By Debra Roberts, Contributing Writer
NORTHBOROUGH – Connie Cao of Northborough is a goal-setter.
Five years ago, she set the goal of running a marathon before she turned 50. Though she had no training, she met her goal, qualifying for and completing the Providence Marathon before her fiftieth birthday.
This year, at 55, she plans to run the Boston Marathon with her son Enchee Xu, a junior at Algonquin Regional High School to raise money for the Doug Flutie Junior Foundation for Autism.
Cao approaches these challenges even as she describes herself as a traditionally non-athletic person.
“In high school and college, I couldn’t even pass the basic running requirement in my athletics classes. I had to repeat the classes just to pass the test,” she said of her experience growing up in Shanghai, China.
Cao started running in her 40’s, though, participating in local 5K races. Her first was the 2013 Northborough Applefest 5K. In 2014 she participated in the New England Center for Children 5K for Autism in Southborough, which was of interest to her because Enchee was diagnosed with autism at age three.
From hiking to running
Motivated to get Enchee involved in recreational activities, Cao began taking him on hikes when he was around age 10. They went on various trips of increasing intensity and duration.
“He is such a good boy—he never complained, even when he had leg cramps,” she said. “Once he has a goal, he wants to keep going with it.”
Their first big trip was to Mount Madison in New Hampshire.
“Enchee was stubborn about wanting to reach the summit,” Cao said.
They have since taken many more hiking trips together, including a 10-day European hiking tour of Mont Blanc. They also spent two summers climbing all 48 of the Appalachian Mountain Club’s 4000-footer summits in New Hampshire.
“Eventually, the hiking evolved into running,” she said and Enchee joined the Cross-Country team in high school.
Support from running group
During this time Cao began training with a Chinese running group called the BEN Running Club. The group encouraged her to run her first marathon.
“They told me, ‘Connie, once you run the marathon you will never stop,’ and they were right,” she said, elaborating, “Just like the birth of the first child, when you see your baby crying, you are brave and want to do it again.”
Though she didn’t have another baby—Enchee is her only child— Cao did continue to run marathons.
She completed the London Marathon (virtually in 2020) and Enchee was able to do half of it with her. She qualified for and competed in the 2020 Boston Marathon (also virtual but on the actual marathon course). Enchee joined her for the last six miles, keeping pace with Cao until the finish line.
Eventually, Enchee outpaced his mom. “He started out slower than me, but now he is faster—I make him run in a circle and come back to me because I don’t want him to get too far ahead,” she said.
Cao’s running group friends further encouraged Enchee.
“They all know Enchee has autism, but they treat him like everyone else,” Cao said. “He is so free when he runs. There is no one to tell him he’s not doing it right. My friends notice he is so happy when running.”
Help from Boston Athletic Association
Cao had qualified and registered herself for the 125th Boston Marathon as an in-person runner. But she was only able to get Enchee registered as a virtual runner.
However, she reached out to the Boston Athletic Association (BAA), explaining that she and Enchee wanted to run together to fundraise for an autism charity. The BAA responded a couple of days later with the suggestion that they support the Flutie Foundation. Shortly after, the Flutie Foundation took Enchee as a team member, enabling him the opportunity to run with his mother in the in-person marathon.
Cao’s request was well-timed, as the BAA had announced April 8 that the Flutie Foundation would be the presenting sponsor for the Boston Marathon’s Adaptive Program to make it a more inclusive race for participants with varying physical and developmental impairments, including autism.
Encouraging others to reach for the stars
Now that Cao has pushed herself beyond what she ever felt she was capable of, she wants to inspire others to do the same.
“If someone like me—a girl from Shanghai who couldn’t even pass her fitness test in gym class can run a marathon, anyone can…as long as you are willing to put in the effort and train for it,” she said.
Cao’s advice to others who may feel it’s too late to be an athlete: “It started with a dream and ended by an action plan–just do it!”
Additionally, Cao wants to inspire parents who are told that their children can’t achieve certain things.
“They can run, they can hike, they can be good at math and physics,” she said, speaking specifically about children with autism. “Don’t leave them out. They can do more!”
To help support Cao and her son Enchee raise money for the Flutie Foundation, visit https://www.givengain.com/ap/enchee-xu-raising-funds-for-doug-flutie-jr-foundation-for-autism.
For more information about the Flutie Foundation visit FlutieFoundation.org.
Photos/Courtesy of Connie Cao