Last Sunday’s TCS New York City Marathon was a joyous ride for nonbinary distance runner Cal Calamia. A month removed from a fifth-place finish in the Chicago Marathon, they found early that they had a lot left in the tank.
“I toed the start line thinking I’d listen to what the body says but I thought maybe if everything goes perfectly, I could run similarly to what I did in Chicago,” said Calamia.
“The moment I realized that I was leading the nonbinary division, I still had 10 miles to go. I was thinking that was still kind of a ways to go and I needed to hang on.”
They not only hung on, they pressed forward to the finish in Central Park to win in 2 hours, 48 minutes, 46 seconds. Jake Caswell, winner of the nonbinary division at last month’s Chicago Marathon, finished six minutes behind to earn second place.
For Calamia, the win was a calming moment after some recent turbulence. “Leading up to this race, so much of what has been on my mind is all the things I’ve had to prove,” they said.
“I have to prove that I deserve to be here. I have to prove that I deserve to run. I have to prove that I’m not cheating.
“When I crossed that finish line, I felt there was nothing more to prove.”
The 27-year-old San Francisco-based runner-poet-activist had spent most of the last three months in a state of worry.
Since 2019, Calamia has been on a regimen of masculinizing hormone replacement therapy. In July, they were contacted by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and informed that they were at risk of being ruled ineligible to compete because of testosterone usage under regulations on performance-enhancing drugs.
It was a blow to Calamia, a lifelong cross country and track athlete who competed at the college level in NCAA Division I at St. Louis University. Throughout high school and into college, they felt that something didn’t mesh.
“I was struggling. I didn’t have words for what I was feeling but I didn’t like it,” they noted about their experience as a high school and college athlete. “It affected my relationship with running. It affected everything, not being right with my identity and not being right with my gender.”
“I have been running since I was little,” they continued. “Running is me. It’s always been me.”
Those past struggles gave way to clarity. In 2018, Calamia came out as nonbinary transmasculine. As they began to feel at home in their own skin, the fire to run burned brighter, and it led them to seek ways to compete without having to compromise their true self.
They are among a group of athletes seeking to build nonbinary divisions in races and their efforts have made an impact. Over the last few years, some of the major road running events have added the additional space.
On the road, Calamia’s inner peace yielded impressive pace. In 2022, they took home wins in the Bay to Breakers and the San Francisco Marathon. They were also using their performances as a platform to inform and educate, especially the skeptics who may not see nonbinary identities as valid.
“Nonbinary is an expansive identity and it means different things to different people,” they noted. “Those who may be frustrated have never had to confront signing up for something and choosing something that feels like a lie when you are registering.
“Running is uniquely positioned to excel and be a trailblazer in adding divisions to provide space for people to feel like they belong. It’s such a relief to just be able to sign up and not have to hide a part of myself or pretend I’m something I’m not just to be here.”
Yet even with those spaces, some parts are still awkward. For Calamia, the sticking point was the next steps after the USADA email arrived. They had to gather a checklist of documents such as doctor’s notes, lab results, records of diagnosis of gender dysphoria, complete psychological records with notes, and even a letter from themselves explaining who they are and why.
“It’s ridiculous. It’s discrimination,” Calamia fumed. “Why are testosterone levels only weaponized against trans people when the human variance of testosterone levels in the human population is so vast? It’s an easy way to be transphobic.”
The USADA granted Calamia a therapeutic use exemption through 2032. The stipulations of the TUE are similar in scope to the testing and enforcement regimens of elite athletes.
The fact that a TUE was granted to a nonbinary athlete is a paradigm shift that Calamia seeks to build upon. They stated they would like to work with USADA and governing bodies to evolve and refine policies for trans inclusion across the board.
In competition, they have their sights set on building on their win in New York. The 2024 Boston and Los Angeles Marathons are the goals they’ll prepare for next, but they also race for something greater than the result and the prizes.
“It’s important to be visible so that people who are trans recognize that they are not alone and people who are not trans recognize that trans people are in the space,” Calamia said.
“The trans experience is beautiful and I’m here for the trans magic. I’m here for everyone embracing every part of themselves and not being afraid to take up that space.”
Follow Cal Calamia at @calcalamia on Instagram