Running for change

Jennifer McCreath is a marathon runner, and she’s a she. But she hasn’t always been that way—at least on the outside.

In January of 2007, after a long battle with depression, she reached the conclusion that she had been dealing with Gender Identity Disorder—also known as Transsexualism. McCreath knew she wanted to become a biological woman.

As a way to get fit and prepare herself mentally and physically for the process—the surgeries, the social issues­—she decided to take up running. As it turned out, running, and marathons in particular, soon became a passion.

Just this year she successfully ran three marathons in eight days. Then she brought that tally up to five marathons in 30 days.

McCreath is officially “in transition” and fighting her way to becoming legally and socially recognized as a female. She is undergoing hormone therapy, and has had her testicals removed. She’s “part op”.

For competing in sporting events, transsexualism brings up some unique issues. Later this month, for example, at the World Outgames in Denmark, she will compete in a third gender category for athletes in transition.

Elling Lien got a chance to sit down to speak with Jennifer about her transition, and about running life.

Photo by Mark Bennett.

So when did you start running?
I used to be fairly athletic in my teen years. I played high school tennis somewhat competitively. Then I became somewhat of a couch potato. I beefed up… ballooned up… until I was fairly heavy. I stayed that way for quite a while and then I realized it was time to start the transition journey (early 2007), and one of the first things I felt I needed to do was get in good physical shape.

Transition requires a certain level of physical fitness. You don’t have to be a marathon runner, but physical health is important and it also crosses over into good mental health. It was kind of the first step in my transition. “I’m going to lose some weight. And meanwhile, before I go and talk to a doctor or ask for a drug or anything, it’s going to give me some time to really think about this.”

Can I ask how heavy you were?
January 1st, 2007 I weighed 238 pounds. I had been as high as 255 at points in my life. I set a goal: 60 pounds in six months. That would give me six more months to think about the Jennifer journey. How do I do this? What are the steps? If I could do that, I figured I could do anything. So I started running.

And did you make it?
I did. It started with a run around the block for ten minutes. I said, “we’re going to do this tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day.”

Did it hurt?
It was challenging, but I did a little bit of research on why people take up running, and it’s usually because they want to lose weight. It’s not necessarily because they want to run a marathon. But I knew the pitfalls to avoid: Too much, too soon, too fast. If you do any of that, you’ll get hurt and you’ll quit. So I was careful.

Slowly and gradually I increased the distance and the speed. I wanted to be a little bit more careful about what I ate. I wouldn’t say I’m a nutrition nut… Though I am eating a chocolate Canadian maple doughnut right now. I don’t eat doughnuts very often. [laugh] Marathon runners tend to eat healthy. But some don’t! But that’s a whole other topic.

So I went to one of my doctors and said, “I want to lose weight,” and they said one kilogram a week—2.2 pounds—is kind of the maximum. So I figured, okay, I can handle that.

And it was working.

I’m known for setting very high expectations of myself. I’m a perfectionist, and I often set goals that I can’t reach. I set what I felt were very ambitious, challenging running and weight loss goals, and I was not just hitting them, I was shattering them. Destroying them!

It got to the point where I had to set even tougher goals.

How did you get into running marathons?
You don’t have to know much about sports to understand and respect the word “marathon”. So I figured that was the ultimate in endurance sport. If I can run marathons, I will probably lose the weight I want to lose. I will probably gain respect and credibility in the process.

So I slowly built up my training, and I was losing the weight as scheduled—two pounds a week. Boom, boom, boom. And the runs went from 10 minutes to 15 to 20 to higher and higher. I kept challenging myself, and then once a week I would do a “long run”. And the long run got a little longer each week.

Where would you do your route?
At this point I was living in Toronto, so I was just running in the neighbourhood around the streets. Running around the block a second time, and a third time. And it didn’t take long until I reached the point when I was doing a marathon. A marathon is 42.2 kilometers. I think it was five or six weeks into it. I had only lost 12 or 13 pounds, and I ran 42 k around the block…

What was that like?
I remember that night really well. It was midnight, or one o’clock in the morning, and I realized I hadn’t taken my run that day. I was going to go to bed, but I decided finally to do a lap. Once I did that, I did another one. And one more. Another…

That’s not the way to plan to run a marathon, but I tend not to follow the book usually.

