Can running help to connect us to our queer identities?
BY CARRIE LYELL
In March this year, I ran my first half marathon. That might not seem like much of achievement to you ultra marathon runners out there, but for me, it was huge.
There were no spectators lining the streets, cheering me on. No medal waiting for me as I crossed the imaginary finish line. But the sense of achievement I felt was very, very real, and tears welled in my eyes as I let a profound sense of achievement wash over me.
Running is not something that comes naturally to me – at all. I’ve been doing it for years and still I don’t love it. Most of the time, I don’t even like it. But putting one foot in front of the other over and over and over again has changed my life. Maybe even saved it. And now, when someone asks me why I run, I tell them it’s because I have to.
Let me explain. I’ve never felt proud of my body, safe in my body, at home in my body. I’ve never stopped to marvel at the magic it’s working, day in and day out, without so much as a thank you. Though I was an active kid and loved nothing more than playing football with my brother, as puberty took hold, I disconnected from my body, giving up the things that had once brought me so much joy.
For a while, we’d pass each other in the hall; a nod or grunt of acknowledgment. We’d communicate only in insults. Then we started ignoring ech other completely.
But I can’t ignore my body when I’m running. I’ve tried – it didn’t go well. I know I need to listen to my lungs and my legs, or we won’t make it to the finish line in one piece. So we’ve called a truce, albeit an uneasy one, and we’re slowly learning to understand each other again, to be kinder, and to live side by side.
Something that helps me do that is connecting with other queer runners who have been on a similar journey, like Char Binns, festival director of Homotopia and “Top Dog” at Bookhounds, a new book subscription service for people who love reading and running.
“As a kid, I was really athletic,” she tells me. “And I was a bit weird. At junior school, one day of the year, I would run around the playground at break time like I was doing some kind of ultra challenge. I’d even get the dinner ladies to come and clap as I did my 100th loop!”
Now, in her 30s, running is something Char “can’t be without”, helping her “return to that weird kid”. “I think my eight-year-old self was the more authentic version, than the 18 or the 28 year old. I didn’t come out as queer until I was 30. I was married to a man [and] I didn’t feel ever really comfortable in my own skin. And so now, as I approach 38, it’s like I’m becoming the person I was always meant to be. That’s my why.”
Whether taking part in a Pride Run, joining your local Frontrunners group, signing up for a Bookhounds membership or simply going out for a loop with your queer pals, running is a brilliant way to meet others and connect us to our community.
It’s also healing – helping me connect to myself, and my queer identity, and the same is true for Char. “Running is my processing time – all kinds of thoughts go through my head when I’m out running. I think about everything, and my identity is definitely part of that, as well as the queer community and what I’m doing with them and for them.”
As Char’s talking, it occurs to me that running mirrors the queer experience in lots of ways: facing something momentally difficult but going through it and coming out stronger on the other side. She nods, telling me about an “epic run” she’s planning, something she hopes will put that sense of healing into action. “What I’m envisaging is going to places like queer-affirming churches, having those conversations and that discomfort, but coming through it. That is literally what you’re doing when you’re running.”
Despite how powerful a tool for connection running can be, and despite being considered one of the most democratic sports there is, running can still feel quite inaccessible as a queer person. There are huge issues around the discrimination of trans and intersex people at elite level, the vast majority of races are still split into male and female categories leaving non-binary runners out in the cold, and there is very little queer representation in running magazines. I’ve certainly never seen anyone like me, adding a layer of otherness on top of the imposter syndrome I already feel about taking up space in a world not meant for me.
And that lack of representation is something that has caused Char headaches when looking for the next read to send out to Bookhounds members. “I haven’t read a single book by an out, queer person,” she says. “But we’re there. We exist. We run.” When I check this out with DIVA books editor Erica Gillingham, who also works at Gay’s The Word, she confirms it – the books aren’t out there.
Was Char surprised by this poor state of affairs in the publishing world? “No. Because we’re queer women living in the society that we are. It’s just disappointing, isn’t it? Publishing is such a middle class, white industry. Combine that with running, especially distance and adventure running, which again is super middle class, super white. These people are obviously there and they exist. I’m one of them. You’re one of them. But the publishers are like, ‘Who is going to read that?’”
Getting more stories by queer runners out into the world is going to be a marathon rather than a sprint, but Char is hopeful about the future. “It is changing, because the world is slowly changing. I’m a subscriber to Runner’s World, who were taken to task recently by a group called Black Trail Runners. They also focussed on a non-binary runner the other week. Two years ago, we wouldn’t have seen that. So it is changing.”
Discovering running has been incredibly transformative for me, but at least 90% of the time, I hate it. Does that ever change, I wonder? Does Char love running? “It is such a good question,” she laughs. “Do I love running? Yeah, I do. But that doesn’t mean that I love running every single moment. Running’s like your best friend. Sometimes it’s really annoying and lets you down, but the vast majority of the time, it’s there for you when you need it and you love it.”
It’s a good thing she does love it, as she’s signed up for a 50 mile run. And there I was patting myself on the back for my 13.1 miles… How on earth do you prepare for something like that, I ask? “I don’t know yet Carrie!” Char laughs. “It’s a lot of time on your feet. For ultras, anything over a marathon, you’re not running the whole time. There’s a lot of walking involved. And a lot of eating. Mostly, it’s going to be being outdoors a lot, being on my feet a lot, making sure that I’m able to eat when I’m running or eat when I’m walking. And probably just accepting that it’s going to hurt.”
A few weeks after speaking to Char, I’m limping my way through the last kilometre of a particularly painful run. My legs are heavy, my hips hurt and that unkind voice in my head is getting louder with every step. I close my eyes and think about those queer kids – me, playing football shirtless with my brother, and her, running the 100th lap of the playground as the dinner ladies whoop and cheer. I’d never talk to them the way I’m doing to myself right now. I’d be their biggest cheerleaders. And so I let their laughter drown out that critical voice, carrying them over that imaginary finish line with me and healing us all in the process.