Running the Distance and Beating the Odds:
Dyslexia Is a Superpower
Runner, dyslexia advocate/public speaker
Release Date: June 9, 2020
At the age of 5, Jared Blank was diagnosed with Dyslexia and Sensory Processing Disorder. With the support of his family and community, he beat the odds. Once told he would never graduate from high school, Blank graduated from the University of Southern California and earned two Masters degrees. In 2018, he ran the World Marathon Challenge (seven marathons, on seven continents, in seven days) to raise awareness for the International Dyslexia Association®.
In this podcast, Blank discusses how the learning challenges he faced prepared him for the World Marathon Challenge and for life. He shares:
- What it feels like to grow up with dyslexia and the stigmas attached to it
- How he beat the odds when it seemed like the odds were against him
- How you can encourage and support students with dyslexia
As Blank says, “Dyslexia is not a limiting factor, it’s a superpower.”
Narrator: Welcome to EDVIEW360.
Jared Blank: I was diagnosed with dyslexia when I was 5 years old. I remember going through testing and meeting with this doctor and she's like, "School for you is going to be like running with a cut on the bottom of your foot." In elementary school I was told not to expect higher than a C average. Might not graduate high school. I think once those labels got put on me, it kind of developed a chip on my shoulder. The only way that I figured I could prove myself was I got to be 100 percent on my work, high grade-point average and senior class president. Running started for me was similar to how I was taking on education. I would run just to get out the frustration of school. I think the competitor side of me always thinks that I can do something better than I did before, whether that's in running or life.
Narrator: You just heard Jared Blank, World Marathon Challenge runner, dyslexia advocate, and author of Running the Distance. Jared is our guest today on EDVIEW360. Here's your host, Pam Austin.
Pam Austin: This is Pam Austin. Welcome back to the EDVIEW360 podcast series. We are so excited to have you back with us. I'm conducting today's podcast from my native New Orleans, channeling the heart of Voyager Sopris Learning® in Dallas, TX. Today, we are honored to have with us Jared Blank, World Marathon Challenge runner, dyslexia advocate, public speaker, and author of Running the Distance. Welcome, Jared, thank you for joining us today. We are so pleased to have you with us.
JB: Thank you so much. Thank you for the opportunity.
PA: So, Jared, you have quite an interesting story, and I want to kind of backtrack to long, long ago when you were a young boy and you were diagnosed with dyslexia and sensory processing disorder, and told that you would never graduate high school. Then, you went to running the World Marathon Challenge. That is quite an achievement. Let's start at the beginning of your amazing journey. Tell us a little bit about your background.
JB: So, I was diagnosed with dyslexia when I was 5 years old, and it happened in the eye doctor's office. I had been trying glasses for probably a period of a couple of weeks and I was still having headaches and things weren't quite working. And I remember I was in that doctor's office and she said, "I want to do this test." And you know that feeling when, like, you're about to be caught or you're doing something wrong? Like you took too many cookies out of the cookie jar, or you did something you weren't supposed to do? I was getting that feeling. And then she said, "I'm going to get your mom."
And she brought my mom in and explained, "It's not that he has trouble reading the board and seeing the letters, it's he can't recognize what those letters are." And she thought I actually had dyslexia and I was growing up in Portland. We went down to California for testing and sure enough diagnosed with dyslexia and sensory processing. So, like, the use of fine-motor skills, like holding a pencil, handwriting, tying a shoe, like, those little things were going to be issues for me.
PA: What are some other signs as a little boy that you were having learning challenges?
JB: You know, the joke in our family is just that, like, my Rs would be upside down on the piece of paper. Not that that is always an indication, but, like, that was one thing that would occur. I would mix up the neighbor's names. So, there was signs that something wasn't quite 100 percent in the general flow of things to where...I'm so fortunate, my mom was an educator and so she was kind of picking up those signs, but we didn't know what dyslexia was or a name for it.
PA: So, you were so lucky that your mom had that background and could see. Tell us the story of how you were diagnosed. You gave us a little bit of information. Can you dive into that process and how you felt as a child, as you were discovering these things about yourself and you were given the label of dyslexia?
JB: Yeah. So, the one story that really stands out for me, and I remember going through testing and meeting with this doctor, and she's like, "Here's the deal. School for you is going to be like running with a cut on the bottom of your foot." And I don't think she thought I was going to take it so literally, later in life, but she was drawing the picture that it's going to be like running with a cut on the bottom of foot, it's going to be really painful at times, it's going to hurt, but you can do this.
