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Back of the pack

Twenty years of barely-competitive racing

The author crosses the finish line of the 2013 San Francisco Marathon. Photo by Ziggy Tomcich.

Yesterday morning I competed in the Bridge to Bridge 12K run in San Francisco. I’d run this race four times previously, though only once at this distance. I’ve run in many other races, from 5K to marathon length, sometimes competing as often as three times a month. But before yesterday, I had not raced in a year and a half.

As I ran, I realized that it had been about twenty years since my first race. A quick search confirmed that my first race was in June 1998. Since I first started running that spring, I’ve had many stops and starts in my training, but running is the only exercise I’ve been able to stick to for any significant length of time. Having a race to look forward to is one motivating factor, as I love the adrenaline rush I get when I cross that finish line. And yet, I know I’ll never be a competitive athlete.

After 28 years of living a relatively sedentary lifestyle, what motivated me to begin a serious exercise program was a medical emergency. A minor cut on my finger —from a hangnail, actually— became infected, causing pain so severe I couldn’t sleep. I called my doctor and he gave me a shot of antibiotics, which itself was traumatic enough that I went into shock.

After that shot and a full course of antibiotics I was just fine, but decided that my immune system must be in pretty bad shape if I could get a life-threatening infection from a hangnail. I also wanted to lose weight, though at 5' 4" and around 145 pounds I was considered fat only by the shallow standards of fashion. (This was years before my gender transition; I was living as a woman at the time.)

I found a walk-to-run program online, and started following it in March of 1998. I began with just walking, then running for only 30 seconds at a time. Very gradually, I worked up to the point where I could run for 30 minutes non-stop. I recorded all of my runs in a FileMaker Pro database I created myself, measuring the distances with a paper map, as this was before the widespread availability of GPS watches or Internet mapping programs.

At that time, I was living in El Cerrito, California, a couple of blocks from the Ohlone Greenway, the bike-and-pedestrian trail that runs from El Cerrito to Berkeley. I didn’t drive and didn’t enjoy cycling much, so having ready access to a paved trail was very convenient. For the next two years, nearly all of my weekend training runs would take place on the Greenway. I also did some weekday running outside my workplace near Candlestick Point, when I was fortunate enough to get access to shower facilities at a building in the complex.

Eventually I decided I was ready to try a short race. I found a local running club, the Lake Merritt Joggers and Striders, that hosted a 5/10/15K race—one to three laps around Lake Merritt in Oakland — once a month. I finished my first 5K race in 33:39, coming in almost last in the field. Despite this, I placed 3rd in my division (20–29F), as there were very few people under 30 competing.

The author’s race results with the Lake Merritt Joggers and Striders (deadname redacted).

For the year and a half I competed in 5K and 10K races with this club, I would continue to place first, second, or third in my division, despite my slow times. I found this amusing, but still felt frustrated. I’d read that I “should” be able to run a 30 minute 5K sooner rather than later, but that milestone eluded me. Running a mile in 10 minutes exhausted me, and I’d have to run even faster than that to make the 30 minute goal.

Regardless, I was getting fitter, and decided to train for a longer race: The San Diego Half Marathon, coming to Carlsbad in January 2000. I followed Jeff Galloway’s half marathon training program and run-walk method, settling on a 9/1 run/walk ratio. I finished the race successfully; though I don’t have ready access to my exact finishing time, it was somewhere in the neighborhood of two hours, 30 minutes.

Unfortunately, I did one of the worse things you can do following a demanding race: Soaking in a hot tub. It felt good at the time, but for the next two days my legs were so sore I could barely move. I should have iced my legs instead. Lesson learned…

Following that race, I had planned to go the next logical step and compete in a full marathon in my home town of Pittsburgh in the summer of 2000. But that year my marriage fell apart, and my will to exercise went with it. I moved to Berkeley and was no longer within easy distance of the Ohlone trail, though in reality it wasn’t that far away, so this was more of an excuse to avoid working out than anything. However, I was dealing with a move, a divorce, and, soon after, a job change, so under quite a bit of stress.

After dating and moving in with my new (and current) partner Ziggy, I joined the local YMCA for awhile, but my heart wasn’t in it. I’ve never liked gyms; though strength training helped me lose a bit of weight (I had reached a peak of 173 pounds, which was considered borderline obese), it was boring, and none of the exercise machines gave me the satisfaction that running outdoors once had.

