I was far too early and feeling far too old for the first session of the beginner’s clinic of Front Runners New York, a club for the L.G.B.T.Q. running community.
It was 2019, and the large gym on the Upper West Side of New York City was filling up with men and women, but mostly young men, in running clothes. We smiled and waved or shook hands, and I felt awkward 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 gave me some relief.
We sat in a circle and introduced ourselves. We had all signed up because we wanted to participate in the five-mile Pride Run, which would be the last session of the clinic in 10 weeks. I signed up for community, too.
I am from the Netherlands, and I moved to New York with my husband in 1996 for work. We adopted two children, married and moved to a quiet neighborhood in Brooklyn with good schools. Gay life, whatever that may be, receded into the background.
I stopped working and became a parent alongside other parents, few of whom were gay. At the Front Runner class, I explained that I needed gay surroundings, a gay community. “I had heterosexualized completely,” I said. Everybody chuckled. I was still nervous when I saw myself through their eyes, but I felt a bit better already.
This — an athletic environment in which I was comfortable — still felt novel. I had tried all kinds of sports throughout my childhood, because sports were what boys and young men were expected to do. I was a member of an athletic club for a while, did fencing and judo under the guidance of a scary former Marine and played some soccer and tennis.
None of the obligatory school sports were for enjoyment. We were expected to perform and compete. Not doing so meant being an outsider in all those clubs and at school. I couldn’t perform the way they wanted. And as I gradually became aware that I was gay, it became even harder 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 among the Front Runners. Ability and age didn’t matter. We all ran at our own pace, and those who were slower than others got the company of the coaches. The Saturday runs leading up to the Pride Run became easier and easier, though they remained hard work. I remember one of the last runs, on a gray, rainy morning, when I realized that I would be able to run those five miles. I silently screamed to myself with my hands in the air.
I could indeed finish the Pride Run, not as the grown-up version of that nonathletic kid, but as an athlete in my own right, proud of myself and my abilities. I knew I would be among 14,000 others who were 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 of almost 40 years was waiting for me at the finish line, and the clock showed that I ran a minute faster than I had hoped.
I started running late in life. That didn’t matter. The pandemic began when I was 65, and that didn’t matter. I fell seriously ill at 66, undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatment, and that didn’t matter. I came back to running each time, not because I wanted to perform or to compete, but because of the joy in running itself and the joy of doing so in a community that deeply cares about its members, that embraces all the letters of L.G.B.T.Q.
This fall, I finished another half-marathon with a group of Front Runners. But finishing doesn’t matter — not too much. I am not nervous anymore.
This feature kicks off what will be an occasional series in the newsletter in which we ask runners what the sport means to them. Have a story you’d like to share? Shoot us an email at [email protected].