James Stout doesn’t necessarily stand out in a crowd. He’s quiet, keeps to himself, finds a corner in the back during my classes and doesn’t say a word as he pushes himself to get in better shape. But on the inside, James is a ball-full of positive energy. While he projects kindness and excitement in all that he does, the mere mention of running lights up his eyes. It is this very passion, this unwavering excitement and vigor for running and exercise that transcends a simple conversation. You can’t help but feel James’ love of running when you hang around with the guy for more than a few minutes.
In less than a week, James will be running 100 miles through one of the most challenging courses in all of ultra-marathoning, a course named the Massanutten Mountain Trail 100-Miler.
To many, running 100 miles is a pretty incredible feat in and of itself; but to James and a collection of people he has around him, it is simply another walk in the park, so to speak. In fact, James has already completed one 100 miler (almost two if it wasn’t for a nagging groin injury that pulled him out ¾ of the way through last year), a couple 50-milers and 16 marathons, with a personal best of 3:10. I personally have met more than my fair share of ultra runners over the past year, but what sets James apart from so many is why he’s doing it and how he got into ultra-marathoning. Every race James runs he runs for charity, and lately, he’s been running to raise Autism awareness. In fact, this time around he has already raised over $1,000 for the Organization of Autism Research (OAR) and will raise a good amount more before the start (I am hoping this story helps!!). The reason James runs for Autism is close to his heart, he has been fighting autism his whole life.
Born and raised in a small, rural town in Pennsylvania, James grew up in a very strict, and often abusive household.
“I grew up in a dysfunctional, and sometimes abusive, household…I have memories of being punched, beaten with a stick, picked up and thrown to the ground, kicked with steel-tip boots. It didn’t happen every day, but the threat of it was always there which is probably why I nearly had an ulcer by the time I was twenty. What was really the worst of it was all the verbal garbage I was told. How I was useless, stupid, ugly…”
The constant struggle kept him from being a very active child, he talks about how scrawny of a kid he was and, in fact, it wasn’t until his bold move to Washington DC that his 6 foot three inch frame broke 150lbs! The main character trait he consciously keeps from his younger years is his mental toughness, “I was raised pretty tough, like a mule”, he says, adding that his entire childhood and teen years, understandably so, really left him feeling like he was worthless and had nothing at all going for him.
He struggled with major depression and other psychological problems that no one really could quite diagnose. But as he got older he realized that just sitting around would get him nowhere and he had to make a choice. He decided, already in his late 20’s and still living at home, that he needed to get out. He picked three cities, Boston, Philly and Washington DC and decided to move to one of them for one month and just see what happens. In 2000 he moved to DC and has been here ever since.
It would prove to be the first of many major, positive steps in his life. In early 2001 he met his trainer and great friend who would ultimately inspire him to get into running insane distances. He began to lift weights, got a couple tattoos and officially broke out of his shell. With the new found muscle and self confidence that always come with hard exercise, James began to find that opportunities were all around him. His mental toughness from childhood and the “added muscle, being in shape made everything that much easier.” He wanted more, he needed more. And in is head he knew what he would ultimately do. After toying around with a couple different sports, namely swimming and cycling, James hit the pavement and began to run. Almost immediately he convinced himself he needed to run a marathon.
Being diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, a form of Autism that strongly effects social interaction and non-verbal communication, James has always struggled with a place in his life. He struggles with groups, with noises and anything fast-paced. Because of this, he spent so much of his time alone and shying away from people. His inability to interact on a “normal” level frustrated him and brought him down, driving him deeper into his depression. But when he was able to put an actual name to what his issues were, his drive overtook any issues he may have had before and he pushed even harder.
“There are days when I regress and I feel like an alien in a foreign planet.” But running soon changed that. It became his medicine, his anti-depressant. The monotony of the run, one foot in front of the other, the simple yet difficult challenge of pushing on when you feel like you can’t take another step, helped fuel James’ passion even more. He stuck with a very basic routine, running around the Mall in DC. The simple structure helped to keep everything in a rhythm for him and all he had to do each week was run another loop, or add another straightaway. It wasn’t until he finished his first marathon that he began to break away and start to free his own mind to how he trained. He started exploring the city by foot and felt better and better each day.
