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Running With Autism: The Anthony Crudale Story

(This article was originally published in the October 2002 issue of Runner’s World Magazine.)

Daily summer life begins early in Las Vegas. Just after dawn, construction workers fill industrial size jugs at convenience store water vending machines, and sprinkler systems gushing like high-pressure fire hoses flood city parks.

Shadows quickly move across the backdrop of the red-tinted mountains that surround the valley. Blinding daggers of light reflect off the mirrored-glass windows of hotel-casinos along the gambling strip.

It is 6 a.m. and city is hot before it is hot.

Like other runners, cyclists, mothers pushing baby strollers and retirees on their daily constitutionals, morning is also Anthony Crudale’s best time. Most days, he awakens at 4 a.m. and begins his day as his stepfather also prepares for work.

Crudale is not employed. But in recent times, his daily routine has consumed his time. Like others who suffer from the disorder of autism, Crudale is focused to near obsession. He wants to run fast marathons.

On this late June morning, about three weeks after completing his eighth marathon (and fourth Suzuki Rock & Roll Marathon in San Diego), Crudale is still in his recovery mode. He has agreed to delay his usual departure to accommodate me on a 10-mile run.

When I arrive at 6:30 a.m., he is dressed and ready to drive to nearby Henderson where he regularly trains on a hilly asphalt suburban course. Crudale prefers a 15-mile loop among the Joshua trees and red rocks of the high-mountain desert. But it’s the run that matters most, and we are soon on our way.

Diagnosed at 18 months old (earlier than most patients) with the neurological disorder that affects the communication area of the brain, Crudale has fared well. Many autistic people never speak or learn other basic components of self-sufficiency.

But early intervention and his three-year tenure until age 5 as the first patient of the Behavioral Development Center in Providence, R.I., prompted Crudale’s success. He had 12 of the 14 criteria used to determine autism, including self-abusive behavior. He first spoke at age 4.

Crudale is also an asthmatic and he has food allergies that nearly killed him as a young boy. But now at age 24, he has overcome many obstacles. Last December, he graduated from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He struggled academically, but succeeded with help of a tutor and now has an art degree. The results of his studies are his clay sculptures, black and white and pastel-colored chalk drawings and paintings of sports figures and futuristic scenes, some self portraits.

Communicating with strangers and using gestures like shaking hands – unique for many other autistic people – is routine for Crudale. But he can look directly at or away from strangers for long periods of time, and he can appear restless while rocking back and forth.

Crudale also sometimes answers questions with one-word responses, and he has a deliberate speech pattern that can include repeating words he’s just heard.

Still, his intelligence has prompted the unknowing to comment that he must have been misdiagnosed.

His mother, Donna Martinez, and his doctors know better. More than two decades after he was first diagnosed, videotape of Crudale’s unresponsive periods and self-abusive ways is still shocking.

“People hear the word ‘autism’ and they think of the movie Rain Main, his mother says of the film starring Dustin Hoffman. “That movie was made to show the public what they did with autistic people in the 1950s and 1960s. They were institutionalized. It’s just ignorance. It’s no that people are stupid. They just fear the word ‘autism.'”

Running with an autistic person is another matter.

As the temperature quickly rises into the mid-80s, Crudale methodically maneuvers his late-model SUV through convoys of construction trucks that dominate the Las Vegas suburban sprawl. He was taught to drive by his father, who was also his best friend. He died of cancer in 1994. Anthony has never displayed any signs of grieving, but he once told his mother that when his father died, his life was ruined.

Crudale’s vehicle is scattered with running shoes. His mother lovingly but sternly jokes with her son that passengers shouldn’t be subjected to its locker room fragrance. He is also fond of heavy metal music, and he can adeptly recite the titles and individual cuts of his CD collection.

We arrive in 25 minutes at a park in an upscale neighborhood. Anthony locks his car and attaches the keyless remote to his shorts. I tell him to lead the way. He has remembered to bring a bottle of iced water, a simple act of logic I’ve forgotten.

Crudale has been a skilled runner since his junior year at an all-male college preparatory high school, also in Rhode Island. Influenced by the eldest of his two older brothers, James, he progressed from 400 to 800 meters, then the mile. Despite his asthma and autism, his talent quickly advanced.

Within a mile into our run, Crudale’s talent is obvious. At 5-7, 135 pounds, he is nearly half my age and 50 pounds lighter. As the sun’s heat radiates off the freshly paved asphalt, he quickly pulls away as we climb a long, steady grade.

Crudale runs with an erect stride. His hands are slightly clenched at the knuckles. He is lean and tanned and handsome, and he’s an efficient combination of youthful energy, strong lungs and unbridled enthusiasm.

Crudale wears his dark hair in a buzz cut, and as he strides along, he’s quiet, with the exception of occasional brief grunting. He times his runs with an expensive running watch he bought for himself, and when I ask him how we are doing, he says we’ve run for 32 minutes. I am tired but not in trouble, and I soon realize I have have no idea where I am and
that Crudale may soon be out of sight.

