Endurance sports make a life-changing upgrade for non-binary athletes

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It would be easy to look at professional triathlete Rach McBride and assume that he always feels at home on a starting line. They have qualified in world championship races, won Ironman 70.3 races (half Ironman), and conquered the field in gravel bike races. But until last year, that wasn’t the case. Despite a long and impressive list of titles and achievements, McBride (they/them), 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, that all changed.

Big Sugar was the first event in which McBride had the opportunity to compete in a non-binary category. The event, McBride says, was life-changing.

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

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Big Sugar is one of over 30 endurance running events under the Life Time Athletic Events umbrella. Races include road running, trail-running, triathlon, gravel cycling and road cycling, many of them long-standing popular events. As of 2021, all include a non-binary category.

While Life Time might be the largest organization offering a non-binary divide, it’s not the only one. In 2021, the Philadelphia Distance Run, a popular half marathon, added the division. 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 races of all stripes are making gender inclusion a bigger priority.

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

“We were talking about our diversity and inclusion efforts, what we had done in that regard and what else we needed to do,” says Michelle Duffy, director of event marketing. “We had a couple of hours together where we discussed what it meant to be non-binary, and it was honestly the first time we really dug into it.”

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

Coming out of this 2020 gathering, however, the Life Time team determined it was time to step up and make their events more inclusive. The event producer did not make an official announcement about the new racing division, but simply integrated it into their registrations at all levels.

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

Despite the lack of deliberate fanfare, however, Life Time was on to something. The first race in their series after adding the non-binary category was the 100-mile Unbound Gravel event in Kansas. Abi Robins, a non-binary athlete, became the first to register in the division, earning a spot on the podium. When Robins posted photos on social media, the news took on a life of its own. Life Time began listening to other race organizers who wanted to provide the same opportunities for athletes. (Life Time allows transgender women to compete in the female category if they “can provide documentation… [that they have] has been undergoing medically supervised continuous hormone treatment for gender transition for at least one year prior to the date of the race.” Transgender men face no restrictions.)

A year after Robins represented herself as the only non-binary athlete at Unbound, 17 athletes entered the category at 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. “It’s like a new family, because we all come from this place of feeling left out,” says McBride. “Being validated and having the space to compete together is pretty profound.”

Justin Solle (he/him), a 27-year-old program director 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 for the division in races sponsored by New York Road Runners and Front Runners New York (an international LGBTQ running club). “Seeing the category exist allowed me to feel empowered and go out with my running group,” they say. “It’s beautiful to see how the non-binary community is growing and uniting around the category.”

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The addition of the 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 identify by gender. “We started by offering the option to become a member or renew as a non-binary member,” says Gilbert Gaona (he/him), the group’s president. “We then worked with our timing company to add the category to the races.”

Since 2021, the division has existed at all FRNY events, and the club successfully partnered with New York Road Runners (NYRR) to do the same, including in their 50,000-runner New York City Marathon. Gaona estimates there were around 16 non-binary finalists at last fall’s event. “We’ve had a great relationship with the NYRR,” he says. “They launched the option with our own Pride Run and we felt supported by them.”

Even with all the progress, the deployment of non-binary divisions in many endurance events has not been without its pitfalls. For his part, McBride would like to see more triathlons 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 am trying to be a professional athlete on the world stage and also advocate for inclusion. It’s a lot to take on, but it has lit the fire in me to push harder for triathlons to add to the category.”

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Other issues to consider 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 would have to choose a binary category in order to compete.”

And sometimes, even with non-binary divisions in an event, a race announcer will confuse an athlete when they meet a finish line. “It doesn’t make me crazy, but it’s a reminder that the community is still working to figure things out,” says Solle. “The more we can come together and stand tall and proud, the more attention we can get, so people can see us for who we are.”

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