Illness to Elite Racing: One Year

HAPPY OSTOMY AWARENESS MONTH!
I made “Illness to Elite Racing: One Year” to visualize where I’ve been, and how I got to where I am now. I don’t do a lot of talking about the specific accomplishments of how far I’ve come because I know I have so much further to go. September 15th marked my year anniversary of emergency surgery. In under a year, I’ve returned to elite racing. And, 2018 is going to be even bigger!
Thank you to everyone who’s supported me through all of the challenges, growth, change and relearning this year!
You can do whatever you put your mind to, even if everyone says it’s not possible. Don’t let negative people and skeptics get you down. Most importantly, this year has taught me that I can only judge myself against myself, as the first elite road and track racer with an ostomy.

timeline of illnesss to elite racing

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Undercooked

Short update here.

The season is well underway now! Its already late June and I can hardly believe it. That means I’ve been on the bike for six months now, since I started soft pedaling in late December.

I’ve been making a point to focus on the process and not on results this season, because being a better racer is a long term project and not limited to a single race or year. It also is the only healthy way to approach a season where I am coming back to elite racing wildly undercooked.

After a couple of months of struggling, I’ve remembered how to be efficient and then downright AGGRESSIVE in a crit, finishing at about mid-field through Speedweek early in the season, placing in the money at Somerville, and most recently spitting out half of field in an early attack at the Historic Riverton Criterium.

Riverton Guest Ride

Guest riding and ripping apart the field!

Now I’m two weeks back into the track season at the Valley Preferred Velodrome and trying to remember how to hold my own on the banking. I’m not going to lie, having your second day back on the track be at a UCI C1 race is brutal.  Racing at this level takes years, not months, of building and preparation. I’m catching myself making beginner mistakes in a field where there is no room for error, and getting gapped at critical moments. It’s humbling to be back at square one again, feeling like I’m flailing.  Yet, I know I’m making progress – suddenly 96 gear inches doesn’t feel hard!

I’m undercooked – I lack depth of training this year because I’ve only been back on a bike for 6 months. I’ve only been back on my legs for 8 months! And, after a couple of years of illness, I still have a lot of relearning to do.

Part of that relearning is relearning to believe that I CAN prepare for racing, and that I CAN execute a plan or a skill. At this time last year, I “raced” a criterium that I was pretty certain would be my last – I was seriously ill but before medical catastrophe, between hospital admissions, and fairly certain that I had no future at all, forget athletic future. I wanted to race one more time, and it almost put me in the hospital again to hang on for 40 minutes – at that point I rationalized that if racing actually killed me, that would be a pretty good way to die. Now I’m actually racing. I’m remembering how to race for an end goal. And, that I have more years ahead of me to continue to build.

So, being undercooked doesn’t mean that I’m not giving it my all. The reality is that coming back to elite racing after being critically ill is going to be HARD. Racing at an elite level with all of the hydration and nutritional issues that come with having an ileostomy is going to be hard. Being a gender nonconforming person in sports is hard. And, that’s it. It’s not an excuse for results that I’m not happy with, it’s an acknowledgement of where in the process I am.

It’s going to be hard and I’m going to keep doing it. I have many more races in these legs and I’m going to become the racer I want to be.

Thanks to everyone on my team. And, by team I don’t mean a cycling team – I mean the friend who did all of those painfully slow early rides with me and continues to kick my butt up hills, the friends who have helped get me to races, the teams I’ve guest ridden for, my husband and his never ending patience and mechanical support, and my coach who points out the progress that I can’t see.

I’m glad I came

I am in the South at a stage race with big names and heavy hitters in my field. They have all been racing since January and are accustomed to temperatures above 95 degrees in March. None of them are recovering from near death and major surgery in the past six months.

Yesterday, I found myself briefly and accidentally, off the front of the field. And, then suddenly having a heat emergency that hit me like a thunder clap. I went from off the front to barely keeping the bike upright off the back. Today, I knew I was going to have problems before I even got to the starting lineup. I didn’t have the wattage, the miles in my legs, or the heat tolerance to hang. Both days, I was in the first group pulled and placed. Dead last yesterday, and close to it today.

medical truck

But, I’m glad I’m here. It’s been a scorching hot reminder of all of the work I have to do before the track season kicks off, and has provided a metric for exactly how far I have to go to get back to (and, then surpass) where I left off before injury and life threatening illness. I’m glad that we know now, rather than in a few months when it’s too late to fix. Racing in the comfort zone of the Northeast or Mid-Atlantic, where the fields are deep enough but do not wake up till late in the summer, can be a false reassurance of one’s preparation.  The struggle of these past two days has left me feeling energized rather than defeated. After this past month of snow and battles off the bike, these days of sunshine and having my legs smashed by stronger racers was exactly what I needed. I’ve let go of what I cannot control, and made the resolution to not give up on what is within my power to influence.

 

Fragility

These past few weeks have been humbling, heart breaking and a bit soul-crushing. I have finally accepted that I am still in the rebuilding process, and will be for a long time – both on and off the bike. I’m a different racer than I was before, both mentally and physically. Beyond cycling, I am a different person than I was. In some ways, I’m stronger for what I’ve overcome, but in other ways I am incredibly fragile. It doesn’t take much instability to tip me over the edge into dispair. And, if I’m being honest, that fragility has been terrifying. I’m constantly afraid that I can’t do it, whatever “it” is.

 

A month ago

It was immediately apparent on the first day of lead out drills during a team training camp that I needed to relearn to race a road bike. It was jarring to be failing to execute the drills that, as a coach, I’ve put newer cyclists through so many times during skills clinics. Not only was my core strength and bike handling at speed different (we have had too much snow up North to find this out yet), but I had overwhelming fear going into the corners. And, I was spooky and squirrelly going into the sprint efforts. I was frustrated at myself, and knew that this disappointing failure to execute a pre-race prep workout was frustrating everyone around me as well. Over those two hours, the corners got incrementally better and we managed to do one legitimate leadout clocking a 40mph sprint through the line.