Tired of our long commutes to work, Ziggy and I moved to San Francisco in 2003. While our urban apartment was not right next to a trail, it was not far from the scenic waterfront. Though I hated running on the sidewalk, dodging pedestrians, I realized it was worth it to get out to a more open area.

Gradually I established a couple of different standard routes. Initially I ran down the very steep Hyde Street hill to Aquatic Park, out to the end of the pier, and took the cable car back home. Later I altered this route (concerned about the stability of the pier, especially as I can’t swim) to go through Fort Mason. I then extended the run to the Palace of Fine Arts, then to Crissy Field and finally out to Fort Point for a nine-mile distance, which is as far as I’ll go if I’m not training for a long race. Another route went along the Embarcadero to the ballpark.

Slowly, I got back in good enough shape to compete in the San Francisco Half Marathon (first half) in July 2009. While I got to run over the Golden Gate Bridge, everything was fogged over and noisy, making me question whether getting up at the crack of dawn was worth it. Ziggy tracked my route and followed in a Zipcar, snapping photos along the way, saving me the cost of ordering race photos. I finished in a time of two hours, 41 minutes. Still slow, but still going.

All this time, I preferred to run solo. Ziggy or a friend joined me occasionally, but most of my training runs were on my own. However, I did crave company for races, just to have someone to meet up and talk with before and after the race itself.

So I joined another running club, the Dolphin South End Runners. I ran my first 5K with that club in August 2009, finishing in 32:34. There were a lot more runners in this group than at Lake Merritt, so while I wasn’t at the very back of the pack, I had no hopes of placing in my age group either.

There were a couple of exceptions in that regard. I had one last-place finish during an evening run at Lake Merced. This weekday series did not attract as many runners as the club’s Sunday morning runs, and after the few dozen entrants took off at the start I quickly found myself alone, and saw no other runners for the remainder of the race. By the time I reached the finish, feeling very depressed, volunteers were breaking down the finishing cones. But one saw me and I got my time recorded.

I know some say that “if you just show up, you’re lapping everyone who stayed at home on the couch”. But I really didn’t like being dead last. Having runners in their 70s breezing by me while I struggled in these club races was bad enough without this added humiliation. Coupled with my dislike of evening running and of the location of this route, I never ran in that series again.

In contrast, in December of 2012 I competed in a four-mile race along the Embarcadero that also had very few participants, as it was pouring rain and so windy I nearly got blown over walking to the start. Despite getting soaked to the bone, I felt giddy at being out racing in such horrible weather. I finished in 40:09, which thanks to the small field was good enough for third place in my age group (again, competing as female at the time).

Meanwhile, I finally got that sub-30 minute 5K finish in July 2012. I was starting to move from the very back of the pack to somewhere in the middle, especially in larger fields. I was still far from being an age group competitor, but definitely improving. Now in my early 40s, I was in the best shape of my life, and decided it was finally time to run a full marathon.

I was motivated to make that decision by meeting Dean Karnazes, a popular ultrarunner I had been following with great interest. I’d been reading many books by ultramarathoners, and marveling at their stamina while I struggled to complete much shorter distances. I met Dean at the race expo for the 2012 San Francisco Marathon, though I was only running the 5K that year. Inspired, I posted on his Facebook page that if he was going to run the San Francisco Marathon in June 2013, I would as well. He replied, saying OK, now it’s in writing, you have to do it!

The author with Dean Karnazes, July 2012. Photo by Ziggy Tomcich.

Even for the marathon, I continued to train alone, creating monthly training plans with RunningAHEAD and continuing with the Galloway run/walk method (now using 5/1 intervals). But once I got beyond 15 miles, the furthest distance I had ever run, my long runs were increasingly miserable.

I questioned why I was subjecting myself to so much pain for what I considered to be an arbitrary distance. I certainly didn’t need to run a marathon or any distance near it to get fit. Reaching a low of 113 pounds, I was at my lightest adult weight and starting to get dizzy spells. Was it worth it just for the bragging rights?

Part of the Galloway training method includes running at least the full length of the race you’re training for, ideally three weeks before the race for a full marathon. I think this makes a lot more sense than training up to 20 miles and assuming that adrenaline will carry you for the last six. For a slow runner like myself, running six miles takes over an hour. I was not willing to assume I could sustain a whole hour of running at the end of a long race on adrenaline alone.

But my 26 mile training run was brutal. I stopped running completely miles from the end of it, but kept going, walking/shuffling every last step. Even though my training runs had more hills than the actual race route, I was not confident I could finish the race if I couldn’t do the full distance in training.

