Avid runner Mandy Williams always wondered why she found the social aspect of athletics club training more challenging than the training itself, so when she was finally diagnosed with autism at the age of 45, suddenly, a lifetime of symptoms made sense. After finding endurance sport late in life, running became a constant in Mandy’s life, and despite the challenges of race day overstimulation and anxiety, she has competed in everything from ultra-distance races to vertical kilometre events, even representing Great Britain as part of the GB Masters Mountain Running Team at the 2022 Masters Mountain Running World Championships. 

More recently, the 47-year-old took on her first Hyrox event as a pair with her partner and, in doing so, qualified for the upcoming Hyrox World Championship in Manchester. In this Q&A, we chat about Mandy’s diagnosis, how coordination issues affect her running, the challenges of competing as a neurodiverse athlete, and how Mandy’s training has stepped up in preparation for the Hyrox World Championship in May. 

Tell us what led to your autism diagnosis and how your life has changed since receiving it? 
I was diagnosed at 45 years old. My son started flapping his hands and stimming as a child, and I realised I had done this my whole life too, but I’d been told to hide my “habit”. I had also struggled with depression and anxiety my entire life. It was very much a secret battle, but one day I had what I now know to be a “meltdown” in front of my partner, and he realised I needed help. 

I’ll never forget when I went to see my family GP, and he said he had always known and arranged for me to go through the diagnosis process. It was a long and emotional process, but when it was confirmed, I cried with total relief that I wasn’t crazy. My whole childhood and life made sense straight away. The process has been long, and I’m still learning, but I changed jobs straight away and now work with autistic women and have an autistic manager, which is just the best thing that could have happened to me. I can honestly say I have never felt so much joy and happiness. Of course, I still have anxiety and meltdowns but understanding the triggers, accepting myself and living an authentic life has literally saved my life. It’s as dramatic as that. 

Wow. So let’s rewind a lot – how did you get into running? 
I was ‘forced’ into running, as I needed to pass a medical for the RAF, and I soon gave up on it once I passed that test. Then after the birth of my kids, I needed to get in shape again and started walking fast, then jogging, then running, and soon it became one of my special interests, which I’m glad to say has lasted longer than any other special interests so far! 

At what point did your running get more serious?
I started competing before the pandemic, and I always say I was a bit late to the party. I only ever raced one 5k at the age of 47 and did it in 19.42, so I wonder what I could have done. Competing in Masters [running] allowed me to gain confidence, and I found I was very good at running uphill and did quite well in local age group races. Being asked to be a part of the Masters GB team was very cool, and I competed in the 2022 Masters World Mountain Championship last year, which was a brilliant experience. I didn’t think anything would come of it, so to be a counter in the team that won bronze was amazing! 

How does your autism affect your running, racing and training?
I can’t train in groups, and prior to my diagnosis, I couldn’t understand why I found attending an athletics club and the social aspect more exhausting than the training. I recovered physically from training very fast, but mentally I was always drained for days afterwards. I would hide in the car before training and cry. I only attended training as my other half was a member, but now, I realise why I struggled so much. Track lights, sounds, lots of people – it was all too much, and I would go into sensory overload. Racing, however, is different; although anxiety is high beforehand, and I will talk myself out of 50% of the races I’m entered into, once I’m racing, I’m hyper-focused and see nothing around me.

I’m very regimented with training, and I’ve always said I am impossible to coach. Up until my Hyrox training, I ‘had’ to do a minimum set number of miles a week – it didn’t matter if I was injured or needed to rest. I ran for mental relief, so I didn’t care about performance as much as I should have or about injury prevention. 

Coordination is a huge part [of my autism] too, and I was often teased for my awful downhill running. I remember one race I was leading outright uphill, then the second half was all downhill, and I just stopped and walked down. People would ask if I was injured, and I wasn’t – I was physically scared of falling. Now I know it’s because I’m autistic and have balance regulation issues. One race I totally love is the Salomon VK (vertical kilometre race), which I have done twice. Running 1000m over 5KM up Glen Coe – love it! Why? Because the race stops at the top, and you can get down any way you want. I take cycle shorts with me and come down on my bottom. I can run uphill all day long!

