The Mid South has offered a non-binary competitive category since their socially-distanced event in 2022. This year’s race saw a new course record, along with highlights in the Mid South double and singlespeed categories! Sally Turner, former journalist and current Event Manager for the Stillwater gravel season opener, shares a recap of how the day shook out for the non-binary field!
At a Glance
Rach McBride smashed The Mid South 100-mile non-binary course record by more than an hour on March 11, 2023. McBride crossed the finish line in Stillwater in 5:20:17, crushing 2022 non-binary champion Apollo Leonard’s previous record of 6:23:03. McBride and Leonard kept pace with each other for much of the first quarter of the race before Leonard sustained a flat tire at mile 27.5, putting them at significant distance behind McBride.
Despite a slashed sidewall, Leonard broke their own previous PR, coming in at 6:16:20.
Samuel Hansen also returned to the non-binary 100-mile podium at 6:42:13, stealing back some minutes from their 2022 time of 6:54:35.
Bonnie Branson defended their title as non-binary champion in The Mid South Double — running the 50K Ultra Marathon on Friday in 4:34:08, and racing 100-miles by bike on Saturday in 6:34:19 for a combined time of 11:08:27.
Charley Erikson claimed first place in the non-binary single speed category with 6:53:37; Connor Jacobson slipped into second place at 7:47:30; and newcomer Zoe Dickens achieved third place in 8:58:09.
View all race results at midsouthgravel.com/results
Non-Binary Inclusion and Coverage at The Mid South
The Mid South 2023 Race Weekend saw a lot of firsts for Stillwater: fastest course record; the best weather an event promoter could wish for; good vibes packed into a few city blocks; and lead race coverage.
Coverage of Rach McBride’s champion win was noticeably missing from the many industry race reports that lauded the 100-mile female and male champions, Lauren De Cresenzo and Payson McElveen. Non-binary and gender non-conforming individuals have existed since before gender was a construct, but their official presence in athletics, or society in general, hasn’t been recognized until recently. For example, the “X” gender marker wasn’t an option on the US passport application until 2022.
McBride has been racing professionally since 2011 — but in the female categories.
“I’ve been a non-binary athlete all my life, but [Lifetime] Big Sugar [Classic] in 2021 was my first race where registering as non-binary was an option,” they said, adding that a local race in British Columbia had added “non-binary” as a gender selection option the previous year.
“Big Sugar was the first one for me, which was a really huge deal. I didn’t realize how uncomfortable I was until I was comfortable. I had been racing my entire career in the binary and finally had this space to show up as my authentic self in a category that aligned with my gender. It was a profound moment for me.”
The Mid South was McBride’s first taste of Oklahoma gravel, and another unique experience: dedicated non-binary race coverage.
Bonnie Branson, the back-to-back non-binary champion in The Mid South Double, said McBride’s presence and success as a non-binary athlete helped them make their first foray into the world of triathlons in 2018.
“Rach definitely inspired me,” Branson said, and credits McBride with helping them process what it means to be a non-binary athlete in a world that focuses primarily on male and female athletes, even when their peers encouraged them to keep competing in gendered categories.
“A lot of people told me not to race as a non-binary athlete,” Branson said. “‘You’re not going to get seen as much, because people don’t take that seriously.’… It’s hard to deal with all that in your head, but to see someone who looks like you who is as athletic as Rach — it really is inspiring.”
Branson signed up for female race categories until they registered for The Mid South in 2022 and publicly competed in a non-binary category for the first time.
“Last year was huge for me, and then to come back this year and do it again was incredible,” they said. “I was so much more comfortable. I’ve been able to talk about [my gender identity] more, and that’s good for my overall mental health.”
A Google search for “non-binary bicycle race media” and “non-binary bicycle race coverage” yields precious few results beyond articles about transgender athletes’ eligibility for particular categories, the cycling industry’s glacier-like pace in expanding gender inclusivity, and the struggles that non-binary athletes face in the binarized world of sport.
Since 2021, gravel races large and small have added non-binary categories to their rosters, and although the showing is scant now, McBride hopes to see it grow.
“I want to see people pushing me off the podium, I want to be challenged. That would be really, really rad,” they said, adding that they promised Apollo Leonard a rematch at the Lifetime Garmin Unbound Gravel in June.
Dedicated coverage of the non-binary lead racers at The Mid South, in addition to male and female lead racers, was a first for McBride, but it’s vital to the growth of the sport and a no-brainer to The Mid South Race Director Bobby Wintle.
