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February 6, 2018

On training, racing, and growing as a gay runner

Distance runners are weird.

Anyone who ends up on a starting line in a pair of clunky cross-country spikes with an oversized singlet hanging off their knobby shoulder probably didn’t get there because they were the coolest kid in school and everything came naturally to them. More often than not, high school track and cross-country teams are made up of misfits and nerds whose parents don’t want them home before 5 but who can’t sink a free throw to save their lives.

But once the gun goes off, the clock doesn’t discriminate. No matter how tall or short or charming or handsome you are, the race is the same distance for everyone and the winner is whoever crosses the finish line first. Talent and circumstance play some undefined role, but for the most part, the tools for improvement and, ultimately, achievement, are in our own hands. You can run more, train smarter, try harder, and (for most people most of the time) you will get better.

This is a concept I think we are all instinctively protective of – it’s why we react so viscerally to doping allegations or nation-switching, against altitude tents and magical marathon shoes. We love the perceived fairness of this sport because we’ve all felt the validation it brings us – at any distance, any level, you get out what you put in.

My “weirdness” happens to have a label: I’m a gay runner. My results don’t get a rainbow asterisk next to them; I line up at the same starting line as everybody else. The miles are just as long and the hills are just as steep.

When I first started running as an awkward, clunky 8th grader, I fell in love with the validation that came from being tangibly, inarguably good at something in a way I never was on a soccer field and wasn’t as fun on a report card. Layers of denial kept me from seeing it at the time, but that validation was made all the sweeter because I was different. As a confused, young, closeted gay boy, there was also something particularly satisfying about being good at a sport.

I shed seconds off my track times and got stronger, smarter, and more consistent as I went from running one season as a high school freshman to running year-round as a junior. I was never a star athlete in elementary school, and here I was going on recruiting trips, winning all-star awards, and setting records. My senior spring I committed to attend Cornell University and became one of the few athletes from my cerebral, artistic high school who could say he was playing DI college sports.

I didn’t have a typical “coming out” moment. I wasn’t out in high school, and then I was in college. I’m fortunate to come from a family and community where my safety or acceptance was never part of my calculation to be who I am.

However, I was still alone. When I went to college in the fall of 2011, I was the only openly gay member of a track and field program that was 80+ athletes strong. My coaches and teammates were immediately accepting and supportive, but these things come with a sort of institutional inertia- everyone might be nominally on board at first, but being the “only” or the “first” anything is always going to mean that there’s a norm and you’re not part of it. That can make some things awkward. It can make some people uncomfortable.

(A word about locker rooms: If you’re worried about sharing a locker room with an LGBTQ person, here’s some news- you already have, and the reason you didn’t know that is because it didn’t change your life one bit. If you’re an LGBTQ person, don’t be afraid. The only struggle I’ve experienced in a college locker room is with my messy neighbor who kept leaving clothes everywhere.)

Anyone who’s ever been to a college party knows that it often devolves into a sort of elaborate mating ritual- the 1 a.m. pairing off of boys and girls in corners of a dingy, beer-stained apartment, and the frustration of those left on the outside looking in. For me, those 1am moments were often when I felt the most alone, knowing that no matter how cool or handsome I was – or hell, even how fast I was – nothing could create opportunities where none existed. Sure, the wonders of app technology can help you beat those “1 in 10” odds, but the pervasive, youthful track-cest that is characteristic of so many college teams was largely a world in which I had no place.

But inertia soon gave way to momentum. In my four years at school, a lot changed in our team culture and the people who made up our team changed, too. I was not the only gay member of my team for long- by senior fall, we joked that we had the “gayest cross-country team in the NCAA” because 3 of our top 5 runners identified as LGBT. Perhaps coincidentally (perhaps not), that year was also the highest we’ve placed at Heps in the last decade. Our merry band of weirdos was the best it had ever been.

I improved drastically over my four years at Cornell, but never without my fair share of bumps along the road. My junior year, in the midst of a string of bad races – or at least, races I felt didn’t reflect the shape I was in – the head coach of the track team pulled me aside after practice one day and asked me something I’d never considered before.

“Do you feel like you have something to prove?”

Such a simple, obvious question, but one that had never occurred to me before. Of course I had something to prove – we all do. But maybe the type-A, perfectionist fuel fanning the fire was getting in the way of proving it. As anyone who’s ever competed in distance running knows, straining is antithetical to success.

Because of that conversation, where my coach pointed out to me that I maybe was working a tad too hard, forcing a bit too much, I started to reevaluate my view of the sport as entirely outcome-based. Maybe you can’t just look toward the results as the ultimate arbiter – maybe the best races are run when everything else is completely and comfortably in place along the way. I’d been thinking so much about where I wanted to go and not enough about how I wanted to get there.

My best running memories have never been about just showing up. When I look back on college, I think about scoring at Heps or breaking 9 minutes in the steeplechase, of qualifying for Regionals or setting a long-awaited PR in the mile. However, I can see now that those discrete results aren’t the whole story. Particularly as I’ve struggled mightily in the post-collegiate running world, I’ve been forced to acknowledge and appreciate the reality that results only reflect a small sliver of the athlete and person I am. My career is both a product of my identity and entirely independent of it.

Fortunately, we live in a world where we are rapidly running out of things to be the “first gay” of. But we also live in a world far bigger than Boston, MA and Ithaca, NY. If my story has any lessons, it should be that being the first gay runner in your world means you won’t be the last.

Teams with gay athletes also have a funny tendency to be more accepting across the board. Having one or two of us who break societal “rules” has a funny way of giving everyone permission to be themselves a little more fully. My straight teammates got a little cuddlier, a little sillier, and a lot more open about their vulnerabilities as a result of having teammates and friends who challenged their masculinity but who worked just as hard and shared the same goals. We fully embrace the mandate of our sport when we don’t just accept weirdos; we celebrate the weirdness in all of us.

I like the fairness of the clock. I like that it treats me like everyone else. But when you tie your self-worth to the time run or the points scored, you live or die by every race. Giving yourself permission to relax, to bounce back, and to enjoy the ride will only make you faster in the long run. When you’re proud of who you are and not just what you do, it makes the victories even sweeter and the defeats easier to weather. I enjoy being different. It’s made me a better person, a better teammate, and ultimately, a better runner.

Our sport needs more weirdos, because weirdos do great things.

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