How Running Helped Me Explain My Transition To Myself

Alice Mongkongllite/BuzzFeed

God, I hate running. No — don't think that. It's not helping. Just keep going. Run. Run. Run. Mountains, pale green, early spring; carriage trail, dirt, mud. Puddle, dust, roots. Uphill, downhill, flat. Go. Go. Go.

Running, one year and change. Almost 400 miles, one pair of running shoes completely destroyed, another well underway. I'm slower than I was last fall. Thanks, winter lethargy. Thanks, hormones. Some athletes juice to improve their performance; not me, though. My pharmaceutical regimen is actually preventing me from building muscle. I am anti-juicing.

Transitioning from male to female, one year and change. Three and a half decades of denying that I'm transgender, 36 years of a constant inner refrain of “I couldn't” and “I won't” have finally shifted to acceptance — “I could,” “I will,” and now, “I am.” 100 milligrams spironolactone twice a day to block testosterone; 6 milligrams estrogen, taken sublingually so it doesn't destroy my liver. Softer skin, bigger ass. Plus one cup size. Maybe two if I suck in my gut and squint. Just numbers. Doesn't matter. Keep going. Run. Run. Run.

I began running because I didn't know how else to quiet my mind. My approach to pacing was simple when I started: I ran as fast as I could. If I still had energy to ruminate, I pushed myself faster. When I couldn't run anymore, I walked, and when the doubts and questions returned, I started running again. I needed a distraction I'd hate so much that it wouldn't leave room for anything else. I'd always hated running, so it was perfect. Amazingly, it worked; for a blissful few minutes after every good, long run, I'd feel calm. It does not sound like much, but last year, when I could find little else to hold on to, it was everything.

I always run alone. Especially when I began, though, and all through that first spring, I was never by myself. I carried with me the memory of a relationship that had touched all of my most tender places — the scar tissue that no amount of therapy and no magic number of Al-Anon meetings could ever heal. I ran with the knowledge that on the cusp of my transition, when I had needed support more than ever before in my life, my closest support had opted out. I ran with the overwhelming guilt of knowing that after I had abandoned her months prior, when she had most needed me, I couldn't pretend that I didn't deserve the same. No amount of pain, remorse, begging, or prayer could touch any bit of it, though. Villain, victim, and victor were all the same, and every version of the story I kept rehashing in my mind ended with the same line: Here I am, here's what comes next, and no matter what I do, there's no way back.

Even though most of me knows I made good decisions last year, it's hard not to be completely floored by a sense of loss sometimes. Why did I have to do this? I could have kept on as I was.

And so I ran. I ran as hard as I could because I didn't know if I'd ever again feel the way I'd felt with her, or if anyone else would ever love me that fiercely once I'd passed this boundary. I ran from the poisonous, insidious thought that in my cowardice I'd destroyed the last good thing I'd ever have. No matter how hard I pushed myself, though, no matter how labored my breathing or painful the cramps in my chest, the memory of her and her family — a family that had instantly felt more like home than almost anything else ever had — and my own sense of grief were never far away. They chased after me like ghosts.

What they don't tell you prior to transitioning is that once the thing you've been hiding behind is no longer there, you still need to deal with everything else; the losses accrued in the shadow of a truth you never thought you could live, and the collateral damage from those losses. It's like addiction recovery, except that there are no 12-step groups for this.

Run. Run. Run. My quads are on fire. My feet are a hot mess of blisters and callouses. My lungs feel like they're about to explode. Why aren't I sitting on the couch watching reruns of Buffy? No — stop thinking. Just go.

I'm running from what my therapists have told me: “You're so strong and good at taking care of yourself.” That's never felt like an asset to me. If there were easier options, I would have chosen them in a heartbeat. I certainly have elsewhere in my life. Where others see strength, I feel sadness and loneliness. And I can see that some of my “strong” decisions were actually motivated by fear.

I'm running from what friends have asked me: “When are you going to start presenting as female?” What the hell is that supposed to mean? Am I supposed to start wearing dresses and heels every day to confirm my gender identity to the outside world? Fuck that. I am presenting as female, 24/7. And most of the time I'm doing it in jeans and a T-shirt, like almost every other woman I know. People who don't know me are already gendering me correctly as female, and, god help me, even chatting me up and hitting on me when I'm sweaty and gross, out on the trail. Asking me when I'm going to start trying to look more female is bullshit.

I'm running most of all from what acquaintances tell me: “You're so courageous.” No. I'm not. No one who says this knows what cowardice and doubt have cost me. Putting on a skirt instead of jeans before walking out the door is easy. I don't really care about the consequences anymore. But staying and fighting for what I most want, for what scares me and what still makes me feel the most vulnerable, is something I struggle with. Calling me courageous just reminds me of where I've failed.

Run. Run. Run. My legs are killing me. My chest hurts. What sadistic jackass invented sports bras? Why aren't I sitting on the couch watching reruns of Xena? I want to stop. I need to stop. OK. I can stop after that next tree. OK, now the next one. Now the next. Jesus, how does such a stupid trick keep working on me? It does, though, and I keep on. Go. Go. Go.

Eventually, without hating running any less, I've begun to love it too. As the hormones have been making my body soft, this has been giving me a physical strength I feel good about. My body is finally beginning to feel right, and that's at least as much from running as from anything else. It's become my meditation and release, but not all pious and austere like that makes it sound. It's my sweaty, filthy, balls-out, lungs-bursting, muscles-burning, oxygen-deprived, tachycardial escape. It's what I'd always wanted yoga to be, but could never find through all the scandals, pseudo-spiritual mumbo jumbo, and self-proclaimed gurus. There are no scandals or mumbo jumbo here, though. There are definitely no gurus. There's just me.

When my mind becomes quiet on the trail, the soft voices of hard truths become easier to hear. One of the softest, hardest, and most persistent of these is that what I'm doing, transitioning, is not what I most want. What I most want is family. What I'm running after is love. Isn't that what I've always wanted? Radically disrupting my biochemistry and sociological categorization is at best an unorthodox route to that, though. At worst, I'm scared that I'm slamming a door shut. Yes, I'm becoming who I am, and that's wonderful, and I could still find someone, and dreams come true, but the facts on the ground are that my odds of ever partnering with someone again are uncertain. A lifetime of discomfort with my body and my identity, a lifetime spent chasing the illusion of security by secreting myself away and playing small, has meant that I didn't start dating till I was 30. It's hard for me to have faith that anyone could ever love this revised, unfettered version of me. I never trusted that anyone could love the old me either. Holding on to unsubstantiated hope for a love and a sense of home that may never come again is exhausting.

This is where I really need courage.

This is where courage has consistently failed me in the past.

So I keep moving where I can. Keep running. Go. Go. Go. Thank god I'm almost at the end of the trail. It's mostly downhill from here. I've already made it further than I thought I would or could, and that feels like a quiet victory. I don't know how to work toward the common, simpler things I want, like finding a partner and a family, and not jumping ship if I do. So I'm working toward obscure, nearly impossible goals instead, like changing my gender via off-label and largely experimental drug use, and forcing myself to run harder and harder over longer distances while simultaneously decimating my body's ability to build muscle. If I can't find the way to my deepest desires of family and love, then I'm going to fight like hell for what I can instead. Maybe in the future toward which I’m finally running, I’ll acquire the skills to do that other work. But the home stretch is still beyond my line of sight, and right now, I need to focus my attention on where I am.