And I remember not really understanding the gravity of what she was saying at the time, but reflecting back on it now and seeing my journey, it totally makes sense. Like, you go through these waves of, like, meeting with different specialists as you're going through school, and people that come in and out of your life, and will leave statements, like, to your parents, "Hey, don't expect higher than a C average with a student like this," or "You might not graduate high school." So, those labels start getting put on you and that's when it kind of can get really hard and you can kind of start to feel like, "Hey, I'm stupid. I'm dumb. There's something wrong with me." And that becomes kind of this uphill climb at that point.
PA: Can you dive more deeply into how you reacted to that negative ideal, a push about what you could and could not do?
JB: Definitely. So, I think once those labels got put on me, it kind of developed a chip on my shoulder, and, in a way, that at points early on, it was like, when you have that self-confidence shattered, it's a long process to get it back. And the only way that I figured I could prove myself to the outside world that I was capable and maybe even just to myself, was if I put expectations that I got to get perfect grades. I got to be 100 percent on my work. And that was something that as middle school and got into really high school, is when I started to take what was said and use it as a fuel to kind of, I think show myself. But I think if I'm being fully transparent, to show others that I was capable. It was to really go after this high grade-point average and achieving things like being a senior class president and having goals that were beyond people's scope for myself.
PA: Oh, wow. What a wonderful inspiration there. Would you say that the key factor that drove you to succeed was having that attitude? Was trying to build up that self-confidence?
JB: I think it was definitely fuel. There is a quote that Kobe Bryant, where he talks about being fueled by doubt, and how that can actually be a positive thing toward achievements. And that's kind of how I look at it too, is that it was this doubt that I had. So, I think there's that balance of it being a fuel, and then there also being the drive to want to do something, you know, to having a strong why behind it as well.
PA: Yes. Yes. I can understand. Now, we mentioned some educators that were a part of your life. Was there a particular educator, maybe a teacher, or counselor, or principal, anyone in the field of education who specifically made a difference in your life and how did they help you? How did they help you believe that you could achieve more?
JB: I think so many that it would, you know, even mentioning a few feels tough because there were so many positive examples of that. You know, I mentioned that the one that probably gets viewed as negative, but the ones that actually knew me, starting with the tutor that I had when I was like 6 years old, that's how long I've been training this dyslexia thing. Is having, one, being fortunate to have the family support to go through it. But that first tutor that I had, she really, I remember being at the kitchen table and just nothing was working right to where I wanted it to go. I always knew in my mind, like, how the picture was supposed to be drawn, or how the things were supposed to be. But then when it went to the actual execution of it, that was a challenge for me.
And I remember sitting there and she's like, "You're just not getting it yet. It's going to happen. Not on your timetable. It's going to happen though. You just need to be patient with it." And that was, like, one of those first teaching moments and you don't realize it, but these nuggets that people drop when you're growing up, they actually stick with you, positive or negative. And, so, that was, like, one where the tutor really just had a deep impact on me.
The other, I mean, my second grade teacher was such an awesome influence in that, she didn't grade...She knew not to grade my spelling. She's like, “If all the letters are there, you got it.” And, I remember, because my mom used to teach me how to count the words. If we had a word like prepare, I would break it up on my fingers, like pre on one side, prepare on the other. So, three and four, but sometimes I'd flip that when I actually went to, like, putting it on paper. And I remember I did that on a spelling test, and the second grade teacher just drew an arrow, and things like that, they stay with you. That happened in second grade and I still remember that. So, I mean, there's so many countless examples like that, but anytime people were supportive or just willing to work with me, it definitely stood out through my educational system.
PA: Oh, what an inspiration there. What advice would you have for educators who are working, and this will probably segue very nicely with the comments that you just made, for the educators working with students with learning challenges, how can they best support their students?
JB: I think first and foremost, for educators to just ask the question to the students, how to best support them? And just listening to them, because I think it does a couple things. It gives the student the opportunity to construct a world where they can be most successful in what their needs are. And, then, I think it will give educators a real opportunity to hear how hard it is that these students are working with learning challenges and what's really going on. Because I think sometimes we get to a point where we hear dyslexia, "Oh, it's just a reading problem." But the social, emotional strain on one's journey through it is so much more than that. And I think educators really get a chance to get an inside view into that by asking that question.
PA: You went to the University of Southern California and also obtained two master's degrees, not one but two. You must certainly feel a sense of accomplishment in proving everyone, especially that learning specialist, wrong. How did you navigate college with a learning disability?
