Esther speaks to ASICS FrontRunner Siân Longthorpe about how running helped her through a difficult period in her life
A few weeks ago we were asked if we would like to speak to one of the new wave of ASICS FrontRunners. The goal of the ASICS FrontRunner community is to support everyone around the world who loves to move, while practising the ASICS philosophy: a sound mind in a sound body. Everyone can apply to be a FrontRunner, and thousands do every year. Current FrontRunners are truly diverse, from different backgrounds and with different experience levels. The community currently stretches over 30 countries, with more than 600 runners.
One of the newest recruits is Siân Longthorpe. Siân’s life has changed immeasurably in the last five years; but the one thing that has remained a constant is running which, as she explains here, has been her joy, her escape and, quite possibly, her saviour. Siân came out publicly as transgender two years ago, and here she speaks to me openly about her experiences and how running has helped her through an enormously difficult stage in her life.
Can you tell me about your history with running?
“It dawned on my recently that I’ve been running for more than three decades, which is quite staggering really. I started when I was 10 or 11, and I got into running because my brother started running and I followed in his footsteps. I quickly realised that I was quite good at it, and stuck with it through my school years and I regularly represented my county both on the track and cross country and had a number of successes. And then when I started working I carried on running and I was a member of the local running club. It was really in my late 30s that I was running at my best; I guess I’d describe myself as a decent club runner. To put it in perspective my marathon PB was 2.35. I qualified for an England Masters vest, but unfortunately I got injured so could never actually run with the vest. That was my running prime. But actually that was when my personal life was at its worst. Running by that stage had become a very welcome distraction from the day-to-day struggles that I was facing.”
Could you tell me a little bit about that?
“I grew up in rural Devon. And I guess always felt as though my life was destined to follow a traditional path, but I was aware of some feelings that I had that I knew weren’t normal, but I tried my best to bury them. I got married and had children, but unfortunately that disintegrated about five years ago and I separated from my wife. I was in very bad place; I was really struggling to accept my true feelings, I was very ashamed that I was transgender and didn’t want to admit it to anyone. But at the same time I realised I couldn’t bury those feelings any longer. It was a really difficult situation, and I went to some fairly dark places as I felt completely trapped.
“But a number of things happened that allowed me to see a way forward. The death of an old schoolfriend of mine by suicide due to mental health issues was the ultimate catalyst for me to face up and accept who I was and realise I had to be true to myself. I realised that I had hopefully half of my life ahead of me, and that I needed to lead the life that I wanted to lead, rather than the life that other people wanted me to lead. And so I started confiding in a few people about my honest feelings, and I was buoyed by the response. I feared that I would be disowned and it was quite the opposite actually. People really embraced what I was telling them, and encouraged me in my own time to be true to myself. And that culminated in me coming out officially and publicly two years ago. It was Easter two years ago that I announced at work that I was transgender and that at some point I would transition to lead my life full time as Siân. It was about six months later than I presented full time as Siân and never looked back. I’ve now been Siân for about 18 months and it’s been amazing. It’s not without its difficulties, but generally it’s been just so much better than I feared, and for that I’m just so grateful.’
Have you met any negative reactions during this time?
“Friends have been remarkably amazing, and my family are now on board. But we will all admit that that was a long time in the making. They’ve really struggled. I first confided in them about five years ago how I felt, but I didn’t know where it was going. My mum was probably more worldly wise than my dad and tried to accept it, but my dad really struggled. I always found that the best way of explaining who I was, was to show people pictures of how I looked as Siân, and try to give them comfort that I was the same person. But my dad, bless him, refused to look at any photos of me. And it’s actually in hindsight quite funny as he’d created this image in his own mind of who I was, and it was actually Lily Savage – because that was his only point of reference. We’ve moved a long way from there. And I’m so pleased now that they refer to me as daughter, they call me Siân, they get the pronouns right, and it’s a million miles away from where it was.
“And I’ve faced other difficulties. I lost my job last year. Fortunately I was able to get a new job, but that was really difficult for me. I work in the construction industry, and women are generally under-represented there, and a transgender woman in the construction industry is almost unheard of. So I was very fearful as to what the future held. But I was so pleased that I was able to get a new job very quickly. And it gave me reassurance that I’d made the right call by transitioning, as hard as it was. I’ve been through so much in the last five years: I’ve separated from my wife, we got divorced, I bought a new house, I came out, I transitioned, I lost my job. I’m really hoping that now I can have a consolidation period where I actually just enjoy the new me, and get used to my new existence. And I’m really hoping that having had all those issues I can have a few years where there aren’t those major life issues all condensed into a very short period of time.”
I’m aware that social media for trans people can be a place of great sanctuary, but also a place of great fear and hate. What has that experience been like for you?
