26.50

James Schulz

$26.50

Chris Stephenson

Lucky your a good runner

$25

Brad Astbury

Well done Gerard - amazing effort!

$25

Reece Milne

Good on you mate. Proud of ya. Para Bellum!

$25

Tinky Kaur

Good luck!

$25

Kate Sunners

An extra donation boost for the sore legs!

$21.20

Marina Neil

Legend! Incredible achievement.

$21.20

Kieran Sobels

Run like the wind!

$21.20

Nadia

Well done x

$20

Anonymous

$19.08

Anonymous

$10.60

Kate Sunners

Good on you Gerard! Happy running!

$10

Matthew Bailey

Well done mate