Brendan Reilly is a successful athlete agent. | Courtesy of Brendan Reilly

This past February, while in New York for the Millrose Games, I ran a few runs with the Front Runners of New York, as I have usually done on recent visits. 

After a Wednesday night run in Central Park, I joined their welcoming weekly post-run dinner on the West Side. 

As I chatted with three guys at my end of the table, our conversation turned to how it took me until my 60s to begin coming out in earnest. 

After the sting of a five-year marriage to a woman that ended in divorce over 30 years ago, I wanted no relationships. When I did ease back into it, I went on a few dozen pleasant first dates with women. Yet rarely were there second or third dates. 

The future Mrs. Brendan Reilly was not coming along…

While a few well-meaning friends often assured me they were on the lookout for “the future Mrs. Reilly,” something always felt “off” on the dates, some sense of awkwardness. 

That gradually brought an awakening: Maybe I was not as straight as I’d believed. 

For years I dealt with the all-too-common shame and embarrassment that many LGBTQ people experience. For years I kept reassuring myself I was NOT gay, just exploring, or just waiting for the right woman to come along.

With my good fortune to work with so many world-class athletes, it was easy to always have a new career target…the next Olympics, the next World Championships, the next big track meet, the next shoe contract. I enjoyed the career too much to realize I was simultaneously letting vital parts of my personal life sit on the back burner, neglected while I distracted myself with a bit too much work, a bit too much travel, a bit too much running. 

Only a few years ago did I realize that my busy-ness had unintentionally enabled me to keep punting the ball down the field and avoid dealing with personal issues. In terms of any movement to coming out, I confided only to the first Olympic medalist with whom I’d ever worked, Japan’s Yuko Arimori. That was a dozen years ago.  

Rather than gain confidence from her unfazed reaction, I instead kept myself closeted and busy with work.

It took a pair of health scares to make me realize I needed to step back and think about my own life. 

First, a 2018 diagnosis of prostate cancer led to a prostatectomy six weeks later. Then at the 2020 US Olympic Marathon Trials in the early days of COVID, I caught what was almost certainly an early case of the coronavirus, which landed me a few weeks later in a Boulder emergency room at midnight with pulmonary emboli spread throughout both lungs. 

During 14 months of recovery, my two main resolutions revealed themselves: Reduce the perpetual travel and grow comfortable with my queerness. 

There was an occasional glimpse of the meanness and hate that might await me, such as when one athlete’s husband told me he agreed with some African policies that gays should be dead or locked up. 

Yet more fearsome was my own certainty of the shame and embarrassment I was certain I’d feel if people I cared about knew I was not straight.

Last spring I cracked open the door in earnest, coming at it from all angles … our local LGBTQ advocacy/support group, Rocky Mountain Equality, has been a tremendous resource. And an excellent therapist, Brett Kennedy, helped me dump a lot of baggage while suggesting coming-out ideas.

My reading expanded to include all sorts of gay fiction and nonfiction. On the road for work I’ve been able to meet gay runners with Front Runner groups in Boulder, Honolulu, Palm Springs and particularly New York City. 

Even if our sport does not yet have many (any?) out officials, coaches or agents, the out presence of young athletes like Scott Nelson, Nico Young, Sha’Carri Richardson, and Nikki Hiltz is encouraging.

Nikki particularly is an inspiration, not only for their competitive results, but also their initiatives to support the trans community.

And of course, opening the closet requires actually coming out.

Coming out as gay to a marathon world champion

The first good friend to whom I came out was Mark Plaatjes, the 1993 marathon world champion. These days he and I run together two or three times each week with our local running group. Last summer, over a beer and dinner, I simply came out to him with no fanfare, explaining I felt bad thinking maybe he and his wife, Shirley, knew but wondered why I had never told them. 

Mark replied with a story from when he was 15 years old in South Africa. His best friend’s younger brother, who enjoyed playing with dolls, was constantly harassed by the friend’s father and two older brothers. Confused by this, Mark went to a local library and read all about chromosomes, and X’s and Y’s, coming to a basic understanding of the wide scope of human sexuality. 

His sharing of that story was his way of telling me there is nothing about which to feel ashamed or “abnormal.”

Then he added, “And Shirley and I knew 15 years ago that you were gay,” he said, “and the three girls [their daughters] figured it out on their own.” 

We had a good laugh over it, and I told him I wished he’d told ME 15 years ago and saved me years of introspection! 

“We figured you’d tell us when you were ready,” he said.

He assured me that in part because I am coming out so late in life, I have the advantage that people already know who I am. Folks are not going to suddenly reevaluate years of running, working, or socializing with me.

Those of us coming out so late in life can be confident that our character has already been established among those we know. Perhaps it will even spur some people to think, “Oh, maybe I had the wrong preconception of queer people after all.”

Embraced as a gay man by the running community

While I have worked with some athletes from more-anti-LGBTQ countries and don’t really know how they are going to react to this story, I like to think that the sport of track and field is open-minded, particularly cast against some of the stories I’ve read on Outsports about homophobia in other pro sports and the agent profession. 

There has been zero pushback or negative feedback so far from my running friends. People generally will give no more than a few seconds thought to my sharing of this story. Then they will get back to thinking about their own job, or their next grocery shopping or mortgage payments.

I am curious what might lie ahead now that I am telling my story here. A year after my prostatectomy, the Boulder Camera — that’s our local daily newspaper — did a story on my recovery as I prepared to run a local cancer fundraising event. In the aftermath, at random moments in grocery stores or the gym or on a race start line, guys would come up and ask for some prostate advice or want to share something. 

Perhaps that is what will happen. Perhaps I can give others, particularly later in life, the courage to come out and be out in their own lives. Every voice matters, and I hope mine here can too.

Brendan Reilly is a track and field agent and altitude training coordinator who has worked with Olympic marathon gold medalists, world champions and athletes who have won countless events around the world. Since competing in track his senior year of high school, he has run more than 110,000 miles and hundreds of races. He continues to jump into half a dozen races each year “just to see what I can still get out of myself.” This summer, Paris with be the eighth Summer Olympics at which he has athletes competing. You can follow him on Instagram.

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