What a nonbinary ultra runner wants you to know
By Henry Howard
Riley Brady is off to an impressive start as an ultra runner, finishing on the podium at a collection of races, including second at the Javelina Jundred to claim a Western States Golden Ticket. But they are so much more than that — a hard worker, aspiring welder, dedicated friend and a nonbinary athlete.
Brady’s Javelina Jundred finish caught the attention of many in the ultra running community. They (Brady’s preferred pronoun) didn’t seek out the attention and dialogue on social media that followed due to the confusion immediately following their finish (the Ultrarunning Magazine podcast explains what happened in this episode). It was an honor to interview Brady and talk about their running journey, expectations for Western States and being a nonbinary athlete.
I found Brady to be engaging, thoughtful and patient, most notably when they respectfully corrected my imprecise language once or twice during our conversation. With that brief introduction out of the way, let’s start out with their journey to ultra running.
Brady, who started running in high school, discovered ultras while attending the University of Vermont.
“I had a lot more free time academically,” they say. “College was a little bit easier for me than high school was, or at least structuring my time. My best friend at the time told me about a race in upstate New York, the Cayuga Trails 50 that she really wanted to do. And I was like, ‘What? This is a sport?’”
Brady enjoyed running the trails near campus. It was a time to run easy and not worry about workouts. But like so many of us, Brady quickly embraced the ultra running community.
“Part of it was that running long made me feel good. Always getting back from a run feels good,” they say. “After you do a couple of races, the community is awesome. Everyone is so welcoming and nice. At the time I was so young in the sport, so there's all these people that I was looking up to and just being totally in awe of what they could do. And so, there's a part of me that wanted to run 100 miles."
A Golden Ticket quest
Their successful races include taking the overall victory at the Vermont 100 in July, a month after winning the Cayuga Trails 50K, notching first place at the 2019 UROC 100K (which was my first at the distance) and others. Brady went to Javelina in a quest for a Golden Ticket.
“I'm really proud of this result. It is probably my best result,” they say. “I've won a couple of other races and I have a couple other course records. But I think that this is probably the most competitive field I've ever raced, and definitely the biggest.”
As an East Coast runner, Brady also had to adapt to the warm conditions at Javelina.
“The conditions in Arizona are very different, so I'm proud of how I executed at this race, not just in terms of my results, but I think the way I handled problems that came up and racing in the hotter, drier air.”
While Brady doesn’t recall any emotional lows in the race, their raspberry gels are a different story. On the second of Javelina’s five loops, Brady immediately puked after having one of the gels.
“I gave it some time, tried to reset my stomach, and then wanted to try another raspberry gel just to see is this not going to work today,” they explain. “And it was not working on the day. I took another one and threw up three more times. The good news is you're on an all-liquid diet, so it goes down easy. It also comes back up easy. So, that was definitely something that I had to work through mentally of, all right, this is pretty early in the race to be feeling this way. I just tried to take a step back, understand this isn't working, try my other foods and keep pushing.”
Javing redemption at Javelina
Javelina was not Brady’s first attempt for a Golden Ticket. They also did Bandera and Black Canyon earlier this year. Due to catching COVID, Brady was not fully prepared to race Bandera. Afterward, they started working with David Roche, who is also my coach.
Roche went to work helping Brady build back toward Black Canyon, a race that they admit has been a struggle.
“Black Canyon is a race I really like though I have struggled to show up to the start line there healthy for a number of years,” Brady says. “But I had some weird small injury going on with my knee. I think it was actually caused from going to a rollerblading birthday party for an adult. I had too much fun and roller bladed too hard and just tweaked something. I kept hoping this is going to get better by the time of the race. And it just wasn't really progressing the way I wanted it to.”
Brady gave the race a shot but wisely dropped instead of risking further injury.
“My knee started bothering me and when I got to Black Canyon City, I thought this isn't smart. I can always come back, and it doesn't make sense to just limp it in and waste all the time that I've already spent trying to get back to running.”
The decision clearly was the right one. But in the intervening months Brady still needed to heal fully, train wisely, and show up to race day healthy and emotionally well. They were in the right place with Roche in their corner.
“I'm sure you know David is just super supportive, and so it is pretty great to know that he has my back, especially as this has suddenly become so public,” Brady says. “So it has been amazing to have David in my court and know he has my back."
Leading up to Javelina, one of Brady’s friends ghosted them.
“That was pretty upsetting for me. David was relentlessly positive, and he can also offer really good perspective sometimes. Yes, he's there supporting, but he has that outside perspective to just be able to advise how to handle the situation or maybe just think about it a little bit differently. I mean, that's great. Anytime somebody's going through a hard time, it's really nice to have not just one person there, but having other friends and family and people who can stand by you until it's your turn to do that for someone else.”
Roche, of course, is not just a cheerleader and counselor.
“From a training perspective, it's also awesome to have David on my team because I don't have to think about what I'm going to do for running,” they say. “And question: Is this the right thing? Am I really maximizing what I am able to do? I know David's got it under control. He has a sense of what I'm capable of and he knows when to tell me to chill out. If something flares up, he's always says to take a day off, take two days off. And that's super valuable.”
‘Wanted to be one of the boys’
Brady came to their realization as a pretty young child. They preferred boys clothes over dresses.
“When I was in kindergarten, I remember people asking, ‘Well do you want to be a boy?’ And I was like, ‘Well maybe, I don't know. I don't want to be a girl. It's been pretty consistent.’”