By four o’clock in the morning I had finished 42 k, and it hit me: I had run a marathon. I didn’t have a heart attack. I didn’t pass out. I didn’t die. It was an incredible feeling. Once I realized what I had done—almost on a whim—I thought, “let’s try that again next week!” And after doing that a couple of times, I thought, “maybe I should go and run an actual, official race.” There was one coming up in Mississauga, so I signed up for it.

People are impressed to see a marathon finishing medal, or a picture of you crossing the finish line. You tell people that you ran 42 k around the block, it doesn’t quite have the same feeling to it. Some would say that I love the spotlight and to not necessarily be boastful, but to express pride, and it was appealing to me to have my accomplishment documented on the race website, and to have a finishing medal and a t-shirt that said I did it.

So I did it. It was exciting.

At this point I was still 200 pounds on the nose, and I had set a goal of running the marathon in four hours and thirty minutes, and I crossed the finishing line in four hours and 18 minutes. I felt fine. I felt great. I didn’t pass out, I didn’t have any serious health effects. So I wanted to do it again. Then people were saying, “no, don’t do that. You need time to recover.”

Who was telling you that?
Everybody. People who were experts and people who weren’t. It’s funny how some close family and friends like to give you advice, even if they’re not necessarily experts. I have to be the judge of my own body and I thought, “there’s another marathon the next weekend in Cleveland. I want to go.” So off I went to Cleveland and did the marathon faster. Two marathons in 8 days. Then I got a job offer here in Newfoundland. I had to organize the move, but before I left, I knew there was one more marathon in Buffalo. So I ran the Buffalo marathon, which means I did three marathons in 14 days at 200 pounds. I did it, and I ran that one even faster.

How were your knees?
They were a little sore. [laugh] You ask a lot of your knees when you’re carrying weight. 200 pounds is not necessarily obese or anything, but most marathon runners weigh a lot less. I crossed the finishing line at the Cleveland marathon and the MC said, “we’ve got our first couch potato! Look at this!”

This was all before the transition.

Then I got to Newfoundland, and I still had the transition in mind… When would I do it? How would I do it?

So you had made the decision before moving here…
Yeah, I had made the decision, and it was something I needed to do. But I hadn’t actually started talking to people about it. First things first, I was unemployed, I was in debt, and I was unhealthy. So I needed to fix those things. I needed to get in shape, and I needed to get my finances in order, since I knew most of the transition-related matters I would have to pay for them myself.

I grew up in Nova Scotia, so the thought of coming back east was exciting. I’m going to get to live on the ocean again! I’m going to be able to go swimming in ponds, and I had heard nothing but great things about Newfoundland.

Transition was on the back burner for a while. First things first: let’s try to settle into my new job and try to meet some new friends. I thought I would come to Newfoundland and work for a couple of years and then go back to Toronto again.

But it just so happened that I couldn’t wait. I realized I needed to start the Jennifer journey here in Newfoundland. I didn’t come right out and tell people I was a transsexual, but I started dropping hints that there was this side of me.

How did you do that?
I put in earrings. I bought a purse and carried it around at work. I dressed up as a girl for Hallowe’en at work, just to see what sort of reaction I would get. Generally, it was really positive, so once I had done that it was easier to say I was ready. Once you set the table, it’s easier to digest the meal. Then I went and talked to people: “that wasn’t really a Hallowe’en costume, here’s what’s really going on with me.”

So it was generally a positive reaction?
Yes…

Do you think it would have been any different in Toronto? Newfoundland’s a small place!
In Newfoundland, I would say in general, people are open and accepting of diversity. Even if there’s not necessarily a lot of diversity. I think Newfoundland feels isolated by the rest of Canada, perhaps? I think that’s a fair statement. So people here often can understand what it feels like to be different. So on some level, I think people here can identify with what I’ve done. Not necessarily from the transsexual perspective of course, but I think people can appreciate someone who’s a little different who’s struggling to gain societal acceptance. They know I’m still a human being. That was the most important component to “going full time” as they say.

A lot of trans people will start off part time, and they’ll present themselves one way, but still be their old selves at work. But you’ve got to go full time eventually. One of the standards of care (Harry Benjamin Standards of Care for Gender Identity Disorders) is that you must go full time, and be full time for a year to prove that this is right for you before you can get a recommendation for surgery. I knew going full time was an important thing to do, not just because of the protocol, but because it was who I am. It was what I needed to do. I’m Jennifer. I’m a woman. Why not start now? I’m ready. And once I found out that the people at work were open to that at the Hallowe’en party, and that they would help me with it, I changed my name.

