Autistic? Non-Verbal? No Problem (Photos)

You can’t do, if you don’t try

By kncitom on June 27, 2023
John Almeda (in green shirt) and his team at the finish of the Western States 100 (Photo: Vanessa Bieker)

For most of us, running 100 miles is impossible, a task equal to climbing Mt Everest, or swimming, say, the English Channel. To do it requires a dream, a goal, and then a full commit to trying.

Of course, even then, sometimes it isn’t enough. There are so many physical challenges that can arise while trying to complete what’s called an “ultra-marathon”, even the most elite runners sometimes falter. And the mental aspect, in some ways, can be even more challenging. Willing your body to continue moving forward mile after fatiguing mile when every fiber of your being is saying STOP requires a grit and determination that is unfathomable to most of us. But one thing is for sure: if you don’t try, you’ll never know.

But then, add onto that the challenges that come with being autistic, and non-verbal. Now you’re truly talking about something remarkable. And that’s what John Almeda is. 

Remarkable. He’s kind of the epitome of try.

Ever since his mother Vanessa noticed her then-19 year old son seemed to love running the way leaves love blowing in the breeze, John has been lacing up his sneakers and heading out. At first it was to burn off his latent energy. Then, as he took to it more and more, it became about setting goals. First a 5k, then a 10. Then a half marathon. Then a full marathon. Two, because he broke his ankle the first time. Then it was a 50 miler, and last year, his first 100 miler – the Rio Del Lago 100. John did them all. 

And it was never without challenges. There was the broken ankle in the CIM, but there was also the fact that Jon cannot communicate verbally. Neither does he process pain, or fatigue or thirst or hunger the same way we do. He may vaguely sense he needs hydration, or nutrition, or that he, you know, broke an ankle, but it’s up to the support runners accompanying him to decipher what he needs and sometimes, to simply tell him it’s time for a drink, it’s time for another packet of Gu. It’s time to stop.

But all of that came together for one glorious weekend recently as John, on his first attempt, completed the Western States 100 Ultra Marathon. It’s one of the oldest and most prestigious such events in the world. 100 miles from Palisades Tahoe to the stadium at Placer High School, with cumulative descents into the American River canyon of over 22,000 feet, and cumulative ascents of over 18,000 feet. 

Accompanied at various stages along the route by, no particular order, Brian, Jon, Trung, Rusty, Darren and Hans, John was able to not only complete the Western States, John did it in just over 27 hours and 8 minutes – nearly 3 hours under the event cut-off time. 

It’s just…10 years…and it’s such a win for the non-speaking community” said his teary-eyed mom at the finish line. “If you’re out there, and don’t think you can achieve your dreams, this kid did. So can you.”

Most of us will never run an ultra, or climb Everest, or swim the English Channel. Heck, most of us will never do a 5k. But thanks to special people like John Almeda, we can know that, no matter what challenges we might face in our personal lives, there are goals we can set, and dreams we can achieve, if only we commit to trying.

Below are some photos, courtesy of John’s mom, Vanessa Bieker, from the race.

John and pacer somewhere in the American River canyon (photo: Vanessa Bieker)
There are uglier places to suffer (photo: Vanessa Bieker)
John and crew at mile 64 of the WS100, Foresthill (photo: Vanessa Bieker)
Somewhere along the trail (photo: Vanessa Bieker)
John being tended to in the aid tent after completing 100 miles (photo: Tom Mailey)
John’s next-day post-race meal: 3 plates of Ikea meatballs! (photo: Vanessa Bieker)
John’s got this, mom! (photo: Tom Mailey)

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