John Ford grabs the end of two, thick black ropes, snaps them down to the ground and pounds.
The battle rope workout at the acac fitness club in Timonium is part of the weekly training regimen the 26-year-old Phoenix resident goes through every Friday morning. It is also his favorite of the workouts designed by his personal trainer to increase his strength and agility in road racing.
“It’s challenging, but it’s extra strength for extra speed,” Ford says as he finishes up with one final snap.
Though he only discovered running three years ago, Ford, who is on the autism spectrum, has become a regular staple at local 5Ks, often placing and running a personal best of 17 minutes and 12 seconds for the 3.1-mile race distance.
In his element, Ford races against others, the clock and himself, but today Ford’s focus is on building up his flexibility and strength to become a better runner.
“He’s really centered his life,” said his mother, Sue Ford, of her son’s embrace of the sport.
While trainer Neal Kopasek takes notes on his progress, Ford moves on to the dual cable cross, a strength machine with two cables connected to stacks of weights that works his obliques and core.
“He has a God-given talent and he knows it,” Kopasek said. “He just loves to run fast.”
Ford wasn’t always fast.
The 2009 Dulaney High School graduate discovered running in 2014 when he had about 45 extra pounds to lose.
Ford dropped weight along with his finish times, going from 190 pounds in 2014 to around 145 today. In 2017, he ran more than 30 5K races, placing in many, according to officials at Charm City Run, a local chain of running stores that also organizes running events.
Today, a typical weekday includes a 5 a.m. stretch session at home before heading to work at the Bob Davidson Ford Lincoln dealership in Parkville, where Ford has worked as a shipping and receiving clerk since 2011.
After work he heads to the Merritt Athletic Club in Timonium for a few hours most days to run on the treadmill, and every Friday, he trains at the acac before competing in a race at least every other weekend.
The Charm City Run in Timonium is “home base,” a welcoming place where everyone knows his name and picking up a race packet can become an hourlong affair, Ford said.
“It gives him structure,” said his father, Mike Ford. “He knows what he’s going to do and when he’s going to do it. It centers his life and fills him with purpose and joy. We only wish he’d found it sooner.”
Over the past three years, Ford has dropped his 5K time to just over a five-and-a-half-minute pace while training with Kopasek at acac. Though he has started to run less to prevent injuries, he has gained flexibility and speed.
Unlike other clients that might get distracted with problems in their lives, Ford keeps going with a black-and-white laser focus on his goals, Kopasek said.
“He’s not so different than other people,” Kopasek said. “I see a lot of myself in him. We all get that same running-endorphin rush when you do something and you accomplish something. It’s the same with him. It’s the same with my man, John.”
Shelly McLaughlin, Pathfinders for Autism director of safety programs, said some people on the autism spectrum may thrive on routine and structure, but it depends on the individual. The Cockeysville-based nonprofit’s mission is to improve the lives of people on the autism spectrum and those who care for them.
"Sometimes it can be that sport training regime where you know you have to do this training for this many miles or for this many minutes on these days,” McLaughlin said. "There’s predictability in that, especially for something like running."
Ford’s running accomplishments took perseverance that the runner credits not just to his training but to his Christian faith and the family and friends that support him.
During his runs, he focuses on the friends he has made over the years in Christian clubs and at Towson United Methodist Church, to which his family belongs. A prayer before each race “protects from the darkness,” of possible injuries and defeating thoughts, he said.
Ford’s fast finish times haven’t gotten to his head, though. Friends and family describe him as a humble and cheerful addition to every group he meets.
“There’s not many people getting first place in all the races they do,” said childhood friend Allie Webster, of Timonium. “He’s one of the smartest, kindest people I know.”
Bruce Schindler, owner of Bob Davidson Ford Lincoln dealership where Ford works, said his employee was hired in 2011 through his volunteer relationship with Pathfinders for Autism.
The experience has worked out better than he ever expected, he said.
“It puts a smile on my face to see him,” Schindler said. “He’s always so bright and happy. He comes in with a big smile, he’s pleasant and always wants to engage in conversation.”
Ford’s running adventures are often a part of that conversation, Schindler said. His love of running also meant Ford would run at work from station to station before he was convinced to take it slow to prevent injury.
“He still runs around a little bit, but it’s a great to see an employee with a bounce in their step,” Schindler said. “It’s not a bad thing.”
As for his next goal, Ford said he and his trainer will work on getting his 5K time under a 5:30 pace, but he is looking forward to warmer racing temperatures. In the meantime, he’ll bundle up and brave the cold in long-sleeve shirts and compression gear strong enough for the winter.
The outfit served him well for a New Year’s Day Resolution Run 5K race earlier in the month, in Baltimore, where Ford ran a 17:47 in temperatures in the teens and finished in first place overall.
”It felt like Canada out there,” he said.