Endurance sports change the lives of some athletes

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It would be easy to look at professional triathlete Rach McBride and assume they always feel at home on the starting line. They’ve qualified for world championships, won Ironman 70.3 (half Ironman) races, and conquered the field of gravel cycling races. But until last year, that wasn’t the case. Despite a long, impressive list of titles and accomplishments, McBride(s/they), a 44-year-old Canadian, always felt a little out of place when lining up. At the 2021 Big Sugar Gravel race in Arkansas, however, everything changed.

Big Sugar was the first event in which McBride had the opportunity to compete in a non-binary category. The event, McBride says, has been nothing short of life-changing.

“For someone outside the gender binary, it can be really dysphoric to have to tick the ‘M’ or ‘F’ box on a registration form, to be the wrong gender at the start or finish line, to have to use spaces associated with gender, like bathrooms and change rooms because there’s no other option,” says McBride, who previously competed in the women’s category and came out publicly to the endurance world as non-binary in 2020. “You feel invisible, out of place, and invalid.”

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Big Sugar is part of the more than 30 endurance races under the umbrella of Life Time Athletic Events. Races include road running, trail running, triathlon, gravel cycling and road cycling, many of which are long-established and popular events. From 2021, they all include a non-binary category.

While Life Time may be the largest such organization to offer a non-binary split, it is not the only one. In 2021, the Philadelphia Distance Run, a popular half marathon, added the division. The New York Road Runners, which sponsors low-key races and major events like the New York City Marathon, also officially added the division. And in June, for the first time in its 41-year history, the Escape From Alcatraz Triathlon offered a non-binary option. Endurance racing of all kinds is making gender inclusion a greater priority.

The origins of the movement by endurance racing organizations to add a non-binary category are uncertain, but for Life Time, it began with a conversation in early 2020, just before the pandemic hit.

“We talked about our diversity and inclusion efforts, what we’ve done in that regard and what we still need to do,” says Michelle Duffy, director of event marketing. “We had a few hours together where we discussed what it means to be non-binary, and to be honest, it was the first time we dug in to really understand it.”

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Research from GLAAD’s Accelerating Acceptance 2021 survey reveals that there is a growing awareness of non-binary and transgender people among the general public. About 81 percent of non-LBGTQ respondents to the report’s survey said they expect non-binary and transgender people to become a more familiar part of life. Yet, in the world of endurance racing, categories other than the binary male and female have long been absent.

Coming out of that meeting in 2020, however, the Life Time team decided it was time to step up and make their events more inclusive. The event producer did not make an official announcement about the new race division, but simply included it in their registrations everywhere.

“We felt it was the right thing to do, not something that needed a big splash or marketing,” Duffy says. “For us, it comes down to people competing for endurance as an escape. Everyone should be able to see the outdoors as a welcoming space.”

Despite the lack of intentional fanfare, however, Life Time were on to something. The first race of the series after the addition of the non-binary category was the Unbound Gravel 100-mile event in Kansas. Abby Robbins, a non-binary athlete, became the first to enter the division, earning a spot on the podium. When Robbins posted photos on social media, the news took on a life of its own. Life Time began hearing from other race organizers who wanted to offer the same opportunities to athletes. (Life Time allows transgender women to compete in the female category if they “can provide documentation… [that they have] has undergone continuous, physician-supervised sex reassignment hormone treatment for at least one year prior to the date of competition.” Transgender men are not restricted.)

One year after Robbins’ performance as the only non-binary athlete at Unbound, 17 athletes entered the category in this year’s 200-mile event. McBride was one of them, taking first place in the non-binary division with a time of 11 hours and 56 minutes. “We feel like a new family because we’ve all come from this place of feeling outside,” says McBride. “Being validated and having the space to compete together is pretty profound.”

Justin Saul (they/he), a 27-year-old program manager based in New York, understands what McBride is saying. A runner for about 10 years, Solle came out as non-binary eight months ago and began registering in a division of races sponsored by the New York Road Runners and Front Runners New York (an international LGBTQ running club). “Seeing the category exist allowed me to feel empowered and get out there with my running group,” they say. “It’s beautiful to see the non-binary community grow and unite around the category.”

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The addition of a non-binary division in these New York-based races can be traced back to the efforts of Front Runners New York (FRNY) in 2019; FRNY allows participants to self-identify as to gender. “We started by offering the option to become a member or renew your membership as non-binary,” says Gilbert Gaona (he/him), the group’s president. “We then worked with our timing company to add the category to racing.”

As of 2021, the division has existed in every FRNY event and the club has successfully partnered with the New York Road Runners (NYRR) to do the same, including in its 50,000 strong New York City Marathon. Gaona estimates there were about 16 non-binary finishers at the event last fall. “We had a great relationship with the NYRR,” he says. “They ran the option with our own Pride Run and we felt supported by them.”

Even with all the progress, the introduction of non-binary divisions to many endurance races has not been without bumps in the road. For his part, McBride would like more triathlons to add the option. “I feel optimistic, but progress is moving at a snail’s pace,” they say. “After my experience at Unbound, I realize that I’m trying to be a professional athlete on the world stage and also advocate for inclusion. It’s a lot to take on, but it lit a fire in me to push more for triathlons to add the category.”

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Other issues to be resolved include timing and scoring for qualifying events such as the Boston Marathon. “We have a non-binary member who was fast enough to qualify for Boston in both the men’s and women’s categories,” says Gaona. “But there are no standards for non-binary runners, so they will have to choose a binary category to compete.”

And sometimes, even with non-binary divisions in an event, a race announcer will misgender an athlete when they come across the finish line. “It doesn’t make me angry, but it reminds me that the community is still working to clear things up,” Sole says. “The more we can come together and be loud and proud, the more attention we can get so people can see us for who we are.”

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