JB: Yeah, so it wasn't exactly easy. And the decision to go to USC was really to take on the biggest challenge that I could think of at the time for myself. And part of my learning system is I need to, like, go against the biggest wave and kind of get crushed, and then I can kind of figure things out. And, so, that was part of my journey through USC. And then as I went on to get the master's degrees, I was figuring out how to learn best during that time and what I wanted to get out of education. So, then, it became more about the passion of learning for me than it did the proving aspect. And, so, when I talk about the master's degrees, it was really that opportunity to enjoy education by the time I got there, if that makes sense.
PA: Yes, it makes perfect sense. When I had that imagery of that wave crashing on you, I was thinking about trial and error, right? You know, fall down seven, stand up eight each time you stood up, and you learned more from your experiences. You rose to that challenge and now I understand that there was another challenge, your love of running. Tell us about your love of running and how they came about. When did you decide you wanted to run the World Marathon Challenge, and how does the World Marathon Challenge work anyway? Running seven marathons on seven continents in seven days, that sounds like quite a feat.
JB: Thank you for the question. Yeah, no, it was one of those journeys that it's hard to put into words, but where running started for me was similar to how I was taking on education. As I got a little bit older in life, I would run just to get out the frustration of school, life, and learning when I was little and I'd just run until I couldn't run anymore. And, at that time, it was maybe like two laps around the neighborhood. And, then, that's how I really learned to deal with things is that I would just go out the door and I would put on my running shoes and just deal with all the frustration and try to get it out through running. And I didn't even understand what I was actually doing at the time. And, then, later that transpired into running track.
And as I finished college and got into the professional world, I still kept running, and I did my first marathon in 2010, and it changed for me at that moment. It wasn't about just dealing with frustration, it was now this passion of mine. And I kept exploring in the space. And, in 2015, I was sitting on the couch, watching ESPN with my family, and I saw this thing called the World Marathon Challenge, where someone ran seven marathons in seven days on seven continents and I was like, "That's my race."
And, I was like, "I was born to run this race." And I attributed it to how I grew up with my schedules being like practicing spelling, and going to school, and then getting picked up to go to occupational therapy, and then back to school, and then being lucky if I had a practice or something to break up the day before tutoring. I was kind of putting all the pieces together when I saw that race. And I was like, "Oh, that's a race I was born to run." And that's why I decided to take time to go train and run the World Marathon Challenge.
PA: Wow. I'm just thinking, wow, that's the word for me right now. A coping strategy became a challenge and sounds like a joy to your life. Would you say that?
JB: Absolutely, 100 percent. It's my way of connecting to the world.
PA: Can you tell us how the World Marathon Challenge works?
JB: The race is put on by a gentleman named Richard Donovan and he organizes the whole thing. And, so, we meet in Cape Town, South Africa, with a group of about 50 people and it's like one of your first school meetings that you'd have before the year started, but ours was a week. And from that briefing, we go to Antarctica. And when you land in Antarctica, you get picked up by snowmobiles and you go to bunkers, and you wait in the bunkers until they know that the planes can take back off with weather. And, for the World Marathon Challenge, you have eight hours to finish each race.
And, once they know the plane can take off, for us it was about two and a half hours after we'd gotten there. That's when they bring us out to the start line and we start the first race and the 168-hour clock starts. And, from Antarctica, we finished that race, and then roughly 10 hours later, we're back in the plane going to Cape Town for the second marathon. And from Cape Town, it goes to Perth, Australia, the year I did it. And, then from Perth, we went to Dubai, Dubai to Lisbon, Lisbon to Cartagena, Columbia, and then to Miami, Florida, for its marathon.
PA: I suppose you slept on the plane the whole time?
JB: Yes. The plane becomes your hotel, essentially. It became my yoga studio, my hotel room, and where we ate our meals.
PA: Wow. What a wonderful seven days. I can see why you want to do it again.
JB: Definitely. It was, you know, the community that built between the runners was amazing and then the opportunity to challenge myself in that environment was really special.
PA: Awesome. Well, you ran that World Marathon Challenge in support of the International Dyslexia Association®. What is your relationship with this world renowned organization?
JB: Definitely. So, when I decided to go train for this race, I was like, I really want to do this for something that I'm passionate about. And I had noticed the education system hadn't changed much from when I was in school, and was looking at different organizations, and I came across the International Dyslexia Association, and they had the saying, "Run until everyone can read." And I was like, "Well, that's something I can do." And I just called them up and told them what I was doing and ended up forming this partnership with them and connected to the branch out here in Oregon, and met with the president.
