Running works for Jim Plunkett-Cole. Making small talk, not so much.
Asperger's Syndrome — a condition that affects his social skills — has been his nemesis. The 48-year-old, self-employed British economist will talk for hours about his amazing journey in the U.S. He has run more than 3,400 miles here since October, stopping at dozens of schools along the way to inspire kids to live active lives. But he much prefers a lonely country road, with only his thoughts and rhythmic stride.
"I've figured out that I really like running with no one around as the sun is setting," he says."
Those moments are the best. But having a regular conversation, shooting the breeze about sports or politics is difficult.
"I like to spend 23 hours a day on my own," he says. "One hour with others, I can do. But I find it particularly stressful to make small talk, or sit through dinner conversations. And I'm very picky about the food I eat. So I turn up at someone's home for dinner, and they've done all this work to prepare, and I often can't eat their food and I'm not good at conversation. So I'd rather avoid all of that."
Engage him in his passion, however, and he'll talk all night. In 2012, Plunkett-Cole lifted himself from his couch and began running with his border collie, Alfredo. The plan was to do a 10K run each day for a year. And he finished it.
People with Asperger's tend to obsessively focus on one topic. His runs led him to create the Kx365 initiative (run a 10K — or 6.1 miles — or do something active every day for a year; see kx365.org and jimgump.com). His idea has grown to include 1,500 people.
"So I get invited to a school, and I don't think the kids will be interested," he says. "I have nothing prepared, no photos to show, or anything like that. And I tell them stories about what I've done, my adventures with my dog, and the wildlife I've seen. And the kids are transfixed. They ask me so many questions."
With more successful school visits, he and Alfredo gained a degree of popularity in Great Britain. He kept running daily, adding a bike ride and swim — he did a triathlon every day for a year — but endured some difficult times when he lost his mother to cancer, followed by the passing of Alfredo. What to do next?
Inspired by the movie Forrest Gump — and the running sequence in which Gump just "felt like running" and then criss-crossed the country five times — Jim packed his bags and landed in the U.S. He hoped his message of living an active lifestyle would resonate with kids in America, where the childhood obesity rate has reached epidemic proportions, affecting about 12 million.
He began running October in Alabama, Forrest Gump's fictional starting point, crossing the Southern states and talking with students along the way. Texas greeted him with downhome hospitality. "The goodwill of people has really become a part of this. Once you leave Houston, it gets really remote. I would run along and a car would pull up and someone would hand me an ice-cold bottle of water. Another time a woman heard my story and thrust a 50-dollar bill in my hand."
He ran with a backpack with small U.S. and Texas flags flapping in the breeze. A stranger who saw the runner and the flags paid for his dinner that night in a tiny diner somewhere on the Texas plains.
A friend encouraged him to visit Colorado and he spent several days in Colorado Springs, visiting schools and running the trails, including the Incline. He'll never forget his visit to the Air Force Academy, where a staff sergeant, moved by his story, escorted Jim to the iconic Air Force Academy Chapel and sang the national anthem to him.
"I thought, 'Oh my God, this is incredible. This is a higher honor than any human could hope for.'"
His visit to Piñon Valley Elementary School may have changed his life. When he arrived, all of the kids wore race bibs (the numbers that runners wear in races) that they had made themselves. He said one boy with Asperger's saw the presentation and then spent three hours at home, learning everything he could about "Jim Gump."
"I told them stories about being chased by wild pigs in Louisiana, about alligators and herons dropping fish at my feet. I was told that what I do works because I make everyone feel like a champion."
He won't quit, realizing that speaking with kids — creating excitement for daily activity — isn't enough. There must be more to do. He has plans for a program that will include parents, and he is certain it will gain wide popularity.
He has now run every day for more than five years, and has covered about 10,000 miles. He has averaged more than 20 miles a day while in the U.S.
"I tell the kids there is no reason you can't achieve what I've achieved, and more," he says. "When you get that realization, it's a very powerful thing. They look at me as a superhero, then they realize, we're all heroes."