“It’s very fortunate for me that to date I’ve not been subjected to abuse. Quite the opposite actually. I’ve received a lot of positive feedback from people both in and out of the trans community. I’ve even had people reach out to me whose son or daughter is transgender and they’ve taken comfort from me being visible and for me that means so much. And that was part of my thinking in putting myself out there really. I have got a story to tell; it’s an important story for people to hear. A lot of people, my friends and family included, had probably a very different view of what transgender was and what it meant before I came on to the scene, and I hope that I’ve tried to normalise it. To me, I’m just a regular person who wants to get on with their life. I want to walk down the street and not draw attention to myself. And that’s why it’s so ironic how my dad pictured me before he knew the real me. He thought it was all about being an extrovert and trying to stand out in the crowd, and it couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s been about rebadging myself, about how I appear externally, but I actually haven’t changed too much. My hobbies, such as running, are still very central to my life. I’ve still got the same personality and generally the same likes and dislikes. As my friend so eloquently described it, it’s like when Marathon changed to Snickers: just slightly different on the outside, but still the same inside.”
And now you’re part of ASICS FrontRunners. Can you explain why it’s important to be a part of this group?
“ASICS FrontRunners have been going for about 10 years now. They started in Germany and over time have spread to more countries. It’s essentially a diverse collective of people who have a shared love of running and the intention is that they inspire movement and inspire running by sharing their stories. Particularly online. Insta is the main channel that we use to share our story, and I think I have a really important story to share. The fact that running is so important to my life, and has been for so long, and because running has been so helpful for me in getting through these last few years in particular, I felt I was a good fit. And so I applied. I was very conscious that an awful lot of people apply ¬– several thousand people apply for the UK roles alone. So I put myself out there and thought maybe, just maybe… And I got the call about six weeks ago to say that I’d been selected to join the team, and it was wonderful. It was real validation for me in terms of the journey I’d been on and the decisions I’d made.
“For a long time the transgender community has been marginalised, and that is largely why I was so shameful of it for so many years. Now I’ve been given the opportunity to share my story and to hopefully show people that we’re not as bad as some people think. I don’t doubt that there will be people out there who don’t agree with the journey that I’ve embarked on but I think hopefully I can show people that my life is as valid as the next person’s. Considering where I was three, four, five years ago, it’s a remarkable turnaround and it’s a story worth sharing, so I’m really grateful to be given that platform.”
It feels like a brave decision, to become a part of the FrontRunners, in that you’re immediately more public. Did it feel like a big step?
“It was. In fairness to Holly [Rush] who heads up the FrontRunners in the UK, when she offered me the role, she wanted to check that I was comfortable with it, as she was aware I would be thrust in the spotlight, and that my story would be honed in on, for better or for worse. I really appreciated that it was a question that was asked. I’m very aware that I have stepped out into the headlights, and I will be front and centre on occasion, which doesn’t necessarily fit with me as a person, as I’m quite a shy, retiring person. But I think I have a story to tell, and that’s a price I’m willing to pay.”
How have you found the running community as a whole?
“Generally very good. I’ve been a part of the running community for a long while, and I was always very fearful as to how the running world would accept the new me. I would hate to be ostracised, but it was a risk that that could be the case. I’m acutely aware that transgender competition in female sport is a really hot topic and there is no easy answer to it. What I hope is just by me getting my story out there, people will understand that my reasons for transitioning are not to advance my competitive abilities. I’m 43 now, so my peak performances are behind me. I’ve already achieved a lot in my running that I’m proud of. And actually the way my life has been turned on its head these last three or four years, that would be huge price to pay for improving my performances in some running races. But I fully appreciate that transgender females competing against cis females is a very difficult situation, and there is no easy answer. And whatever the governing bodies decide, they will be upsetting a number of people. They either upset cis females who think it’s unfair, or they upset transgender people who feel they have a right to compete however they wish. And it’s really difficult. I don’t envy the decision makers trying to find a solution that fits all, because I don’t think it’s there.
“The people on the local running scene have been very welcoming. I’m being quite selective about what I do moving forward. I’ve done a number of parkruns in recent years, and the races that I’m choosing to enter going forward are predominantly those where they either have a very clear trans policy with which I align, or where I’m able to enter in a non-binary category or similar, so I don’t rock the boat. I didn’t want to find myself in a position where I could no longer run, and hopefully I’ve found a compromise that works for me. But I recognise that it won’t work for everyone.”
There’s obviously so much to be said and so much to be talked about. It’s upsetting that you need to give yourself another option so you don’t rock the boat.
