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Chapel Hill father runs 3,000 miles for autism research

Interesting Runner.jpg
Photo courtesy of Nick Rickerson, pictured here is Adam, Nick's son.

Nick Nickerson, a 72-year-old father of a son who has autism, is running 3,000 miles — the equivalent of running across the country — to raise money to find the cause of autism and to spread awareness. 

Nickerson, a Chapel Hill resident, had been thinking about running to raise funds for research for several years, but it wasn’t until he met fellow runner Levi Rizk that he was truly moved to do so. Rizk, a family physician in Virginia, ran from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., in 100 days in 2016 to raise money for a mobile health clinic to serve children. Nickerson drove to Virginia to run with Rizk for a day and learned more about running for a cause. 

“When I ran with him, I was very curious about how he got money, and he said it wasn’t so much about getting money as it was inspiring people," Nickerson said. "He said with money you can measure it to the cent, but with inspiration it’s sort of like throwing the proverbial pebble in a pool and having the ripples go every which way. You never know if you’ve inspired someone to do something.”

Nickerson has committed to running a total of 3,000 miles over a period of two years, with the goal of raising $3 million dollars. He currently runs five to seven miles five days a week, and around ten miles one day of the weekend. He also runs local races, from 5Ks to marathons. On Thanksgiving 2017, he broke the 1000 mile mark at the Turkey Trot in Hillsborough. 

“I used to see Nick get up every day and go running in the neighborhood,” Derek Ross, a former neighbor of Nickerson, said. “To set yourself a goal like that is incredible, it’s inspiring.” 

While Nickerson has been making considerable progress towards his goal, he recognizes the challenges associated with raising money for research. He said unlike tangible causes, research invokes less emotion from people. 

“But if we don’t find the cause of autism, my concern is that it will become so prevalent that it will become the disease of not just a decade or two, but the entire century,” Nickerson said. “And the problem is, it robs kids of their childhood and adulthood in many cases.” 

Nickerson and his family are well aware of the challenges of raising a child with autism. Ever since Adam was little, Nickerson and his wife knew he was developmentally delayed, but it wasn’t until Adam was 8 years old that he was properly diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome. 

“At that point in time, in the 90s, autism was not as prevalent as it is today and people didn’t know how to diagnose it,” Nickerson said. “Today there’s lots of kids with autism. The Center of Disease Control says that every 1 in 68 kids are autistic. That’s about 1.5 percent of the population."

As autism has become more prevalent, the medical world has been able to more properly diagnose and manage the developmental disorder. With the increasing diagnoses,  many parents are faced with the dilemma of what will happen to their child after they're no longer there to provide for them. 

“There’s no reason physically to think they aren’t going to live as long as you are,” Nickerson said. “If they can’t take care of themselves, someone else is going to have to, and in many cases that falls on society. People like myself don’t have enough funds to retire ourselves and then support kids who are going to live into their 90s. It’s a tremendous burden on society.” 

Over the course of the last ten months, Nickerson has been able to raise close to $10,000, which he hopes will bring the world one step closer to finding the cause of autism. 

“I think it’s great because he’s finding a way to help prevent it before it’s the disease of the century,” Adam, Nickerson’s son, said. 

Nickerson is currently scheduled to run the Tar Heel Ten Miler in April and the Public School Foundation's 5th annual 5K for Education.  

For more information, check out his website.

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