Stronger Than You Think

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Lee Grabarek

By: Lee (they/them)

Lee is a counselor, LGBTQIA+ health advocate, post-grad student, and self-professed tender heart who resides in the hills of Ōtautahi/Christchurch, Aotearoa/New Zealand. They have spent years running trails–a daily exercise in finding joy, peace, and possibility in their body and gender.

Falling Short

She sat me down and read the note from her phone. Time collapsed; my heart quicked to a stop. Our bedroom felt like it was collapsing in on me. I couldn’t tell if I wanted to vomit, cry or scream. Maybe all three. Definitely all three.

“It’s over,” she read. I asked in seven different ways for a second chance – a second thought; a second to replay our last 10 years and remember how deeply we loved each other. She shook her head. “No, it’s done.” I took my ring off. And asked her to do the same.

As a nonbinary person, my body has always felt like it’s fallen short. Falling short of being female, male, a daughter, a granddaughter, a girlfriend, a boyfriend, a fiance. I’m either too much or not enough; too premature or too late. I’m a jumble of pronouns in peoples’ mouths. I’m a present-tense relic of futures I’ll never fulfill. I’m stuck in others’ memories while simultaneously hurtling forward.

The crushing crescendo of finally feeling at home in my skin after years of trying to embody my gender to suddenly learn my body was now too foreign for the person whose love I believed was unconditional unraveled me. I dragged myself around the house for weeks, replaying the cruel irony of it all – in uniting myself, I lost my other half. My body wasn’t just falling short, it was falling away. 

I woke up: I cried. I made coffee: I cried. I answered emails: I cried. I went for a run: I cried. And I breathed. For sixty fleeting minutes, loss became a cathartic repetition of one foot in front of the other. My grief became suspended – manifesting into a stride that I could contain and maintain.

Like so many other times in my life, running offered me a place to put the feelings that split through my heart. I ran the day of my aunt’s accident. I ran the day she reassured me that I had nothing to worry about. I ran the day my grandmother died. I ran the day she left me. I ran because what the hell are you supposed to do when you can’t shake off the crushing grip of reality?

Out Trails camp at Mt Baker 2023

Acts of Persistence 

I found solace in the crepuscular – running at dawn and dusk. On those mornings when the sunlight would bravely crack through the dark, my body felt useful – a witness of nature’s undying persistence. All those pinks, purples, and golds illuminated a sky I had always taken for granted. Between strides, I’d look up and feel comforted by the celestial glue that felt like it was keeping my life rupturing apart.

I’d return home from work or class, lace up my shoes, and drive over the hill. I’d throw on my vest and run the tracks along Awaroa/Godley Head. I’d cut through the tall grass and pause at the cliff’s edge, watching the sun sink below the ocean as I ran into the night. The light from my headtorch forced my attention to a singularity: all that counted was directly in front of me. My days were bookended by these runs – my body’s consolation prize for getting through another day.

Time marches on. Days got a little easier as did the miles. I was climbing through the hills faster, my breathing steadied, descents became more graceful. I watched my legs strengthen and grow lean. I saw my watch tan darken, toe nails fall off, and my face grow more freckled from sunny days weaving through mountainsides. My body felt responsive – learning to adapt to the new terrain I found myself navigating on and off the trails. These legs, feet, lungs, and heart had a purpose and seemed to believe in my persistence more than the lonely corners of my mind. 

Campers, including Lee in the hat, look over trail maps.

Dream Big, Kid.

“F&*k it” I thought, “I’m applying for this thing.” I had seen a post come up in my Instagram feed about Out Trails, a four-day running retreat for queer and trans runners in Washington State. The post was advertising scholarships to help people cover the costs of travel and the retreat itself. As I typed up my application, I knew this was all a total pipe dream.

I had $2000 left in my savings, studying full-time and only working twenty hours a week at an NGO. Even if I got a scholarship and emptied my savings, I’d still have hundreds of dollars to put forward that I didn’t have. I hit “submit” anyway. I needed something more tangible in my future than another week of assignments, cold showers, therapy, and cheap beer. I needed a dream. I drove to the post shop and sent my engagement ring away for a refund to buy my ticket to the US–I was going to Out Trails, damnit.

I got the scholarship. I was going to Out Trails. For the first time in months, I cried–no, sobbed– out of joy. I called my parents, my friends, and told work and uni that I was going overseas to run trails around the mountains with queer and trans people – my people. Mixed with confusion – ’Who runs on holiday?’ – and a combination of care and pity, they gave me their blessings and echoed back what I already knew: “Lee, you need this. Go.”

Runners moving through the basin by Kulshan (Mt Baker)

A series of flights, datelines, and shuttles later, I was finally in the company of countless other trans and queer runners. We were high in the Cascades with Koma Kulshan/Mount Baker framed through the lodge windows. Rainbow flags adorned the lodge. Gender was out – kindness and connection was in. Without running a mile, our living quarters already smelled like sweat, dirt, queer joy, and home. Jetlagged and full of adrenaline, I sat across from other queer and trans runners for our first dinner together–sharing food, names, pronouns, and our journeys to get to this moment. We were all exactly where needed to be. 

Queer Joy and Mountain Air

Over the course of the next three days, me and my gaggle of queer running friends, ran ridges, took in sunrises, took up space, got sunburned and sore legs, jumped in icy lakes, and had long chats and laughs over endless snacks. Gorgeous, almost surreal landscapes backdropped conversations about coming out, family, friends, falling short, rising strong, and finding peace in our shared place of refuge and learning: the trails.

As we ran, our bodies fell into unison – one more climb, one more gel, one more mile. The colors of alpine autumn blazed through the foliage before us – reds, yellows, oranges, snow-capped peaks surrounded us. My body wasn’t just a witness of beauty – it was the site of connection, community, and hope. Healing comes in many forms but for those four days, it came in the shape of strangers turned close friends, crisp air, and love radiating through everyone I ran beside.

The Out Trail Class of 2023

Four days happen fast when you’re living your wildest dream. Loading my pack into the shuttle on the final day, I hugged my new friends “See you soon” and headed back to town.

Driving back to Seattle, my gaze landed on the mountains and memories I had just departed. I pictured the reality I was about to head back to upended, lost, a tangle of forging new beginnings. Daunting but I was ready. I wish I could say that those four days at Out Trails stitched up my heart–good as new–ready to love bravely and fully again. But it didn’t. Instead, it gave me something more vital: the restored belief that my body was worthy of love, connection, and the restorative act of running. I wasn’t falling short anymore; I was falling in love with myself again. Bless running, queer joy, and bodies that are so much stronger than we think. I was going to be okay. I knew it. 

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