One successful leadout in two hours.

That night I called my coach, scared and angry at myself for failing to execute basic skills only two days prior to my first crit since illness.

“I can’t corner anymore!!! I used to have people tell me after races that they learned to corner from watching me! What is wrong with me!?”

He told me a story about a competitive shooter who went to a championship competition, and it started to snow. All of the other competitors were mentally shaken by the change of condition from what they were used to. This guy visualized shooting through the snow and repeated to himself, “I am the best snow shooter” until he believed it. And, he went into the competition confidently and won.

It’s a silly story, there’s not much plot. But, it worked. My next task was to visualize criterium corners that I had enjoyed in the past, and try to remember that feeling. And, then to keep telling myself that I was an excellent crit racer until I believed it.

That night I went through old photos on my phone and found a few of myself ripping corners, to remind myself that I could. And, I still can. I woke up the next day, went back out to the park and drilled those corners till I had it nailed. And, then went out to the criterium that weekend and got my happy corners back! I placed within the field, and then built on that with a local podium and a top ten on my return north – reminders that I’m still a bike racer.

rippingcorners

It’s been a week

since I was dismissed by that same team, in equal parts because of my commitment to the track season conflicting with road, and because of how much rebuilding of myself there still is to do. The loss of a team, and the loss of teammates and friends shocked my system. The fragility kicked in, and for a little while I stopped believing that I could race again.

At my new baseline since getting back on a bike again this winter, it is often hard to believe that I can accomplish a single training day. On those days, I don’t think I can possibly get through the intervals.  I am exhausted, dehydrated, or feel terrible because of medication or not being able to tolerate food. This winter, it was often just having a team that got me on the bike and through a workout. When it was clear that we would be parting ways, I began to crumble. Not only did I miss a full week of workouts following the split, but I couldn’t find the motivation to get out of bed for three days, and almost entirely forgot to eat or drink. The world was too overwhelming and big, in the same way as when I first got home and had to re-acclimate to surroundings beyond the white walls of a small hospital room. It doesn’t make sense, and it’s almost impossible to explain the crushing weight of despair and paralyzing fear that towed me under, like a rip tide.

Thankfully, there are people who don’t give up on me easily, and were persistent enough in their encouragement to get me back on the bike when I didn’t think I could. 

I had to find my motivation within myself and remember that I’m good enough on my own. This stage race has solidified that motivation. Coming out of a very deep, very dark month, it would be easy to believe that I’m just a terrible bike racer, or will never be strong enough again. Yet, all of those kind thoughts and encouragements that my friends have been sending my way seem to be kicking in, and the process of visualizing happy crit corners has become a habit. When I struggle indoors, alone on the trainer, I close my eyes and visualize getting over the hill, closing the gap, starts of races, time trials, the tilting left of the track surface, just about everything. I’m finding myself believing that I can do this. My motivation is finally my own, it’s not for anyone else. And, I have my friends to remind me of all of this the next time I doubt myself. I’ve finally embraced the struggle and accepted that I am a different me than I was.

Nobody ever said “it” was going to be easy. And even if “it” sounds insurmountable, I’m still going to try my hardest. The results will catch up with my work when it’s time.

Kill’m with Kindness

Be the nicest person at the race

The kindest, the most positive, and a ferocious competitor.

Being ridiculously kind, so courteous your nana would love me, and eager to offer help doesn’t mean that I won’t drop the hammer in a race and try my hardest to split the field, or make a breakaway stick, or win a sprint. It doesn’t mean I won’t take the wheel I want, instigate accelerations, or stick my elbows out when racing get close. Being nice means remembering that everyone else is also trying their hardest, and that we all benefit from establishing a positive and supportive racing culture. We can be fierce competitors, and fierce friends, at the same time.

In racing, there will always be newcomers, especially in women’s racing where fields are often combined. Help that lapped Cat 4 woman get back in the field, give encouragement on drafting, and try to keep her in the pack for a few laps before the next surge and it’s time to move yourself up again. The new cat 3 who’s never cornered so fast and close before and keeps on apologizing for braking hard before turns? You’ve got 20 minutes of racing left, while we’ve got all of these laps to go why not take a minute to get her on your wheel and guide her through a few corners? We are all better when we have more fast, skilled women who keep on coming back for more races.

“I promise I won’t hit my brakes, get on my wheel and get close. Follow my line. Relax your upper body. You’re doing great!”

shamrockcrit2

When there’s a woman next to you who is looking ragged and struggling to hang on after taking a hard pull, tell her she did a great job at the front, “awesome effort”. When you get pipped at the line for a prime lap sprint, congratulate the person who beat you. “Killer sprint!”, and then counter attack. After the race, congratulate the winners, and most of all congratulate that women for whom the accomplishment was a pack finish. It’s not the finishing places or the courses that keep us engaged in sport, it’s the community and the joy of racing that we share.

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Stop judging each other, even outside of our women’s field we can do better to support each other. That masters guy who’s huffing and puffing off the back of the field, riding the super deep blinged out wheels and the bike worth half of my year’s pay deserves kindness and encouragement. You’ve surely heard those little birds chirping deridement from the sidelines; something about a waste of money or the waistline of the racer. That’s when it’s time to get out in front of those sneers and start earnestly cheering, “AWESOME BIKE, I LOVE YOUR STYLE! KEEP GOING! GET BACK ON THEM!”  We need ALL bodies in this sport, and none of the cliquishness and exclusion.

We need to fight for inclusion, and that means everyone.

