As distance runners, there are times where we often feel invincible.

Soaring through the trails of cross country courses, gliding around the turn of the track, powering up the steepest of hills, we feel an incredible amount of power in the force that drives our legs forward when our bodies want to stop.

Our greatest source of strength comes from our mind because running requires a mental tenacity different than that required of any other sport. It’s trusting in ourselves that we can continue no matter how much it hurts, no matter how far away the finish line seems to be, no matter how much other parts of our mind tell us that we can’t do it.

We are resilient, and that’s why we can run. We take on the pressure of being Division I college athletes at the same time that we do our best to get used to life on our own for the first time.

This situation isn’t unique to us; there are countless other 17-, 18 and 19-year-olds across the country and world that are doing their best to balance being students and athletes. What’s unique to us is that we’re forced to employ another level of mental toughness, a level that’s come as we’ve often felt different from many of our teammates and worried about how we’re seen in the eyes of our coaches.

We’re two freshmen distance runners on the cross country and track teams at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, and we’re both gay.

We were lucky enough to find friendship in each other before we even knew what we shared in common, and our friendship has grown stronger still. We hope that in sharing our respective experiences, you’ll know us better and come to understand how we’ve grown into the people that we are today.

We also hope that anyone out there struggling to come to terms with who they are will see that it’s OK if you don’t have everything figured out all at once; self-acceptance takes time. We are Susie Poore and Michael Mitchell, and these are our stories.

Susie Poore

Looking at my mom from across the dinner table, I felt my heart begin to pound in my chest while my jaw grew progressively tighter and tighter. My eyes darted around the room, landing anywhere but on her face. I had never said it out loud. I had never made it real before. Up until then, I hadn’t wanted to.

I inhaled deeply and closed my eyes, trying to calm my whirling mind. Somehow, the words found their way out of my mouth. “Mom, I’m bisexual.” She looked at me for a moment before she began to smile and said, “Susie, I already knew that. I was just waiting for you to tell me.”

I looked at her incredulously before asking how she could’ve possibly known. Her response? She said she’d suspected it ever since we had watched “The Shallows” together the previous summer, and I hadn’t stopped talking about how attractive Blake Lively was. Can you really blame me, though?

After that day, I thought my problems were solved. I told myself that I had done it.

I could go back to being a senior finishing out her high school running career. I told myself that my biggest concerns were hitting splits in workouts, getting my long runs in on the weekends, and breaking 19 minutes in the 5K.

As I continued to use “bisexual” to describe myself, it never felt like it settled naturally on my tongue. I knew what I wasn’t admitting, but that word had long been banned from vocabulary.

I couldn’t control being gay, and that terrified me.

Wake up. Eat. School. Eat. Run. Eat. Homework. Eat. Bed. Repeat. Every single day, I put myself through this cycle. I put all of my attention on the aspects of my life that I felt I could control. I could control the amount of hours I studied, the food that I put into my body, the pace that I ran and the hours that I slept. I couldn’t control being gay, and that terrified me.

I lied to myself for 18 years. I refused to accept the person that I was out of fear that that person wouldn’t be enough. I was scared of what my family would say, what my friends would say. Would my coach still believe in me? Would my teammates still trust me as their captain? Would I still be respected as a runner? For some reason, I had I convinced myself that the two were mutually exclusive — I couldn’t be gay and still be the person and athlete I wanted to be.

I was unhappy, and I was a coward. I hated myself for it. I hated that I couldn’t just be open and proud about who I was. I hated that I felt so different from everyone around me for something I couldn’t help.

I was in a state of perpetual questioning, wondering why I had even labeled myself as bisexual if I had never truly been sure. I eventually grew sick and tired of carrying so much hurt and decided I’d do what frightened me most — I’d stop hiding.

The first time I admitted to myself that I was gay, it was six months after I initially came out to my mom. I was sitting at a desk in my high school with a survey in front of me that contained a question asking my sexual orientation, and I checked “gay” before allowing a second thought. I remember leaning back in my chair and staring at the check mark, realizing I had never felt such freedom. My run that afternoon was the closest I’ve ever felt to flying.

