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Autism Doesn't Slow This Marathoner

Running: Despite brain disorder, Anthony Crudale, a 24-year-old from Las Vegas, is an accomplished runner, artist and student.

June 18, 2001|JAMES RAIA | 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.

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