Beyond myself, I want my team to be unequivocally thought of as the most genuinely kind team in racing. When you think of us, I want the first thing you think to be that we’re super nice people. And, then that we are skilled, smart and fast.

As trans and non-conforming people, we come under greater scrutiny than other athletes. Cognitive bias on behalf of those who would wish us gone makes benign and normal moves in racing seem threatening. One of our greatest threats to ourselves is to unknowingly reciprocate coldness to those who think we shouldn’t be in the sport. We need to be better. More friendly, more disarmingly charming, more helpful, more calm and collected.

If we are the nicest people in the sport, it will be that much harder for those who would wish us gone to dislike us when they find out that we are trans or gender nonconforming. That’s not to say that kindness is only for protection against hatred. It most certainly isn’t. Genuine kindness is it’s own reward. We gain community by welcoming others into our world, building each other up as athletes. Our kindness disarms their hate, coating its teeth with honey. 


Addendum: Renewable Resources

Being kind does not mean being assimilationist, apologist, unsophisticated in thought, unsustainable in strategy, or any less radical.

Kindness is not a finite resource, it is a resource that is constantly being replenished. Being kind to strangers or those who might wish us ill does not necessarily come at the expense of kindness to our immediate communities. That fear of using up one’s gentleness is like that of a child who fears their parent’s won’t love them anymore when a new sibling is born.

To those people who would say that being kind to strangers or those who would wish us harm comes at the expense of attention towards our own communities or even our own well being, I say that kindness is only burdensome when it is forced. The positive interactions and community building that comes from reaching outside of my own small social circle is fortifying, and that creates a positive feedback loop to reinforce the behaviour. Are all interactions positive? No. I pick and choose my battles, and tread carefully where my safety could be at risk. Yet, if we never take the chance on strangers, we are missing chances to build alliances and win hearts and minds – this is why I am both kind and bold, at the same time. When I discuss my racing with a stranger at a race, or the suburbanites who are fascinated by my wearing a speedsuit at a grocery store in the deep South(!), I am am up front about being on an explicitly trans and gender nonconforming team. Does it get tiring repeating the same explanations again and again? Sometimes. But, most of the time I am truly excited by knowing that I just changed somebody’s perspective on trans people and am thrilled to win us new fans. The words lose their staleness.  This is my reminder to myself that there are good people in the world, and a source of hope for a future with greater acceptance and less violence directed towards people like me.  

 

 

Stumbling blocks: part 1

I am a different racer now than I was when this blog started and I was all full of wattage, fire and confidence. I haven’t yet talked a lot about more general “me” things, or health issues. But, this is the context of this coming season of racing, so it seems necessary to diverge from trans issues a bit and lay some foundation. This is not the first time I’ve been catastrophically ill, and it won’t be the last.

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photo credit: Caldwell Linker

Illness

Two years ago, at the beginning of what was hoped to be a breakout sort of season, I had a dramatic crash that left me struggling with pain and leg strength for much of the following year and a half. Just as my left leg had started to improve, my health began to decline in other ways. I was losing weight dramatically, having escalating abdominal pain, unable to eat, and feverish for months. I was diagnosed with Lyme, and attributed everything I was going through to that and the antibiotics, not knowing I had a much more serious intra-abdominal infection raging. I ended up being in the hospital for about two months in total, ending in sepsis and recovering from emergency, open abdominal surgery. Near the end, when I was in septic shock with a blood pressure so low (70/35)  that they stopped offering pain medications, it was clear that this could be it. But, it wasn’t. Thanks to the truly heroic efforts and never ending support of my husband Brandon, and the many friends who called and talked for hours, and even crawled into my hospital bed with me to hold me when I couldn’t stop crying, I finally recovered.

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That glazed hospital-look…

Those first days and weeks were a struggle in their own right. I ended up back in the ER from dehydration a couple of times, had panic attacks from being overwhelmed by simple activities of daily life (showering, my first day of being home alone, making and eating breakfast), and was dealing with having memory loss and word-finding issues. In October, I was dizzy from the effort of standing for more than 10 minutes at a time. Walking around the house, and then up a flight of stairs, or around a park path with the support of a friend’s arm, were my next accomplishments. My legs were shockingly atrophied, unrecognizable  as my own. By the time I restarted fulltime work in late October, a flight of steps a few times a day was my challenge. Every small accomplishment left my muscles knotted and shredded. A flight of steps felt like a stage race.

At that point, nobody could predict the path of my recovery, or if I’d end up getting sick again and bouncing back into the hospital, and ultimately dying. But, who can predict death? I want to jam as much living as possible into this life, with however much health I have left.

decemberostomy

A December update on getting to the gym!

And, I stayed out of the hospital. December was the tipping point where I decided that it was time to get back on the bike and start training again. By that point I had just started to do longer rides on my cyclocross bike, and was able to run on a local trail. Despite having good knowledge of training methods, I knew I couldn’t do this alone. There was everything to relearn and I was starting from nothing. My previous track coach Ben was now in Alaska and out of the cycling world, and I knew I needed something drastically different and more sophisticated than the cookie cutter plans advertised by many coaches in the area.

Rebuilding

My fitness wasn’t just starting from zero,  it was starting from catastrophic illness and nutritional insult. This was going to be a process, a big process of relearning and readaptation. My entire physiology had changed, and so had my brain. Muscle needed to be rebuilt and neuromuscular connections needed to be rewired.  