There wasn’t an ounce of tension in my body; my strides carried me gracefully over the pavement as my arms swung loosely by my sides. My lungs didn’t strain for oxygen, and I don’t think the smile ever left my face. The sun felt warmer. The world seemed brighter.

This was what it meant to finally be myself. This was what it meant to experience true bliss.

It took me the first 18 years to finally be myself.

I asked my mom if it was OK if I was actually gay and not bisexual, and she took me into her arms and told me nothing could ever change how much she loved me. My dad put his arm around my shoulder and said that he would always be there to support me in everything that I do.

My friends couldn’t stress enough how proud they were of me for finally coming to terms with my identity. My teammates embraced me wholeheartedly and made me feel like I truly had a second family.

It took me the first 18 years to finally be myself.

It took years of denial, of anger, of pain and finally acceptance to realize that my sexuality by no means made me weaker. If anything, the struggle that I went through only made me stronger.

I became the best version of me. I’m an avid sock collector and currently own more than 90 pairs. I like to tell myself that I’m a cook, and I love sweet potatoes more than any other food. I’m easily wowed by any sunset or sunrise, and I’m not afraid to pull over on the highway to get a picture if necessary. I’m a girl who loves to run so much that I ignored all pain and unknowingly competed on a stress fracture for five months.

And I’m gay.

I’ve succeeded, I’ve failed, I’ve learned, and I’ve grown.

I’m all of these things, and not one of them defines me. These characteristics come together to create the person that I am today, and they’ll shape the person that I’ll be in the future.

I’ve succeeded, I’ve failed, I’ve learned and I’ve grown. I’m barely an adult. I still have a whole life ahead of me. I’ll constantly be shaped by new experiences, and I’ll always strive to better myself. I’ll keep learning. I’ll never stop running. I’ll be ready to fly.

I’ll continue to be myself, and that’s what’ll continue to bring me happiness.

Michael Mitchell

I didn’t know what the word gay meant until one of my peers called me that in sixth grade.

When I learned that words meaning, I was shocked. I promised myself no one, including myself, would ever again think this about me again. I was so disturbed by the truth about my sexuality that I rejected who I was and became someone I’m not. I wasn’t happy. Something felt very wrong not being me.

Through running I had an outlet to release my pent up insecurities and fears that I had buried inside myself.

I remember that for many of my teenage years I would tell myself no matter what anyone said to me, whatever anyone thought of me, I would not be seen as weak. I would not be lesser than them. I wouldn't show feelings and I hid emotion. I wanted everyone to see I was stronger than them, better than them. During this time I joined the cross country and track team.

Through running I had an outlet to release my pent up insecurities and fears that I had buried inside myself.

Back in August 2011, during one of the first practices of the season, one of my captains asked me what my goals were for that year. My 5 feet 2, 100-pound, 12-year-old old self responded with, “I want to make varsity”. And so I did. That's when I fell in love with the sport. Whenever I was running, I felt powerful. I felt strong. I felt in control. Through running I felt free.

For a long while I tried to keep my identity a secret. I had a “girlfriend” or two, yet something didn’t feel right. This wasn’t me. It wasn’t until junior year of high school that I really started to open up and be me. Up until that point in my life I could barely whisper the word “gay” without shuddering.

The more I opened up and allowed myself to feel, the easier life became. I was closer with my family and friends than ever before. I grew more confident with the more people I told. I was tearing down the wall I had built to keep my true self hidden brick by brick.

Even though I felt much more comfortable with my sexuality, I still found myself scared and upset for reasons I couldn’t explain. I thought that through all the tears, through all the sleepless nights, through all of the difficult opening up conversations to loved ones, that I had freed myself. Yet why did it seem like I was still carrying the weight of the world? Why was I unable to to share with my new collegiate team and new friends this part of my identity? What was wrong with me?

Being gay didn't make me weak, it was my failure to accept my sexuality that made me weak.

