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Note from the authors: Before getting to the article, we just want you to know that wherever you are coming from on these issues, you are accepted and appreciated. Everyone is starting from very different places and understandings, and hopefully, this article provides some context that can help keep inclusion at the forefront in the running community. Please read this amazing open letter from nonbinary athletes for more specific details.
At the Javelina Jundred 100 Miler, Riley Brady had a breakthrough race to earn a Golden Ticket to the Western States 100. The incredible performance brought the conversation about nonbinary athletes to the forefront of the sport. Nonbinary athletes are an important, indispensable part of the community, who must be welcomed with love and openness, just as they are.
Here’s what we love the most about running. You get out there, day after day, including when every fiber in your being resists that first mile. Your body undergoes all of these chemical reactions at the cellular level that interact with systems-level nervous system sensations to create psychological contexts that every runner knows: the runner’s high on one end (I CAN DO ANYTHING!), the runner’s low on the other (I AM NOTHING!). In that up-and-down process, every runner must grapple with the why behind it all, and probably their own impermanence, if they think a few miles beyond the finish line.
We think that’s why running can create such strong community bonds–as the rubber grinds off the soles of another pair of shoes, we all realize there is no light at the end of the tunnel, just more tunnel (and more shoes). And the tunnel is way more fun with friends and laughs to help light the way.
So to us, the running community is about a bunch of people with different backgrounds and perspectives seeing the darkness…and responding in unison: “Screw it! Let’s play.”
Finding that community through running fundamentally changed both of our lives, and if you’re reading this, there’s a good chance that running played that role for you, too. So many runners come to this sport specifically because it can be open and accepting, from no-cut high school teams to all-pace group runs to races where the winner and last finisher celebrate together. Everyone deserves that opportunity.
We might not be able to make a dent in the larger world of politics and culture, but we can play a part in helping all runners know they are welcome. Running can, and must be, a place of love and openness, of a shared understanding that we are united by this silly passion, or really… what are we even doing with our time?
What we love most about running is the community. And nonbinary athletes are an important, indispensable part of the community, who must be welcomed with love and openness, just as they are.
Nonbinary Athlete Background
We started with that preamble on community, love, and our shoe obsessions because nonbinary athlete inclusion follows directly from saying that we accept and value people as they are. And we are talking about this now because Riley recently earned a Golden Ticket to Western States by finishing second at the Javelina Jundred 100 Miler, in a blisteringly fast 14 hours, 45 minutes. It’s so hard to put words to a feeling, and Riley is stepping up with vulnerability in this article to try to help people that have never thought about these issues (or feel like they don’t know enough) have a general grasp of what it can feel like.
“For me,” Riley says, “Being nonbinary means that I occupy somewhat of a middle ground in terms of gender. There are two major components to the feeling: First is how I feel about myself–I often don’t feel at home in my body. When I was in sixth grade, I started doing a lot of push-ups and crunches every night before bed because I hoped that it would prevent puberty from really taking hold and maybe help masculinize my upper body. I figured, if I could make my core and arms strong enough, maybe I’d somehow magically turn into a boy instead.
“Second is all the social trappings of gender–how I present and am perceived by others, and the social circles I have access to (or don’t) depending on those perceptions. I tend to present more masculinely, and some people will see me as male while others see me as female. This means that I get yelled at in gendered bathrooms and locker rooms, and it means I get refused alcohol at weddings because bartenders think I’m a teenage boy.
“But it also means I get to connect with people in ways that I might not if I presented like people expect. I sometimes feel like I can ‘fit in’ when I find myself in exclusively male or exclusively female group environments when I bring out parts of my identity that overlap most with the group. So, for me, nonbinary is the best word I have to describe the experience of feeling most comfortable inhabiting more masculine styles and environments while being perceived as a woman and contending with the realities that accompany that split.”
