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How transitioning changed me as a runner and do I have an advantage as a transgender athlete?

transgender runnerI’ve written about a lot of this over the course of the last few months, but a few people have requested a post dedicated to how I’ve changed as a runner because of transition. Since I’ve read two articles about transgender athletes in the past few days, I figured it was finally time to write about it myself. While my experience has been in line with the experiences of other trans women I’ve spoken to regarding the topic, I do want it to be noted that this is very specifically about my experience and it may not be universal to all transgender (women) runners.

When I decided to transition, I knew things would change for me as a runner and this was something I was going to have to come to terms with. I tried to research it as much as I could, but I was only able to find two articles which specifically discussed effects on runners. I knew to expect to be slower, but I didn’t know by how much.

When I finally started on hormone replacement therapy (HRT) which consists of estradiol, progesterone, and testosterone blockers, I realized this was no joke. Within just a few weeks, I was already noticing that building and maintaining muscle mass and strength was much, much more difficult. I used to have huge calves, but I watched as they quickly downsized. I lost five pounds within the first couple months, all of it was muscle, as far as I could tell. I was glad to have the testosterone out of my body, but this wasn’t a side-effect I was too thrilled with.

As I started gearing up for my Richmond Marathon training cycle, I was having a lot of difficulty mentally adjusting to the physical changes in my running. Despite knowing ahead of time things were going to change, I struggled to fully accept it. I still had no idea where to set my expectations and I felt like I didn’t know my body anymore. I didn’t know how or when to push it anymore. I generally only run by feel and perceived effort level, I don’t look at a watch to pace myself. I used to be able to guess my pace within +/- 10 seconds reasonably reliably, but I could no longer do this. I had no idea what pace I was running anymore. I also didn’t even know what paces to be shooting for either. Setting expectations for myself is where I struggled the most. I didn’t know what goals I should have or what paces to aim for while training and I didn’t know how to measure my progress towards any goals anymore.

Prior to starting HRT, I ran a 3:08 marathon which breaks down to a 7:12 minute/mile pace. Unfortunately, I don’t have a recent 5k pace from just before transition since I don’t run a lot of them. My all-time 5k PR is 20:29, a 6:36 pace, but leading up to the 2012 Chicago Marathon, I was doing 10-milers at around 6:50. So, realistically, I should have been able to do something like a 19:15-19:30 5k.

Now, after almost nine months on HRT, I can’t even dream of hitting these paces again. My current 5k pace is just slightly faster than my old marathon pace and my new marathon pace is 83 seconds slower than it used to be (a 3:44:55 finish). And the thing about my new marathon time is I ran about 20% more miles during my training cycle. I upped my running from five days per week to six. I broke my weekly and monthly personal distance records. And I still ran 36 minutes slower than I used to.

In the past, I would run really easy runs and recovery runs with my wife when she would be out for a tempo or mid-intensity run. These would be very easy for me and she’d help me keep my pace slow when I needed that (a recovery run should be about as slow as you can possibly go). Now, it’s become the opposite, she runs her easy and mid-intensity runs with me, but leaves me in the dust on her harder runs. (As a side-note, I’m actually not bothered by this at all! I’m excited to see her growing as a runner and getting faster and faster. Seriously, she’s getting out of control and accidentally PRs races now!)

Now that I’ve completed a serious marathon training cycle while on HRT, I’ve been able to figure out where my expectations should be a bit more. I know I’ll never get close to those old times I used to run, but I’m starting to feel as though I know where I’ll likely be able to get to. Right now, I generally can expect to run 60-90 seconds slower than I used to at any given effort level. I’m also finally able to feel things out more while I’m running. I’m able to estimate my pace, though with a little less accuracy than before, and know when to push it. I’m still lacking a lot of confidence in my body’s ability to do what I want it to when I’m pushing it on a longer run, but I’m hoping that will come given more time.

What all of this leads to, I guess, is…do I have an advantage over cisgender (not transgender) women? Is it wrong for me to be competing as a woman? Everyone is going to have their own opinion on this and there is a serious lack of scientific research on the topic, but I do feel being a transgender athlete gives me a little bit of credibility to discuss this here.

My honest answer is no, I don’t have an advantage and, yes, I should be competing as a woman. 

