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This gay former Big Ten Champion is running again for a worthy cause

Derek Wiebke left running after leaving the Univ. of Minnesota. Now he’s returning to the sport for charity.

Derek Wiebke is returning to running after a sabbatical following his successful track and cross country career at Minnesota.
Gopher Track Shots

After graduating from the Univ. of Minnesota in 2018, I felt I needed a break from running competitively.

I had a lot of success on the track, winning a Big Ten title in the mile run and earning All-America honors in the distance medley relay, but the years of running at that level had definitely added up and left me feeling a bit burnt out.

I decided that I wanted to take advantage of what it would mean to be a full-time student without the obligations of athletics, so I began graduate school at the Univ. of Washington. While I continued to run, it was not nearly as often nor as intense. During my second year in the program, in addition to my own coursework, I was teaching a first-year German language class to undergraduate students. Needless to say, my schedule was quite busy.

In the spring of this year, I completed my master’s degree. Then, during the summer, I made the coast-to-coast move from Seattle to Connecticut to pursue my PhD at Yale University.

Even with several trips to Europe under my belt, I’ve never experienced more of a culture shock in my life. Driving across this country really opened up my eyes to how good I have it. I’ve spent most of my adult life in Minneapolis, Seattle, and now New Haven, three quite diverse yet extremely welcoming places. I’ve felt at home in all three of these cities, and much of that has to do with the people around me.

COVID-19 has only made it more apparent to me how privileged I am. I have a plethora of resources available to me as a financially supported graduate student at one of the world’s best universities. I have a family that will do anything for me, no matter how big or small. And I’ve been fortunate to meet some brilliant, extraordinary and incredibly caring people since moving to New Haven.

Additionally, I’ve always been known by those around me as someone who makes the best of a poor situation, so I’ve been trying to turn my quarantined-isolated-alone time into something worthwhile. I’ve taken an interest in cooking, art, and… running!

Though I absolutely enjoy all of these activities on my own, I’ve been able to reflect and realize that one of the most rewarding aspects about these hobbies was always either sharing them with others or being able to somehow give back by doing what I love.

As a student-athlete at the Univ. of Minnesota, I always enjoyed signing up for as many volunteer opportunities as possible: visiting low-income elementary schools to read to students, visiting the Masonic Children’s Hospital dressed in silly costumes to put a smile on patients’ faces, driving to Canada to help the homeless.

Running has been a great escape for me. Since starting coursework at Yale, I’ve been running almost daily, and I’ve noticed, quite to my surprise, how quickly my body has been able to adjust to the mileage.

When I first started running track and field in seventh grade, I remember always being in awe of the marathon. I knew that someday I wanted to run one. While at Minnesota, my talents were rather in the mid-distance events: the 800-meter and the mile. I am committed to training alongside my studies, on my own time, to see what I can do at the marathon distance over the next few years.

Of course, running has brought back so many memories of my time as a gay athlete. I remember feeling so cowardly about not being able to come out, and when I finally did, I then wished I had done it sooner. I’ve always felt I’ve had a great support network, and I’ve never felt targeted or vulnerable for being who I am.

I know that this isn’t the case for many young LGBTQ+ folks, especially in places much more conservative. For this reason, I wanted to put my running ability to good use. Why keep what my body can do all to myself, when I could use it to help others, too?

I tried to think of a good fundraising concept without a big race to run. Normally, there are plenty of opportunities when not in a pandemic to start a running/fundraising challenge. I needed to be creative, so I decided that really pushing my body would be a great way to get people on board to donate.

I’ll run the miles if others provide the pennies.

Because I wish that everyone could have as smooth a coming out experience as I had, all of the money raised from my efforts will be donated at the end of December to Worthy Mentoring. I think Worthy is a great organization with an excellent mission of trying to support all LGBTQ+ folks who may be struggling with any part of the coming out process.

If you’d like to contribute to my fundraising efforts, you can visit my blog and pledge toward Worthy Mentoring here.

Derek Wiebke is a current PhD student at Yale Univ. He is a former student-athlete and team captain of track and field and cross country at the Univ. of Minnesota. You can find him on Instagram or via email at derek.wiebke@yale.edu. And be sure to check out his blog.