How Autistic Runner Tommy He Finds Peace Through Running | Runner Spotlight Series

The San Francisco Marathon 52 Club’s soon-to-be-member Tommy He is a student, a dad to an adorable pet lion, and an autistic runner. He came to the Bay Area nine years ago, not knowing he’d become a passionate runner, a friend to many within the running community, and a Boston marathon finisher. This year, he’ll run the full marathon at the SFM, finally joining the 52 Club after completing the three-year challenge. This is his Runner Spotlight story.

Written & edited by Pavlína Marek

Who is Tommy He?

Tommy He is a 28-year-old international student from China. Having come to the United States nine years ago, he’s lived in the country for a third of his life and made many friends, especially in the running community.

As it often happens, Tommy didn’t start running to win races.

“I wanted better legs,” he said. Feeling fast, he ran his first half marathon in Canada in August 2019 and hasn’t looked back ever since. He trained and finally got a sub-1:40 half-marathon finish when the pandemic hit.

Tommy didn’t participate in any races until, in 2021, he ran the virtual Boston Marathon, after which he turned his attention to the San Francisco Marathon half marathons.

He raced at the San Francisco Marathon for the first time in 2022, starting with the First Half Marathon. In 2023, he took on the Second Half, and this year, Tommy is training to run the full marathon and become a member of the San Francisco Marathon’s 52 Club.

Tommy has run many races in the past two years. From Bay to Breakers to the Rock n’ Roll Running Series San Diego to the Hot Chocolate Run, he’s crossed the finish line many a time. Why?

“It helps my anxiety,” he said. Tommy is an autistic runner.


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A post shared by Tom Hzh (@hezhonghuang1996)

Quick Questions with Tommy He

What’s your favorite race?

“My favorite race here in San Francisco is the Bay to Breakers race and the marathon.”

Do you have a dream race?

“I want to return to the Boston Marathon within the [next] few years because I got to [run] Boston in 2021 as my first full marathon.”

Where’s your favorite place to run?

“I love it here in San Francisco… and the Golden Gate Bridge.”

What’s the best pre-race breakfast?

“I love smoothies and cereal. I have it every morning.”

Is there a runner you look up to?

“I think Cal Calamia is very strong and brave. He gives so much positive energy for the non-binary and LGBTQ+ runners.”

Lions and Running: the Ultimate Anti-Anxiety Weapon


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A post shared by Tom Hzh (@hezhonghuang1996)

Tommy has a pet lion.

“He’s my best helper,” Tommy says about his plushie friend. “I have autism… and this pet is the best way to reduce stress and anxiety.”

As the National Autistic Society writes, “Even though it is not part of the autism diagnostic criteria, many autistic people experience high levels of anxiety. Research varies but the consensus suggests that it might be common for around 40-50% of autistic people to receive a clinical diagnosis of anxiety. A recent National Autistic Society survey found 47% of autistic people fall into the severe anxiety category based on GAD diagnostic criteria.” Tommy was also diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder.

However, besides his pet lion, Tommy has another ace in his sleeve as an autistic runner; “Actually, running long distances, more than five miles, is even better to reduce the anxiety,” he said.

The Running Community

“I think running has made me so different,” Tommy said. In the running community, he found many new friends and started to socialize more. He enjoys running with other people, is a part of several run clubs, and loves the running community in San Francisco.

As he added race medals to his collection, he started to get increasingly more followers on Instagram and Strava. He wants to help more people find their way into the sport and hopes that the numbers mean he’s succeeding.

“A lot of people want to run, especially in San Francisco,” he said.

Tommy is currently preparing for the Kaiser Half Marathon with a few friends he made through running. He’d love for you to join him, be it virtually on his Instagram and Strava or in person!

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