And finish the race I did, in a time of 5:52:23. This put me just ahead of my six hour goal, which was the maximum time allowed to get an official time recorded for the course. (The clock in the photo at the top of this story reflects the gun time, not chip time; I was in the last wave of runners to start.) Though I was so far in the back of the pack that few runners and spectators remained in the later miles of the course, I was proud of myself for persevering.

While all this marathon training was going on, I was facing an even more monumental struggle: Figuring out my gender identity. By the summer of 2013 I’d come to realize that I was non-binary, not a woman. I hadn’t yet decided to medically or legally transition, but I would go on to announce my name and gender change that August.

Meanwhile, I’d grown tired of wearing bras, even for running. I experimented with running without a bra, and after the first few steps barely felt any jiggling. So with the exception of the marathon, where I wore a bra solely because I thought the race photos would look better, I stopped wearing bras for good in 2013. Even though I’ve gained weight since then, I still refuse to wear them, and have had issues with gender dysphoria related to that choice.

As explained in the story above, my transition has not included top surgery, but I did start hormone therapy in January 2014. This affected my racing, as after some time on testosterone I found I could run faster with less effort. I switched to registering as male for races, feeling not only that I did not want to compete as female, but that it would be unfair to do so.

Considering my non-competitive times and the amateur club races I usually compete in, I would much rather not specify a sex at all. But this has never been an option. (DSE allows competing as a “self-timer” without specifying a sex, but then you don’t get to cross the finish line, which for me is the main thrill of racing.) So I began competing as male, and though my times improved, I was now even further back in the pack for my age group.

I set a number of personal records in the year after I began testosterone therapy, but all the while wondered how much of it was due to training, and how much to the hormones. I regretted that I hadn’t pushed myself harder when competing as female, though I also realized this was a somewhat macho attitude.

This must-run-faster mindset was subverted in my favorite race, the inaugural “Beat the Blerch” near Seattle, September 2014. This race series is put on by “The Oatmeal” cartoonist Matthew Inman, who happens to be an ultrarunner. The race featured costumed runners encouraging competitors to slow down, have a seat on a couch and eat cake, which was hilarious. The surroundings were beautiful and I had a great time. I found myself flying through the final miles, got a PR of 2:24:36 and my first half marathon medal competing as a male.

The author with Matthew Inman of ‘The Oatmeal”, September 2014. Photo by Ziggy Tomcich.
The author runs in the “Beat to Blerch” half marathon, September 2014.

Regardless, 2:24 (improved to 2:22 at a race in San Francisco a few months later) is still nowhere near a competitive time. Consulting tables for what typical race times are for people my age is even more confounding now that I have a blended body. While I’m agender, I also identify as a transsexual male because I feel that most accurately describes my body: Assigned female at birth, but altered by testosterone to have secondary sex characteristics typical of cisgender men. The racing world does not adequately account for people like myself, not that it matters much as I’ll always be an amateur. But it’s still frustrating to live with these binary expectations.

In DSE club events, volunteers hand racers a white tag for male or orange tag for female. I stopped racing with that club for awhile when I was doing volunteer work on Sundays, and by the time I came back I had begun my gender transition. But even years later I was sometimes handed an orange tag, and got tired of being misgendered. I doubt it would happen now that I’ve grown a beard, but the experience made me reluctant to attend club races.

Eventually, depression and dysphoria got the better of me, and I stopped running for months at a time. I would go for a run now and again, but didn’t have the motivation to resume a regular training schedule. Even when I signed up for a race, I would sometimes decide not to do it; I’ve never had a DNF (Did Not Finish), so if I felt undertrained I simply would not compete.

I keep trying to motivate myself to get back out there. Lately, Ziggy — who has become a skilled triathlete, with competitive running times in his age group— has frequently been getting up at 5 a.m. to attend a hot yoga class. So I’ve been trying to get up with him and go out running very early, when I don’t have to encounter many people.

The author with partner Ziggy, following the Bridge to Bridge 12K, August 2018.

This early-morning training enabled me to participate in yesterday’s Bridge to Bridge race. But I did not feel adequately prepared, so I planned for a conservative one hour, 30 minute finish. I finished in 1:26, 60% in the total field according to the preliminary standings, which was better than I expected. I’ve also just signed up for another of my frequent races, the Kaiser Half Marathon, coming to Golden Gate Park in February.

I hope to find the motivation to train for future races. Depression and dysphoria really don’t make it easy, and the results are nothing most people would get excited about. But the exhilaration of dashing through that finish line is something to look forward to.