Aaron is the friend we all need on our team. He's cheerful, kind, thoughtful, and perceptive. Aaron is also a writer, runner, and outdoor enthusiast, and today he gives us a taste of his wit as he shares how he started to run long distance, why he writes, and how he aims to show others that people living with autism have diverse and fulfilling lives.
Tell us about yourself.
My name is Aaron Jepson. I’m turning 23 years old in a couple of weeks. I live in Monument, Colorado with my family. I was born in Michigan and have lived in Colorado, Utah and Texas. I liked each of those places for different reasons (except Michigan, which I can’t remember). My favorite thing is to be outside listening to music or just the quiet of nature.
When and why did you start running? How does running make you feel?
I started running in 2017 when I was 19. My older brother is a very fast runner and competed in high school and his first year of college. My dad also runs and does triathlons, so I have been around it for a long time but I didn’t think about doing it myself until I was older. I wasn’t sure that I had the mental fortitude to be a distance runner. I have autism and am quite affected by it (I can’t speak very well, have lots of anxiety and am dependent on my parents to help me get by). But my parents have always challenged me to think bigger than my circumstances and try to tackle new goals. One summer my dad and I decided to do something epic that would push me out of my comfort zone. I decided I wanted to run a marathon. I had never run more than 800 meters before without stopping. So, this was going to be a major challenge.
Running is like medicine for me. It hurts my body but it awakens my mind and calms my spirit. I love it.
We started training and it wasn’t going very well because I kept stopping after every few hundred yards. And when I ran, I sprinted. My dad couldn’t get me to stay with him and we were both getting frustrated. Finally, we tried something different. He brought a short rope and we each held an end. Then we set time goals to run with short breaks of walking. This helped me feel connected to something and kept me consistent. We increased the running intervals as I got into better shape. I ran my first half-marathon with the rope in Colorado Springs. It was an awesome feeling to cross that finish line. I loved the high that I felt and how calm my brain was when my body was tired. We kept training, got rid of the rope and just used a stopwatch to keep me pacing with my dad. The next year I entered my first marathon, the Goblin Valley Ultra. It was a mix of road run and trail run. The marathon group was pretty small. It was a beautiful race with incredible scenery. There were lots of hills though and the trail section was challenging. My dad and I kept pushing along though and passing people, in spite of my scheduled walk breaks. Miraculously, I not only finished but came in first place. I couldn’t believe that I had accomplished my goal and that I had won the race in spite of my disability. That gave me great confidence and has allowed me to keep setting higher goals. I hope to run a marathon in every state and someday qualify for Boston as a regular runner, not a disabled one.
Did you participate in any other sports growing up?
Running was my first real sport outside of Special Olympics basketball, track, and bowling. I never did well with anything team-oriented and I’m not that coordinated. I like running because it is not obvious that I am disabled (except I make weird noises and talk out loud which I think startles some people). That’s okay though. I just run past them and smile to myself each time.
What are some of your other favorite activities?
I love to hike, climb fourteeners in Colorado (a fourteener is a peak with an elevation of 14,000 feet or more), and I am writing a novel about a girl with autism who solves a murder.
The Zion Half was your third half marathon and you are preparing for your fifth full marathon. Where was your first half marathon? First full marathon? Do you prefer one distance more than the other?
I like marathons because it feels like a bigger accomplishment. Plus, I get to check another state off the list.
If you had to pick road races or trail runs, which would you choose?
I like them both for different reasons. I like road races because it’s easier to go faster and find a good rhythm. I love getting a new PR and getting closer to my goal of Boston. But, trail runs are usually more scenic and the trail keeps you focused on what lies ahead. So I enjoy running a mix. I train mostly on trails since that is what is around my house in the foothills.
You shared with us that you have autism and you like to show others that disability doesn’t keep you from overcoming challenges. How do you like to show this? Are there specific challenges you’ve overcome that most people don’t have to encounter?
Autism is a silent disability in many ways. I don’t look different than anybody else but my inability to hold a conversation and my unusual behaviors and vocalizations set me apart almost immediately whenever I meet someone. Most people then turn away because I am different and they don’t know how to engage with me.
I didn’t learn how to communicate with writing until I was about sixteen. So, until then, my world was all inside my own head and I was depressed, trapped and desperate to be heard. Everyone outside of my parents treated me like I was stupid and spoke to me like a child. School was way beneath my intelligence level and bored me to tears. Now that I can express myself, my life and future feels brighter even though I still am very impaired. I like running because I don’t feel as different when I do. I am in there competing with everybody else. And I beat a lot of people who don’t have the degree of challenges that I face each day. I want to be an example to all of the people with disabilities who feel trapped inside their bodies or inside their minds.
What is something you wish people knew about living with autism?
I wish people knew that most people with autism are intact and intelligent on the inside, even those who can’t talk at all and seem completely isolated in their own world. We understand and are absorbing everything that is going on around us. Please treat us like we hear you. Don’t talk down to us or assume that we are simpleminded. Show kindness and support and just hang around. Your companionship is like conversation to us.
How many National Parks have you visited? Which is your favorite? Are there any on your bucket list that you haven’t visited yet?
I’ve been to Zion, Bryce, Arches, Grand Canyon, Rocky Mountain National Park, Mesa Verde, Glacier, and Yellowstone. I love RMNP because we have a cabin near the entrance so it feels like my second home. I look forward to seeing many more.
What are you most proud of?
I am most proud of winning a marathon. But, when my novel gets published, that will feel much bigger.
Tell us about your favorite pair of running shoes. For example, I still have my racing spikes from high school because they remind me of good memories.
I am not sentimental about my shoes. I run in whatever my dad buys me which are almost always Brooks Adrenalines.
We don’t yet know when Aaron’s novel will be complete, but we eagerly look forward to its publishing. In addition to this novel, Aaron has previously written an autobiography, Running on Faith, where he shares how running and his faith have invigorated his life in new ways.
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