When the cacophony of the world around him rattles in his brain and the thoughts of looming deadlines and dirty dishes and keeping pace with classmates pile up in his mind so high they obscure any other thought, Ryan Gehman needs a hug. He needs to feel the pressure on his joints, the squeeze that makes his world small and simple. So, for all of his life, the college runner’s parents have sat near their son and held him tight when he needs a moment’s peace before the worries and the sounds flood back.
Gehman, a senior cross country and distance runner at Eastern Mennonite University, was born with Asperger syndrome and an anxiety disorder. Together, they have made learning tedious, hindered his physical development and inhibited his ability to filter sensory information. He suffers panic attacks if he finds himself in a chaotic setting or if he struggles in class and fears others will view him as inferior. That is why, many mornings, he has spent time standing alone and quiet by his apartment’s front door, unable to open it, while thoughts about the day ahead suffocate him.
Anxiety medications never cleared his mind, but the endorphins released when he trains for cross country and track have proven to be salve. So he takes his dose of 70 miles per week and presses on, passing classes he was told he never would and tackling physical challenges he was told not to pursue.
The boy who was supposed to be slow has grown fast: He won a 2014 NCAA regional cross country championship, is on pace to graduate next year with a degree in kinesiology and landed an internship with a prominent track club.
“Running is my medication,” Gehman said. “I feel free.”
Through Gehman’s early years, therapists, physicians and teachers said he wouldn’t succeed in school and that his deficits in spatial awareness would limit his ability to move gracefully through the world. But his mother, Jenny, home-schooled him, slowly teaching his brain how to think and his body how to orient itself. When Gehman was 14, he accompanied a family friend on a run, his first. Seven miles later, Gehman was sore – and hooked.
That run led to the high school cross country team, which led to junior college and, in 2013, a spot running at Eastern Mennonite. His teammates didn’t chastise him for struggling to find the right words as he spoke or for needing quiet on what should have been raucous bus rides home after meets.
Instead, they came to his apartment and did his dishes or helped straighten his room, anything they could to help whenever he couldn’t bring himself to step out his front door.
Through the past two years, Gehman’s coach, Jason Lewkowicz, has met with his budding cross country star in his office several times every day, calming the young runner when he panicked about an upcoming assignment or fretted over tomorrow’s test.
But there was one place where Gehman could do more than simply keep pace, one place where he could pay his coach, his teammates and his parents back for all the sacrifices they had made on his behalf. On Nov. 15, he ran eight kilometers faster than 200 other men; he crossed the finish line first and captured a regional championship. Gehman’s mind and senses weren’t overwhelmed by the frenzy of tears and shouts that met him at the end of the race. In that moment, there was no room for panic – only hugs.