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Springdale special education teacher runs 100-mile race, tries to raise awareness of autism

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SPRINGDALE — Forgive Cameron Thomas if he doesn’t make it into work today. He might be a bit tired.

Thomas over the weekend ran the Arkansas Traveller 100, a 100-mile race through the Ouachita National Forest that started early Saturday. He finished in 29 hours and 16 minutes, according to results posted on the race website.

For Thomas, it was more than just a long run in the wilderness. It was also a chance to raise money for and awareness of autism. He works regularly with autistic kids as a special education teacher at Springdale’s Turnbow Elementary School.

He had raised more than $1,700 as of Sunday for Autism Speaks, an autism advocacy organization and the largest autism research organization in the country, according to the nonprofit’s website.

Autism spectrum disorder is a developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Thomas, 35, said via text message Sunday afternoon the race was “the hardest and most challenging thing I’ve ever done in my life.” He called it a combination of “running, hiking and just hobbling along in pain.”

In his 30s, Thomas realized he needed to do something to stay physically fit. So he started to run.

“I couldn’t run a mile when I first started without feeling like I was almost going to die,” he said, during an interview Wednesday.

He gradually improved his endurance. At first it was just for the exercise. Then people started telling him he should try running races, he said.

He hired a coach, ultra runner Cliff Pittman of Fayetteville.

“Cameron is someone who just shows up and consistently puts in the work,” Pittman said Thursday. “He bought into the process early on, and from there, he was a master of consistency.”

Pittman instilled in Thomas a need to identify his motivation for running — not only running in general, but the Arkansas Traveller race specifically.

“He’s got that dialed in” with the autism cause, Pittman said. “Essentially, other people are counting on him and that will certainly give him that emotional energy he needs when it seems like all else will fail.”

Thomas has a “huge heart,” Pittman said. “He’s a servant. You see that in his vocation. And he brings that out onto the trails.”

Pittman also ran this past weekend’s Traveller race, finishing in 26 hours, 52 minutes.

The Arkansas Traveller 100 started in 1991 and has taken place every year since, except for 2020.

The course starts at Lake Sylvia, about 30 miles west of Little Rock, and leads runners on a 17-mile figure-eight loop followed by an 83-mile out-and-back through the Ouachita Mountains. The total cumulative climb is about 12,000 feet, according to the race website.

Springdale has 2,468 students receiving special education services, roughly 10% of the district’s total enrollment, according to Ingram. Of those students, 351 qualify under the disability category of autism, 250 of whom are mixed in with general education classrooms, according to Andrea Ingram, special education supervisor for the Springdale School District.

Thomas said he enjoys working with students with disabilities and watching them make progress — even if it comes slowly — mastering both academic concepts and more mundane tasks, such as tying a shoe.

“The challenge is never-ending. It’s always there. For me, I’m never really satisfied. I’ve always got these high expectations for every kid,” he said.

He’s happy to give back any way he can, and he saw the Arkansas Traveller race as a good opportunity to raise awareness of autism, he said.

“I hope people will recognize the need and might think about contributing funds, or by just becoming more aware, becoming more knowledgeable about what autism is, how it affects people in different ways and what we can do to help that population of people to just live more comfortably,” he said.

Cameron Thomas finished 73rd out of 85 finishers in this past weekend’s Arkansas Traveller 100. A few dozen other people started, but dropped out at various points along the way.

Source: Arkansas Traveller 100 website

This content was originally published here.

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