The Mid South included non-binary as a gender marker option for registration in 2021 for what pivoted into The Incredibly Socially Distanced Mid South amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and again included non-binary race categories in 2022. The return to traditional racing at the ’22 Mid South saw 22 individuals self-identify as non-binary, and 2023 saw that number double.
After The Mid South expanded lead race coverage to include lead women in 2022, the decision to add non-binary lead coverage happened organically, explained Wintle.
“Someone on our team—I can’t exactly remember who—said, ‘Why aren’t we doing this? It’s an overall podium, an overall champion,’” Wintle said. “We came together and said, ‘This makes sense. Men, women, and non-binary lead coverage.’”
The Mid South Creative Director Josh McCullock crafted a crew of eight photographers, videographers, commentators and drone operators to provide next-level coverage of all aspects of event weekend, including assigning two-person teams to follow each race leader.
Clare Paniccia and Joshua Strong tag-teamed coverage of the non-binary race.
Paniccia, Chief of Stuff for Tulsa Tough and race director for The Truffle Shuffle, and Strong, a freelance photographer, said they were both honored to receive the assignment.
“I was super proud to see when [McCullock] sent out the media itinerary and I saw there was a non-binary lead vehicle,” Strong said. “I think this was the first time I’ve seen that. It felt unprecedented to me, especially being assigned to that vehicle. I also identify as non-binary or gender non-conforming, so it meant a lot to be a part of that moment. It felt historical to the cycling industry.”
Paniccia managed the women’s lead coverage for The Mid South in 2022 and said there’s something special and anxiety-inducing about providing coverage for people who wouldn’t be getting the attention otherwise.
“Knowing the impact of that moment and wanting to be able to serve that moment with grace and honor and give it the attention it deserved, I was like, ‘Oh, ha, no pressure!’” she laughed. “Putting a face to that portion of the race, seeing and hearing voices that are not [traditionally] heard during races, and being able to follow Rach as long as we did — that was awesome.”
The conscious choice to provide non-binary race media goes beyond providing equity in coverage, McCullock said.
“We’re inviting folks to come and participate in a weekend of shared movement, struggle, support and togetherness,” he said. “All this takes place in a state that is stripping rights and healthcare from trans Oklahomans. In a context like that, we want our event to be a time and place where everyone can feel seen and safe. That starts with providing that space, which we started with in 2021. It also means equal storytelling.”
Oklahoma’s Political Headwinds
At the beginning of the 2023 Oklahoma legislative session, state lawmakers introduced 40 bills restricting LGBTQ+ Oklahomans’ healthcare access, inclusion in schools, and options for self-expression, according to a Feb. 10 Oklahoma Watch article. Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt called for a statewide ban on gender-affirming or gender-confirming procedures for minors in his State of the State speech on Feb. 6.
Despite the efforts from Oklahoma elected officials and other states to oppress trans and non-binary individuals out of existence, McBride still made the journey from Canada to Oklahoma.
“Oklahoma seems like a bit of a scary place to come to for someone who is gender-diverse, and I knew that I was coming to a safe place because of how supportive The Mid South has been for their gender-diverse competitors and racers, and I knew there were going to be a lot of us there,” they said. “It felt like there was this opportunity to really show up in a place where they’re literally trying to erase our existence… And showing up for the trans and non-binary folks who are in Oklahoma, not leaving them out to dry. You are not alone. We are here.”
Branson echoed McBride’s sentiment, saying that it’s important to be visible to people outside of the non-binary community; “Especially for these people who are fighting to keep trans people from getting healthcare,” they said. “Being visible to them and giving them a new perspective and experience.”
Above two photos: Alex Roszko
Wintle summed it up with a call to celebrate humanity — the common denominator that unites every single person riding or running or watching.
“Non-binary coverage is important because non-binary people exist, and we need to stop pretending that they don’t,” he said. “I’m not saying this because it’s the right thing to say to appease a certain crowd or something. I truly believe that it’s the right thing to do… The Mid South, and all the beautiful people who come here, has shown me time and time again that if the conversation is based in humanity and love, that we are ready to figure out how to respond and facilitate the conversation.
“It’s absolutely incredible to watch how people respond when you allow them to be their true selves. It’s beautiful.”
Author’s note: I was incredibly disappointed in the lack of non-binary field coverage from industry media following The Mid South. When I asked about getting equal coverage for our third overall gender category, I got crickets in reply, so I decided to do it myself. It is a great honor to be able to write about these accomplished athletes, but I should not be the one doing it.