Yes, I was able to train at a certain level before, but even prior to HRT, I was still well within the realm of what non-elite women my age are capable of running (I was still very much slower than even sub-elite women). Being that running is my hobby—okay, it’s practically my life—I never even came close to approaching a level of training that would have been able to take advantage of my testosterone driven puberty 1.0. I was able to build more muscle mass and strength, but all that is long gone now. When I started HRT, I was actually in the middle of a seven week break from running thanks to hip tendinitis so I wasn’t even in shape anymore when I started. Beginning running again after my injury and with HRT felt like starting from scratch. I hated running for months and I wanted to quit so badly. It wasn’t until around the fifth month that I finally started to feel like my old runner-self and liked running again. I was slower, but it felt the same.

Currently, my testosterone level is at the very bottom of the normal female range and closely monitored via regular lab tests. So the reality is the vast majority of women actually have more testosterone than I do and, therefore, are likely to have a slightly greater ability to build and maintain muscle mass (speaking from a general sense, of course). Coupled with my lower testosterone is my larger skeletal frame and higher bone density compared to cisgender women my age, height, and weight. This means with all other things being equal, I’m carrying around more dead weight in my bones than a comparable ciswoman who may make up the weight difference with additional muscle. While bone density may be a debatable topic for contact sports, when it comes to running, heavier bones just means more weight to carry around. The only advantage here is the decreased risk of bone-related injuries, such as stress fractures. However, my running has been far from injury prone in other departments. I’m just as likely overall to get injured.

One advantage I have over my former self is that I’m much better at handling running in warmer weather than I used to be. However, this is a documented advantage that women have over men, so if anything, it strictly puts me at the same level as cisgender women.

There are lots of little things as well that probably go in both directions. I have larger lungs and previously had a higher capacity for oxygen consumption, but having been out of running for almost two months zapped most of my increased aerobic threshold before I even started HRT and it hasn’t seemed to come back at all. Plus, I have no idea how to breathe with a sports bra on! These things are really constricting! There’s also the fact that my hips are shaped more like a typical man’s hips so I should have an advantage in that department, but my battles with hip and ankle tendinitis would indicate that I maybe I don’t. I don’t really know how this one plays out, to be honest.

In the end, taking all of these things in account, I truly feel as though I’m on equal footing as cisgender women. If you look at my real-world performance, I put in more work to run much slower than I used to. While there are many factors involved (course, weather, training, current fitness level, size of field, etc) so it’s not a foolproof way to measure this, but, a year ago, I finished in the top 6% of men at the Chicago Marathon and, this year, I finished in the top 10% of women at the Richmond Marathon (again, with much more training). I used to be within four minutes of the male qualifying for Boston. Now, I’m ten minutes away from the female qualifying time. Taking a look at the numbers (and I will gladly share more race results and information to anyone who wants it), I compete at roughly the same level compared to other women as I used to compared to men before I started hormone replacement therapy.

What’s your take on this? If you’re s cisgender woman, do you have a problem with me running as a woman?

Are you a transgender athlete? What’s your experience been like?

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2013 Walt Disney World Goofy Challenge – Marathon – 4:27:06 (pre-HRT)

The full marathon, all four Walt Disney World parks, the most magical of marathons and the middle and last thirds of the Walt Disney World Goofy Challenge. And with 2013 marking the 20th running of the Walt Disney World Marathon, things were extra special! There was even a new course to enjoy!

After the half marathon the day before, I made sure to keep things easy on my body. I ate plenty of carbs, drank plenty of water, and made it a short day in Epcot. Though, we decided to make an unplanned trip back to the race expo. With my wife’s issues with her foot we thought maybe giving some KT Tape a shot might help. Since they were taping people up for free, we figured even if she didn’t wear it for the race, she could wear it for the rest of the day. I even decided to get my arches taped as well since they can be problematic for me from time to time. I also wanted to get a new shirt to wear for the race. Normally, I’m a very big stickler for the nothing new on race day rule, but with the temperature breaking 80 with 100% humidity again, I wanted a cooler (and lighter colored) shirt than I had brought with me to wear. I was hoping to grab a 2013 Goofy Challenge technical shirt, but they were all out of my size so I opted for “just” a marathon one. I made sure to give it a once over to check for any possible problem spots for chaffing, but everything looked good!

With marathon day starting at 2:15 am, just like half marathon day, it was important to get into bed early and get plenty of rest. I didn’t mess around with this and made sure to be in bed before 8pm again. When the alarm went off, I was ready to hop out of bed and get started with the pre-race routine. I looked over at my wife and asked her how her foot was doing, to which I received the surprising response of her saying it felt totally fine. Go figure. We quickly got ready and out the door to the bus for the ride over.

