Fargo

The yearly drive to Willmar, Minn., for a cross country meet is not something Fargo North sophomore runner Josh Beck has ever done on the bus with the team. He drives separately with his parents because he needs a pillow to bury his face into when signs for Exit 55 or Exit 67 appear heading west on Interstate 94.

There are five signs along the way that can send Beck into what his mother refers to as a meltdown. Beck readies his iPod to blast the band Imagine Dragons into his ears as the signs approach.

There's the one-mile warning for each exit and the sign informing drivers that there's a campground at Exit 67. Then, finally, there's Exit 55 for Fergus Falls, Minn., and Wendell, Minn., and Exit 67 for Dalton, Minn.

The numbers can bring about so much anxiety Beck will collapse to the ground, kick, scream and even run away at just the thought of them, as he did last summer when his parents told him they were going to the Minnesota State Fair in St. Paul. That trip was canceled.

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Fear of certain numbers is one portion of Beck's life with autism.

Beck will likely never win a race, whether it's in cross country or the 1,600 meters during track season. In fact, he's most likely going to be the last one to finish. His right arm dangles when he runs because he doesn't really have muscle tone. For most, running comes naturally with no second thought of what their knees or arms are supposed to do. The coordination of the movement is something Beck has to think about every step.

This is why the finish doesn't matter. By the time the race has begun, Beck has already won.

"I can't imagine feeling the way he does every single day," Josh's mom, Sarah, said through tears. "That's why, with cross country and track, it's so awesome to see him succeed. He's always the last kid coming to the finish line, but he's always so excited and happy he did it."

'I knew something was off'

Josh's speech was not where it should've been when he was 18 months old, so Sarah brought him to an audiologist for tests.

"I knew something was off," Sarah said. "I knew that, even though he was talking kind of, he wasn't talking with us. I thought it was odd."

The Becks didn't get the official diagnosis for a couple years.

"It was more of a relief because we had an answer," Sarah said. "It was sad, but it was already sad those three or four years when he was struggling. We at least knew what it was."

The family moved to Fargo in 2009 when Josh's dad, Steve, got a job as an associate professor at North Dakota State. Middle school was not easy for the family. For Josh, a strict schedule is key. If he's not out the door at 8 a.m. or eating lunch at a certain time that can set off his anxiety. Josh now had new classes with new teachers. Throw in the hormones of middle school and it was a lot of change.

"Middle school is rough for everyone, but imagine having that anxiety all the time," Sarah said. "He was super emotional all the time, super high energy and he struggled socially."

Josh had very limited interests, common for people with autism. A lot of those interests were solitary. Down time was spent just wandering around the house or sitting in front of the TV.

A game changer

Sarah and Steve thought maybe cross county could be something for Josh to try. Sarah had done cross country and she figured it was the kind of sport where you're on a team, but you're by yourself, which would be good for Josh.

What she didn't know was at North, the junior varsity students on the cross country team run with the varsity team. She was terrified. The same boy that needed training wheels on his bike until second grade would be running with seniors as a seventh-grader.

"You're terrified because you've held on tight for so long," Sarah said. "He's finally doing something, but, oh, my gosh, he's finally doing something. What if something goes wrong."

She had no idea the connection he would make with those runners.

She had no idea that come track season, when middle school runners run separately from the high school, those varsity runners he ran with in cross country would run out on the track and finish the 1,600 with him, cheering him on along the way.

She had no idea that one day, a year or so ago, when she was panicking that there was no adult at a summer practice and was about to drive away with Josh, current senior captain Alex Luz would tell her it would be OK and that he would watch over him.

"We're willing to accept everybody and everyone," Luz said. "We don't discriminate against anyone or anybody.

"It's honestly just super humbling and motivating to see him racing. I cheer louder for him than anybody else on the team because I know he's out there running as hard as he can."

She didn't know that in his first week of practicing with the cross country team, he would be invited into the center of the circle to lead the breakdown cheer.

"Sport is kind of universal," said Gary Mailloux, who has coached track and cross country at North for 50 years. "Sport breaks down the otherwise social barriers. In this case, Josh has helped North High and our sports kids and coaches to break down the barrier of accommodation and allowing people to be different and still be involved.

"I feel really excited and thrilled to have had the opportunity to be a part of something like this. I've grown as a person with my tolerance. I grew up in the era where it was my way or the highway. You have to round the corner sometimes."

'He was one of them'

Josh didn't run cross country meets in seventh grade, but he practiced and went to the meets. In the spring of seventh grade, he ran track meets with the middle school with someone running alongside him. Sarah or Steve participated in every cross country and track practice with Josh in seventh and eighth grade. His parents practically earned the status of honorary team members.

As the years have gone by, runners, coaches and parents of opposing teams have begun to know Josh.

Josh gets a cheer from everyone, but at the same time Mailloux treats him equally. He expects Josh to work hard, he gets on him if he's daydreaming and he wants him to become a better runner. Josh no longer needs someone to run with him at meets, although someone generally has to point him in the direction of the route and help him put his race bib number on. He's found ways to not allow the racer's numbers to get to him.

At the finish line, Josh has been shaving minutes off his time with each run. It warms Sarah's heart to see the team celebrate with him at the finish line and show him how much his time has improved.

"I feel like he can do hard things now," Steve said. "It used to be when we had some resistance, we'd try to figure out another course. Now, when we see an obstacle in anything in his life, he has the strength to get past those moments."

There is no finish line for his autism. North has a fire drill once a month. Josh waits for it each month. After it happens, he counts down the days until the possibility of another one coming. In March, a fire drill hadn't happened and it was the last day of the month. Josh was waiting for it to come. When an announcement was made over the public address system for some students to come to the office, Josh sprinted out of the school, thinking it was a fire drill.

But cross country and track have provided Josh with more people who will run after him when he needs it. Josh has improved socially and in school since becoming a runner. When asked how running makes him feel, he says great and that it helps his energy.

"His body is starting to figure out how to work together with his brain," Sarah said. "I feel like it's finally starting to understand how to work with each other."

For everyone else, Josh has provided a lesson.

"The sport is just a medium to bring people together, and if you have good leaders who understand value and who are doing things for the right reason, you're going to perpetuate good people into the future, who will one day become the leaders and adults and carry the banner," Mailloux said. "We can all learn from one another. Tolerance is a big thing, acceptance of a person for whatever idiosyncrasies they might posses and just giving people a chance instead of assuming right from the start that it won't work. The kids have done that. They have given part of themselves to Josh and he in turn has taught them that not everybody is the same and yet we all aspire to be involved and do things."

On Tuesday, at a track meet at Fargo Davies, Sarah and Steve noticed Josh sitting with teammates and all of them had their headphones on, listening to music before running. Josh walked with them to warm up together. There was nothing different about him.

"He was one of them and the kids wanted him to be one of them," Steve said. "These kids have good hearts. They're quirky and they're high school kids, but they also rise to the occasion."

As for the cross country meet in Willmar next fall, Josh has already informed his parents he's going to ride the bus with the team.