Operation Jack: Train 4 Autism, Fuel on Ice Cream, Inspire by Example

In 2009 around the summertime I was messing around on my Twitter account, and I did a search for running.  One name stood out: @operationjack.  I clicked onto Sam’s profile, and noticed a few things.  First, some of the people I follow on Twitter were following Sam.  And second, he was tweeting a lot about ice cream.  I was feeling kind of low about my running on that day, and decided that a runner who fueled on ice cream was exactly who I needed to follow to get me out of my funk. Little did I realise exactly WHO I had started following.  Sam Felsenfeld is spending 2010 running 60 marathons to raise awareness and funds for Train 4 Autism, under the banner “Operation Jack”.  You see, Sam has a son, Jack, who has autism.  I find autism really difficult to explain.  My great friend Tana (Emily’s mom – I am Emily’s godmum) is an autism specialist.  I guess I first learned what autism was from Tana when I met her in 2002.  I was completely intrigued – I had no idea that there were so many people impacted by autism.  People who communicated in an entirely different manner than society as a whole, who need to learn how to interact with society, people who are just as smart, creative and intelligent as everyone else, but who just cannot express this in a way that we can comprehend.  I bought books on autism and I am sure I bored Tana silly with my questions.  I learned that autism is a disorder that cuts across a broad spectrum, from highly functioning autists with Asperger’s syndrome to severely affected people who cannot live without care.  People with autism undergo a lot of therapy to learn to communicate and interact.  It is not easy – for the children, parents or families.
So when I learned that Sam’s son Jack had autism, it struck a chord.  This is a condition to which one of my great friends has dedicated herself.  I have met many of the kids with whom she works.  And… Sam has his own amazing story too.  He didn’t start to run until he was 30.  He had broken his neck when he was 16 and picked up running as a way to get fit 14 years later – after years of drinking, smoking and living a very sedentary lifestyle.  And now… Well, not only is he running 60 marathons this year, but he is super fast.  His personal story with running is inspiring.    I hope you read on and are as inspired and awestruck as I am.  And I hope you lend Sam your support in 2010. Sam at the finish of Marathon 10, Pasadena, 21 February 2010Jack with the number 10, 21 February 2010 DD:  Operation Jack.  Can you tell us a little about 2010 and the Operation Jack plans?
SF:  Very simply, I’m planning on running 60 marathons this year to try to raise money and awareness for a charity I’m a part of called Train 4 Autism. I’m not an expert in raising money, so I’ll be trying lots of different things throughout the year to see what works. From selling shirts to asking (gently) for donations to hosting pasta dinners and working with race directors on discounts/rebates for entries for my teams, I’m trying to develop creative ideas that will increase participation. It’s going to be a long year of trial and error!
DD:  60 marathons in a year.  For autism.  How are these marathons helping autism?
SF:  They’re indirectly helping autism. My goal is to use the “wow factor” of what I’m doing to get attention that will help bring money and people to Train 4 Autism, essentially planting seeds for growth that will create a harvest down the road. Train 4 Autism serves as a vehicle to help people raise money for the autism-related charity of their choice. It works similarly to Team In Training, so I know that if we could ever grow to something anywhere near that size, we’d be making a HUGE impact on the autism community and helping more people that I could even imagine.
DD:  How did you find out that Jack has autism?
SF:  He was behind on all his standard well checkups and the pediatrician recommended for us to have him observed by specialists after his 18-month checkup. We did, and they raised all sorts of red flags. He’s had in-home behavioral therapy since before his second birthday, and about six months after he started, one of the therapists told us she was pretty certain he had autism. It wasn’t a huge surprise to us, because he had always been behind and the developmental gap between him and other kids his age was getting pretty wide. Nonetheless, it was pretty hard to hear. We got a diagnosis of severe autism on November 7, 2006 from a pediatric neurologist and three years later, we know she was right.
DD:  What are the biggest challenges you face as a parent of a child with autism?
SF:  The biggest challenge is looking at your son and knowing the struggles he faces. He barely communicates verbally, not anywhere enough for us to know what’s on his mind or to actually talk with him. When he gets frustrated, we don’t know why and he gets pretty upset. It’s tough to look at our three kids and see that our other two are living typical lives, but he’s stuck in an all-work, no-play life (he goes to a special school or has in-home behavioral therapy seven days a week) and he’s only 6.
It’s challenging for my wife and I as parents, because his needs have a big impact on scheduling and cut into attention for our other two kids, but that’s not as bad as what he goes through.
DD:  How will Operation Jack help others families?
SF:  Well, there are several ways Operation Jack can help other families. The obvious way is if Train 4 Autism grows, it will help raise money for autism-related charities, and there are many, many ways that could help families over a very long period of time.
