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Overcoming Discrimination as a Transgender Runner

After years of facing questions from fellow athletes, race policies are finally catching up to transgender runners like Grace Fisher.

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As an ultrarunner and transgender woman, Grace Fisher knows a thing or two about resilience. But even though her journey in life and running has been difficult at times, it has also been filled with success and joy.

Fisher, who lives outside of Washington, D.C., and works as a government analyst, began running about 10 years ago, before her transition, as a way to cope with stress. Since then, Fisher legally changed her name and gender and progressed from running a few miles at a time to completing ten marathons and 50 ultramarathons.

This June, Fisher, 38, is set to fulfill a longtime goal and run The Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, a prestigious trail race through the Sierra Nevadas in California.

Following her entry into this year’s event (she earned a spot through a qualifying race and the event’s lottery), Western States organizers created a formal policy regarding competitors and gender, joining a growing number of race directors across the country to address the topic. In particular, transwomen runners have faced backlash from those who claim they have testosterone levels that give them an unfair advantage against other women.

The Western States policy allows runners to register in the gender category they identify with. Transwomen are required to have hormone treatment for at least one year prior to the race, though officials won’t ask for medical proof unless a transwoman is a top female finisher and someone contests it.

Women’s Running recently chatted with Fisher, who is also the parent of four boys, about her running experiences during and after her transition, the Western States’ policy and the message she hopes to send to other transwomen.

Can you describe what your transition as both a person and a runner has been like? 

I first started taking hormones in January 2009. For those first couple years, I took breaks from the hormones as I figured things out. Since then, each step of my transition has been gradual—one step at a time as I figured out where I was going. Sometimes a step backwards and later two forward. It’s been a wonderful journey.

I ran Boston the first time in 2014 as male. Later that year, I registered for an ultra as female, but was persuaded by the race director to change it back to male. At Boston in 2015, I ran as female, but under my previous name. The next year, I contacted Boston to see if I could run under my preferred, not-yet-legal name. They said no and even changed my gender back to male the night before the race without telling me. After a few weeks and a few phone calls with them, they changed it to female to reflect the legal gender on my driver’s license. So in 2017, I changed my legal name and have had no problems since.

Since the fall of 2015, I have run every ultramarathon as female. (Last year, Boston Athletic Association officials clarified its policy on transgender runners, stating that athletes can run the Boston Marathon as their self-identified gender, but the gender in their qualifying race and Boston entry must be the same.)

Do you remember the first race you ran as Grace? What was that experience like?

The first significant race as female was September 2015. It was a 50-kilometer “Fat Ass” race in West Virginia. Nobody said anything about my gender, not until the day after the next race (with the same trail club) a month later. I  purposely ran extra before the finish so I could tie with the next woman. She has been a good friend and has been very supportive throughout my transition. At that time, I knew nothing of the [International Olympic Committee] guidelines [regarding gender], which [at that time] required two years of hormone treatment after [transition surgery], but I wanted to run as female. And I knew that since I’d been on hormones, I wouldn’t run as fast.

How has running changed for you—in positive and negative ways—since you transitioned?

My transition has definitely affected my running and overall strength. I was in great shape before I started hormones. Usually transwomen gain weight as they start hormone replacement therapy, but since I was already pretty fit and continued running, I lost 10 to 15 pounds over the first couple years of treatment. I’m certain that most of that weight was from losing muscle mass. I didn’t notice a sudden decrease in speed or strength, but more of a gradual loss. Comparing my high school cross-country track times—and accounting for age—I’ve definitely slowed down, but I am in the approximate same percentile now as female as I was as a male in high school. I’m not able to lift heavy objects as easily as I used to—my arms and legs are definitely weaker. And now I train much smarter. My diet is also much cleaner, mostly vegan, and definitely helps.

When you started racing as Grace, what was the initial response from competitors, race directors and your running friends?

After those first two 50-kilometer races in 2015, I didn’t really hear anything. The race director of the second one, also a good friend, did tell me that the local trail running club was drafting a policy. I had outright won the race, but they weren’t sure what to do as far as gender category. A competitor did reach out. She gave me her whole support, but thought maybe I had an advantage with testosterone in my body. After gently explaining that I was on hormones, and that my testosterone levels were as low as, or lower than, for cis-women [women whose gender identity matches their sex assigned at birth], she had no problem. Running friends have given lots of support. When I came out on my club’s Facebook page, the amount of support was overwhelming. The club had just announced its policy using the old IOC guidelines. They didn’t let me know until I tried registering for a race—they posted it to the registration page right under the sex selection field. So I didn’t register. It was right after the IOC updated its guidelines, and I worked with the club to update their own policy to reflect the change. There was some good, open and civil discussion when I came out about other policies, including the NCAA’s which was much more affirming while still fair to all. Most race directors just go with it. One received a lot of grief for giving me the awards for finishing in second place and third place the (following) year. She reached out to me and asked what she could do to support me and how she should respond to complaints.

(The current IOC guidelines for sports’ agencies state that transwomen athletes need to show that their body’s testosterone is below a certain level in order to compete as female. Transition surgery is not required.) 

Photo courtesy of Grace Fisher.

Would you say that you have gained more acceptance in the running community over time?

Yes. As more have learned the science behind the policies, they have been more accepting. And many are accepting even without knowing the policies or the science. It does sometimes get tiring trying to educate. Now I just do my thing, and if someone asks, I tell them.

As you know, Western States 100 recently released an official policy regarding transgender runners. What are your thoughts on it? Why is it important? 

I think it’s a great policy. They did a lot of research and put a lot of time into it. The policy mostly follows the [United States Track and Field] rules and is similar to the [Boston Athletic Association’s] policy. They were very concerned about respecting the privacy of both the transgender runner and also of any competitors. [Researcher and transwoman] Joanna Harper, who helped form the new IOC guidelines, told me that Western had reached out to her and that they’d be contacting me. So [Race Director] Craig Thornley contacted me and we had a short phone call the day before they officially announced it. It was great talking to them and feeling their support. The policy allows transwomen to run as their preferred identity, and only if a competitor contests an award will they require proof of treatment.

What is your goal for the Western States 100, and why do you want to run it? 

Western States has paved the way in the ultrarunning world. It’s the Boston of ultramarathons, in that it’s the oldest, hard to get into and one that most runners want to run. They have done a great job at promoting gender equality in general, and have some great policies to help women have a fair opportunity. This new policy continues their trendsetting stance. My goals have changed a lot the past year in regards to running. It used to be time- and place-based. Now I just want to have fun, learn from the experience, help others and celebrate all the hard work that got me to the start line. I also feel I am in a unique position to show other transwomen that it can be done—that we can do hard things, great things even. Transition is hard. Running 100 miles is just as hard. Since this will probably be my only time running this race—I’ve entered the lottery six consecutive years and finally got in—I do want to finish under 24 hours to get the silver buckle.

Considering all the challenges transgender folks face, what are the misconceptions you would like to dispel about transgender women runners in particular?

We don’t have any advantage over cis-women, and we want to be left alone. It’s hard enough transitioning, with all the ridicule and everything that comes with transition, to have to deal with it in the running part of our lives, too. It’s kind of like the whole bathroom thing—we just want to run and be treated like any other runner. We’re not trying to get an unfair advantage. Just as we’re not perverts sneaking into the bathroom.

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