Going the Distance
Andy Bryant’s running rises above, and that allows him to do things few people without a disability can do. The best way – and perhaps the only way – to understand Andy Bryant’s passion for running is to watch him run. It is his purest form of expression. His mind is free, his nerve is strong.
His autism is gone.
Well, undetectable is probably the better word, but if you lose yourself in the joy Bryant exhibits while running, it truly seems as if he doesn’t have autism. He isn’t defined by a developmental disorder, but rather an addiction to pushing his body to extremes. It makes him more extraordinary than different.
Andy Bryant, distance runner. That is how he’d like to be known. And that is how you should know him. He can run a marathon in less than three hours, which puts him in the top 6 percent of such endurance athletes. And he does so in his own way, mostly ignorant of pacing, not always moving in a straight line, running strong and proud.
Andy has run the Boston Marathon four times
Bryant will compete in his fourth Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013. He enters the premiere event having posted sub-three hour marathons in his last two races and already owning a time that will qualify him for the 2014 Boston Marathon. But his popularity has grown to international levels, and a busy schedule has altered his training so much that he’s uncertain how he’ll perform in the big race.
“This will be my three-hour marathon,” Bryant jokes, hedging on expectations that he could break three hours for a third straight race. Then, several minutes later, he sits in a living room with his mother, Colleen Engle, and changes his mind.
“I don’t think he’ll break any personal records this time,” his mother says, “but I could be completely wrong.”
“Completely,” Bryant says softly, as if challenging the notion that he might run slower than usual.
Mom supports Andy’s running dreams
The mother laughs. Her 31-year-old son chugs a glass of water as she reflects on his journey.
Their house is full of photos of Bryant’s 12 career marathons, as well as many other races. He asks if you’ve seen his medals, and before you can answer, he’s off to find them. Engle smiles at his enthusiasm and explains what the sport has meant to her family.
“Because Andy is autistic and I know there are a lot of limitations he has, this is something he can excel at,” Engle said. “A parent loves to be able to brag about their kids, celebrate their success.
Andy has had so much success running.
“My kid’s an athlete. He has a disability, but he rises above and accomplishes some things that very few people without a disability can accomplish. While running, he doesn’t have autism anymore. He’s a regular guy.”
Bryant has long had a knack for running. At age 13, he participated in a family 5K with his mother and stepfather, Jerry Engle. They had decided to walk the course together, but when the race began, Bryant’s instincts took over. He started sprinting, even though he was wearing jeans. He ran away from his nervous parents, and they didn’t see him again until the finish line.
When Mom and Dad crossed the line, they saw their son holding snacks and drinks and had a good laugh. With that, Bryant’s running career began.
Bryant ran his first marathon in 1999 in San Diego. Then, after running in half-marathons for six years, he tried another 26.2-mile race in 2005, at the Portland Marathon. He finished his 3 hours, 18 minutes, and that time legitimized his dream: to compete in the Boston Marathon. A year later, at the same event, he qualified to run in Boston.
It has been 14 years since Bryant’s first marathon. So many things have changed. He’s bigger, stronger now, but he’s still lean (10.9 percent body fat). He’s an experienced runner who often trains with experienced runners now, working with Club Northwest and his longtime coach, Chuck Bartlett. But there is one change that dramatically altered his career: His stepfather died of liver cancer three years ago.
Pushing through the hard times
Jerry Engle was a pilot and avid runner who helped Bryant develop his passion for the sport. When the two started running together, they would do three-mile circuits, and Bryant would ask during the training if they could stop and walk. Then, four years ago, Jerry started joking, “Now, I ask if we can walk, and he says, ‘Almost done.’”
Colleen pulls out several pictures of her husband. There he is, running in the Victoria (B.C.) Half Marathon with Bryant. Unbeknownst to them, Jerry had a liver full of tumors at the time. Several months later, he was dying.
Bryant typically speaks in short sentences during interviews. Sometimes, he limits his answers to one word. He’s polite. He’s more confident in social situations than he used to be. But he still has difficulty interacting at times.
This is especially true when you ask Bryant about Jerry. After his stepfather died, Bryant’s performance dipped for several months. Ask if he was depressed, and he’ll only say softly, “Yes.”
Colleen often says “running is a social thing” for Bryant, and his connection to his parents is a huge part of why he loves running. Without Jerry, it was a struggle at the beginning. It’s still a struggle, but he has learned to compartmentalize.
Bryant’s journey hasn’t been one of consistent incremental progress. He has had lulls, but he eventually recovers and winds up being a better runner. Now, though, he’s more than a competitive marathoner with a box full of medals.
A Special Olympic diplomat
He’s a running diplomat who recently went to Korea to be a part of the torch run for the 2013 Special Olympics Winter World Games. As he traveled from city to city, Bryant had to give speeches. He wrote his remarks on a crumpled piece of paper and talked with his head down at first.
But at the end, he was speaking confidently and making hand gestures to emphasize his points. He even learned to say thank you in Korean.
“His ability to run has taken him so many places,” Colleen says.
“So many,” Bryant repeats.
“He has done so many positive things because of this,” Colleen continues.
“Positive,” Bryant repeats.
Bryant takes off his red Newton running shoes and chugs another glass of water. There is no 23-mile run to complete on this day. There is no weight training session to finish.
There is no bus to take to get to the next place. He doesn’t even have to hustle to his part-time job at the nearby QFC grocery store, where Bryant works for about four hours every Friday doing a cleaning job to earn a little money.
But he isn’t relaxing. And his mind remains on running.
“I’m going to do this for as long as I can,” the 31-year-old says, grinning, and it figures that would be the longest and happiest sentence he utters all day.
Writer Jerry Brewer is a sports columnist with the Seattle Times.
Photographer Rod Mar is a freelancer located in Seattle.