Cat Runner Climbs Harder with Friends
The transgender athlete found his strength in an unlikely place: on the reality competition show ‘The Climb’
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Cat Runner told his story to producer Stepfanie Aguilar for an episode of The Daily Rally podcast. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Sometimes I’ll be at the crag, and I’ll hear strangers having a conversation, and they may not be directly saying something transphobic or racist but the tone of the conversation may turn on that level of guard I have and then I can’t focus on climbing. Whereas if I’m around people that I feel supported with, I can be more vulnerable and completely give myself to climbing.
I’m a transgender photographer, athlete, founder, and director of the Queer Climber’s Network, and now technically a pro climber. I’m currently in Kentucky, and I was raised in Kentucky. It’s the land of humid weather. In the summer, God help you.
I was a participant on HBO Max’s The Climb, a new climbing competition from Jason Momoa and Chris Sharma. It tested a group of climbers on different disciplines and terrains all across the world.
I had heard about casting for The Climb. And what drew me to just apply was the worst thing that could happen was I don’t get picked, and the best thing that could happen was I get to go on a paid international climbing trip.
I remember coming into the first location and not knowing anybody. I, along with everyone else, didn’t know the format of the competition. We didn’t know what it was gonna be like. I didn’t know if there was gonna be some sort of psychological component of it, like in Survivor. So, we’re over here just talking about climbs. I’m like, Is all of this a ruse? Is all of this mental strategy to learn the opponent?
The way we filmed it was kind of split into two parts. For the second half we began in Jordan. One of the strongest memories I have is the first time that we got to drive out into the desert into Wadi Rum, and you’re just surrounded by all of this tall, amazing rock. It’s so vast and so flat. It was so magnificent, getting to be so small in a place.
Starting in Jordan, I was starting to get fatigued, of having to be on all the time. When you’re in a bubble doing a show like this, you in some way are performing certain elements of yourself and recounting certain parts of your story no matter how traumatic they may be, you’re kind of going back into that headspace frequently, and it can get tiring. Something that’s really common for any people of a marginalized identity, when you are serving as the representation for your community, you’re often projected into a spokesperson role. Whether or not that is or is not wanted.
It was the start of a new year. Which also coincided with the start of a new legislative session, and 2022 is when we saw this new rise in anti-trans legislation. I was reading the news or hearing about the news from my friends and family and it was just sad and frustrating.
There’s a group of people who believe that trans people shouldn’t exist and shouldn’t have the same rights as others. Normally, I would be a lot more vocal, and I would be doing a lot more for my community, especially as my community was hurting, and I was just in a place where I wasn’t able to do that. I use my platform to educate, to share my story, to help humanize trans people, and also to spread resources. Because of the people who follow me, for a lot of those people, I may be the only trans person that they know. So if I’m sharing information about what’s going on with my community, that may be the only time that they’re ever gonna see that information.
As we were filming the show we were all radio silent. We weren’t allowed to post on social media. And I felt like there was nothing I could do. I felt very defeated and very hopeless. So I called my best friend and I was like, climbing feels so arbitrary right now. It feels so unimportant, and I feel like I should be putting my time into so many other things than being here and living my dream in a lot of ways. There’s so many people right now who are scared and suffering in my community and I can’t do anything about it. What do I do?
Then she told me, “What you’re doing is important.” You being there is eventually going to be on TV, you’re gonna change who people see, and that part that you’re playing is a big enough part in the grand scheme of things.” It’s funny because I know that, and like I’ve told myself that, and I’ve told all of my friends too when they ask, “How can I support trans people?”
I’m like, “The best thing you can do is just make it known that we exist. And talk about us and make us a part of daily life to the point where we can’t be ignored.” Because when you do ignore or dehumanize people, it makes it much easier to do things that hurt them.
So I was like, here’s my chance to do this on a larger platform. Here’s my chance to bring words and a story that people who maybe watch in the future may not have thought about how these are implications that someone feels.
Whenever we talk about activism or advocacy, the key to it is creating a habit and showing up the best that you can that day. It doesn’t have to match someone else’s best, and it doesn’t have to match your previous best. But, I’ve seen a quote somewhere that, “If you only have 40 percent to give that day, and you give that 40 percent, that’s a hundred percent of what you have available.” So you’re showing up the way that you can show up that day.
So much of how I’m able to climb is impacted by who I’m climbing with and who surrounds me. I was lucky enough that I had a really, really supportive group around me in Jordan. The people that I was with made it the most magical trip in the world. We were climbing our best and we all recognized each other as extremely, extremely powerful, strong, creative, amazing climbers and people. I was climbing to do my best, but I was also climbing not to go home. Because I loved everyone I was with, and I loved the experience that I was having.
I did win. I won The Climb. I am, debatably, the world’s best amateur climber. You can put that on my business card.
Cat Runner is a photographer, founder of Queer Climber’s Network, and in 2022, he won The Climb, a competitive reality TV series for amateur climbers. He’s passionate about community advocacy and his dog Ramona. You can follow him on Instagram @catlikeacat.