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When Cal Calamia takes off from the starting line in Hopkinton on Monday to run the 2023 Boston Marathon, they will do so as part of a group of athletes who are making history in the 127th running of the renowned 26.2-mile race.
The 2023 Boston Marathon is the first time runners who identify as nonbinary have been able to officially register in a division that matches their gender identity, and Calamia is one of 27 runners who registered for the race in the new category.
Speaking with Boston.com ahead of the April 17th event, Calamia said that the Boston Athletic Association has “proven its allyship” within the mission of creating an inclusive race by establishing the nonbinary division.
“The running world is a microcosm for the world at large,” Calamia said. “And if we can just have people begin to acknowledge that people do exist beyond the gender binary of male and female or man and woman, then that opens up a more inclusive space where as many people as possible can enjoy running.”
Having the BAA and Boston do that, they said, feels “so good.”
“I feel really held,” they said. “I feel really excited, and I feel really proud of all of the people that are going to show up and run this category.”
Calamia, 26, fell in love with running when they started playing soccer in kindergarten.
“They would always keep me in the game; they never took me out because I never got tired,” they said. “My coaches and my teammates would be like, ‘Why are you smiling all the time when you’re running?’”
The love for the sport grew by the time they were in fifth grade when they joined the cross country team. Calamia embraced and reveled in their ability to lap people on the two-mile course.
They continued to compete through college, running the 5K and the mile.
But the marathon has since become their favorite race. They find comfort in training cycles as a way to organize time and the world around them.
It has become meditative for the San Francisco resident and high school health and Spanish teacher.
“Something I love about it to this day is the fact that it doesn’t require much to go for a run,” Calamia said. “While it’s great to run with other people, you don’t need other people. You can just throw on your shoes and go. And for me, I’m a super busy person, I’m kind of all over the place with my different endeavors and commitments. So it provides me a way to sort of actively rest, to let my brain rest and have my alone time and my space to process what’s going on in the world and in my life.”
Monday will be Calamia’s first time running Boston, but it is the third marathon they will be participating in under the emerging nonbinary division. They ran the San Francisco Marathon in July last year and Chicago in October.
But they’ve always had their sights set on Boston.
“It feels super exciting to be able to run this race, and I had a lot of things, roadblocks in my way,” they said.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, Calamia qualified as a female to run Boston’s 2020 race, which they said they were looking forward to. The 2020 race ultimately was canceled, and the 2021 race was postponed to the fall.
Calamia once again planned to run, but they tore their ACL playing soccer.
“I hit the ground, and I was just thinking, ‘No, no, no, no, no, Boston, Boston, Boston,’” they recalled. “So it was really a huge tragedy in my mind. I was so devastated that I couldn’t run it back then.”
Since that injury, Calamia has had two knee surgeries and has been recovering.
Looking back, they said in some ways it has been a “gift” that they were unable to run Boston until this year.
“Because I was registered as a female from my original registration and that’s what kept getting deferred,” they said. “But now, I don’t identify that way anymore. So it’s really perfect that I get the opportunity to run this race in this nonbinary category that I would not have had that opportunity until now.”
Calamia got involved in advocating for improving gender inclusivity in races, particularly around creating the nonbinary division, about a year ago. At the time, they were recovering from their ACL injury and realized they did not know how to register for the races they wanted to run.
“I was confronting this impossibility of choosing male or female in registration,” they said. “There was not a clear answer for me, what I should choose, because I embody characteristics of both and I’ve had lived experiences in both. So I felt like I was trying to make this impossible decision of who to run as, or in other words, who to pretend to be. And that kept me from running. And running is something that I really love.”
Calamia sees their advocacy as a way to try and make it so that others don’t have to confront the same struggles they experienced that kept them from running. They started seeing that change was possible when they ran Bay to Breakers, a 12-mile race in San Francisco, last year in the newly created nonbinary division, ultimately winning it.
“It was super exciting,” Calamia said of running the race.
But then they learned that there were not any awards being offered in the category.
That was when Calamia said they realized the conversation around gender inclusivity in races needed to be bigger than simply what checkboxes are added for event registrations.
“How do we make sure that the category feels equitable in the experience of trans and nonbinary runners on race day?” Calamia said.
In response to pushback from Calamia and others, Bay to Breakers eventually added an awards process for the division. The change made the 26-year-old imagine that maybe such progress could be seen in races like the Boston Marathon.
So they reached out last spring to the BAA, offering to share why they thought the organization should consider adding a nonbinary division.
“I had no idea that the Boston Athletic Association would be as receptive as they were, and as open as they were,” Calamia said. “That really was amazing … They were like, ‘Yeah, let’s talk.’ They were so caring and curious, and that meant so much to me. And it also feels like a huge power move in the face of all of this transphobic legislation that’s in the political climate right now.”
