Thursday, July 18, 2013

Tale of Two Races

...it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us… 

My weekend started with a bang, well not actually an explosion, rather it was a pathetic electronic horn attached to a megaphone being used to start a 5k race on Friday evening. Standing alongside hundreds of other runners at the beginning of the 16th annual library road race, I felt like an alien in my own town.  You’d think by now I’d get used to the stares and awkward glances, but I haven’t yet.  Two years ago this was the first race I competed in since starting my gender transition.  I’ve run many races over the past few years, but this one is close to home.


Lining up for the start I noticed a few former colleagues from the school where I used to teach, as well as a few students. Some were spectators and some were runners.  Actually one of the students didn’t immediately recognize me. There was an awkward moment and can only imagine what she was thinking, who is this freaky lady? But it clicked-in eventually and we talked briefly; then wished each other a good race. Walking away from her I actually felt a happy by her unexpected reaction.  I’m not that aware of changes in my own appearance, I see myself everyday, but I guess for others I’m different. 


It was a good night for a run, warm, but not too hot or humid, like it’s been recently here in Maine.  While this was my third 5k of the season, my mind and body are starting to prepare for this year’s New York City Marathon; it’s only fifteen weeks away. Last year I trained for months and raised a few thousand dollars for a charity for opportunity to run, but three weeks before the race I developed a blood clot and had to pull out.  Thankfully the marathon was cancelled due to a hurricane and my entry could be used again this year, but that means another season of training.  Lucky me. 
Photo Courtesy of Maine Running Photos


During the run, which loops around the small downtown twice, I was encouraged to see and hear spectators along most of the short course. Incredibly, on several occasions I was heartened to hear, Go Gia!  Wow, what a palpable feeling that was.  Didn’t they know they were cheering on an unemployed middle age transgender woman in a very traditional and conservative small town? The race was over before I knew it, and while it wasn’t the time I was hoping for, it didn’t matter.  To be visible in society and not be seen as a freak gave me hope. 


Sunday morning I awoke with the rising sun.  I was up early to eat and travel to Portland for a half-marathon. It would be my sixth in three years. For me the distance can be challenging, yet accessible without too much training. I usually don’t schedule back-to-back races, but my entry was relatively last minute.  I missed the initial entry months ago when the race quickly sold out.  But I had put my name was on a waiting list and I found out two weeks ago I was in.  As I sipped my coffee, I ate my typical prerace snack that consists of an English muffin with peanut butter and honey, and half a banana.  I also continued to hydrate, drinking a mix of Power Aide and water.  Sitting on my couch with my nourishment I opened my computer to check the weather.  The forecast was for a warm day, bright sunshine with temperatures in the mid-eighties and some humidity.  I hoped the heat would hold off until after the race.  Last year the heat was almost unbearable and I don’t think my body handles the heat very well anymore. 


I still had a few minutes before I had to leave, so I checked Facebook, and there it was, a verdict in the Zimmerman trial. I could tell without even reading the posts what they jury had decided in less than two days.  There would be no justice for Trayvon.  While the news wasn’t a surprise, I just wasn’t prepared for it. Maybe I had been distracted with my own life’s events or perhaps I’m too removed from the reality of race in America.


It was time go, so I gathered my gear and left.  During the drive I flipped from station to station trying to find music to get me pumped for the race and distract me from the unnerving news, but I found myself changing the station back to news radio for most of the ride.  As I exited the highway I “rolled” down the windows and much to my dismay I was blasted by warm air, not a cool sea breeze like I was hoping for. It was eighty degrees and it was only 7 am.  Familiar with the small city, I found a parking spot right away and within a few minutes made my way to the crowed starting area located adjacent to the new cruise ship terminal.  