Since we caught a bus surprisingly quickly, we had plenty of time at the starting area to hit the bathroom and find our spot in the starting corral. With my wife still not sure about how her foot would hold up, she didn’t want to set any particular goals other than taking it easy. We decided to line up closer to the front of the corral, but not start with any pace groups.

And just like the day before, after a few blasts of fireworks, we were off!

Disney World Marathon startThe first few miles of the race were very uneventful. At first, it was mostly just dealing with the crowdedness before the runners spaced out a bit and figuring out how to best handle the banking of an early highway off-ramp. We opted to run up at the top where the ground was flatter, but that meant a bit more running overall. As we neared the second mile marker, we saw the 4:30 pace group, but didn’t make an effort to catch up to them. We just kept on with our own pace.

Just like with the half marathon, I knew it was important to take liquids at every stop so we made sure to take at least Powerade every time.

As we made our way into Magic Kingdom for my second run down Main Street, USA in as many days, we were both feeling pretty good. We were past the narrow spot where my wife got pushed last year and the crowd felt like it had thinned out a little more than in past years. As usual, Main Street was full of energy! Great early race boost!

As we made our way through Magic Kingdom, we planned to move to the right side of the course to make sure we could get some good photos coming out of the castle. Our plan worked perfectly, there were a ton of photographers on our side ready to snap us!

By the time the were on our way out of Magic Kingdom, my wife’s GI issues were starting to cause her some problems so we stopped at the next bank of porta-potties real quick. Luckily, there were about fourteen of them so there was no wait and we were off again in about three minutes.

Now it was time for the long trek to Animal Kingdom, but this year the trek was broken up. This section is usually around ten miles down back roads which can feel a bit grueling during a marathon…even with all of the entertainment on the side of the road. However, new to the course this year was a lap around the Richard Petty Driving Experience race track. Going into the race, I was a little worried about this since race tracks tend to be highly banked in the turns, but the course stayed along the inside where things were still flat. While the track wasn’t overly exciting, it was a nice way to break things up between the two Kingdoms. Unfortunately, my wife was still having GI issues and needed to make another pit stop (see what I did there?). This time, there was a short wait, but we were off again in around three minutes.

Around this point of the race I was actually starting to feel a bit fatigued and I wasn’t too happy about it one bit! We were only at mile nine! I started to question running under two hours the day before, but there wasn’t much I could do about that at this point. I was hydrated and everything, but my legs were feeling a little more tired than I wanted them to. Even though I’m a much stronger runner than I was a year ago when I did Goofy, I ran the half seventeen minutes faster and, with us on target for a 4:30 finish for the full, I was going to finish the marathon 28 minutes faster than the year before. There was really no reason to be surprised, I guess.

After another three uneventful miles, we were approaching Animal Kingdom. This year, the race gets to the park about four miles earlier so it was a slight tease, but running through the parks is the best part of the Disney World Marathon so it was a welcome sight! Of course, the parks always fly by and, just like that, we were back out onto the roads between the parks in what felt like no time. As we made our way away from Animal Kingdom, the wife and I reminisced about the horrible blister she had pop on this section of the course last year. But none of that this year, she was feeling pretty good and my legs were doing okay. I was feeling about the same as I was four or five miles back so I took that as a positive.

At this point, we were getting ready for the last change to the course, a big lap around ESPN Wide World of Sports and the special 20th mile surprise spectacular. Interestingly,  we weren’t even at the 17th mile marker when we passed the sign at the entrance to Wide World of Sports. I wondered how they were going to fit so much course back there, but I quickly found out. There was a lot of looping back and around. Eventually, we made our way onto the baseball field for a lap around the outside of the field with a big crowd cheering in the stands. Lots of energy in here, but my wife was again having problems with her GI so we stopped right after we exited the field for her to take care of things again. While she was in the porta-potty, I did some quick math to realize we were still on pace for a sub-4:30 finish if we kept the pace we had been running. My legs were feeling up to it and she was doing okay so we kept on with our pace.

As we made our way out of Wide World of Sports, we passed through the 20th mile surprise which was, frankly, a bit underwhelming after all the hype that was made about it before the race, but with just 10k left to go, we were locked into the run and focusing on the last leg of the race.

Shortly after the 21st mile marker, my wife made a comment about a girl we passed by saying that she looked a lot like our Twitter friend Krissy Murphy. I wasn’t paying attention, but her suspicion was quickly confirmed as Krissy ran to catch up to us and say hi! We ran together for a minute and then she dropped back to continue with her easy picture-taking pace. I couldn’t help but think how fitting it was to finally meet her on the Walt Disney World Marathon course since Disney and running are the things we tweet back and forth about all the time. In fact, just a year before as we were getting ready for (and tweeting about) Goofy was when the Twitter friendship began!