A friend put me in touch with my current coach, Robert, and thankfully it was immediately pretty damned clear that this was the right fit for wading into the unknown. Initially, we talked more about general racing goals and history; the normal stuff. And, I’ve got to admit, I was uncharacteristically nervous about outing myself as trans. I think I sent him a text message after we talked that read something like,

“Oh yeah, and I’m trans. I identify mostly as a guy… LMK if you have any questions. Hopefully that’s cool…”

It’s clearly more complicated than being socially a guy most of the time, and we got there. But, really, it was the illness stuff that had me worried. Although I had my doctor’s blessing to start training again, I probably slightly downplayed just how deconditioned I was and how seriously ill I had been when we first talked, because I was terrified of being told it was impossible or simply, “no”. I never want the standards to be adjusted, or plans to be made easy because of my illness. I want to push as hard as I can, and get to the absolute highest level possible. Neither of us know exactly how much I can handle, or where this is ultimately going to lead. At 10 weeks since initial conversations in December, I’m on the very steep part of the progress curve.

There will be issues

How could there not be? There have been issues already. Out of these 10 weeks, I’ve lost about a week and a half to minor illnesses, dehydration, and flat out exhaustion from the other stressors that come with rebuilding a life after critical illness and finding a new place in this sport. But, there have also been massive leaps in my ability and endurance. And, there has necessarily been a lot of touch and go, rewriting of training days on the fly (which, I can’t even say how much I appreciate), adjusting the numbers and troubleshooting.

Approaching this rebuilding of myself as a cyclist as a massive experiment and a process versus something so straightforward as simply training is the key. It has also been incredibly humbling to accept the days when I reach my physical limit sooner than was hoped for. Every failure is a learning point, and a place to target for the future – it sounds like a canned, inspirational talk, but it’s the truth.

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cracked. dehydrated. cramping.

…. Stay tuned for part 2… on relearning to be a bike racer.

 

 

 

When allies commit violence

Violence against trans people is often later reframed as benign, or even acceptable behavior. This reframing of violent behavior or language often occurs when it is perpetuated by a self proclaimed “ally”, either by the ally themself or by their fellow allies. In these cases it is difficult for a trans person to speak out against this violence without challenge, especially when it is committed by a much beloved pillar of the cycling community; someone who may be actively doing good on behalf of some women/trans/femme (WTF) racers.

Track cycling, which has a strong history of minority participation from its origins, has seen an increasing presence of WTF racers over recent years.  Yet, race directors, coaches and track directors who are advocates for WTFs are unfortunately rare and greatly needed. And, the loss of a single local driver of equality and inclusion may cripple growth of WTF participation in the sport for an entire region.

If we understand that calling into question one of these rare, public advocates for WTFs in the sport may result in a ripple effect, slowing growth of participation, then what is the goal of of asking the ally to own up to their offense?

Do we want them to stop coaching beginner WTF racers or stop putting on skills clinics? No, we need coaches who are interested in coaching ALL athletes.

Do we want them to stop advocating for WTF racers when other men are acting badly? No, it is imperative that men hold other men accountable for their actions.

If the answer to these questions is “no,” then why is ownership of past violence important or necessary when it potentially damages the ability of bad allies in their attempts to engage WTF racers? I argue that the point is honest public discourse of the complexities of allyship, the separation of behavior from identity, and ultimately achieving an acceptable apology to and means for closure for the person or community experiencing harm.

For the sake of discussion, I’ll tell a story:

A couple of years ago, a group of cisgendered men engaged in retaliatory, targeted, in-person and online harassment and intimidation of a trans person after denying that person’s requests for women’s field equality.  Of those men, one is a loudly self-proclaimed advocate for women and trans people’s participation in track racing. His participation in this ridicule and harassment lent validity to the public mockery of the trans person, and helped to set the tone for an ongoing hostility at the local velodrome, ultimately leading to the trans person leaving that local racing community and shutting down social media accounts and cell phone. That ally ceased this harassment only after being confronted by a mutual friend. No additional contact for the sake of apology was made. The man who engaged in this violence did not start it, and did not finish it.  Yet because of his status as an ally, his participation cemented the lasting effects of the violence. He returned to his own local community in a different state, where he increasingly establishes himself as an advocate for WTF participation in cycling. One might even say that reputation is an integral piece of his brand as a coach and sponsored athlete. He then declares himself as the defender of WTF racers within the sport in public forums online, stating “part of my job there is to make sure everyone feels comfortable and welcome,” going so far as to attempt to ban a badly behaved fellow racer from the velodrome because of a sexist and hurtful article published in media

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In response to the response of said ally there is applause from many in the community, and his allyship is reaffirmed. The trans person who was previously harassed experiences repeated trauma, and contacts the previously self proclaimed ally and now self stated defender of WTFs. After being contacted by the person who he harassed in years past, the ally makes a vague and self-congratulatory public apology for “unknowingly engaging in online bullying” in the past, with no mention of the severity, consequences, or the targeted, retaliatory and gender-based nature of the offense. He receives more applause from his community for being such an upstanding example of a good ally. Then, he thanks the trans person who he had hurt for their patience, and sends a tearful picture of himself. The trans person reacts with empathy, feels guilty for making the ally cry, and questions their own memory of past events (“maybe I’m overreacting,” “I feel like I’m going crazy”) in response to the gross minimization and claim of accidental involvement in past harassment.

End of story.  

By bringing awareness to an ally’s bad behavior, a trans person can inevitably expect to have to defend their claims, or the “realness” of the offense, as it is typically minimized or dismissed by those who reaffirm the offender’s self proclaimed allyship. What’s more, having to continually defend one’s self in the face of the minimization or erasure of past violence can constitute additional trauma. The question then becomes: Is calling out an ally-offender worth the continued stress of having to defend one’s claims?

