Autism Doesn't Slow This Marathoner

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Starting corrals at elite-runner marathons often showcase the sport's diversity--the long-legged and sleek, the short and slightly built and a host of others with pedigrees as long as their strides.

With increasing regularity, Anthony Crudale has been in the front-of-the-pack fraternity, as he was at the start of the 20,000 runner Rock & Roll Marathon in San Diego on June 3.

At 5 feet 7 and 135 pounds, the Las Vegas runner fit in well. He has his share of honors--including age-group titles, overall shorter-distance road race wins, and a marathon victory--in his short career.

He is also autistic.

The 24-year-old Crudale was diagnosed at 18 months old--earlier than most patients--with the neurological disorder that affects the communication area of the brain. Its cause is unknown.

"People meet Anthony and sometimes they say, 'Oh, he must have been misdiagnosed,' " said his mother Donna Martinez, a registered nurse. "But they don't know the history or what we've gone through."

Despite the obstacles, Crudale has excelled athletically and academically. He has graduated from Nevada Las Vegas with an art degree in December.

Of the 14 criteria used to determine autism, Crudale had 12, among them self-abusive behavior. He was not abusive toward others, nor was he nonverbal. Although some autistic people never speak, Crudale began to talk when he was about 4.

After three years as the first patient of the Behavioral Development Center in Providence, R.I., Crudale attended normal grade school, then an all-male college preparatory high school.

His athletic skills developed slowly. He tried swimming and basketball as a boy and remembers passing a football. But he began to run seriously as a high school junior, influenced by the success of one of his two older brothers, James.

Crudale progressed from 400 to 800 meters, then the mile. Although he has asthma, as well as autism, his running skills rapidly improved.

Until last week, organizers of the Rock & Roll Marathon didn't know Crudale was autistic, although he finished the race in all of its first three editions. He is also a former age-group division winner, but he was disappointed when he didn't receive an invitation to the elite starting area.

Deloy Martinez, Crudale's stepfather, veteran marathoner and a race director in Las Vegas, contacted race organizers and the error was corrected.

Despite predicting a finishing time of faster than 2:30, Crudale was the 30th male finisher and 40th overall in 2:41:56. His finishing time was five minutes slower than his performance last year, and he was devastated.

"I can't start running again until I have a coach; I am in serious need of a coach," Crudale repeated several times the day after the race. "This is the third straight marathon I've run without a personal best."

With his mileage peaking at 115 miles per week, most in the mountainous, warm Las Vegas desert, Crudale began the San Diego race well. He ran the first 10K in 35:44 and completed the first half of the race in 1:17:28.

"The first 10 miles, I was all right," he said. "But from miles 11 through 20, that's when things fell apart. I just think my program is in extreme jeopardy."

Crudale has overcome obstacles far greater than the mythical "wall" of a marathon. He had severe food allergies as a boy and nearly died. Videotape of his self-abusive periods and other unresponsive episodes from his youth still shock his mother.

Although he had progressed well, Crudale suffered a setback in 1994. His father, who had taught him to drive and was closest friend, died of cancer.

Upon graduation from high school, Crudale applied to one college, UNLV. He had visited his uncle in the gambling mecca many times and enjoyed running in the warm, dry climate.

Crudale's autism wasn't disclosed on his college application, because as his mother says, "It wasn't asked." But when the family acknowledged his acceptance, they informed the university of his disorder.

"People hear the word 'autism' and they think of the movie 'Rain Man,' " his mother said 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 not that people are stupid. They just fear the word 'autism.' "

Crudale has other similarities to Hoffman's movie character. Crudale sometimes answers questions with one-word responses, and he has a deliberate speech pattern that can include repeating key words he's just heard.

He can look directly at or away from strangers for long periods of time, and he sometimes appears restless while rocking back and forth.

Crudale will shake a stranger's hand, the physical contact unusual among the autistic. He enjoys driving and playing rock and roll music in his SUV that's packed with running shoes and CDs of heavy-metal bands. He wears his dark hair in buzz cut and he is tanned.

Crudale moved to Las Vegas not only to begin his college education, but also to train with the Las Vegas Track Club. The idea of running a marathon, he said, was to do something "not too many people are doing." With a little prompting from his mother who said Anthony wanted to excel, Crudale repeated, "I wanted to run a marathon because I wanted to excel."

Crudale ran the first of his eight marathons at the inaugural Rock & Roll Marathon in 1998, finishing in 3:19. He described his debut as "not too horrible." 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," his mother recalled. "Oh, man, he didn't look too good."

But Crudale was enthralled. The following year, he ran 2:44 at the same marathon, then 2:36 last year. At dinner during the weekend of the 1999 event, Crudale introduced his mother to Deloy Martinez. The two married last year.

Crudale lives with his mother and stepfather in suburban Las Vegas, but he is largely independent. Sometimes, three times a week he drives himself into the desert before sunrise for his hilly 15-mile runs among the Joshua trees. He doesn't have many friends, but he goes grocery shopping and he lifts weights at a local health club.

Crudale's mother and stepfather are hopeful he can someday live on his own, but there are difficulties. Crudale is uncertain of the value of money. He has purchased multiple pairs of running shoes on the Internet while uncertain of their price. He also bought several dozen bags of pasta at a time, telling his mother he "has to eat carbohydrates because he's a runner."

When Crudale chooses a marathon, he repeatedly studies the race's altitude profile on the Internet to the point of near-obsession. He memorizes past race weather patterns, knows course records and visualizes how he believes he can fare.

Without any medical concerns and noticing his increased confidence, Crudale's running has been encouraged by his family. The walls of his bedroom showcase many trophies, medals and finishing awards.

At the 2000 Las Vegas International Marathon, he ran his personal-best time of 2:35:58. In March, while competing in winds gusting to 50 mph and in intermittent hail, he was victorious at the Napa Valley Marathon, a 2,000-runner event in Northern California wine country, in 2:42:27. "I was feeling good up until mile 20, but then the head winds started to kill me," Crudale recalled. "But when I won, it felt like I had won a million."

However, as his running career progressed, Crudale struggled in college. He had a class tutor for notes and to help him overcome his retention problems.

Nonetheless, he became the first person with autism to graduate from UNLV. Crudale has an art degree, the result of which are many pastel paintings of sports figures and futuristic scenes, some self portraits.

Through a job recruiting service, Crudale worked part-time in a Las Vegas art gallery for several months. But the job recently ended.

"People don't understand; they're ignorant," Crudale's mother said. "They don't know that Anthony would be a perfect employee. People who are autistic focus on exactly what they are doing. They try to master things."

When Crudale graduated from college, a local television station ran a story on him and there was other regional media attention. Crudale's artwork has also been reviewed in publication.

The various exposure may boost Crudale's confidence. Yet, his mother said the coverage he received from a nationally syndicated television running program may have also affected his marathon performance last weekend.

Overall, however, Donna Martinez accepts the attention her son receives. She's frustrated yet compassionate, and the progress she's noticed in his education and his athletic accomplishments helps her cope.

During the time of his college graduation, Martinez remembers a special moment, a glimpse into the intellect of her autistic son.

Crudale looked at his mother, pointed to his head and said, "It's all in here, it just can't come out."

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James Raia is a freelance writer in Sacramento.

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