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Two runners wanting to make a difference began Byrd & Bear 5K trail race

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Ryan Byrd and Sophie Smart packing bags for last year's race. Casey Ledbetter Photo.

A college freshman who struggled with autism as a child and as a teenager, decided a few years ago he wanted to help others who also struggle.

Ryan Byrd, a student at North Carolina State University and his good friend, Sophie Smart, a junior at Thomas Jefferson Classical Academy (TJCA) also wanted to make a difference to others.

Ryan and Sophie met at TJCA and ran cross country together. They became fast friends and running buddies outside of school.

The friends decided they should use their love for running, or more specifically, having fun while running, and bring it to the community "while simultaneously helping a cause we care about," said Sophie.

Ryan was diagnosed with autism at a young age.

"I had struggled with it through all of grammar and much of middle school," he said.

"I wanted to do something to help other children who were struggling like I was," Ryan began.

"Sophie was my friend on the team and my running buddy and she was talking about how it would be cool to have a 5K," Ryan said.

"In the last few years, however, it has almost become a superpower for him," Sophie said of Ryan.

"Last year, in the midst of the cross-country season, Ryan and I decided we should take something we love doing (most of the time) and use it to make a positive impact on something we care about. After months of planning and putting the puzzle together, the Byrd & Bear 5K was born," she said.

In combination of these two, a 5k for autism awareness just seemed right.

"It aligned with what I wanted to do as well so I said, 'Let's do it'.

The second annual race will be held April 6 at Tryon International Equestrian Center (TIEC) on the same course as TIEC hosts its cross country races. Everyone is encouraged to participate. Registration and packet pick-up begins at 9am and the race starts at 10am. An awards ceremony follows.

Sophie stresses participants do not have to run.

"Run. Walk. Crawl. However you plan to finish, join us," Sophie said.

Registrations will continue until the day of race.

Sophie's hopes for this year's race is there will be a larger community involvement and more sponsorships. There were approximately 50 actual runners last year, although about 75 registered, but some couldn't make it on race day.

"One of my teachers (Missy Yelton) said she would run if she could bring her horse...So she's bringing her horse," Sophie said.

Running is in Sophie's genes.

"My grandfather, Walter Harry Puckett, brought the Turkey Trot to Boiling Springs," Sophie said.

So like the Turkey Trot, Sophie hopes the Byrd and Bear 5K trail race will go on for a long time.

"We'd like to keep this going," she said.

Some of last year's sponsors are already working with the 2024 race and they are encouraging others to join the event.

"We do keep the idea of community strong through interaction at the race. This year we have been looking at options of having every participant contribute to making a custom race puzzle as a form of community," she said.

The Byrd and Bear 5K got its name from the race enthusiasts, themselves.

Ryan's last name is Byrd, and during high school, he was often regarded as "Byrdman" or just "Byrd."

"I, on the other hand, got my beloved nickname from my dad," said Sophie. "Growing up he always called me "sopybear". That nickname also followed me into high school."

This event is for runners, non-runners, adults, children, and anyone who wants to support a good cause. There will be music, food, and fun for all ages.

All proceeds from the race will benefit the Autism Society of North Carolina.

For more information contact Ryan at BandB5k4autism@gmail.com or 704-472-3291.

Register or make donations on RunSignUp.com at: https://runsignup.com/Race/NC/Tryon/BandB5K4Autism.

The Autism Society of North Carolina defines Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) as "a group of developmental disabilities that are typically associated with challenges of varying severity in the areas of social interaction, communication, and repetitive/restricted behaviors." Signs of autism commonly appear in children by the age of three. More than 5.4 million US adults have been diagnosed with ASD.

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