“One  common  form  of  bad  behavior  is  that when ‘allies’ are  confronted  with  their bad  behavior,  they  use  their  identity  as  an  ‘ally’ as  a  defense,  or  people  will  do  so  on  an  ally’s  behalf:  Dave  couldn’t  have  behaved  that  badly,  he’s  an  ‘ally.’”*

The congratulation and applause of the ally for his public apology is similar to the applause for his verbal unwelcoming of a poorly behaved man from his track in the way they reinforce the isolation and silence of the trans person who was previously harassed. The tearful picture is ultimately emotional manipulation. It serves to reinforce the gaslighting effects of the public apology where the engagement in harassment is minimized to accidental involvement in some generic bullying. Maybe it was all just a mistake after all? Maybe I’m overreacting? After all, he seems like a sensitive, nice guy, right?

Additionally, the onus of the potential consequences of calling into question the offender’s self proclaimed allyship is often placed on the trans person, as a form of victim blaming. If it is known that this ally had harassed a trans person, it could compromise their role in cycling community, change trust in coaching relationships or cause loss of existing or future clients, and challenge the ability of that person to be vocal on behalf of WTF racers when very real threats from other sources are present. Of course, the truth is that all of these anticipated consequences are in fact because of the original bad behavior; the participation in gender based, retaliatory harassment in the example above. Loss of social capital, coaching business or sponsorship opportunity is because of the original poor behavior itself, not the naming of that behavior. Placing that burden upon the trans person affected is an added injustice.

If you identify as an ally, but you behave in ways that are harmful to some of the population you purport to serve, then are you an ally at all? We must also ask ourselves what motivates the claims of being an ally as an identity, particularly when it confers community status or other benefits. If there was no personal gain from claiming ally status, it is unlikely that there would be so many ally pins and t-shirts of sold (e.g.: safety pin merchandise).

Are those who behave badly ever able to claim ally status again? Who sets the threshold for adequate atonement? The pathway forward for those who wish to be known as advocates for any minority group should be one of introspection and accountability to those they wish to serve. Redemption for past bad behavior must include the ownership of said behavior, particularly when the expected consequences are high.

Identifying as an advocate for a minority group is a more complex mixture of beneficial, selfish, and detrimental behaviors than can be adequately captured in a single word.

 

* R McKinnon, Allies Behaving Badly, 2017. https://www.dropbox.com/s/b2j7h93knirrbwx/Rachel%20McKinnon%20%28Draft%29%20-%20Allies%20Behaving%20Badly%20v3.pdf?dl=0

Be More Stoic

I never expected coming out as a trans person in competitive cycling to be consequence-free.  I knew that maintaining composure under high levels of scrutiny would challenge me in ways that I had not yet imagined. Askance looks, whispers, cold shoulders, outright name calling or negative cheering are all realities I imagined. As a trans person who has lived and worked in places where being “out” would have resulted in real bodily harm, sometimes I imagine the worst. But, the queer and blue Northeast got my guard down. I came out to USA Cycling, the ECCC, and effectively turned my life on its head.

The conference director of the ECCC was loud in his support for trans inclusion. USA Cycling was rational in their policy revision, and made the process of sorting through medical records and expert medical consultations about my physiology as respectful and painless as possible. And, many individuals in the competitive cycling community sent messages of support for my racing.

Yet, I was reminded that there is real risk in being an out trans person. Bad things can happen. Even in the most liberal of regions, with an excessively loud advocate for trans inclusion in charge, at a race with many friends and a huge, supportive team in attendance. There are quiet places just out of sight and hearing at most public venues – a wrong turn down a hallway to the bathrooms, an equipment trailer, a team van, the woods off the course.

Bad things do happen.

Less than an hour after being assaulted, I raced my bicycle; completely ineffectively. I came off the back of the criterium less than halfway through, crying. Thank god for the freezing rain, and total lack of spectators because of it – nobody saw anything. I rode straight off the course, down a desolate, muddy country road to a field of thawing, frozen pumpkins left out to decay from the season prior. I threw my bike, cried and kicked the shriveled pumpkins. And then I came back to the race and said nothing.

I made the decision that I would not discuss the incident or file a report with police because I did not want to take the chance of it even becoming rumor material. I came out in cycling because, beyond myself, it was the right thing to do to pave the way for the next generation of athletes. The absolute last thing I wanted to do was demonstrate grim consequences of coming out and competing, and potentially scare people away from the sport.

But, I had to tell somebody who could help prevent more of the same in the future. I tried to tell the conference director.

We were sitting in his car for a mini “meeting” that he had called for an update on how things were going since I had come out, in which he did an overwhelming amount of talking about how well it was going. I snuck in a few words about my discomfort with some of the types of cheering of my field from the sidelines of races, to which he said that he had never heard such complaints before and that he had never witnessed that behavior. And then… I did my best to say it. Maybe, I wasn’t clear enough. Maybe, I should have been more direct. But, suddenly the Prius meeting was over and I was feeling just as confused and isolated as I had been before. Or, perhaps more isolated. I had tried to ask for help, and was talked-over and overlooked.

The continued message of “Trans inclusion is here and it’s going swimmingly!” was so darned popular. Who was I to destroy that momentum and positivity by filing a police report, or filing an official report with USA Cycling and thus making it public?

For a while, I accepted this feeling of isolation and fear at races as my own burden to bear. I rationalized that I knew there were risks when I came out, and that I had thought about these consequences. What was one personal issue compared to the positive effect that my continuing to race in silence would have for future trans athletes? But, over the course of the next weeks, the silence chipped away at me – gritting my teeth while the offending man would walk up behind me and then put an arm around my shoulder while spectating a race, just for a moment, just to make it known that he could. I would put my head down and continue to spin on the trainer during warmup while he would self-appoint to pin my numbers to my speedsuit – another reminder that I had no power to stop him from putting his hands on me. And, these continued minor violations were so innocuous that nobody noticed. By the week approaching nationals, I was having nightmares, hardly sleeping, unable to concentrate at my classes, and emotionally shutting down.

