Emily Ritson’s brother Ben has autism. She thought that introducing him to parkrun could be a life changing experience for him.
Here, Emily tells us all about Ben and his parkrun adventures so far.
My brother Aaron and I took up running to make sure we got our exercise as we have a family history of heart disease. One morning we came across the parkrun Run Director packing away after an event and asked her all about it. It sounded great, so in September 2012 we gave it a go!
We loved it! Being around other people, having support from the Marshals and getting a time at the end made us excited and wanting to get back the following Saturday.
We made lots of friends at Stretford parkrun and enjoyed seeing them each weekend and learnt a lot from chatting with them. We both wanted to improve our fitness and beat our times so we tried to eat more healthily and went out training mid-week too.
As our fitness improved, we pushed ourselves further and ended up running 10ks and half marathon races. Aaron has autism, as well as our brother Ben. Due to his experience at parkrun he then felt more comfortable running in crowds at these other events.
It totally changed our lifestyle. It all started with parkrun.
Ben, who is 22 years old, but developmentally much younger, knew Aaron and I were enjoying parkrun but he didn’t ever want to join us. He has a heart condition as well as his autism and often he prefers to be indoors and alone.
He was gaining weight and even though he couldn’t articulate it, we knew it was making him feel down. It was as if he wanted to be healthier, knew what he needed to do, but was sure he would fail, so he wouldn’t try.
One time at Heaton Park I had seen they had bibs for First Timers. I saw the support the new parkrunners got. Ben thrives on encouragement, particularly from strangers so I asked if he wanted to come to the next one. He was really excited!
I was a bit nervous about how it would go, but Ben couldn’t wait. He loved the atmosphere and the crowds, and running in a big group. Everyone cheered him on and it filled him with confidence. He realised that he could do it. He came away asking to go back the next week. His self-confidence grew tremendously that day!
Ben thrives on the support and encouragement from the volunteers and from other parkrunners. He does find it challenging, we run-walk the course, but he doesn’t give in. Usually, he is quick to give up when something is difficult, but parkrun has taught him so many new life skills. His self-esteem after finishing a parkrun is sky high and he is so proud of himself.
parkrun makes Ben happy all week. It has honestly changed him for the better, just as I hoped it might! He has made new friends and his health has improved too. For Christmas, he asked for ‘proper’ running gear and he tried it out at the Christmas Day parkrun.
Before lockdown, we were attending parkrun every week. Usually Ben and I run-walk the course together as he is still building up to running the whole distance. Aaron sometimes stays with us, and sometimes runs at his own pace and we meet at the end. Our Mum is always there cheering us on.
parkrun has always been special to us but now that we are all there together it really is the best part of our week.
On the last park run before Covid-19 hit us, we volunteered at Worsley parkrun. Ben loved shouting encouragement and cheering the runners on. He has asked to volunteer again, when we can.
During this lockdown period Ben has become very anxious being outside but we have managed to convince him to come out for walks. We use parkrun as a motivator, telling him he needs to be ready for when it returns. He has joined our gym and is so confident using the machines. He keeps telling us that he is at the gym so he can break his parkrun record!
Aaron and I have continued our regular training. Aaron worked out a 5k route around the streets near our home, so we make sure we run that route every Saturday. We’ve named it Aaron’s parkrun. We’ve even got it printed on to a parkrun apricot T-shirt!
I would love Ben to keep enjoying his parkrunning and for him to become healthier. He always talks about breaking his record, so it would be brilliant to help and encourage him be able to run further and faster. I’d also like him to keep volunteering, as that experience worked wonders for his confidence levels.
We’ve met some amazing people at parkrun, like a Tail Walker that stuck with us during storm Denis, and was incredible with Ben, not allowing him to quit. We really owe parkrun so much. We are so grateful to everyone involved!
We can’t wait to be back!!
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