Finding a community by running – The New York Times
I was way too early and feeling way too old for the first session of the Beginner’s Clinic at Front Runners New York, a club for the LGBTQ running community.
It was 2019, and the large gymnasium on New York’s Upper West Side was filling up with men and women, but mostly young men, in running gear. We smiled and waved or shook hands, and I felt uncomfortable in my new tracksuit and sneakers. The coaches, Richard and Paul, broke the silence. Paul looked older than me – I was 64 at the time – which relieved me a bit.
We sat in a circle and introduced ourselves. We all signed up because we wanted to participate in the five mile pride run, which would be the last clinic session in 10 weeks. I also signed up for the community.
I am from the Netherlands and moved to New York with my husband in 1996 for work. We adopted two children, got married, and moved to a quiet area of Brooklyn with good schools. Gay life, whatever it is, has taken a back seat.
I stopped working and became a parent alongside other parents, few of whom were gay. During Front Runner I explained that I needed a gay environment, a gay community. “I had completely heterosexualized myself,” I say. Everyone laughed. I was still nervous when I saw myself through their eyes, but I was already feeling a little better.
It – a sporting environment I was comfortable in – always felt new to me. I had tried all kinds of sports throughout my childhood because sports were what boys and young men were supposed to do. I was a member of an athletics club for a while, did fencing and judo under a creepy ex-Marine, and played soccer and tennis.
None of the compulsory school sports were for fun. We were expected to perform and compete. Failure to do so meant being an underdog in all these clubs and at school. I couldn’t play the way they wanted. And as I realized I was gay, it became even more difficult to be part of a sports community, where masculinity and heterosexuality were the norm. The sense of community was theirs, not mine.
There was no competition between the Front Runners. Ability and age didn’t matter. We all ran at our own pace, and those who were slower than the rest had the company of the coaches. The Saturday races leading up to the Pride Run just got easier, though it was still hard work. I remember one of the last races, one gray and rainy morning, when I realized I would be able to run those five miles. I screamed silently with my hands in the air.
I could indeed finish the Pride Run, not as an adult version of this non-athletic kid, but as a full-fledged athlete, proud of myself and my abilities. I knew I would be among the 14,000 others who looked more or less like me. Before the race I had set a realistic goal of how long the five mile race would take me. My husband for almost 40 years was waiting for me at the finish line and the clock showed that I had run a minute faster than I had hoped.
I started running late in life. It didn’t matter. The pandemic started when I was 65, and it didn’t matter. I got seriously ill at 66, on chemotherapy and radiation therapy, and it didn’t matter. I came back to running every time, not because I wanted to perform or compete, but because of the joy of running itself and the joy of doing it in a community that cares deeply about its members, that embraces all LGBTQ letters
This fall, I completed another half marathon with a group of Front Runners. But the finish doesn’t matter – not too much. I am no longer nervous.
This feature kicks off what will be an occasional series in the newsletter in which we ask runners what the sport means to them. Do you have a story you would like to share? Email us at [email protected].