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When I finally did explicitly-enough state what was happening, I was approaching falling apart. This loudest of advocates for trans inclusion responded to my tears by telling me to “be more stoic”, and then forwarded some vague information to USAC against my wishes. I declined to file a complaint or name names, and that was the end of it. I retreated to my fiancé’s apartment in NYC for a summer of being harassed at a local track and being acutely aware that at even a very muscular 5’1.8, I am no match for the large track racer men who had begun to sling vague threats my way (for reasons entirely unrelated to trans issues).

——

Now, it’s been a couple of years, and I’ve been largely out of racing for injury and health reasons for a while. A lot has happened. There is a new trans women’s cycling team! A trans woman just won a major race! There is a new IOC policy, and a USAC policy to match on the verge of publication. Progress has happened, and I am so immensely proud to have contributed in whatever minor way I did.

Why write this now?

Being a trans athlete should not have consequences for one’s safety. This is completely unacceptable. And, it is never the athlete’s burden to bear. Being trans is not asking for violence. We must be crystal clear in that. If you are a trans person who races bicycles, and anyone threatens you or makes you feel unsafe at a race, please seek help from allies quickly and get officials involved.

Silence is not acceptable. Staying silent about the violence in our lives will destroy us from the inside out. Pretending we are “ok” allows those who are perpetrating violence (of all kinds! small and large!) to keep on doing it. And, our silence allows others to continue to sweep these difficult issues under the rug rather than take action and effect change. We need more progress and change.

There is a difference between making a statement of support for trans people in sports and being prepared to support trans people in sports. USA Cycling and it’s staff have conducted the most thoughtful and thorough review of evidence that anyone could ask for, and a policy is still underway. But, there is a gap between statements of support and policy change and preparedness. Local organizations and officials who are on the ground at races set the tone for what is and is not behavior becoming of a racer. The light blue shirts are sources of information for the community, and often the first point of contact for new and future racers at an event. Officials all take the Safesport course content and serve as the eyes and ears of USAC.  These eyes and ears must be updated on USAC trans-inclusion policy, and have zero tolerance for any signs of hostile behavior towards trans athletes.

I am asking for USAC to launch an initiative to educate the local organization leadership and officials on diversity and inclusion issues, including but not limited to those of trans athletes.

I am asking for trans athletes to continue to race bicycles. Or, start racing bicycles!  

I am asking for all of the allies, friends, family and community in competitive cycling to stay vigilant, offer emotional support for first race nerves or a buddy to walk to the bathrooms. And, for God’s sake, LISTEN. Really, truly, listen to what your trans friends are trying to tell you.

Spaces and Races

“Can I see your drivers license?”

I had just handed over my USA Cycling race license to the woman at the race registration table. She looked long and hard at it, visually scanning through my name, categories by discipline, listed sex (“F”), and back up to my name, and then gave me a long and examining look. I was my a picture of early-morning-race-disheveled; shapeless sweatshirt, torn up jeans, functional clogs, unkempt faux-hawk sticking up at all angles, sunglasses perched on my head. In other words, I was extra androgynous this morning. And, my voice was extra gravely, under-caffienated in the foggy 6:30am hour.

For a split second, I thought about saying that I’d left my wallet in the car in order to retrieve the letter from USA Cycling HQ which states that I am a known entity, that I am physiologically female despite my confusing name, state ID and gender identity, and that women’s fields have been determined to be most appropriate place for me to race, due to medical evidence. And then I realized that I forgot to bring the bag with that letter in it.

Then I quickly thought about explaining to the butch lesbian requesting my license that I am physiologically female, that I was born female, and raised a girl, but that I don’t identify as strictly one or the other gender, and that I have a drivers license that says “M” on it because… well… gender is tricky, and sometimes these happy mistakes/strokes of luck/fate happen… but… oh, wait. Maybe she’s one of the ones that don’t like trans* people and would prefer to take the T off of the LGBT. Nope, better not go that route. (See “How did I get here?” if you missed that one.)

Then, the father of one of the racers interjected, “I know her! She races all the time on the track!” But, the reg table woman appeared unmoved and determined to see some ID.

So, I rooted around in my pocket. Flipped through my wallet a few times, and made a face, “Oh… shoot! I left it in my other pants! I hope I don’t get pulled over on the way home! Sorry! But, here’s my student ID from Yale! And… Alan knows me. You can ask Alan!”

My Yale student ID has me wearing a dress shirt and a tie, looking more masculine than androgynous. But, it only lists my name and class, not an “M” or an “F”. She studied that ID, and my name, and then my face again. Then she shrugged and said, “Well, ok. We just have to make sure you are who you said you were and weren’t using somebody else’s racing license…”

I had hoped that she’d interpret the shirt and tie on the ID and my general appearance as mega butch-dyke style, and give me the wink of solidarity instead of continuing with more questions. And, thankfully, it seems my instincts were correct on this one.

Would I have been questioned if I had changed into my cycling kit prior to going to the reg table? I’m not sure. But, I doubt there would have been an issue if, instead of the frumpy sweatshirt and jeans that disguise my frustratingly female hips-to-waist ratio, I had been wearing tight spandex which shows off my decidedly girly butt and conveniently allows for a visual crotch check.

I felt a pang of guilt in the pit of my stomach when I fibbed about not bringing my drivers license. In fact, it was right there in my pocket, stuck between two empty metro cards.

But, I was tired from waking up at 4am and loading my bike and driving two hours. Plus, it was starting to rain, and I had more nerves about this race than I’ve had in a while. A road race? Since when do I race non-collegiate road?! There’s a mountain in this race?! But, besides all of that anxiety and sleep deprivation, I was also so, so, so excited for the Women’s Woodstock Cycling Grand Prix that I didn’t want to mar this event (for ANYONE) with any ruckus about trans* cyclists. Ninety minutes prior to the race starts is not the time for the disruptions or dramatics that too often ensue from the “T-word.” Nor is it the time for possibly arousing the unfounded fear of men sneaking into women’s spaces… or races.