I didn’t know what was tormenting me so until a few weeks ago. I had come to my now closest friend in college crying. From that night on the roof of my dorm sharing my whole self, I uncovered another hurdle I had yet to overcome.

I still didn’t want to be seen as weak, be seen as lesser. I saw my sexuality as a weakness, something that gave people power over me. I then knew that I was weak. Being gay didn't make me weak, it was my failure to accept my sexuality that made me weak.

This insecurity of mine was materializing in the form of rage and aggression, which I would let loose upon those who actually cared about how I felt. I ended up hurting a lot of people who cared about me.

I understand now that I don’t have to engage in lots of risky behavior to seem brave. I don’t have to outdo everyone all the time to gain approval. I don’t have to bury my emotions and act carefree constantly to seem manly. I then knew, I could just be me. I like being me.

The journey of acceptance is not an easy one. It hurts. It hurts in ways most people cannot imagine unless they experienced this themselves.

There is a light at the end of the tunnel though, it does get better. I thought I had completely accepted myself about a year ago but I couldn’t have been more wrong. I am still discovering my sexuality even after years of trying to grasp what being gay means.

I’ve learned that being gay does not define me, but it is a part of me I cannot ignore. There are many different identities that make up me and being gay is one of them. The more I’ve come to terms with this truth, the happier I’ve become. Being gay doesn’t make me weak, but acceptance makes me strong.

I am glad that my team now knows my whole self and are able to see that being gay doesn’t change the guy they already know. My sexuality is only a small a part of me, but it is a part of me which I am now proud of. I do love my life and I am not going to let anyone stop me from living it. I am going to be me.

Out together

We’ve been at school now for just over a month, and we’re still trying to figure out how to actually take care of ourselves like adults. We’re learning what it truly means to listen to our bodies as we adapt to a level of training we’ve never experienced. We’re doing our best to predict how or if being gay will impact our lives here.

The night that we respectively found out about our shared sexuality, it was a simple “you know I’m gay, right?” that started the conversation.

The resulting response was “Yeah. I am, too.” In that moment, it was two statements of simple fact. However, things are rarely easy.

With those confessions came many nights of shared worry. We wondered how our teammates would receive us. We fretted over what our coaches would think. We even went so far as to consider whether our collegiate running careers would be impacted.

We decided that we wouldn’t let fear control our lives.

We were scared. We each had our own fair share of negative experiences, and we were terrified they would follow us into college. We wanted to forge on into our new futures, not be mired by the troubles of our pasts. There was even a night where we debated if we actually wanted to be so open about all that we’ve gone through, how we currently feel, and what we expect for our next four years here.

We decided that we wouldn’t let fear control our lives.

Every single day, we embrace the sport that has brought so many to their knees. We embrace physical and mental pain that knows no bounds. If we are strong enough to be runners, then we are strong enough to do anything.

We’re strong enough to admit to the fact that we’ve fought arduous internal battles and have lost faith in ourselves at times. We’re strong enough to fight through those doubts and negativities that have plagued our minds and accept who we are as people.

We’re strong enough to finally come out to the friends, teammates, family, and coaches that we haven’t yet told. We hope you’ll still see us as the same people that you’ve grown up with, run with, and shared your lives with before you knew we’re both gay.

We value our relationships with you more than anything, and we hope they won’t change. We haven’t changed, we’ve grown.

We’re still going to run hard and run fast and run long. We’ll continue to the toe the line and feel the excitement rise in our chests as our spikes dig into the dirt of the cross country trail or the pristine surface of the track. We’ll keep running because that’s what we’re meant to do, and we’ll keep being ourselves because that’s who we’re meant to be.

And we are fearless.

Susie Poore is a student of Lehigh University’s class of 2021. She is planning to major in English and Political Science and is a member of the women’s cross country and track teams. She can be reached by email ([email protected]) or Instagram (@susie.poore).

Michael Mitchell is a freshman at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania where is on the men’s cross country and track teams. He can be reached via email ([email protected]) or Instagram (@mikey.mitch).

Story editor: Jim Buzinski