This article was written by Hal Walter about his son Harrison’s first snowshoe race. Harrison is on the autism spectrum and runs for the Custer County Bobcats cross-country and track teams.
Harrison Walter – “The Blur” – had never even been on snowshoes, but when Colorado Mountain College coach Darren Brungardt called and asked if he might run in the National High School Championship 5K Snowshoe race, I said I would talk it over with him. CMC hosts the event on the trails at the Leadville Campus, and Harrison, who is in the autism spectrum, will be running cross country and track for the college next year.
Of course Harrison said he wanted to give the snowshoe race a try. So as our hectic schedule panned out we dug a pair of my old racing snowshoes out of the shed and did a short on-snow practice session the afternoon before the race. Harrison seemed to take to the snowshoes just fine, though 3.1 miles at 10,200 feet would be a lot more than just a practice trot.
I figured I would take my cross-country skis and just ski around and take pictures while he was racing, so I threw my ski gear in the car as well.
First thing next morning, Harrison spilled his coffee and it was figuratively and literally off to the races with an epic meltdown. During this he began to question going to the race. Whenever I gave him the “out” to stay home he demanded he wanted to go. We finally drove off amid his hollering and crying. Several times on the long drive to Leadville I stopped to turn around and then he insisted on continuing. He seemed to be stuck in a loop of anxiety where all logic goes out the window. I really wanted to scrap the whole thing but realized things would likely get worse for me if I turned the car around.
This did not end when we arrived at CMC more than two hours later, nor as we checked in, strapped on his snowshoes and did a pre-race warm-up. He kept demanding we go back to the car and leave.
I said several times,“OK but we’ve come this far and you’re going to be disappointed if you bail.”
Then he would say, “Wait, should I do it?”
It’s a tricky slope. I could see real value in him doing the race and wanted to encourage that, but I also am not that dad who forces his kid to do sports.
This went on and on until the last-minute restroom emergency just 10 minutes before the start that saw me pulling off his snowshoes, running in ski boots on ice and pavement with him to the CMC Library restroom, and then helping him get the snowshoes back on his feet as racers lined up at the starting line. As Harrison joined them, several other entrants assured him everything was going to be OK, but he did not settle down.
He was still yelling, “Ohhhhh nooooo! I am not prepared for this!” when Darren gave the signal to go and everyone including him clattered off on their snowshoes sounding like a herd of giant hermit crabs on packed snow.
The race included not only high school, but also college and citizens entrants. Since Harrison had no prior familiarity with snowshoe racing, I had no expectations and had told him to just try to have fun and run for the experience. I skied the opposite direction of the first loop and waited for him to pass. As expected, he was somewhere in the middle of the pack. After he went by, I skied out a different trail to see him descend the famed “Mine Dump” on the CMC trail system.
I watched as the leaders came back, and then more racers went by. Eventually Harrison appeared at the crest of the Mine Dump, clomped down it and scampered the last few meters to the uphill finish. He seemed to have lost a few places from when I first saw him. He later told me that a snowshoe came off and he had stopped to fix that with help of another runner.
I skied on in and Coach Darren jokingly prompted the spectators to cheer me on as if I were in the race. Someone yelled “GO, CUSTER COACH!!!” I stopped just short of the finish line to jokingly gasp for air. I was in fact gassed, but not from the skiing. The comic relief jolted me back to reality and the beauty of this bright January day, the blue sky, the green lodge pole pine trees and the pure white snow.
I’ve often told Harrison that going to college is a fresh start for him. While many people have witnessed his legendary antics at Custer County School since preschool, nobody at CMC has. It’s an opportunity for first impressions to literally create a “new him.” I wondered if one appearance at a snowshoe race may have wrecked this opportunity, but as I looked around I spotted The Blur over at the food table, snarfing cookies and drinking hot chocolate with some other kids. He seemed to fit right in.
On the long ride home we had plenty of time to talk over the events of the day. He did enjoy the snowshoe race and was glad he did not bail on it. He also worried he presented himself poorly to Coach Darren and the rest of his new team.
It was a rare moment of self-reflection and ownership for The Blur. He was real quiet for a long while and then came the watershed moment: “I’m not going to do stuff like that anymore. I promise.”
Suddenly I recalled what I’m really trying to accomplish through The Blur. It’s about more than just running or snowshoe racing. It’s about using these experiences for learning and growth. It’s beyond merely overcoming a physical challenge — it’s about defeating those dangerous negative and fictitious stories in your mind. If Harrison can, so can I. And so can you. Lessons in life. Please share!
Harrison finished the 5K race in 38:04. For complete results and photos, read the post-race article.
About Harrison and Hal:
Harrison’s nickname “The Blur” refers to the gray line between his reality and ours. Harrison has written several articles for ATRA including What Running Means to Me: Through the Eyes of a 15-year-old with Autism and Harrison Walter’s Race Redemption. Hal is a longtime trail runner, pack-burro racer and coach, who has several books to his credit including Pack Burro Stories, Wild Burro Tales, Endurance, and Full Tilt Boogie.