But beyond the obvious goal of raising money to fight against autism, I’m really hoping that I can inspire others to live a healthier lifestyle. When I was 16, I broke my neck. I was never athletic. I turned to drinking and smoking and was extremely overweight just five years ago. I hope people read my story and realize that it’s never too late to live a healthier lifestyle. There’s not a whole lot you can’t overcome. If I can come from my past and run 60 marathons in a year, you can go for a walk around the block, cut some fried food out of your diet and live longer for your kids.
I also hope to serve as an example to other parents of children with autism (or really, any special needs). Having a child with autism is not what we wanted or expected, but it’s not the end of the world for us or for Jack. We keep moving forward and we’ll always keep fighting for him.
DD:  For those interested in showing their support to you, how can they do so?
SF:  Well, the obvious thing is fundraising. Donations help, but for those who can’t afford them, I created a program called “10×10” where participants try to get 10 people to contribute $10 USD and when successful, I’ll send them an Operation Jack t-shirt and technical shirt and recognize them on the website.
Beyond fundraising, participating in a race, spreading the word, following along and offering any suggestions are all great ways to help. I’ll always admit that I’m learning by trial and error every day and if anybody has any suggestions for how I can improve Operation Jack, I’ll definitely listen!
DD:  I have to ask – have you always been a runner? Running this much just seems so extraordinary!
SF:  Nope. I was extremely overweight (261 pounds) when I turned 30 (I’m 35 now), so my wife bought me an iPod and suggested I start walking. That turned into slow jogging, which led to a dare to run a half marathon, and then eventually a marathon, and I guess the rest is history. But it’s not like I ran track or cross country when I was a kid. I was completely unathletic and slow. I never ran a mile faster than 8:30 before my 31st birthday. I broke my neck when I was 16, later turned to drinking and smoked a pack a day for four years when I was in college.
My background is definitely unusual, which is why I believe that I’ve been led down this path for a reason.
DD:  Do you have any tips for new runners?
SF:  Take it slow. Don’t try to do too much too fast, otherwise you’ll get injured and/or burn out. The general rule is not to increase your mileage per week or per long run by any more than 10% at a time, and if you do that three weeks in a row, drop down 25% the fourth week to recover. You WILL notice progress if you work hard, but if you work too hard, it will be counter-productive.
Also, go to a running shop to get fitted properly for running shoes. Just because something feels soft to walk in doesn’t make it an ideal running shoe. Get fitted by someone who knows. More expensive isn’t necessarily better, but don’t save money and buy the wrong shoe — in the long run, you’ll pay more for a visit to the doctor!
DD:  How can runners help you along the way in 2010?
SF:  The biggest ways are to join a team and participate in a race, follow along and of course, fundraising. Money isn’t everything, though. It’s really nice to interact with people, because that’s how I know I’m not alone. That’s huge to me, because mentally and emotionally, this is very challenging because I have to leave my family nearly every weekend.
DD:  For those interested in charity fundraising, so you have any tips that you could share?
SF:  Really, I don’t know. I’m learning as I go and I’m trying to find out successful methods from people who have done well for Operation Jack. It seems like the best way is to be honest and passionate about what you’re doing and if people believe in your cause, they’ll support you.
DD:  And finally, what runs through your head during the tough moments?  Any particular song, mantra, or motivating thought you could share with us?
SF:  A lot of times, I’ll think about Jack. If nothing else, we’re getting free hyperbaric chamber treatments as a gift to Operation Jack, and they’ve really helped him. He has no idea that I even run, but several times this year, when I’ve felt pain during races, I just think that my pain is his gain. I’m earning those treatments for him by running my body into the ground, and as a father, that’s a very satisfying feeling.
As for a mantra, I’d go with a bible verse, Galatians 6:9. “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” I have that at the bottom of every page on my site because I really feel like I’m doing a job that God has led me into doing. If you look at my past and where I’ve been and where I am, I really feel like I’m doing what I’m doing for a reason, and the plan is out of my control. So that verse means a lot to me.
I hate to admit the song I think defines Operation Jack, because it’s by Miley Cyrus. But The Climb gives me goosebumps when I hear it and think about Operation Jack. I am so excited to have the opportunity to make a difference, and I want to work as hard as I can and push myself as hard as I can to make this happen!NOTE:  You can donate to Operation Jack here.

3 responses to “Operation Jack: Train 4 Autism, Fuel on Ice Cream, Inspire by Example”

  1. That reminds me!  I am heading to the US for 2 weeks around Easter to see my sister – I have to make my donation so that I can get a sweatshirt / technical shirt too!

  2. very inspiring.  I have a son with Autism who is 8.  I am running the NYC marathon with team autism speaks! wonderful to hear about sam’s story. I will follow him!

  3. Sam is totally awesome. I met him in Phoenix and he’s just a very rad guy. I wear my operation Jack sweatshirt every day, I’m in love with it. Great interview.

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