TEMPE – At the historic Boston Marathon, Carla Simon will be writing her own piece of history. Simon, 32, will be the first female Special Olympics athlete from Arizona to toe the line in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, at the start of the world’s oldest annual marathon.
It will take the autistic athlete a little longer than expected. The race, scheduled for April 20, will now be run Sept. 14 because of the fast-moving novel coronavirus.
Simon, whose groundbreaking role in the marathon was confirmed by Special Olympic Arizona, earned spots in the 2020 and 2021 Boston Marathons – capping a journey that began seven years ago when she turned to running as a way to lose weight. The death of her mother, Carla Meudt, in 2013, intensified Simon’s drive.
“My mom wasn’t that healthy, and I wanted to get healthy so I didn’t end up becoming unhealthy and passing away the way she did,” Simon said.
Autism often presents challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication, according to Autism Speaks, an organization focused on raising awareness about the disorder.
Running has opened up a whole new world for Simon.
She finished the REVEL Mt. Charleston in Las Vegas in 5 hours, 20 minutes, 54 seconds to qualify for the 2020 Boston Marathon, and she ran a 5:43.58 at the Bank of America Chicago Marathon to qualify for the 2021 race. To qualify for the Boston Marathon, runners with an intellectual disability must run a certified marathon in six or fewer hours.
She is one of 20 athletes in the 2020 Boston Marathon with an intellectual impairment as part of the Boston Athletic Association’s Adaptive Programs, which consist of 90 athletes who have visual, physical or intellectual impairments.
“It’s been awesome,” Simon said. “Every time I train, I get better. And that’s why if I don’t train, it hurts me in the end. I always say training is better.”
Since she turned to running, Simon has won gold medals at the 2014 Special Olympics USA Games and the 2015 Special Olympics World Games. She has competed in hundreds of races, from the 4.2-mile Pat’s Run in Tempe, where she ran her first event, to a 48-hour ultra-marathon at the Fat Ox 48, during which she ran and walked 343 laps on a 500-meter crushed-gravel track at Nardini Manor in Buckeye – totaling more than 106 miles.
Simon’s stepfather, John Meudt, watched his daughter try to cope with her mom’s death and find relief through running.
“It bothered her for a long time,” Meudt said. “The sports and the running helped her overcome a lot of that – grief and depression. Her mom was a big advocate for her with her disabilities, constantly trying to get her into things or programs she could find for her to do.”
Running provides Simon an opportunity to overcome other obstacles in her life, boosting her confidence.
“She used to be shy and not too good in crowds,” Meudt said. “That was a thing to overcome and she’s done that. She’s done several TV interviews. She gives speeches.”
With her success, Simon has a platform to inspire and inform people about running with a disability.
“It’s the people that say how much I inspire them and motivate them to get them out the door,” Simon said. “It makes me feel really good. I get tons of letters from people I have spoken to who say that I am an amazing person.”
With Boston in her future, Simon is working to balance her physical training and racing. Recently, she hit her personal best in a 5K race. Simon plays basketball and swims in addition to running, providing a change of pace while still exercising her body.
“Some people think for runners all we do is running, but it’s more than that,” Simon said. “I do cross training, everything from elliptical, to rows, squats, situps, pushups, planks and ladder workouts. I’ve fallen a couple of times, but I get right back up. It doesn’t stop me from training.”
Simon will be traveling to Boston with her running friend, Bonnie Schirato, who accompanies her on races out of town. The two met through the Christian Motorcyclists Association, where both are members.
“It’s really fun because we get along well and go see the sights,” Schirato said. “I tease her and call myself her paparazzi. That’s my primary role, getting her where she needs to be and taking photos along the way. She’s such an inspiration to others, so to be able to capture that, it gives her a lot to inspire others with.”
As Simon gives back to the community with her story, it returns the favor. A GoFundMe account was set up for Carla, which raised enough to cover one way of her trip to Boston.
“Even if you’re not a runner or have a disability, to see what she is able to do, and drive forward with, is amazing,” Schirato said. “It gets you to dig a little deeper.”
Simon plans to dig deep in Boston.
“I’m nervous, excited, motivated and can’t wait for it to get here,” Simon said. “It’s going to be a lot of fun, and I’m happy to be able to do stuff outside of the running, like going to a Red Sox game.”
Accomplishing a goal as monumental as running in the Boston Marathon isn’t the end. Far from it. She has more to do. More races to run.
“My goal someday is to run in all 50 states,” she said. “So I’m going to continue that journey. I will be up to 13 after Boston.”