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Running through barriers by Roch McLean

Updated: Oct 18, 2019

Roch McLean, an agender man of colour, tells us about the barriers he needed to break through as an athlete with dyspraxia and how running gave him permission to inhabit his body.

Sport and fitness have always played a fairly significant role in my life. A certain clumsiness in pretty much everything I did was present from an early age, so my family decided that learning to play football would improve my co-ordination. It didn't. My feet didn't gravitate towards a ball, but my hands did, so I was dumped in goal. I've since found out that I am dyspraxic, which probably explains my, uh, interesting co-ordination. It didn't, however, stop me from progressing fairly well in football, and for about 15 years, that was my go-to sport, or the one I engaged in most often, at any rate.

Being assigned female at birth, I played with a lot of boys, and everyone usually had me pegged as a 'tomboy.' I was faced with a lot of scepticism from boys, and most of the digs that were aimed at me were around girls not being good enough to play alongside the boys, not that it ever stopped me. But it drove me to push myself to prove my worth and my skill. I always felt out of place on the girls' and women's teams I'd played on, and I was a lot more reckless and boisterous than most of my teammates, which sometimes ended up in me accidentally hurting someone from diving at their feet.

It took me so many years to get into running. I have historically been more of a gym-based person – my favourite joke used to be that a weightlifter's cardio is to lift the weights faster. But I fobbed myself off by saying that I wasn't the right build to run, that it wasn't for me.

I always wanted to try it, I think, and I downloaded Couch to 5K a few times, but never tried it. It was only April 2017 that I wholeheartedly gave it a go at Trans Can Run with Jacob. I enjoyed the challenge, and enjoyed pushing myself. I couldn't believe it when I was able to run for 20 minutes non-stop. One of the challenges was being able to tolerate wearing a binder to work out, which is never recommended. I was experiencing discomfort in my breathing when I was trying to up my pace in 10km training.

Having finally managed to finish the Couch to 5K training in December 2017, my friend egged me on to run 10km at the Brighton Marathon. I say egged, it didn't take a lot of encouragement once I'd checked the feasibility of training for a 10km in four months (it's possible).

The night before my first 10km, I had already resolved that I would run a half-marathon later that year. I would have liked to run a marathon before my top surgery, but based on my original surgery projections, it wouldn't have been possible, so I booked my half-marathon, and an extra one for good measure.

I'm currently approximately halfway through marathon training, and have ones booked for this September and next April. I'm also aiming at branching into running ultras. As someone who is constantly worried about their psychological strength, I prefer to run my race distances in training so I know that when I get to a race day, I've already done it and know what to expect. Unfortunately, it's not really advisable when marathon training, so I've taken to visualising my races, including difficult stretches so I can prepare a strategy to overcome them

I like the solitude of running. I don't often enjoy running with large groups of people, and Parkrun doesn't do much for me. I like lacing up my shoes, blasting Mahler through my headphones, and running as far as I can. I never enjoyed playing football seriously, and I hated how being competitive always made things unbearable for me. Everything seemed like a matter of life or death.

In running, the only person I'm competing with is myself, and I'm always getting better. For many years, I did not understand why my body left me feeling uneasy. I buried the feelings and the dysphoria, and effectively shut my cognitions off from connecting with my body and what it could do. Running helped me to engage with my physicality and the space I occupied as a black, trans person, and gave me permission to inhabit my body. Running means listening to what your body is saying - push a little bit further, hold back a little bit, that doesn't feel good – how can I do that if I shut myself off from my body? I know it may not be for everyone, but I know it was helpful for me. And even if bits of my body were out of place, or needed an upgrade, at the end of every run, I was able to marvel at its strength and ability to push me through more and more miles.

I am a runner. I never thought I'd be able to say that.

Follow Roch on Instagram @runningonbiscuits

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