For the second time in three days I found myself in a sea of runners, but this time there were thousands instead of hundreds and I didn’t know a soul.  Scanning the brightly colored crowd I wondered if anyone else was troubled by the jury’s decision.  I
Photo Courtesy of Shipyard Old Port Half Marathon
couldn’t tell, but I did notice how white everyone was. Yes I’m referring to their race, not their lack of exposure to the sun.  Twelve years ago I moved back to Maine from Maryland, and the lack of racial diversity was disquieting, but over time I guess I stopped noticing.  


Again a horn sounded, just like on Friday, and we were off.  The first few steps were shaded, but then we took a hard left turn down Commercial Street into the heart of the Old Port. I immediately felt the sun on my back, and for the next two hours the heat was relentless.  The first half of the course was mixture of industry, tourist shops, steep hills, foul fishy odors, and a short loop through a neighborhood.  Every block there were a few cheering spectators, which always helps. I didn’t recognize anyone and I don’t think anyone recognized me.  About six and half miles into the race, which is about halfway, I was fatigued, overheated, and my asthma wasn’t pleased with the conditions either. 

As I was passing by the sewage treatment facility for the first time, I made the decision to try to finish the race, but knew I would have to walk some it to make it the remaining seven miles.  I developed a strategy to keep me focused and pace myself.  I counted my strides, every other foot strike, one, two, three, four, and so on until I reach a hundred, then I start over, one, two, three, four, and so on, until I reach a thousand, then I walk.  I did the same thing; one, two, three, four…for about three hundred counts then start jogging again.  It worked for a while, but my thoughts became hazing for the next hour or so, and my mind drifted back to the trial and Jeantel recounting her conversation with Trayvon, telling him to run, but he thought he was almost home.  I also realized where I was, surrounded by thousands of people, white people, who gathered this morning, not to protest, like thousands of others across America, but to run a half marathon in unforgivable heat, and I was one of them.


By mile eleven the water station was in shambles, no cups, no Gator Aid, and the few remaining volunteers were scrambling to assist the remaining overheated, and chemically depleted runners, including myself. In an act of desperation I grabbed a cup off the ground and reused it.  I was exhausted and the sudden view of the ocean should have been a welcome sight, but I still had to run past the sewage treatment plant again to make it to the finish.  The wind had shifted and the hot heavy air was vile to breathe. I took it in stride, but cursed the race organizers
between my labored breathes.

The end was now in view and I knew I would finish, but did it
Photo Courtesy of Shipyard Old Port Half Marathon
matter? The crowd cheered a little and it was over.  I stumbled through the mass of people and filled the yellow plastic bottle I was handed along with a silver medallion in the shape of a ship when I crossed the finish line.  I needed food and shade quickly, which I did.  The grass behind the food truck was the perfect location and I devoured the free piece of pizza without tasting it. While there were a few other runners nearby, I keep to myself and started my slow recovery.  Feeling stronger after a few minutes I got back on my feet and walked around.  Standing near the finish line I cheered on other runners just like people did for me for a few minutes, then walked back to my waiting car baking in the summer sun. 


On the ride home I thought about the race, and race.  At some point

while I was running I considered writing about these experiences and comparing running with the fight for equality.  I’d write about
bright moments of recognition and progress, but also about setbacks, enduring pain, and the long haul, among other things. But
I couldn’t get the thought of Trayvon’s parents viewing their dead son during the trial and I wondered how much pain they’ve endured in the past sixteen weeks since he was killed. I’m not so sure running is a worthy analogy anymore.

Sybrina Fulton,  Essence.com via Washingtonpost.com
I wonder if I’m even worthy of adding anything of substance to this conversation.  Can a white transgender woman living in one of the whitest states in a country that is blinded by fear say anything that would make a difference? I don't know, how about Charles Dickens?  I know, I know, he's just another white guy, but I believe his stories are timeless.  At the end of A Tale of Two Cities, one of the main characters, Sydney Carlton, is unjustly executed by over zealous and power hungry “patriots”.  To paraphrase sentiments from the novel, prejudice, in whatever distorted form it takes, oppresses over and over again, crushing us out of shape, consuming humanity.