I’ve always loved how on Hallowe’en people can express themselves like that…
Way back when I first decided on the transition journey, I sensed that Hallowe’en would be the perfect opportunity to come out to a certain extent. Here is an excuse to dress up at work in women’s clothing and it won’t be totally off the wall. And there will be a hidden message that some people will get. I knew that Hallowe’en was going to be a very important part of it. The reaction I got at work would determine whether or not I felt this was the right place to do this. And the reactions I got made me realize that yes, this is the place to do it. You don’t have to go back to Toronto, you can do this here in Newfoundland. You’re going to be accepted here. Go for it.

And off I went.

Let’s take a step back. How did you know you wanted to transition?
There was a moment when I was living at home, out of work, where I was dressing up part time, thinking it was just a hobby.

A hobby?
A hobby, a fetish, I don’t know…

Then I looked at the laundry basket. I hadn’t left the house in a week and there were all womens’ clothes in there. I started shaving my legs and underarms without really understanding why I was doing it. All these things started adding up to the realization that I was a transsexual, not a transvestite or anything else. And that really hit me, and I went through a bit of a panic attack. [laugh] “Oh my goodness! Now what? Can I do this? How can I do this?” I knew the implications. This was going to divide my family, my friends… Every time I walk out the door, I’m going to face scrutiny and a spotlight. A microscope. I knew it was going to be challenging, and it would require a lot of patience.

Can I ask how your family reacted to your decision?
Generally, the longer people knew me, the tougher this was on them, because I masked this well.

People liked who I used to be, and they had no clue that I was confused and unhappy. I even had myself confused. It takes a lot of time to undo 33 years of being a male. Newfoundlanders only knew me as a man for a short time, and most people I know now have only known me as Jennifer. So it was generally tougher on the older, longer-term friends. I have lost people over this. It’s unfortunate, but there’s really not much I can do. I can’t decide not to do this on their account. I need to do this.

And that would be my message to any transsexual that thinks they can’t do this. You can. This is doable. I would like to think that over time, society will better understand this, and be more helpful toward the process. There’s the idea of societal descrimination. People may not discriminate against me as an individual, but I think society descriminates just based on the way society is. The fact that buildings only have two bathrooms, and there’s no third one [for people in transition…]

And at the World Outgames, where I contacted them and said they should consider having a third category for people in transition. Not just for me, but for others like me. There’s no reason they can’t let us run, or swim, and it’s nice to see some movement.

How did the transition go along with your running?
I had introduced myself to the running community here at that point. I was running and living as a man, but then the time came where I decided, “I want to run a marathon in a pink skirt.”

So I went to Toronto and did that.

Like Hallowe’en, a marathon is like a party, and some people dress up when they run. I knew that people were going to see, what they thought was a man wearing a skirt. Fair enough. I knew they wouldn’t know why I was in the skirt, but still, it was more acceptable to wear a skirt while running a marathon than in everyday life.

I was slowly edging myself along like this.

A week after the marathon there, I was in Newfoundland, running the Cape to Cabot 20k run. That was October, 2007. So on went the pink skirt and all that, and, quote, “Jeff McCreath,” as I was known then was wearing a pink skirt running from Cape Spear to the top of Signal Hill.

And again, I know people saw me and thought, “okay, that’s interesting!” [laugh] I was setting the table. The reaction that day was fine, positive… indifference, even! I had more people laughing or yelling or pointing fingers in Toronto!

Running up Signal Hill there were people cheering “come on! Keep going! You can do it!”

And shortly after that was the legal name change.

It was at that point, I guess, that I had gotten the competitive bug. I didn’t want to run marathons just for fun any more, I wanted to see how well I could do.

And you say the words “Boston Marathon” and it means something to people who run.

Even outside of the running community…
Yeah, it ranks up there with words like “Wimbleton” and “Stanley Cup”. You don’t have to know anything about sports to know those are important sports events. If you tell people that you’ve run the Boston Marathon, it’s going to bring instant respect. Many people are under the awareness that you have to qualify in order to run, so only the best runners go to Boston. It immediately became the goal. I knew the hormones were going to start soon, and I knew that would slow me down, so I was on a mission: I need to qualify for Boston before I start the treatments. That’s when I started running multiple marathons.

