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