With just four miles to go, we were in the home stretch and we knew it. My wife tends to be quite the finisher and started to pick things up a bit. Despite the fact that I was feeling more fatigued than I was last year, I was still up for a faster pace to the finish so we went for it. I let her pace us the rest of the way as we entered into Hollywood Studios. She powered through the course passing everyone in front of her and I just did my best not to lose her through some of the narrower parts where I had trouble finding the space to actually get around people.

We exited Hollywood Studios and made our way down along the river towards the boardwalk. As we ran down the boardwalk, we started to approach the 4:30 pacer and I encouraged the wife to blow by him and leave him in the dust behind us. With a sub-4:30 finish guaranteed at this point, we focused on getting to the finish. We left the boardwalk and entered the World Showcase in United Kingdom pavilion to a wall of energy. The countries ticked by quickly and, before we knew it, we were blowing by Spaceship Earth and on our way out of Epcot with the finish just a few hundred feet ahead of us.

We crossed over the finish line with our hands held for a solid 4:27:06 finish, less than a minute away from my wife’s marathon PR! If not for all of the bathroom stops, she would have crushed her PR. I estimate that she lost just under ten minutes because of them. But even aside from that, she wasn’t running at 100% effort. Taking both of those into account, I think she could be close to four hours without much more additional training.

All of the Powerade, water, energy gels, and candy along the course put together with a good night’s sleep really made a difference. I was feeling really good. I was feeling pretty hydrated and my legs felt much better than I expected them to after they started to fatigue so early on.

While I was a bit sore, I couldn’t help but notice how much better I felt than I had after every other marathon I’ve ever run…and even a couple half marathons as well. I was impressed with myself and it really shows how far I’ve come in a year. Even though our time was way slower than my PR (by more than an hour), I still completed the Goofy Challenge almost 50 minutes faster than I had the year before!

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2013 Walt Disney World Goofy Challenge (pre-HRT)

Goofy-4As if running 39.3 miles once wasn’t enough, I enlisted myself to take on the Walt Disney World Goofy Challenge again this year. For those not familiar with the race, it’s a half marathon one day and a marathon the next. And both run through Walt Disney World! Last year, I combined both races into one recap, but I think that got a little long so, this year, I wrote two separate posts to recap each separately. You can follow through to each one below.

2013 Walt Disney World Goofy Challenge – Half Marathon – 1:58:00

2013 Walt Disney World Goofy Challenge – Marathon – 4:27:06

Just like last year, the Goofy Challenge and the Walt Disney World Marathon Weekend as a whole was a great experience. Lots of fun! This year marked the 20th running of the marathon so there was a completely new medal to commemorate that and it was heavy! It’s a beautiful medal, so beautiful, in fact, that I had a tough time deciding which medal to wear to the parks afterwards. I wanted to wear my Goofy medal to show off my accomplishment, but the new Mickey medal was too awesome to leave back in the room. I ended up wearing the Goofy medal around my neck with the Mickey medal on the back of my camera bag.

runDisney updated the course to mark the 20th running, as well. This year, the course included the Richard Petty Driving Experience race track and ESPN Wide World of Sports. Both additions were very welcomed and helped the make the time between the parks much more enjoyable. They also went with handing out a little box of food to finishers of both races instead of individual food items. When you’re trying to make your way through the finishers’ area while gulping down as much water/Powerade as possible, getting some nutrition into your body, and tweeting/texting/Facebooking/whatevering about your accomplishment, hands come at a premium, so having everything in a box helps a lot!

With two Goofy Challenges under my belt, I’m torn about doing it again next year. I love doing both races and getting three medals, but it’s a big commitment and has a sizable effect on how you can enjoy a large portion of your trip to Disney. The reality is that I’ll probably do it again soon, but we’ll see!

Coming up over the next few months, I’m planning to run two half marathons and another full marathon in the Spring. I’m considering one of the half marathons and the full marathon being for the NY/NJ Challenge. After that, the wife and I are planning on taking on the Dumbo Double Dare in Disneyland. This time it’s just the new Disneyland 10k and the Disneyland Half Marathon so it’s a much easier challenge than Goofy. Still, it comes with a bonus medal for doing the challenge and it will earn us the Disney Coast to Coast medal! That’s SEVEN runDisney medals in one year! Finally, I’d like to put a fall marathon into my schedule, but I haven’t really put much thought into which one yet.