Nonbinary athletes like Riley all have unique experiences, and sports can be inclusive to those diverse experiences in ways that they haven’t been afforded in so many other areas of life. Inclusivity is urgent because nonbinary athletes make up an indispensable part of our community. As outlined in a 2018 report in the New England Journal of Medicine, “Nonbinary people’s gender identity lies outside the boundaries of a strict male–female dichotomy.” A 2021 UCLA Law report estimated that over 1 million nonbinary people live in the US. However, that estimate is complicated given how it interacts with historical ostracism of people based on their differences. A 2022 Pew Research survey found that 3% of adults under 30 identify as nonbinary, compared to just 0.1% of people 50+.
If you think about that discrepancy, it’s heartbreaking. In general, young people now grow up with more representation of nonbinary and transgender people in media and literature (and hopefully on starting lines). Thus, they are often more comfortable embodying who they truly are, so the percentages are higher than previous generations. There have been nonbinary people throughout history and across every culture, and our society is just now starting to move toward a place of broader acceptance that lets them fully embody their identities.
“For the most part,” Riley says, “The running community has been so supportive! Up until Javelina pushed this part of myself into the spotlight, I’ve been relatively quiet about my gender. When Ultrasignup and races provided the opportunity to indicate my gender as nonbinary, I checked that box, but did not highlight it at races and definitely did not talk about it with casual running buddies or people I might be sharing miles with in a race. After Javelina, it feels good to know that now a lot of people in the running community are aware of this part of who I am and still want me there competing. After Javelina, a couple people from Boulder reached out to see if I wanted to go for a run when I move out there later this year, and that was a pretty awesome indication that I belong in this community.”
There are likely so many non-binary runners , and the running community has been making great strides in developing inclusive policies. Ultrasignup allows athletes to register as “male,” “female,” or “nonbinary,” while also allowing each athlete to choose a category for results. Thus, an athlete can be nonbinary while competing for prize money or awards in a binary gender category, within the rules for anti-doping, sex-classification, and transgender athletes generally. Many race directors have added nonbinary divisions, highlighted by the New York City Marathon, which had $5,000 prize money to the nonbinary winner.
“Leading up to Javelina,” Riley says, “I had emailed the race directors to inform them that I was seeking a Golden Ticket, which the race organization asks you to do. I perhaps emailed them too many times because I wanted to confirm I was starting in wave 1! On my Ultrasignup page, I have indicated my gender as ‘nonbinary’ and my division as ‘female.’ However, since this was the first year Javelina had a nonbinary division, they defaulted to the gender category for the live results updates. As I understand it now, that misunderstanding may have contributed to some confusion online after the race, even as I emailed them in advance and followed the rules at every step.”
Some of that online confusion led to questioning posts in the initial aftermath of Riley’s breakthrough day. One Trail Runner Magazine reader emailed us: “As a fellow Pennsylvania trail runner, Riley’s quest and accomplishments are really inspiring … Though some of the dialogue and assumptions around their performance in our community have been nothing short of shocking and kinda devastating.” As the emailer finished their message: “After Javelina, it is the moment for people to know this nonbinary East Coast Boss!”
However, inclusion and love are not about breakthrough performances and podiums. The reason that inclusive policies are so important is that for some nonbinary athletes, clicking that entry button may be one of the first times they have been able to fully embody their identity in running, and sometimes even in the whole world. That can be the world-shaking power of running. Instead of endless questions and skepticism, we can provide validation and affirmation of an athlete’s fundamental humanity. We can make light and space for people that society has pushed into the shadows. We can make the tunnel feel a bit more bright, and a lot more fun.
“For me,” Riley says, “Being able to register as nonbinary is just the absence of feeling like I have to check the wrong box. It makes me feel like I’m included and welcome! Also, having the institutional support from races is huge because it indicates they want people like me to not only participate but also to compete.”
