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  • Writer's pictureJustin Mendoza

Cain Leathers of Queer Run

Discussing identity, allyship, community, mental health, resilience, and running, of course!

So Cain, I identify as queer, a term whose usage has evolved, and which I find so empowering for its expansiveness. For me it's a celebratory invitation to fly our 'freak flag' in the best possible way--I'm unique and damn proud of it! In this sense, I think it's also inclusive of allies, and having spaces to be seen and accepted for our authentic selves can be healing. Most of my friends in design school were allies but still 'my tribe' because we all marched to our own drum. Why 'Queer' Run and why is allyship important?

The word 'Queer' has often been used as a derogatory term in the past. We put 'Queer' in our name, because the more that people see it, the more they say it, the more they hear it, the more empowering it becomes. We are not a bad word, we are human beings, and we are deserving. Deserving of love, deserving of friendship, deserving of a space to embrace that inner athletic side of us that we've been afraid to embrace. We are deserving of life. The word Queer also represents more of a community aspect than LGBTQIA+ we feel. You can be Queer, but not fall within those categories, and so we wanted to ensure that everyone felt welcome in our group that just individuals within those specific categories. There were other groups in the city (and in the world) that, while they say they're open to everyone joining, really specialize in one subcategory within the LGBTQIA+ community. There are groups for gay men, lesbians, etc. but no real group that embodies everyone as a full community. Our name is Queer Run to fulfill that need in the running industry to make a space where anyone is welcome no matter their gender identity, sexual orientation, etc.

Additionally, allyship is extremely important to us. Our group is actually composed of about 20% allies pretty consistently now at runs and events. Allies have a level of privilege in their life, facing less discrimination on average than most individuals in LGBTQIA+ communities. Their support reminds us that we are loved, and perfect exactly the way that we are. When allies partake in our runs and events, they become more educated and build connections with queer individuals, which in return extends our reach and increases our voice of impact. These allies can then share their experiences with others, whom we normally may not have come in contact with without allied support, essentially using their privilege to educate their communities, encouraging more acceptance and inclusion in our communities.

'Runners' can be a specific kind of person and the way I relate the practice to personality is it can be a 'fight' against ourselves and limits, but we can also transform pain into purpose. How does that resonate for you? Running is definitely a fight against ourselves and our limits. The moments I find out that I'm the strongest are when I'm running. When running in Ultra races, around the 70-mile mark you think back to life experiences that were tough and broke you down, and then tell yourself in that moment that if you could survive that; if you can survive family separation in your teens, if you can survive near-homelessness, if you can survive several suicide attempts, then you can survive this race. In the past year I have gone from using running as a means of escaping my reality, to using running as a platform to share my reality and my experiences with the world, in the attempt to positively impact the lives of others and prove to them that they can make it through whatever they're going through. It does, in fact, get better.

"using running as a positively impact the lives of others and prove to them that they can make it through whatever they're going through"

Running has been one of my top stress relievers since high school track and cross-country--ironically it helped me outrun bullies trying to assault me. For me it can be like meditation or create a space for more helpful self-talk...the 'runner's high' effect probably helps, too! How does running as a practice relate to your mental health and sense of motivation? Running is crucial to my mental well-being. Many people in my life do not know this, but I actually have Aspergers, which is a higher functioning form of autism. With Aspergers, the constant repetitive motion is very soothing to me, so after an hour or so of running I fall into a very therapeutic state. This is why I choose to focus on loop races, where you run in a 400 meter to sometimes a 4-mile circle for 12-24 hours at a time. Social interaction has been very difficult for me throughout my entire life because of this, and bridging that gap between running and socialization has really helped me open up to others and create some of the best friendships I have ever had. Running's also a great way to connect with community; one of my most impactful experiences with running was joining 'Team in Training' for my first half-marathon. Whether it's cause-related, a challenge, for fun like a 'turkey trot', or a regular running club, it can also help us get out of our heads, be positive and out in nature with others. What motivated you to start Queer Run? I had worked in the running industry for a few years, and had travelled around a bit for training, living in a few different states and in Europe for a short time. Everywhere I go I see a need for a queer-focused running space. There's a difference between being included and being accepted, and I always felt included but never really felt accepted in my sport for who I truly was. I founded Queer Run to create a space where I could 100% be myself, and allow others to never have to endure discrimination while at our runs and events. I've used my personal story to show others that it's okay to go through struggles, and that you can come out stronger at the end. I founded Queer Run to inspire others to put on their shoes and go for a run, despite their fears. I also wanted a space that could be very social too, where Queer individuals could make new friends and build long-lasting connections in the community.

Not only are you an inspiring person, but you're an impressive athlete as well. I think for many, and particularly among the LGBTQ+ community, we may have felt like 'athletic' couldn't be part of our identity or that sports/fitness weren't safe, accessible spaces/activities. Are there any parts of your identity that have felt in conflict and what's been helpful to integrate them? I absolutely have felt this way, and still do to this day. I have had people in my life tell me very discriminatory things about who I should be competing against in running, and where I 'belong'. As someone who identifies both as nonbinary and as male, I even approached close friends in the running world last year to discuss my gender identity and wanting to compete in a nonbinary category in an upcoming race. I received strong pushback, which cause me to retreat, and hide who I was. But I'm not hiding anymore. I run with HOKA currently, and make their outfits feel more gender neutral by altering the tops. I walk up to the start line with painted nails, a rainbow hat, and a bracelet that says 'Human' in Pride colors. I do all of this, and I come to compete, and in doing so I break the stigma of what other people think of athletes in the LGBTQIA+ community and what they're capable of, especially in running. Running has changed my life. My main goal now is for my running to change the lives of others.

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