Furthermore, the WWCGP is THE only women-only race in the region. And, while I may not identify as a woman all of the time, this is the body I have to inhabit as an athlete. And, I want to be there to celebrate women’s racing. Because women’s racing is incredible, and should be celebrated, and I am a part of women’s cycling, regardless of whether or not I exclusively subscribe to that identity. Simply put, the WWCGP is the cure for a sport where, too often, female racers are an afterthought, or their performances are discounted or forgotten entirely.

I will never again forget my race bag containing the letter from the USA Cycling HQ. But, that’s not the real issue here. Trans* and gender nonconforming people shouldn’t be inappropriately scrutinized by self appointed gender police in cycling, bathrooms or elsewhere. For the record, I didn’t see anyone else get asked for ID at the reg table. Generally, we know where we belong and have studied the laws and regulations more carefully than most people could ever imagine. This is because things don’t typically go well for trans* and gender nonconforming people when we get in trouble. In my case, I’ve played by the rules to the point of disclosing extremely personal medical information including blood hormone levels (normal female, thank you!) and even gynecological history (I kid you not) to our national  governing body of cycling, as well as outside experts. There are the actual gender police out there who determine who’s physiology fits them into what category. And, if that isn’t your job, then it isn’t your place to judge other’s bodies.

I am androgynous and non-conforming, but I am a part of women’s cycling. And, I know that I’m not the only physiologically female cyclist out there who doesn’t identify as a woman, per se. Gender non-conformance or gender-queer identities are increasingly common. On the other hand, there are certainly woman-identified people who are far more typically masculine than I am! There are also trans* women (MTF) who very much do identify as women, who are physiologically equivalent and deserve to race free of harassment. Am I asking for an asterix after “Women” in the WWCGP? No, I don’t want to change the name of women’s cycling or any women’s sports. But, I do think we need more conversations about inclusion and diversity.

USADA Trans Guidelines Update

The lack of TUE guidelines or transparent policy for FTM athletes who would use testosterone for medical transition has long been an obstacle in creating good policy for the inclusion of trans* athletes by sport organizations such as USA Cycling. Previously, WADA guidelines had stated that there was no acceptable use of testosterone in a female person. Without further clarification on those transitioning from female to male, or a standard process for a transitioning FTM athlete to seek a TUE for testosterone use, clearly there would be few attempts of FTM athletes to gain such an exemption when the price to pay could be as high as a lifetime ban from sport. 

With virtually no comment or discussion, WADA and USADA have released a new set of physician guidelines on theraputic use exemptions for testosterone use by FTM athletes in a policy document dated August 2015. 

This new set of guidelines will legitimize the participation of transitioning FTM athletes in men’s racing. At a professional level, there may be currently non-transitioning trans* athletes competing in women’s cycling who would now choose pursue physical transition and seek to compete in men’s races under this policy, whereas previously they would have had to sacrifice a career for transition.  At an amateur level, this will erase one more barrier to participation in cycling by removing fear of sanctioning under anti-doping efforts for those who gain TUE approval. 

The guideline recognizes the medical necessity of testosterone for physical transition,

“Androgen hormone therapy is essential for the anatomical and psychological transition process in FtM athletes. Hormones optimize male gender identity, improve quality of life, and limit psychiatric co-morbidities which have been reported to occur more often when such treatment is withheld.”

“FtM athletes require hormonal treatment with testosterone, for which there is no non-prohibited alternative.”

provides an exceptionally well stated summary of the diagnostic criteria and treatment recommendations of transsexual (FTM) men, and the types of documentation to accompany an application for a testosterone use TUE,

“In general, the primary evaluation of a transsexual athlete who is receiving hormone treatment and/or has undergone surgery will follow the national guidelines. Reports by either mental health professionals and/or the subspecialty providing care for transsexual persons in the respective country will detail the medical history including any previous partially or fully reversible physical treatment. These reports will establish the indication for hormone treatment/surgery in persistent gender dysphoria. They should be complemented by an endocrinologist’s report on initialization of hormone therapy and/or the surgeon’s report documenting the oopherectomy as applicable. Prior to treatment, a full general medical assessment needs to be completed.”

and provides reasonable guidelines for the monitoring of testosterone levels in transitioning FTM athletes. 

“It is the athlete’s responsibility to provide the TUEC with a complete record of testosterone prescriptions of oral, gel or buccal testosterone products and date, dosage and name of medical personnel administering injections of testosterone or hCG. Frequent testing of serum testosterone including unannounced urine and blood testing as ordered by ADO (at least 1-2 times per year) should be required and related to injection timing or gel application Treatment should use standard testosterone doses which should return the trough testosterone to mid-normal levels.”

“TUE validity should be for ten (10) years, with a mandatory requirement for annual follow-up reports including testosterone dosing regimens and levels to be submitted to the TUEC as above.”

However, these guidelines on applying for a TUE require the eligibility of an athlete to compete in their sport. This requirement means we must have a written policy from USA Cycling making transgender athletes eligible to compete within their physiologically equivalent categories. A trans* policy by USA Cycling has been underway for years, with small progress made on setting precedence in case by case decisions.  However, to date, this policy remains incomplete with no published guidelines or criteria for transition within the sport. 

“FtM athletes may be granted a TUE when they are eligible for the sport, and the respective criteria and characteristics of eligibility defined by their sport need to be documented in the TUE application.”

With the release of these guidelines, WADA and USADA have simplified USA Cycling’s policy making dilemma considerably. The inclusion of transgender men who use testosterone in men’s cycling will no longer be in conflict with anti-doping policy.  