The Learning Process
There are likely some readers out there who will resist this framing, and we want to make sure that they are accepted and loved in this process too. We are all operating within a society that prioritizes a gender binary, and despite the mountains of scientific and medical resources affirming the nonbinary gender identities of millions of people, it can be hard to fully empathize with something we don’t understand. David still finds his brain working in the binary sometimes, occasionally misgendering athletes he loves and cares about (including Riley), or getting confused about pronouns. He gets confused about lots of things, though, and it’s not hard to apologize and try again next time.
We all have to start where we are. If you sometimes feel resistance to these ideas, that’s okay, as long as you establish openness and love as a guiding principle to what comes next.
“Usually,” Riley says, “It is pretty easy to tell when people are just getting used to the new language around gender on one side and intentionally disregarding how someone would like to be addressed on the other. In those cases where it is an honest misstep, and I feel comfortable with that person, I try to gently correct them. After Javelina, I was texting with David, and he said something about his new child meeting ‘Aunt Riley.’ I responded by letting him know that I usually go by ‘Uncle Riley’ to the other babies in my life.”
The more difficult resistance comes from people making arguments resting on “slippery slopes.” A prime example is the NYC Marathon nonbinary prize money, with some commenters arguing that athletes will lie to win a few bucks. You don’t need our emotional arguments to see why that doesn’t happen–we can do a simple game-theory analysis about incentives.
On one side of the ledger are people who have gone through their whole lives, often since they first started making memories as children, having these feelings about their gender, but being forced into a binary they don’t occupy. To them, clicking that registration button is about identity and existence, with incalculable value. On the other side would be the denizens of the slippery slope–hypothetical people who would lie and arguably commit fraud to prove a point about gender that is rejected by every medical association and reputable scientist who studies the topic.
So we have millions of people who might have the incalculable value of identity-affirming validation on one side, versus a hypothetical (likely non-existent) person who would be a fraudulent asshole to prove a point on the other. That’s why the apocalyptic predictions of skeptics don’t come true, whether for nonbinary athletes, transgender athletes, or other inclusive policies in sports.
Love and Openness
The big point is that we must lead with love and openness in the sport. We’re not trying to be prescriptive–it really seems like most of the community wants to open doors, with Ultrasignup and race directors being proactive about doing the right thing (please read the Open Letter From Nonbinary Athletes for more details about what we all can do). Instead, we just think this is a key time for the community to affirm our principles and tell all nonbinary and other minority athletes: “You are seen. You are loved. And in accepting you as you are, we are not going to make you constantly explain your identity and experiences.”
The New England Journal of Medicine report had a key point for doctors. “Although it is important to have an open dialogue with patients, nonbinary patients should not be obligated to educate health care professionals about their health care needs.” In running, that translates to allowing nonbinary athletes to be themselves without asking a million questions, especially those tinted with skepticism.
“When it comes to running,” Riley says, “I mostly want to be able to show up to races and run as hard as I can! I want competitors and commentators to refer to me as ‘they’ if I am being talked about in the third person, but in general, I don’t want gender to be at the forefront of the conversation every time I toe the line. I love running so much, and I mostly want to enjoy the scenery, run hard, and cheer for other runners!”
The first step is developing open and inclusive policies, and great strides are being made every year. But the next step is the most important, for most of our readers at least, and it happens online, at group runs, and at finish lines. We all can play a role in that next step.
Let’s think about what draws us to the sport and to the community. Let’s think about our own identity and the validation we feel when we are accepted, just as we are. And let’s think about the impermanence of all of this, and how running can unite us in ways that make this short time on Earth so much more playful.
Let’s think of all of that, and let’s be waiting at the finish lines and in the comments sections with a big high five and an even bigger hug. No matter who you are, you are welcome here.
Let’s play, together! Otherwise, what are we even doing with our time?
Riley is a runner, bicycle mechanic, and aspiring framebuilder currently living in Philadelphia, PA. You can find them on Instagram: @rye.outside.
David is a running coach for Some Work, All Play in Boulder, CO.