Susie Cleary took over the position of director of athletes services for the BAA in July last year and immediately began work looking at how the organization might create the nonbinary division, which several other World Major Marathons had already moved forward with.
The BAA had already added the division for its distance medley events.
Cleary told Boston.com she began by researching other races and the strategies that were used to create the division. She also reached out to Calamia and Jake Fedorowski, another advocate who created a how-to guide for race directors on nonbinary inclusion. (Fedorowski is also running the 2023 Boston Marathon in the organization’s inaugural nonbinary division.)
The challenge became determining how qualifying times would work for the Boston Marathon, Cleary said.
“Nonbinary is a generalized bucket for a lot of different kinds of descriptions or different scenarios; it’s a challenge to come up with fair qualifying times that maintain the integrity of the Boston Marathon, as far as athletes earning their spot,” she said. “So that was really one of my primary questions for Cal and Jake, is did they have answers to the question of how to do this fairly for all participants?”
Ultimately, the BAA settled on making the nonbinary qualification times equal to the female qualification times since it would be the most inclusive of all the potential scenarios represented in the nonbinary category.
Typically, qualifying times are determined by doing a deep dive into the data available for male and female athletes to come up with the best times. But that data doesn’t exist yet for the nonbinary division, Cleary said.
“Once we have more data, those qualifying times may no longer be equivalent to the female qualifying times, but we just don’t know that yet,” she said. “Because we’re still collecting the data.”
Once the qualifying times were determined for the inaugural nonbinary division, the BAA worked quickly over the course of six weeks to make it an option for registration in August 2022.
After registration closed, Cleary reached out to all 27 people — 25 qualifiers and two charity runners — who signed up for the nonbinary division to ask them a list of questions, get their feedback and insight on the qualifying times, and see if they had any experiences — good or bad — that they could share from past races around creating greater gender inclusion.
The runners also created a Facebook group so they could connect with each other, Calamia said, to build community ahead of the race.
“It’s been a really collaborative process,” they said. “It makes my heart sing to be able to do this work and for something that I care so much about, which is running — to make it a place that is appealing and is safe and is comfortable and is exciting for other trans and nonbinary people who are so often pushed out of and forced out of sports in general.”
On Marathon Monday, when the division gets its debut, the nonbinary runners will be placed like all the other participants in order of qualifying time. Once the runners cross the finish line, they will be ranked in their category, like the other divisions. They will also get awarded first, second, and third place overall in their division — however, there won’t be prize money.
“The nonbinary field is treated just like the male and female genders, and there really hasn’t been any operational challenges or adjustments, other than having them added to the registration,” Cleary said.
She said that the BAA has always had a priority to be more inclusive of all categories of athletes and it was gratifying to see how many people in the organization pushed to make the change quickly.
“Anywhere that there’s a really talented athlete, we want them to be able to run the Boston Marathon,” she said.
Cleary and Calamia both said they anticipate the nonbinary division will only grow as more races add the division.
Cleary said she plans to do a post-race survey and follow up with this year’s participants to understand how the BAA can improve on their experience.
Calamia said they feel like “such an embodied version” of themself for having been able to work with the BAA on creating the category.
But it is also that they are finally getting to run their “dream race” without having to deal with the frustrations or confusion of how to sign up or show up for the race.
“I feel so ecstatic and so proud,” Calamia said. “And the energy is so positive around trans and nonbinary people in this category, which is like this sanctuary because again, there is so much anti-trans legislation in the country right now. And yet, here we are converging. And you know, all of the people in this category, all the people in general in the Boston Marathon have worked really, really hard to be here. And to bring trans bodies to a space that demands physical work and physical exertion is a huge act of resistance. There’s nothing more empowering than reclaiming our bodies that have been, in so many ways, weaponized against us.”
Calamia said part of their own journey has been realizing that what was missing from their life was the feeling of being able to connect with other trans and nonbinary athletes.
“I’m really running this race because I think that the world needs to see trans joy right now and it needs to see trans success right now and it needs to see trans people,” Calamia said. “And so I am excited to be in conversation with Boston and to be able to shed some light on the fact that we are more than a political debate, but we’re real people doing real things.”
Going into the race itself, Calamia said they are so excited to hit the course on Monday, though they admitted to being a little nervous about the hills around Heartbreak Hill.
“I am grateful that I live in San Francisco, and I run on hills all the time,” they said. “But that late in the race, it feels a little bit nerve-wracking. I think I’m just hoping that the energy of being there will be distracting enough to carry me through the race.”
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