USA Cycling now has a great opportunity to encourage the participation of transitioning transgender athletes and to remove fear of penalization for physical transition by publishing a policy congruent with that of these WADA guidelines, stating that transitioning athletes are eligible race in their category of physiologic equivalence.

——

A few more personal comments:

The majority of the discussion of trans* people participating in competitive sports has been about trans* women (mtf) competing in women’s categories, and it is clear to me that remains the most contentious policy issue at hand. FTM cyclists have been essentially absent from the conversation in competitive cycling for two major reasons: 1) FTMs have never been perceived as a threat in men’s sports, for many of the same bio-essentialist reasons that MTFs will continue to be incorrectly perceived as a threat by many even after demonstrating physiologic equivalence. 2) without an international anti-doping guideline that recognizes the medical necessity of testosterone in transition, there is no amount of social acceptance or national sporting policy that allows FTMs to compete in any category. `

FTM athletes have recently been recognized and allowed to compete in many other sports. With the release of the new IOC policy, now eliminating surgical requirements, there is an FTM triathlete set to compete on the US Olympic team. There is an FTM boxer currently competing under permission of his national sports organization.

Now it is time for the conversation to start about FTMs in competitive cycling. With this WADA/USADA document, conversation is suddenly more meaningful than just good will and wishes for change.

But, does this mean something to all trans* masculine athletes? No, it is likely that those who have chosen not to physically transition and stay in women’s cycling will continue to do so. For example, I personally have no desire to use testosterone, and even with the possibility of a TUE I would not choose it.

Does it mean that there will suddenly be a lot of FTMs petitioning for a USADA TUE for testosterone? Maybe there will be a few early applications, but without a policy from USAC they will likely not be granted one except by an act of charity. This is one more reason why I sincerely hope that USAC policy will be released in the near future.

I came to cycling from death

Once you’ve come to a place of peace with your own imminent death, it is much harder to accept life. My body was failing, and I did not want heroic measures taken to prolong what I was told was increasingly likely; at 24 years old I signed my Do Not Resuscitate papers.

It is impossible to explain the agony of a hospital day to those who have never been bedbound. Your back and then sides hurt from the pressure of the bed and the weight of your own bones and diminishing muscles. When breathing hurts, you stop breathing as deeply, and then you shake with fevers. Minutes, hours and days blend together. Time is too slow and too fast. You close your eyes to try to escape, or you watch the second hand of the clock on the wall tick by. You stop feeling the pinch of the phlebotomy needles, you learn to detach from your body, and you start to dream of death. Absence from this miserable reality becomes a glorious fantasy. I awoke with silent tears of sadness that my wish to drift off in my sleep had not been granted, again and again.

When I first went to the ER, I initially agreed to humor my EMT partner at the time. I figured that the hospital was so close to home, I would just get checked out unofficially and then walk home if I had too. It was the end of my shift, and I was barely able to lift my share of our human cargo. I hadn’t eaten in days. In fact, I’d barely eaten at all in weeks and I was thin and pale and weak. But, a childhood punctuated by illness had taught me that no matter how bad it gets, hospitals are the worst possible place to be. And, surgery only begets surgery. Despite having been told as a child that I likely wouldn’t live past 30, I’d managed to become healthy, powerful, and fit. I had been a lifelong athlete, albiet interupted by hospital stays. And, now, after spending years relatively free from illness, I didn’t want to admit how sick I had become.

I didn’t come out of the hospital for half a year, including too many ICU days. I had severe disease to my small and large intestines requiring numerous resections, culminating in an ileostomy.  I had memory problems from hypoxia, a new hearing deficit from toxic medications. And, I was severely depressed. But, I did not die.

The problem with not dying, is that you have to start planning a life. Assembling a life that’s been disassembled is an unimaginably harrowing task. Where do you even start?

In acute rehab, I found movement to be the only answer to every question. Just. Keep. Moving.

I decided that I would start by walking home. And, I promised myself that I would never be still again. Not for one single day.

When I was strong enough to ride a bicycle, I found joy again. For the first time since I had welcomed death, I was alive and wanting more. Velocity is freedom, and exertion is a reminder that I am alive. I never wanted to stop riding. As long as I keep moving, nothing else can touch me.

But, death lingers like a sad boyfriend that doesn’t want to say goodbye at the end of a night, when he knows the breakup is coming. Throughout the years since that episode of illness, I still find myself sometimes wishing to not wake up when it all seems too much to handle. Life isn’t easy, and being having a chronic illness is emotionally taxing to downright painful.

Or, I feel guilty for having not died. If I had died, I couldn’t have messed up that latest minor thing and so and so wouldn’t be mad at me.  

Most of all, sometimes at night I go back to that dark place, and I need to remind myself that I am indeed alive and I’m not still back in that hospital room.

Exertion reminds me that I am alive.

In cycling, popular language use glorifies “pain” and “suffering”. We talk about pain faces to describe the grimace of a hard race effort, we describe intervals as being “uncomfortable” or “pushing up until it hurts” to describe the sensation of finding one’s lactate threshold.

Exertion is not pain. Effort is not “uncomfortable”. Pain is the feeling of broken bones, grinding cartilage, a torn muscle. It is different than the feeling of being alive that comes from pushing yourself harder than you thought you could. These are the sensations of having a body. This is being lucky enough to be capable of pushing your physical limits. We choose these sensations, even seek them out. And, unlike true pain, you can chose to make it end at any time, simply by stopping pedaling.
I don’t want to stop. When I need to remind myself that I am alive, that I have a body that moves, I go to the bike or the gym. I push myself harder, forcing myself to be present. I meditate on the increasing awareness of each muscle group, that creeping feeling of oxygen hunger and desperation after tipping over that anaerobic line.  If I just keep moving, I can hold everything else at bay for a while and just be alive.