I ran the Mississauga marathon a year after my first race, and I did it an hour faster. But just missed the Boston qualifying mark by a couple minutes.

What is the Boston qualifying time?
It’s based on age and, interestingly enough, sex. [laugh] I was shooting for the male 35-39 standard, which was three hours and 15 minutes. And they have a grace period of what I thought was 59 seconds. I was doing great in Mississauga until I had a cramp. I was a little dehydrated. So it was tough. So I lost a couple of minutes.

But there I was, I bettered my personal best. I ran a 3:19, but I was really frustrated with myself at the end. “I suck! I can’t believe it! I failed!” So back I came to Newfoundland a couple of weeks later, where I ran the Eastern Marathon — another chance to qualify. It’s a really tough, hilly race through Portugal Cove-St. Philips, but I thought, “I can recover. I’ll be fine. I may not be 100 per cent, but I think I can do it.”

Again, I came up a little bit short in that race.

One week later I was back at it again in Nova Scotia, and I was just too sore. I had to slow down.

That’s also when I started the meds. The first one was a testosterone blocker.

Then the next marathon was in Toronto.

Did the meds slow you down?
Oh yeah. I could notice, already, an effect. But that race was where I posted my best ever result: 3:16:59. The magic number for qualifying for Boston was 3:15:59.

Here I was, seeing the seconds tick off, and thinking, “darn it! I was so close!”

Then I started estrogen, which would make it even tougher. And I knew I wanted to run the Newfoundland Marathon, so I trained extra hard. I trained my butt off over August and September. I came in on race day thinking I could do it, but I just wasn’t able.

That’s when I started thinking, “maybe I’m never going to get there. Such is life.” It was more important that I become Jennifer and take the hormones. Boston wasn’t going to happen.

Then I called Boston. I said, “I’m a transsexual, here’s what I’m doing. I was this close. I’d love to run your race.”

And then they explained they had that unwritten policy, beyond the fine print: if you’re within two minutes of the qualifying time, they’ll still let you run.[laugh]

It was pretty anticlimactic. [laugh] I thought I would look up at the end of a race and see the finishing time and shout “I made it! I’m going to Boston!” And here I was, sitting at home on the phone hearing about an unwritten policy. It was in November that I had that discussion.

By that point I was Jennifer, and I had my testicles removed in December of 2008. The next goal for me was to continue to run as many marathons as I could, not worrying about time but to gain acceptance outside of the male label.

What are the Marathon Maniacs?
It’s a club organized by some folks in the States. Membership is exclusive to people who do maniacal things related to marathons, like running multiple marathons in short time frames. I thought that was pretty neat. They have a criteria—from one to ten—and their level five criteria was to run three marathons in nine days in three different states or provinces. So I figured, if I’m flying to Boston, I might as well run a couple more when I’m on the mainland. So that’s what I planned on doing.

Were you competing as a male at that time?
Boston initially said you qualify as a male, we want you to run as a male. You had the sex operation in Pennsylvania, fine, but this is the way we do it here. So I thought, okay, how about I run three marathons in three sex categories? Because others were fine, and said they would let me run as a female, or enter you into the system as “neutral” or “other”. So that became the catch phrase: “three marathons in three gender categories.” I actually contacted the Guinness Book of World Records people to see if that would be acceptable as a world record.

What did they say?
They said, “fill out these papers.” [laugh] Yeah, they said they would consider it, and when I called Boston again, I explained myself: “I’d really like to run as a female. I’m not going to win your race, and it would mean a lot to me from a dignity and respect standpoint to run as a female.” And they said okay!

So I was happy. At that point I had decided never to run as a male except for this Boston race, and in the end I didn’t even have to do that.

So off I went. I ran Charlottesville, Virginia, and two days later I ran Boston, and then five days later I was in Ontario. Three marathons in nine days.

What was your time for Boston?
Four hours and 28 minutes. Some runners criticized me though, and said “you’re disrespecting Boston by not showing up in tip top form.” [laugh] But at that point, no matter what I had done, the times would have still been slower because of the transition. I wanted to cross the finish line with a smile on my face. I didn’t care what others thought.

I came home from that trip feeling awesome. I did it. I ran three marathons in eight days, having just had fairly major surgery on my genitals a couple of months earlier.

I felt good about myself.

A couple of weeks later I was running two more marathons, to make it five in 30 days. Now it’s a bit of an obsession. I got my level five in the Marathon Maniacs club. I love being recognized as “Jennifer McCreath, the Marathon Maniac.”