Perhaps the first time when they processed the boy vs. girl question was the Presidential Fitness Test in elementary and middle school. The test had varying standards for boys and girls. For example, the mile time for boys was around 6 minutes while it was about 8 minutes for girls.
“I don't think those physical differences are that pronounced at that age, and stuff like that would really make me angry,” they say. “Obviously I'm going for the boys standard.”
For Brady, it wasn’t the physical challenge of a faster time or more pushups. It was the category that they felt defined them at the time.
“I lean toward the more masculine side of the spectrum,” they explain. “I was also frustrated by the fact that it felt like you don't expect very much of the girls, and you expect a lot of the boys athletically. So I was annoyed with that as a kid, but also just I wanted to be one of the boys.”
Later, that was also part of the appeal of ultra running. Brady saw women athletes who could compete — and beat — all the men.
“I was definitely drawn to running and ultra running in particular in that it is a field where often males and females can compete on the same level to some degree,” they say. “There are instances of Camille Herron and Courtney Dauwalter just absolutely slaying the entire field. So that was definitely attractive to me.”
Challenges growing up
Brady was born female. They have not done anything to modify that at this point. In high school, they began using the non-binary term.
“But the feeling has been sort of my whole life. As a kid, a lot of people identified me as a tomboy, and I sort of identified with that label for a long time. But as I got older, the language is changing and it becomes less acceptable to be an adult tomboy, too.”
Middle school can be challenging for most kids. For a nonbinary student, the challenges were escalated.
“Middle school was difficult,” they confirm. “By the time I got to high school and college, I was hearing more of this language from the queer community and I felt that probably fits a little better. I have this body, but I don't necessarily want it the way it is, but I also still have to deal with certain realities of being female in the world. At the same time, I get yelled at in bathrooms and stuff like that. So I'm in this in-between zone where I think the term non-binary probably makes the most sense in this particular moment.”
As Brady’s Javelina achievement made the rounds, there was a mix of reaction on Twitter and elsewhere. While they received some support, there were others were who expressed counter viewpoints.
So I posed the question to Brady: What do you want ultra runners in the community to know about being a non-binary athlete?
“Oh man. I guess that it's a complicated thing,” they say. “A lot of these events are just trying to do their best to start being more inclusive of a wider variety of people. I'm not on Twitter and I don't really want to go into the depths of the internet, but I'm sure that races and people are going to make mistakes, as more people are coming out and this is becoming more part of the wider cultural conversation. It seems pretty basic to me to just treat people with respect and dignity and the way they want to be treated. It's not like people are declaring themselves non-binary in order to up their results or something like that. I think starting from a point of respect is always a good place to start.”
What race directors should know
Brady selected to run as a female for the Javelina race and qualified as the second-place finisher to receive the automatic entry into Western States. Part of the concerns raised by opponents focus around males who may be transitioning and opt to run in the female category. The naturally higher testosterone levels in biological males can give them an advantage when competing as a female.
It’s a conundrum for race directors on how to best approach the effort to be welcoming and inclusive to all.
When I posed a question about how race directors should handle this, Brady made it clear they were speaking solely for themselves and did not intend to be the voice of all nonbinary runners.
“I do like the system that UltraSignUp has already put in place that race directors can choose to honor or not basically,” they say. “There are two categories. There's one where you can indicate your gender, and then one where you can indicate how you would like to compete for results. And that distinction is important for me because I do want to compete in the female division. That's where a lot of my competition is. There are people out there who want their own division as non-binary athletes. I don't know what the best solution is, I'm just speaking for myself.”
When it comes to welcoming nonbinary athletes into the community, Brady offers simple advice.
“The best way is addressing people the way they want to be addressed,” they say. “That can sometimes just be a conversation if you're not sure. Just ask, ‘How do you want to be referred to?’ I think a lot of people appreciate that.”
See you at States
Brady is clearly stoked about racing Western States.
“Oh man! I'm just still excited that I'm going to be lining up at Western States,” they say. “I think I'd like to land in the top 10. That's a goal that pops off the top of my head. But that's such a historic race. It's such a fun day. I want to be able to enjoy that day. That doesn't mean I think I'll be sitting in chairs and just chilling, but I want to really soak up the experience when I'm out there because it's a really big deal in our sport.”
It will be a return of sorts for Brady who paced and crewed Ellie Pell during the 2022 race. Pell, who I interviewed after her breakthrough performance at the JFK 50, will return the favor next June.
“It's going to be super fun. She seems super excited. Somebody described Ellie as a gel packet, in and of herself, because she's just such high energy. So I know she's going to be awesome to see at the aid stations. Honestly I'm excited for all of my crew to be there. It's going to just be a special day.”
Name: Riley Brady
Hometown: New Hope, Pa.
Number of years running: 12
How many miles a week do you typically run: 70-80
Point of pride: “I'm not going to lie, right now, I'm pretty proud of how I ran Javelina!”
Favorite race distance: 100 miles
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: “I generally like to get some kind of Thai food pre-race!”
Favorite piece of gear: “My new headlamp, Petzl Iko Core!”
Who inspires you: “So many people in this sport, but right now, Heather Jackson for a couple of reasons.”
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: “This changes a lot, but my favorite song to run to is always just whatever song I'm into at the moment. Right now, I'll go with ‘Dallas’ by Alan Jackson.”
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: “Work the downhills.”
Where can other runners connect or follow you:
• Instagram: @rye.outside