Saturday, September 22, 2012

Without Limits

I am eager to post reflections about the exciting week I’m having, but I’m still in the swirl of it all.  On my way to a transgender conference in Atlanta, I just had a training run with Joan Benoit, and I volunteered with Mainers United for Marriage.  Good thing I’m unemployed.  Anyway, the following is a brief reflection on a fantastic book I just finished.  I hope you appreciate it. 

Without Limits

“To my amazement…the limits that I thought I could see in the distance dissolved as I approached them.” are some of the final words from Chrissie Wellington’s inspiring autobiography.  

I didn’t know who Chrissie Wellington was until two months ago and now I am a huge fan.   In the build up to the London Olympics I “followed” several athletes, especially the distance runners.  I was enticed by a tweet by Shalane Flanagan, an US Olympic marathoner. She mentioned reading Chrissie’s book, and that she had a “major girl crush”.  How could I resist?  Amazon couldn’t get me the book fast enough.  It was published only in England, so I had to wait a few extra days.  In the meantime I read up and researched who Chrissie Wellington was and why was she so crush worthy.

Chrissie Wellington is a four-time Ironman world champion, and has gone 13 for 13 in Ironman events.  Setting numerous world records along the way, this ordinary girl from England is a great tri-athlete.  Her times are approaching the top men and her best marathon split is 2:52.  That’s after a 2.4-mile swim and 114 miles on her bike; all in the unforgiving Hawaiian heat.  Okay, she sounds hot.  I’m not going to ruin the book for you, so I hope you read it.  For me, Chrissie’s story has given me renewed strength and optimism, not just about training and running competitively, which it does very well, but also confronting fears I have about living as a trans-woman. 

Two years ago I sat on the beach with one of my closest friends of twenty years, yet someone whom I never confided my gender identity with; he may have had his suspicions.  Hiding behind my tears, I informed him that the marriage of two of his friends was ending. Very candidly and without flinching, he replied, “So now you can live as a woman.”  I answered, “You’re right.”

A few days after that emotional conversation I found myself alone for the first time in my entire life. I grew up in a full house with nine people: six brothers and sisters, and two loving parents.  Weekends, vacations, and summers were filled with friends, cousins, aunts and uncles.  In college and there after, there were always multiple roommates and eventually I moved in with my eventual wife.  We were together for seventeen years until that summer.  So when I say I was alone, this was completely foreign territory. It was now up to me to come to terms with my identity; I was going it alone. Newfound freedom was enlightening, but also depressing. I was fortunate to have the sweetest dog in the world and a gratifying job.  I turned to running more seriously; finding comfort in training while grasping for some sense of control of my life; but there was something more.

That fall after running the Portland half marathon for the second year in a row, and feeling inspired by the experience, I registered to run the Las Vegas Marathon in December.  Why not, I’m a showgirl at heart.  I trained as best I knew how for the next few months and the race was here before I knew it.  I traveled the 3,000 miles to Nevada, and while the race had 30,000 other runners, I didn’t know a soul.  This was for me. 

The location and event were surreal. The marathon, as you might expect was demanding. I remember approaching the finish and being greeted by a crowd of thousands, cheering on the runners and Bret Michaels serenading us with a rock concert.  I summoned any remaining strength and completed the 26.2 mile journey with a short burst, 4:04; then collapsed.  A blanket was gently wrapped around my shoulders and I was helped to my feet by one of the volunteers.  I gingerly made my way to an open spot and rested my weary legs for a moment among the recent survivors.  Wrapped in foil and nursing a bottle of water, my emotions flowed freely.  Sitting bewildered in a puddle, I leaned against the temporary wire fence on the warm asphalt in the parking lot at the Mirage Casino and thought to my self, what did I just do? From that moment on I started believing in myself, finding an inner strength I didn’t know I had.  The limits I once saw as barriers are now evaporating, like tears in the desert. 


Monday, September 10, 2012

Dear Joanie

Earlier this year, Olympic Gold Medalist Joan Benoit Samuelson and fellow Mainer, introduced a program and documentary called There is no Finish Line to inspire people to be active on their own terms at all ages and all abilities.  Joanie welcomed personal stories of what inspires us to make a difference in our health and in our community.  Joanie selected three of her favorite stories.  I missed the deadline, typical.  Here’s the letter I sent anyway. 

Dear Joanie,

My name is Gia and I believe running saved my life.  I can’t remember exactly how it all began, but I do recall as a child watching with empathetic excitement, runners struggle to make it to the top of Heartbreak Hill near mile 20 of the Boston Marathon.  For years I cheered alongside strangers, family, friends, and teammates for countless marathoners in one of the world’s greatest sporting events.  The joy I feel while watching runners compete and running myself has kept me alive. 

At some point in elementary school, under the encouragement of an enthusiastic PE teacher, I started running. I ran before school, during PE class, and by the 4th grade I had run my 1st 10k.  Diet Pepsi sponsored my first race; I only remember this inane fact because I proudly wore the ubiquitous free tee shirt for years after the race.  The course took a familiar path up and down a section of Heartbreak Hill in my hometown, Newton, Massachusetts.  Running continued through elementary school, cross-country in junior high, and on the track and field team at Newton North High School.  Runners were and continue to be my sports heroes.  Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers, Alberto Salazar, Greta Weitz, Mary Decker, and you, of course are all inspiring. 

