Monday, October 7, 2013

Up and Away

Sometimes the road gets tough, yet sometimes I experience a glimpse of humanity and I’m lifted up. Sunday I ran the Maine Half Marathon for the fifth consecutive year. With nearly four thousand runners, the race is one of the most popular in the state.
Start of Maine Marathon-Half Marathon Portland, Maine 2013
 I remember my first one quite clearly and while it was only four years ago, it seems worlds away. My colleagues had challenged each other to train over the summer and run the race in early October.  I was looking for the feeling of being part of something and started training in June.  While I had been a runner in high school, that was twenty-five years earlier, plus I had other priorities and diversions that I used as excuses to keep me from running for years.  At first, three miles was a test, but with persistence and a new found sense of freedom, I completed the half marathon that fall and the following year completed a full marathon.  That twenty-six mile passage through the streets of Las Vegas was the last race I ever ran registered as a male. 

Just a few weeks ago I participated in a panel discussion at the University of Southern Maine. The title of the event was Changing the Game, and the subject was the participation of LGBT athletes in high school and college sports.  My inclusion on the panel was related to my experience as a high school coach and athlete, and as a transgender athlete as well.  The moderator was Pat Griffin, author of “Strong Women, Deep Closets: Lesbians and Homophobia in Sport” and professor emerita at the University of Massachusetts.  She sent each of the panelists the format for the evening as well as a question she might ask us.  The question I received surrounded the relatively new territory of trans athletes in sports and what myths needed to be addressed.  After reading the question, I shook my head, not in disbelief, but frustration.  Its been nearly 40 years since Rene Richards, a transsexual woman, was barred from participating in the US Open tennis championship in 1976, her subsequent challenge to the New York supreme court, which she won, and her participation the following year on the women’s side.  What has happened in the expanse of time since that historic moment, not much apparently, especially in terms of trans participation in sports.  I don’t know the reason, but I guess it’s the prevalent homophobia and transphobia that keeps athletes and coaches from coming out.  Among the thousands of coaches and athletes in various sports across the US, the list of out male, female, or trans individuals - is very, very short.

I’ve been thinking about those “myths” and know it’s the language of fear, propagated by uneducated and less than supportive groups and individuals. I’ve been fortunate to face explicit discrimination or ignorance on only a few occasions. Mostly, discrimination happens behind my back.  Last year I had trained for months and raised thousands of dollars for a charity for the opportunity to run the 2012 New York Marathon. It would be my first marathon registered as female. I was psyched. 

As some of you know, soon after my last long training run, I developed a blood clot and was forced to pull out of the race just two weeks before the marathon.  But there was another dark cloud on the horizon and hurricane Sandy’s impact on the city forced organizers to cancel the historic race for the first time ever.  While some runners were upset, I was thrilled.  I hoped I’d get another chance to run New York.  As my injury healed, I sought another marathon for the early winter, just in case I couldn’t train for this year’s race and I didn’t want my months of effort to go to waste. With the cancelation of New York, many other races opened their doors.  The only one that seemed to fit with my schedule was the California International Marathon in Sacramento.  I contacted race organizers to see if there was a spot for me.  Because my only qualifying time was when I registered as a male, I was out of luck. I asked if they would use a converted time, a female equivalent, taking into consideration my authentic gender and the fact that I’ve been on hormones for years with microscopic amount testosterone left in my body.  The organizer mentioned that even if I had qualified, I would have to go through a chromosome test to prove my gender identity.  I was furious.  That’s exactly what the US Open asked of Rene Richards in 1976.  Did I travel back in time or what?  All I wanted to do is participate, nothing more. 

I think that’s what most of us want out of life, the feeling that we’re participating. So this year, I’ve tried my best to involve myself as much as possible in life, which can be quite a challenge for an introvert who's existence is a constantly questioned by society. I’ve continued to run and compete, and even completed my first triathlon a month ago, placing 3rd in the female 45-49 age group.  While I'm unemployed, I’m learning about being a social activist as a volunteer for several equality organizations.  I’ve been more involved with my family, especially as my dad was in the hospital this past spring.  And I even had my first intimate encounter as trans woman.  For me, these have been rather large steps and while I feel a hunger for life more than ever, moments of sadness and despair appear like ghosts then fade away, like tears in rain.  So it’s onward for now.

The race conditions for the half marathon the other day were nearly perfect, 53˚ and overcast, with just a touch of sea breeze to keep the air a little chilly.  For me, like last year, I was using this race as a training run for my upcoming Marathon.  It was a chance to practice race preparations, logistics, pacing, and trying not to get caught up in the race itself.  I think I succeeded, and after an hour and fifty minutes, my run was done.  As I crossed the finish line, a heavy metal, hanging from a red, white, and blue ribbon was placed around my neck.  After being wrapped in a foil blanket, to keep my body warm, I immediately drank two bottles of water and inhaled a few orange slices along with several bagels pieces smeared with creamy peanut butter.

I felt good about my effort and stood for a few minutes wrapped in foil near the finish line cheering other runner’s accomplishments.  It’s here, not during the race, that I see why I run.  It’s the friends and families waiting and cheering, and it’s the expressions on runners’ faces as they cross the finish line, some for the first time.  I can only imagine the journeys that brought them here.  My legs were cold and I was about to leave when I noticed another runner crossing the line.  She couldn’t have been more than sixteen years old, and no more than 100 pounds.  Wow, good for her. With her medal now hanging around her neck she turned and scanned the crowd, it appeared she was looking for a familiar face.  Suddenly she started to tremble and tears burst from her eyes at the sight of, I guess her family, pressed up to the metal barrier.  After a few warm hugs, an older man turned away and signaled to meet up with girl, his daughter perhaps, in the open area. His appearance caught me off guard.  He didn’t look like most of the others in the crowd; rather he was dressed like a typical Mainer, shit-kickers, well-worn jeans, work jacket and a dirty baseball cap.  His proud eyes were red from crying.  I don’t know their story, and probably never will, but I was touched by their tenderness.  I turned from the crowd and started to walk back to where I had parked a few hours earlier.  After crossing a busy street, I started to jog.  I don’t know why, but I ran all the way back to my waiting car, about a mile away.  While I had just run a half marathon, I felt lifted up and part of life. 

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