My legs are crying out in pain and I am barely cognizant as I approach the 26-mile mark at Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, Minnesota.

Looking up at the official timing clock, I see 2:17:45 and calculate I must run nearly a quarter mile in 75 seconds in order to get the B standard and qualify for the 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials.

As I near the finish line, I see the clock tick upward, 2:18:32, 33, 34. Unbridled excitement fills me as I realize I will reach the standard in my marathon debut. At that moment in June, my entire running career flashed before my eyes. My path to becoming an elite runner has been far from straightforward.

For the majority of my life, running has been an unhealthy crutch for me.

Once I realized I was gay at age 11, I began my years-long goal of fashioning myself into an elite athlete. At the time, I considered athletics as the ultimate way I could validate and prove my masculinity to myself.

Since I was too gangly, uncoordinated and weak to succeed at most sports, I went all-in on running during high school. My training was obsessive and I directly tied my self-worth to my success in running.

Ironically, as I blossomed from a mediocre runner to become an All-State athlete in Iowa I could not enjoy it. I desperately needed validation via success on the course. I relied on attention from my athletic achievements to balance out the severe depression I faced owing to my struggles as a closeted athlete attending a tiny Catholic school in small-town Mason City, Iowa.

As high school came to a close, I considered the only non-harmful way to address my sexuality was to give myself a fresh start by attending a college where I did not know anyone so I could finally begin to live authentically. Therefore, I enrolled at Grinnell College in Iowa where I joined the school’s cross-country and track teams.

Unlike other athletes, my coming out story is rather mundane. Owing to Grinnell’s status as one of the most liberal colleges in the United States, roughly 25% of the men’s cross-country team identified as queer when I joined. Therefore, no one batted an eye when I disclosed my sexuality to the team my first semester in college.

Ironically, I had feared coming out for nearly a decade and if anything, my disclosure likely gave me heightened social status on the team and at school, since as a blond-haired, blue-eyed, financially stable cis-male I was otherwise the epitome of privilege.

After coming out, I was finally able to reshape my relationship with running into something I enjoyed organically as opposed to something I required for my baseline level of self-worth.

Running no longer remained a quest for me to beat others and instead transformed into a journey of self-improvement and a way to connect with others. I became a multi-time Midwest Conference cross-country and track champion and served as both a track and cross-country captain during my senior year at Grinnell College. However, injury and school demands prevented me from being nationally competitive and I failed to make nationals in cross-country and track.

Adam Dalton ran for Grinnell College.

Following graduation from Grinnell, I attended graduate school at the University of Utah, where I put competitive running aside for nearly a year. Ultimately though, I rediscovered my love for high-level running, buckled down and began marathon training seriously, beginning in August 2017.

The support I have received during my tenure as an out queer athlete in the elite distance running community has never ceased to amaze me.

Luckily, while in Salt Lake City, I was able to meet a diverse and talented training group who was willing to take me under their wing. I attribute much of my recent improvement to the training advice and motivation they provided me with. Honestly, the support I have received during my tenure as an out queer athlete in the elite distance running community has never ceased to amaze me; in college and post-collegiately I have never been harassed or discriminated against by any runner.

Pivoting to today, shockingly after less than a year of intensive training, I was able to hit the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon Standard. What makes my story even more unlikely is the fact that from August 2017 onward I entirely self-planned and self-funded my training as I lacked access to coaching or sponsorships.

It is my hope that by sharing my story I am able to inspire the next young queer athlete in rural America. Growing up, many of my idols were athletes. However, there were simply no out queer male athletes I could look up to who could reassure me that I could indeed be a successful athlete, openly gay and happy.

Even today, all major U.S. male sports leagues (aside from MLS) lack a single openly gay athlete; therefore, I want to show others that while your sexuality is an important part of your personal self, it has no bearing on your ability to achieve your dreams athletically.

On a broader note, I want to stress the importance of believing in yourself. Over the course of my running career I have gone from a 22:46 5k runner to a U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon qualifier.

Aside from myself, my parents and a few select coaches and teammates, no one believed I could accomplish what I have athletically. When applying to colleges, I sent letters to nearly every Division I and Division II cross-country program in the United States and was ignored by essentially all of them.

More recently, I have had people laugh in my face when I told them I was aiming to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials. However, I have learned to follow my dreams regardless of what others say and would strongly advise all athletes, queer, straight, etc. to follow their passions wholeheartedly.

While it sounds cliché, once you are able to accept yourself for who you are, find something you love, work diligently towards your goals and think for yourself, things have a way of falling into place.

Adam Dalton, 24, is a 2016 graduate of Grinnell College where he majored in Chinese and Economics and was a member of the men’s cross-country and track teams. He currently works for an environmental non-profit in Tucson, Arizona, is the lead singer in a punk band, and is slated to run in the 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in Atlanta. He is actively looking for sponsorship and can be reached at [email protected] and @runindamc on Instagram.

Story editor: Jim Buzinski