When it comes to race day, are there things you find particularly challenging? 
Anxiety is high for everyone, but for me, it’s on a whole new level – think ‘dentist fear’ level – and it’s not about the race itself. Crowds of people talking, and I don’t know how to tune them out; lots of people, new smells, changes in routine. So it’s more the waiting round and the social aspect that causes me so much stress. I will find a bush or a tree and physically hide behind it, wear sunglasses and keep my headphones on. People think I’m being rude or ‘strange’, but I’m just trying to calm myself down. I also get excited, which causes me to stim, so I can tense up and flap my arms. Over the years, these are behaviours I’ve been taught to hide or be embarrassed by. Trying to hide away and control my stimming is very hard before a race.

You’ve recently qualified for the Hyrox World Championship on your first attempt – congratulations! Tell us about this experience?
I know, so exciting. It’s as a doubles team with my partner, and there was no plan to qualify for the Worlds when we started. It was a challenge set by my two adult kids, who also formed a doubles team. We were in the 40-50 age category, and they were in the 18-25 category. More important than the Championship qualification, though, was the fact that we beat them with 20 minutes to spare. Very competitive family!

It was such a tough event, but as runners, we did super well in the course. My real talent is being able to recover super-fast; I did triathlon for a while and could run off a bike no problem. When we found out we had qualified, we were super-excited and, within five minutes, started planning training. Fair to say, it’s now become my new special interest, and I’m training like a pro athlete.

Does your autism impact anything you do in Hyrox? 
Wall balls! I was a substitute for the B team in netball for a reason. I cannot catch a ball, and this, again, is a coordination thing. I have a delayed reaction as my senses have no connection to the ball when it leaves my hands, so I’m never ready to catch it. Add to that the fact I have to hit a 9-foot-high target, and the ball weighs 6kg, and if that isn’t enough, it’s the last station, so we have already run 8km and done all the other stations, so we’re shattered. However, I do not give up and have even made my own weighted basketball at home, which I throw at a target in my bathroom 5 times every time I go in there. 

Since you qualified for the Hyrox World Championships in Manchester, has your training changed?
I said I was uncoachable, but my partner needs a coach, so we compromised and got an online coach – Tiago Lousa, who is one of the Elite 15 in Hyrox. Training has now gone up a whole new level. 90 minutes a day is the minimum workout time, and some days have 3 sessions! We go to the gym most mornings at 6am before work and run at night. I love it, though, as I finally feel like I’m using my extra energy, and I actually sit down now at work – well, for an hour at a time, which is still impressive!

What does a typical week of training look like for you right now?
5.50am alarm call and straight to the gym. No day is the same, and we get our workouts emailed to us a week at a time, so we don’t know what we will be doing till Sunday night. Training includes lots of weights, burpees, and compromised running – so basically, pulling a 100kg sled over 26 metres, then running 500m repeats. I had never deadlifted in my life, and now I’m squatting, deadlifting and doing pull-ups on a weekly basis.

Do you have any advice for other neuro-diverse athletes just starting out?
Yes, pick up weights! I wish I had done this sooner, as the ‘push’ and ‘pull’ motion of weight work really helps with proprioception. Also, if you go to a gym, choose one with a 24-hour opening and one that lets you see how many people are in the gym live. Then you can plan when it’s really quiet. And, of course, [use] headphones. Pure Gym is ace for this, and you can book into “Learn to lift” classes, which are brilliant.

Don’t feel you need to join a club or do team sports. I run with my dogs (I have four) and no longer put pressure on myself to train in groups. Oh, and rest days! Make sure you schedule rest days if exercise becomes a special interest, as it’s very easy to overtrain. Then one thing that really helped me was compression. Again, this is to do with proprioception – I wear compression tights when training. 

What are your favourite items of kit for racing and training, and are you sponsored by anyone right now?
I’m not sponsored, but I work for SWAN – Scottish Women’s Autism Network – and love sharing my training tips and adventures with other autistic women in our community. I love 2XU compression and live in their compression tights, so I always thought it would be amazing if I could do something with them. Shoe-wise, I have tried them all and swap constantly, so no favourites, but I do use inov-8 on the hills and trails and Asics Magic Speed for Hyrox events, as they have great grip for a road shoe. Oh, and they are yellow… yellow makes me faster 😊

You can follow Mandy via her social media: www.instagram.com/n_d_athlete