He stayed on a pretty tight schedule, both to help him progress each race and because “if I took a couple days off, I started to feel very depressed”, his body and mind needing to run. This structure made him realize that he wanted to run the Boston Marathon (he would need a qualifying time of 3:10). He qualified in Philly, ran Boston, and that’s where perspective shifted. “I felt so lucky to be able to do this, to be able to run. I wanted to give back”. He started to raise money for different charities each race; Keep a Child Alive, Washington Humane Society, choosing each charity for different reasons. But it was at the expo for the 2008 Marine Corps Marathon where he ran into a group from OAR that James realized the personal connection with running for Autism awareness. As James was quietly dealing with his own struggles with Autism, he found the group easy to talk to and very well organized. He got as involved as he could, and chose them as his charity for this coming ultra.
When he ran his first 100-miler, James remember so vividly how it changed him. He recalls a recent session with his trainer (also and ultra runner) who said the difference in his confidence was “night and day” from when he first started working with him.
His confidence skyrocketed and he knew he found his calling. “It’s amazing, my confidence is completely different, better, it’s so obvious”. To think that only a few years before, this guy up and forced himself out of his slow life and in so little time was able to find himself. It is extremely rare to find someone who will take chances with their life like that, and James had everything working against him when he broke away, even his own chemical make up was working against him. His hard times were getting less and less. “When I felt like I was getting down all I have to say is ‘I ran 100-miles, this can’t be that hard’. Now it just comes naturally to push through things”. But there was still one major thing getting in his way. Nobody really knew about his problem.
His natural shyness made him “keep it in the closet for so long. It was so personal, I didn’t want it to affect my work and I was just so nervous of the reaction I would get from people.” This nervousness kept James from truly breaking free. He still made great steps in his running and his life, he joined Balance Gym where he was able to take classes with large groups of people for the first time and feel comfortable doing so (this is where I met and became friends with James). When I first met him, I had heard about his ultra running and I was in the process of training for my first marathon. One day, James walked up to me and told me he had been following my training on my blog and offered to help, if I should need it. His direct approach and true kindness threw me off for a minute, as I just wasn’t used to someone offering so much help just because he felt like it. He plotted out and paced me on a 20-miler and we chatted the whole time (until I got way too tired and couldn’t talk anymore…James was running like he was on mile 1). I never thought any more deeply about James besides that he was an extremely generous person and he was very quiet. But when all of a sudden he stopped coming to classes, I discovered what he was going through and was floored. I didn’t know what to say. I received an email from him telling me (and another trainer who had helped and supported him) that he was having a very hard time with some of the classes and that it was just too overwhelming and difficult.
While any other person would be able to handle this sort of situation, James could not. He tried as hard as he could but it became too much and he left. The most incredible part of the email was his revealing that he was Autistic, and that we now were part of a group of only a few people that knew about it. His email almost brought me to tears. It reminded me of those country songs that talk about being kind to everyone because one of them might be an angel coming to “test” you. It bothered me so much that people would be rude to other people; especially ones who were so kind and thoughtful like James. It reminded me that joking and sarcasm have its place, but it is impossible to tell what people have been through and if someone comes to you for help and support, well, we should help and support them.
Without knowing me, who I was, how I treated people on a personal level, James offered his knowledge to me. For someone who struggled his whole life with a serious disease, who has fought, and continues to fight serious depression, that sort of kindness is incredibly inspiring. He has the ability to look beyond his own problems and issues and offer his support to others; it is a rare thing these days to find that selflessness.
The email to my fellow trainer and myself started something. Only a few months later James decided that it was about time to “come out” and admit his autism publicly. He knew that if he was able to help Autism research through his running alone, announcing that he was Autistic himself would surely help raise even more awareness. He wanted to show a changing, aggressive perspective of endurance sports that people could still do it for fun and for good. “It’s frustrating to see that the sport is changing into a such a competition. Runners claim they hate it but are doing it for charity; others want to run even more just to show off that they can. I love running, and I wish people could see this sport that way too”.
And so James runs. A rare make of man who has found his calling, even under some of the most difficult circumstances. And what sets him apart even more is that he doesn’t just go out and run for himself, it is not about proving anything to anyone, it is not about how great he is to have overcome such hardships; it is about helping, about following a passion and a goal and giving back, however he can. James is an inspiration to me and I hope that his story might inspire more. It really doesn’t take much to help and give back, and James proves that impressively.
Donations to OAR are still being accepted through James' donation site:
Never Stop, GET FIT.