And Denmark is next, right?
Yeah. The World Outgames. But a scary thing that’s happened recently is that I found myself in the emergency room a month ago with breathing difficulties. Something going on with my lung, and they’re not really sure what. There are conflicting opinions from the doctors I’m working with as to what exactly is wrong with the lung. Bottom line is I’m having trouble running right now, which is making running an awful lot more difficult. I may not, in fact, make it to Denmark. It’s going to be a last minute decision, “do I go, or do I not?”

I hope I get to go, because I feel it’s important to do this.

I ran 20k yesterday, slower, but at the end it had felt like I had sprinted the whole thing, and I was exhausted. I don’t want to have a heart attack. So this race will probably be my slowest race ever.

It’s frustrating. I don’t want to be recognized as a declining athlete. I want to be recognized as an exceptional person who has perservered through so much hell.

McCreath will be a guest speaker at this year’s Pride discussion forum on the queer experience in local healthcare. She will be discussing transsexual health issues.

As well, fingers crossed, McCreath will be competing in Denmark at the World Outgames on July 26. You can read her blog at jennifermccreath.blogspot.com and check out her website at www.geocities.com/jennifermccreath

13 comments

  1. Emilie Bourque · July 14, 2011

    Elling…awesome job on this interview! I know Jennifer and know she has lots of interesting things to say, but I didn’t know this much about her running career–it was a treat to read about.

    Jennifer…I’ll be looking for updates on whether you make it to Denmark or not (a favourite place of mine where I used to live).

  2. Stephanie · July 14, 2011

    I just read this interview and I think it is such a touching story. I am glad she is accomplishing all her goals! I am also glad that newfoundlanders are supportive of her and making this an easier transition for her! Way to go!!!!

  3. Elling Lien · July 14, 2011

    Apologies for getting the Marathon Maniac status wrong! Jennifer has run 3 marathons in 8 days and 5 marathons in 30 days, but not 5 marathons in 9 days. The correction has been made in the above version.

    Mental note: Never edit at 5am.

  4. Carol Saunders · July 14, 2011

    I truly enjoyed reading this very interesting story. Looking forward to reading more about “””Jennifer””” as she faces her journey. Good writing ,Emilie .

  5. Erin · July 14, 2011

    This is super inspiring, thank you!

  6. Elizabeth F · July 14, 2011

    I’ve seen Jennifer running around town and have followed her blog a little. I am so impressed with her courage and determination. That is one brave woman!

  7. Jennifer McCreath · July 14, 2011

    Emilie, you can read more details about all 17 of my marathons here:

    http://mm.littlemarathon.com/MyMarathons.asp?ManiacId=1613

  8. Jennifer McCreath · July 14, 2011

    the ultimate achievement in the Marathon Maniac’s club is to run 52 marathons in one calendar year.. something i hope to accomplish once i get my financial situation sorted out, if i ever do..

    hey, why edit at 5 am when you could be going for a run at 5 am??

  9. Karis · July 14, 2011

    this is an amazing interview. i think jennifer is awesome and inspiring to more than the LGBT community.

  10. Jennifer McCreath · July 14, 2011

    I want to publicly thank the Scope for approaching me for this interview about my running and for agreeing with my suggestion that we do a bikini cover shoot. I have been working hard to establish myself as a public figure in this community who is not specifically know for being a transsexual, but for being an excellent athlete, and a competent advocate and subject matter expert with regards to LGBT rights and LGBT public policy.

    I am thankful that the Scope had the faith and confidence that putting me on the cover would be good for business. This sends a strong message to society that it is acceptable to be a part of the LGBT community.

    The media couldn’t get enough of me at the PRIDE flag raising ceremony on Monday, and one particular entity took notice of my Scope cover. The fact that the Scope covered me is news in itself, and i think this is great! Congrats and thanks Scope. It takes courage to be a leader and a trend-setter and I recognize that, and truly appreciate it!

    Jennifer

  11. Heather · July 14, 2011

    Jennifer – congrats on your running success. My daughter, who graduated highschool this June attended a school that has a substantial gay population. She told me that a kid there was in transition. I felt so proud that my child didn’t think that this was anything to be shocked about and she only mentioned it as a sidebar to our conversation about one of her friends that had just come out. (why did he have to hide in the first place?)

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