“I’m quite conscious that I don’t want to be the spokesperson for transgender people everywhere. I’ve had my time; there are runners who have their prime years ahead of them and will possibly take a different view. But I come at it from the point of view of trying to be fair. And having been born as a male, undoubtedly I have some benefits that cis women don’t have. Those benefits are more apparent in other sports, power sports, like weight lifting or rugby where those advantages are even more acute. With running, and long-distance running in particular, the gap between cis males and cis females is much less. To the point where we all know certain long-distance events where women beat the men, so there it’s a very grey area. It’s unfortunate that some people will see it as a challenge on females and female sport and I recognise, as with most things in life, where people can gain an unfair advantage, some will seek to gain an advantage. Unfortunately, when it comes to global sports and where there’s money on offer, there will be people who will exploit a system. And unfortunately, it will be those people that tar the rest of us. Maybe I can be a counter balance to that and show people there’s other reasons I want to run.”
Tell me more about your running – what races do you have coming up?
“I’ve got a few races this year. I’ve got an ultra marathon called the Dartmoor Discovery in June, which is a race very close to my heart. I ran it five years ago, it was my first ultramarathon and I won it. And that was wonderful. I raced it again the following year, and ended up at the finish line in the back of an ambulance, so it’s had it’s highs and lows for me! This year I’m going back, if it’s still on, to challenge myself to see if I’m still capable of finishing it. It’s 32 miles, it’s organised by a local running club, and it’s a great event.
“The highlight of the year is the TransRockies Race in America in the Rocky Mountains. It’s in early August, and I’m going to race it with a friend of mine, Jo Meek, as a team. It’s a six-day stage race, 120 miles, and this is one of the events that has a very clear transgender policy. So I’m really looking forward to that; it’s an amazing opportunity to enjoy my running in spectacular scenery.”
What sort of training do you have to do for that?
“It’s going to have to be some pretty big back-to-back long days. I’m fortunate, I live down in Devon, so I’ve got Dartmoor where I can train and the coast path which has quite a lot of elevation. But I think I’m just going to have to get used to running on tired legs. The closest I’ve got to it is a three-day stage race many years ago. And so I hope that’s stood me in good stead really.”
Has anything surprised you in terms of your running or your transition in terms of the running community?
“One of the biggest issues for me is how my relationship with running has changed. Going back five years when I was in my running prime, that was when my personal life was at its lowest ebb, and running was a useful distraction from my day-to-day struggles, and I was able to basically get away and zone out I got myself into this cycle of running to distract which meant running more regularly, which meant I ran better, which meant my performances improved, and that boosted my self confidence. And therefore it was a way of helping me get through. When all else around me was failing, my running was there as something to cling to. Following the breakdown of my marriage and when I was at my lowest moments really, I used my running as a way of processing my thoughts. I’d throttled back slightly on my running, so I was able to use it just to try and decide where my life was going from here. Running has this ability of providing me with crystal clear thought. And I was able to make some fairly life changing decisions by just thinking it over as a ran through the miles. And it gave me the confidence that I could go down this route, as difficult as it was.
“And it’s changed again in recent years as a way of just getting out there and enjoying my running. Because I’m not training as hard, I’m actually able to just enjoy my runs a bit more, and take in what’s around me and reflect on where I’ve got to, and still process thoughts. Because if I’m honest my life is still very difficult, as with everyone really. I’ve got my complications and issues to deal with. I just find running as a way to have some me time in the day. I’ve got a very busy life, I’ve got a very responsible job, and for me my running is some time for me in the day. The other thing is that running has been a constant for me as it’s been a part of my life for so long. People know me as a runner, and have always known me as a runner. And what I’ve found is that people, even if I haven’t seen them for a number of years, would always say, “how’s your running?” because that’s how they knew me. And it’s been nice that running has been a constant with me throughout my transition. Even though so much has changed, my running has always been there and people can still identify me as a runner. That’s why it’s so integral to my life.”
It’s so powerful when you put it like that. Running is obviously so important to you.
“It’s given me so much. I can’t imagine not running. Hopefully I’ve got so many years ahead of me as a runner – I think there’s still a few more miles in these legs yet! It does tie in very nicely with ASICS and their concept of sound body and sound mind. And I think that’s possibly one of the major reasons why I was selected to join the team. I’m living evidence of how running is able to help the mind. It’s great to be an ambassador and be able to share my story. And I’m grateful for you giving me a platform to tell my story too. Five years ago, I never foresaw myself being in this situation and for me to now be able to have a conversation with my mum and dad to tell them that I’m having an interview with Women’s Running magazine is just astounding. I need to pinch myself that I’ve been able to get into this position. It’s not come without hardship, and it’s not come without sacrifice but it just means so much. And for people to recognise me as a woman now is so important to me and so incredible really. I realise there will always be people who don’t see me as a woman, but if the majority can then that’s a really great result for me.”
For more advice on how running and movement can bring balance to both body and mind, check out the ASICS Sunrise programme for women which offers expert advice from ASICS’ athletes and its network of experts on the interplay of movement, mental health and stress reduction.