And it was just an interesting time because I was going to meet with these people that I'd never met with before, and I'm telling them kind of the story that we're talking about today, but it was just that cold call of, "Yeah, I was diagnosed with dyslexia and I'm going to go run this seven marathons in seven days in seven continents." And I didn't know what they would even be thinking on their end, but it's just really formed this amazing partnership, and I'm connected to people that are serving the community voluntarily. And it's been a really, really grateful experience for me.
PA: Definitely. And you are an inspiration for many people out there in the world who have the same type of challenges there, Jared. I know you're not going to stop there. What's the next big challenge for you to face? Are you planning to run the World Marathon Challenge again?
JB: I would love to get the opportunity to run it again. I'm not sure if that will happen or not, but I'm definitely open to that. I think the competitor side of me always thinks that I can do something better than I did it before. Whether that's in running or life, I'm always kind of evaluating, "Oh, I could have been a better person in that situation. I could have done this better." So, I'm always evaluating that. And I'd love the opportunity to do that with the World Marathon Challenge.
It's funny enough with all the races that I was signed up for this past spring and summer have now been canceled. So, really dialing in right now and focusing on the now, which is just to become the best runner I can. And while that doesn't have the smart goal that I'm used to, that one that's out in front of you, that big challenge of being attainable, it's putting me in a space where I'm just day to day focusing on the little things of how I can get better at that craft and keep doing it as long as I can.
PA: All right. Awesome. Finally, if you could wave a magic wand and change anything in the world of education, what would you change and why?
JB: So, I have three things that I would change. I would love, one, that there's scientific-based reading programs across the board for everybody. We know that students with dyslexia and learning challenges can learn that way, but students without those challenges can also learn that way. And it will put everyone in an equitable situation, if we had programs like that across the board in our country and, hopefully, around the world. That would be the first thing.
And, then, I would love for everybody to be able to use assisted technology, learning challenged or not, whatever best form of technology you use and how it can help you achieve your goals, like, let's introduce that into our system. I think with the pandemic, that's an opportunity to look at, "Hey, we went to a digital world in education across our country and probably across the world for the most part." And, so, those are so needed and they help so much, you know, whether it's ear reading, or whether it's using a reader pen, all those things can make a big difference in someone's day-to-day operations. And I think whether a student has a learning challenge or not, that's important.
And, then, I would like to see either standardized testing for that next level, whether it be high school to college or any type of tests that's given where it's going to have an impact on a person's life, that they would get the extra time that they needed to take those tests. And my thought process around that is if you open the door to everybody getting those opportunities, the students that need it will take it, and the students that don't want...It's no different than the marathon. If someone can finish a marathon in two hours, they're not going to just stay on the course an extra two hours because it's open. They're going to finish and go on to do their thing, and they're going to be successful at it. And the person that needs a little bit of extra time runs their race and gets their achievement and moves on. And, so, the success for multiple people is I think it opens the door, and rather than it being a restrictive thing, it's going to show that we have an abundance of opportunity if we really change our outlook on things.
PA: So, that does boil down the opportunity, right? Opportunity to have access to good instruction at the beginning, that access to technology for support, and that extra time on assessments. Definitely well-thought-out plan there. You sure you don't have that magic wand there, Jared?
JB: Well, I'm hoping that through these podcasts, through talking to people like yourself, through the various people that I've come in contact with in the field, that we all kind of have a little bit of magic that we can put into the system and do some good here.
PA: Oh, I like that thought. Well, I have to tell you, it's been a joy speaking with you today, Jared. Thank you for joining us today. Please tell our listeners how they can learn more about you, where they can purchase your book, and how they can follow you on social media.
JB: Yeah, definitely. Thank you so much again. Thanks for the opportunity to have this conversation. It's been a joy talking with you as well. So, the book is available on the International Dyslexia Association website, Running the Distance. All of the sale proceeds are going back to the organization. So, it is a total fundraiser from that standpoint. And they can follow me on Instagram @jaredsblank. We also have the runningthedistancebook.com, which has the book, the fundraising that we continue to do for the organization, not only nationally, but internationally as well. And, then, that's probably the best ways that people can follow me.
PA: Thank you, Jared. This is Pam Austin bringing the best thought leaders in education directly to you.
Narrator: This has been an EDVIEW360 podcast produced by Voyager Sopris Learning. For additional thought-provoking discussions, sign up for our blog, webinar, and podcast series at voyagersopris.com/podcast. If you enjoyed the show, we'd love a five-star review wherever you listen to podcasts and to help other people like you find our show. Thank you.
Narrator: Jared Blank is not affiliated with Voyager Sopris Learning, nor does he endorse or make any representations or warranties regarding products associated with Voyager Sopris Learning.