About four years ago, Crudale decided he wanted to train for a marathon because “it was something not too many people were doing.” He ran often with the Las Vegas Track Club, but as he excelled his solo training runs in the desert became more frequent because no one could run his pace.

In his debut at the 1998 Suzuki Rock & Roll Marathon, Crudale ran 3:19 and described it as “not too horrible.” But because of family confusion and race organizational woes, Crudale was lost from his family for three hours after the race.

“After running a marathon and walking around for three hours and being lost, when I saw him he looked like he was going to drop,” recalls his mother, a registered nurse. “Oh, man. He didn’t look too good.”

Despite his ordeal, Crudale was captivated. In the three subsequent editions of the race, he has finished in 2:44, 2:36 and 2:41.

During the weekend of the 1999 Rock & Roll Marathon, Crudale introduced Deloy Martinez, the former president of the Las Vegas Track Club, to his mother. The two were married last year.

Crudale resides with his mother and stepfather, but lives largely independently. Although he doesn’t completely understand the value of money, his family is optimistic he will be able to live independently again, like he once did with one of brothers and a friend in Rhode Island during his first semester of college.

“We’re not so much concerned about Anthony,” his mother explains. “But Anthony doesn’t know vices, and he would be an easy target for crime.”

Despite his college degree, the family’s biggest concern is finding their son full-time employment. With the assistance of a recruiter, he was hired part-time at a Las Vegas art gallery. But he was disappointed when asked to do menial tasks, like cleaning the bathroom. He eventually told the store owner of his displeasure. When the job ended several months later, Crudale retreated and regressed. He has since applied for a data processing position at a local hotel.

With ample free time, he runs as many as 115 miles per week, mostly alone. He also lifts weights at a local health club. Although he has a few friends, he spends more than his share of time by himself. He does not date.

Hopeful to run faster than 2:30, Crudale was devastated when he ran 11 minutes slower than he predicted at the Rock & Roll Marathon early last June.

In repeated conversations with me after the race he said, “I can’t start running again until I have a coach; I am in serious need of a coach. This is the third straight marathon I’ve run without a personal best. I think my program is in serious jeopardy.”

Unable to fully comprehend that runners don’t always run their fastest times every race, Crudale took two weeks off, then began to run again, longing to add to his healthy running pedigree. In addition to his eight marathons, Crudale has other impressive credentials. He’s run 32:50 for 10km, 55:56 for 10 miles and a 1:13:38 half-marathon.

At the 2000 Las Vegas International Marathon, Crudale ran his personal-best time of 2:35:58. Last March, while competing in intermittent hail and winds gusting to 50 mph, he was victorious at the Sutter Home Napa (Calif.) Valley Marathon, a 2,000-runner event, in 2:42:27. He is believed to be the first autistic person to win a marathon.

The walls of Crudale’s bedroom are decorated with medals, plaques and other race honors. His favorite award is the double-magnum of wine he was presented as the winner of the Napa Valley Marathon. Crudale doesn’t drink alcohol, but he proudly displays the wine in its engraved wooden case.

There are no medical concerns for autistic runners, and Crudale’s mother and stepfather are supportive yet concerned with their son’s devotion to the sport.

“I’m glad he’s good at it; it’s gives him confidence,” says his mother, who attends his marathons. “But I don’t like the ritual of it. It’s like when he used to spin things for hours. It bogs down his life.”

Nearly an hour into our run, I catch Anthony with a short burst and I ask if perhaps we can shorten our run. It is approaching 90 degrees at 8:15 in the morning. In the dry heat, my running shorts are caked in salt and I am parched.

“OK, sure,” Anthony says after he has waited again for me at the crest of another hill. But within a few minutes, he’s gone again, weaving through neighborhood pathways and greenbelts. I soon realize we haven’t shortened our course at all.

I ask a gardener, then two maintenance workers in a small pickup truck for directions. I walk a few yards farther and then run along a short downhill, cross a street and then veer around a corner.

Anthony has walked back out into the street to greet me. We drive home together and I ask my running partner, if he was testing me. He says yes, and then repeats a question he has already asked twice but in different ways.

“When my mother said I was an easy target, did she mean because of all the congestion and the people?”

We arrive back at the Martinez-Crudale resident at 9:15 a.m. Anthony says we’ve run maybe 11 miles, some at 7-minute pace.

Following a shower, I chat with Crudale’s stepfather for a few minutes and shake hands. I ask if I can say goodbye to Anthony. Martinez calls for his stepson and he bounds down the stairs, toothpaste smeared across his face.

We shake hands and Anthony follows me outside.

“We do you think you might be coming back? he asks.

All I can think to say is, “I don’t know, but hopefully soon.”

We shake hands again. I back my car out of the driveway and slowly drive down the court. I wave goodbye. I turn on the radio and an announcer says it’s 98 degrees and sunny in Las Vegas.

I look in the rear view mirror. Anthony has walked down the street toward me. Then he stops and turns toward home.

(Writer’s note: Crudale and his mother and stepfather have returned to live in Rhode Island, near the facility where Anthony was first diagnosed as autisic. He continues to compete in long-distance running events.)