Ryan Gehman found a supportive environment on the EMU track and cross-country teams for which head coach Jason Lewkowicz had set the expectation that “there’s a shared responsibility to care for one another.” (Photos by Londen Wheeler)

Working hard to put in hard work: Ryan Gehman and why he runs

On a bleak and bitterly cold February afternoon, Ryan Gehman leaves campus for a run, heading south toward one of Harrisonburg’s city parks. Dirty snowbanks line the streets and a stinging wind blasts him in the face. He’s been looking forward to this moment all day.

Gehman, a senior kinesiology major, looks forward to running every day. When he’s running, he feels free, happy, at ease in a way that he often isn’t. Diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome at age 4, Gehman has dealt with severe anxiety his entire life. Sometimes he can hardly make it out the door of his room. Sometimes he sits himself in the chair in Coach Jason Lewkowicz’s office to ride out another panic attack. Sometimes Gehman thinks that if he could just run all day, every day, that would keep things under control. But his homework won’t do itself, and he has classes to attend and all sorts of other basic life things that make that impractical.

He describes living with Asperger’s as follows: most people have buckets to hold all the little stresses and details and things that daily life throws at them. On stressful days when enough of those little things collect, the bucket overflows and the carrier is overwhelmed. Gehman has a thimble instead of a bucket. It gets full quick. When he was younger, full-blown panic attacks struck every day, leaving him breathless, terrified, stuck in place. Though he’s gotten better at fending them off, they’re never far away.

When he runs, it’s a different story. He has a bucket and it all feels easier.

‘Good but not great’ at first

Ryan Gehman
Ryan Gehman

Gehman was 13 the first time he went for a run – one mile from his house to the high school nearby, and one mile back. His parents made him take a walkie-talkie just in case. He didn’t need it. When he was 14, his family hosted a guest who was training for a marathon. Gehman cinched on his Velcro-strap shoes, tagged along with the guy for seven miles and was hooked.

For the next four years, he was a good but not great high school runner. After graduating from Lancaster Mennonite High School (earlier, he’d also attended a public high school), he put in another year of good but not great running at Hesston College in Kansas and then, transferred to Montreat College in western North Carolina. His coach there was more of a zealot for hard training and high mileage, and Gehman responded well. He qualified for the NAIA national cross country meet. In indoor track, he ran a 16:12 5k – not jaw-dropping, but certainly not pedestrian.

While Gehman’s running was going better than ever, managing his anxiety wasn’t. Transferring to EMU, he found a more supportive environment on the track and cross-country teams for which Lewkowicz had set the expectation that “there’s a shared responsibility to care for one another.”

Lewkowicz was one of his earliest and biggest supporters. Lately, his teammates have become more and more important. Not that the thimble isn’t a problem anymore. It’s been a hard and anxious winter for Gehman. When things aren’t going well, sometimes there isn’t anything his teammates can say to fix things. What they can do, said Hannah Chappell-Dick, a standout runner on the women’s team who has qualified for nationals in both cross-country and track, is simply be present, be there, with and for him. And so that’s what they’ve done.

Overcoming anxiety and dropping time

Gehman’s performances have continued to improve. In his junior cross-country season, he made the All-Region team and barely missed qualifying for the NCAA D-III national meet. On the track the next spring, he dropped his 5k time down to 15:26. Back in cross-country last fall, he lowered his 8k personal-best to an elite 24:15 that left his good-but-not-great past in the dust. At the South/Southeast Regional meet, he took first place among the 200 best D-III runners between Virginia and Texas. It was the best race of his life. His teammates cried.

“It’s powerful to see people overcome things, and Ryan has done a lot of that this year,” said Chappell-Dick.

(On the NCAA race course the following week, Gehman felt like circuit breakers tripped inside him during the wild, stampeding chaos of the first half-mile. He finished in 237th place, more than two minutes off his best time.)

It has been a tough and injury-plagued winter, and Gehman sat out the conference championship on March 1. But in January, he ran a very promising indoor 5k in 15:49. He’s logging miles and building up a base. He will approach outdoor track with his usual determination.

“I don’t know that I’ve ever coached anyone who works as hard as he does,” said Lewkowicz.

Sharing his hard work

Hard work is part of any good distance runner’s life. In Gehman’s case, though, the hard physical work of training follows the heavy emotional lifting it sometimes takes just to lace up his shoes and show up at practice. He works hard in order to work hard.

After graduation, Gehman plans to race longer distances – half-marathons, marathons. His biggest love is for the quiet and calm of trail running. He thinks he’ll try to go pro. When Coach Lewkowicz lets him, he criss-crosses the rocky slopes of Massanutten Mountain with Dan Nafziger ‘13, an admissions counselor who qualified for the national cross-country meet in 2011.

Since emerging as a top-flight runner, Gehman has begun tackling another difficult challenge: talking about the obstacles he’s overcome. It hasn’t come easy, but then again, lots of things haven’t come easy for him. And perhaps, he figured, his story could inspire others who face similar challenges.

Last year, with the encouragement of Lewkowicz and the athletics department, he gave an interview to the local TV station about his life with Asperger’s syndrome. In February, he was invited to speak to a Rotary club in Salem, Virginia. Talking in front of news cameras and rooms full of people was a lot to ask of his thimble, but not enough to stop him.

After the TV interview aired, Gehman received a Facebook message from a couple who’d seen it. Their 11-year-old daughter had been diagnosed with Asperger’s, and they were curious if they might meet with him to hear more about what it’s like. They came and talked with him for an hour in the Commons. Gehman was thrilled at the opportunity to help the parents understand their daughter better. It feels great, he says. He uses the exact same words to describe his running, but there’s a difference.

“Running is something I do for me,” he says. “Talking about my disability is something I can do for other people.”

Ryan Gehman has known for nearly a decade now that running makes him feel good. He’s just now finding out that telling others about why that’s the case makes him feel even better.