By sheer luck and good fortune I have an Olympic loving dad.  In the summer of 1984, between junior and senior year in high school, I attended 5 days of track and field at the Olympics in Los Angeles.  I was also fortunate to watch the conclusion of the first women’s Olympic marathon from inside The Coliseum alongside 80,000 others and millions across the globe.  I cheered and cried tears of joy, as you took gold.  While this was no Boston, the race was not without heartbreak.  In addition to your historic performance, most observers remember the anguish of a Swiss runner struggling to finish the race. Many were horrified, but to those who were more familiar with the pain and agony of marathons, we understood that suffering is often part of distance running and life. 

Sadly for nearly 25 years, soon after the summer of ‘84, I moved away from running and competing.  Running stopped being an important part of my active life. Colleges, degrees, marriage, and jobs kept me busy, but I wasn’t aware that a hole in my soul was growing.  But my life changed dramatically a few years ago.  I started to coach track at Kennebunk High School; I was elated and my passion for running was reignited.  Buoyed by a few colleagues and runners on my team, I began running again.  At first, a few miles was a real test, but eventually I worked up to 5k, 10k, then a ½ marathon, and my 1st marathon last year!  All this coincided with numerous life changing events.  My marriage of 17 years sadly ended, my beloved dog Olive of 14 years had to be put down, my teaching job at KHS was eliminated after 9 years, and most noticeably I said farewell to my male self of 43 years and embraced my identity as Gia, a transgender woman.  

While coming out as Gia was liberating it was equally frightening.  I began to fear going out in public or going to school.  I felt extremely self conscious and awkward as a middle age woman in transition.  So running became my escape again, but also my passion, and something I could control.  It’s something I can do that accepts me, as I am, regardless of gender. Races are a different story.  Running again reminded my why I ran as a confused child and teenager.  Running gave me pleasure and a sense of freedom as I struggled with feeling like a girl born looking like a boy.  It also gave me hope in times of despair and I was able to release some of the anger and frustration I kept buried deep inside.  Statistically nearly 50% of trans-people have seriously contemplated or attempted suicide.   Without going into details, it’s a miracle that I’m here today writing this letter. 

Coincidentally, now that I’m seriously back into running, my body has to do some recalibrating.  After being on HRT (hormone replacement therapy) for over a year, my body just doesn’t respond like it use to.  The testosterone is all but gone and the added estrogen has welcomely changed my body and mind.  Also, I found out I have asthma, just my luck another hurdle.  As far as racing goes, I’ve entered a few races as Gia, now in the 45-50 female age category, very competitive here in Maine.  It has been an exhilarating life thus far and I can’t wait for more now that I’m running free. 

Thanks Joanie for being an inspiration.

Gia Drew

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Earth was Quakin'

I don’t know exactly how to set the scene, so picture if you will, not a sandy beach and umbrellas, but one of the largest biker bars in Maine.  It’s Saturday of Labor Day weekend and this was the place to be.  Friends were visiting from NYC and so we ventured to Bentley’s Saloon.  In fact two years ago, nearly to the day, the same friends visited and we enjoyed a night of drinking and dancing to a Led Zeppelin cover band.  I remember the biggest commotion of that evening was a spat between two of my friends, who happen to be boyfriends.  Drinks were thrown and glasses knocked to the ground after accusations on-going texts and previous boyfriends, typical for a biker bar.   So here we were again, two years later and all signs were pointing to a return visit. 

After a sumptuous Maine feast of lobster, butter, corn, and beer we got dolled up for Bentley’s.  While there were differences for each of us this time, for me, this would be my first visit to Bentley’s as Gia, a middle age trans-woman in search of her identity and a good time.  I can’t say I recall seeing many or any transfolk on previous visits, but having safely visited with gay friends in the past, it seemed worthy of a go.  After putting on my Saturday’s best with a node to biker chick chic and a little extra black eyeliner, we made our way the five miles to Arundel’s notorious biker bar.  I was a little nervous as we pulled into the parking lot full of hundreds of motorcycles, but I was not alone.  The excitement and anxiety grew as the four of us (3 girls and a guy) exited my cute little car and my ears were greeted by the assaulting sound of the band playing in the background.  I also noticed a specially erected tent for the holiday weekend crowd of what seemed like thousands. In reality it probably was just a few hundred.  As we entered, I immediately felt the curious eyes of some of the patrons.  We moved expeditiously to the back bar for a drink like we knew what we were doing.  As I waited in line to order a cocktail, I scanned the familiar Maine crowd and realized I was there for the same reason as everyone else; to have a few drinks, listen and dance to music, and if lucky, get lucky.

Now in the back open area, we worked our way toward the music and stage, it was familiar too, thumping bass, harsh guitar, and a raspy voice, Dirty Deeds, followed by Shoot to Thrill, of course, an AC/DC cover band, perfect!  I’ve been a fan since elementary school and always loved the intriguing double meaning of the term AC/DC.  For the next two hours I sipped cocktails, shook my head and ass, stomped my heels, and sang along to classic rock anthems.  While some people starred and “whispered” to each other as they discovered the striking trans-woman in the crowd rocking out to the music (I’m not stealth by any stretch of the imagination), I smiled at those who made eye contact and enjoyed living in the moment.  Near the end of the show; eager, proud, and drunk women made their way to the stage to show of their bodies and dance along to the biggest hit, You Shook me All Night Long.  While I was motioned to join them, I declined; I don’t think I was ready for that much excitement, yet.  So with my fist raised in unison with the crowd and beat, I gleefully sang along to every word, it was like I was in sixth grade in my basement and the stereo blasting, only now with my eyes open…all night long!

-Just another day in the life of Gia, trans-rocker.