There was a time not so long ago when Digby Walker didn’t actually like running.
He even went as far to say, “I’d rather do almost anything else.”
But only two months ago the Durham University graduate was seen by thousands of people in a six-man Colin the Caterpillar cake costume swaying past Tower Bridge, the Houses of Parliament, and Buckingham Palace during the 2021 London Marathon.
Despite four toilet stops and wobbling through the last 220 metres with the fifth runner in the line suffering from cramp, the group finished the race in under four hours and 35 minutes to break the world record for the fastest marathon in a six-person costume.
Digby’s mindset on running changed at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic while locked down with his family in Scotland. With nowhere else to go he started running with his younger cousin Joe, who has autism and was already an avid runner.
“Running around here with Joe when we weren’t allowed to do anything else kept us sane in the early period of the pandemic,” said Digby. “My granny and aunty have been trying to get him out exercising, so he can release tension and get into a routine as well.
“As a way to get the endorphins flowing, no matter who you are and whether you have autism or not, it’s an amazing tonic for life in general.
“Joe is also incredibly musical and that’s always been his thing. There would be a lot of drums banging during Zoom calls and me and my girlfriend would be trying to explain to our colleagues what was going on and why there was chaos – but that was part of the joy of having Joe around.
“He knows he is different in some way, but he sees it as a superpower. He is able to remember every number plate of every car we’ve ever owned or hired, he can pick up any instrument and just play it, and he blows us away with something every time we see him.
“Michael is my older cousin who has Down’s syndrome and autism, and every summer growing up we’d go to France and spend time with them and the family – it was constant running around, making up games, swimming, and having a good time.
“We’d run around with Michael on our backs, and Joe was part of our games and challenges. I can’t remember a time when I ever thought about Michael and Joe having autism – it was just who they were.
“Sport and activity has always been part of our family bonding.”
With each of the Colin the Caterpillar runners representing a different initiative, Digby used this unique opportunity to raise awareness of autism in honour of his two cousins – generating more than £12,000 of donations for Ambitious About Autism.
But his awareness mission is far from over – at least another 156 miles. That’s the distance of the Marathon des Sables which will take place in March next year… in the Sahara Desert.
“I’m running it along with my mum and dad. Dad will become the oldest Briton to finish it if he beats the camels [at the back of the race] to the finish line.
“I’m one of three brothers and we grew up in Hong Kong as my parents met there, and we’ve always done weird and wacky challenges be it sporty or otherwise. The Marathon des Sables is the pinnacle of ultramarathon desert adventure and to do it with my mum and dad was too good to pass up.
“Dad’s motto is that he always wants to come last as long as he finishes. It takes the pressure off and summarises what it’s all about – keeping active and keeping fit, but having fun.”
Digby grew up playing tennis, rugby, cricket, and football, and still does as many activities as he can near his own home in London – all of which have taught him that sport can be a fantastic platform for developing life skills.
“Getting out in society helps everyone develop their interpersonal skills no matter who you are, and especially for people with autism; sport is a great way to learn teamwork, communication skills, and values.
“Every person is different and has their own unique challenges, personal circumstances, backgrounds, and support networks, but I encourage any person with autism and their families to get out and go for a run, try a class in something, or pick up a racket.
“It doesn’t matter what it is, sport has a unique and incredible power of cutting through barriers and bringing people together. I’ve seen first-hand the impact sport has had on me, on Joe, and our wider family, and the work Spautism is doing – and is going to do – is invaluable.
“Since Grandpa passed away, I have started to take more responsibility in helping Joe, and the more I try to help him the more I realise how important it is for charities and social initiatives to give advice and support, because autism is common to lots of people and sometimes you feel like you are on your own.
“I was lucky enough to go to the Ambitious About Autism school in north London before the pandemic and see some of their incredible facilities and some of the ways in which they support young people with autism.
“Mum ran the London Marathon for Ambitious About Autism a few years ago, which was the inspiration behind me doing it, and then Joe wanted to do it himself and has signed up to try and do the London Marathon next year.”
If acceptance of neurodiversity continues to grow, Digby envisages a future that is very positive for people with autism.
“They have unique needs, but autism is such a broad spectrum and there are so many different strands just like any human, so we should be responding to their needs rather than stigmatising or judging in anyway.
“People with autism have so many talents and so much to offer.”