Hi! I’m Mark and on Instagram I go by “the gay and sober fitness guy.” But this me has not come easy as anyone in the gay, sober, and or fitness world knows. We work hard for these titles. We have laid it all on the line to embody sport, our sexuality, and our health.

When I was younger, I was so scared that letting people know I was gay would tragically change my entire life’s trajectory. I believed nothing good could happen to me after I came out. I would be laughed at and condemned. I couldn’t be myself and I worked so very hard my whole life at perfecting this act. But, as I started to train for my first triathlon, the training helped to lower some of these fundamental walls built up around my coming out.

My fears led me to a serious 15-year drug and alcohol addiction. When nothing else was working to get sober and get my life together, I decided to see if I could do a triathlon. I woke up from a suicide attempt and decided to train for an Ironman.

I don’t necessarily advise this approach, but it was my path.

I actually had told myself that if I couldn’t do it then I would try suicide again. I was at the end of the road, but triathlon saved my life. Little did I know this endeavor would quite literally begin changing my genetic predisposition to addiction and replace it with athletics. But, for this blog, I’ll concentrate on the coming out. If you want to read more about the addiction side, then I have a book and a blog dedicated to my story.

First, Identity. When told I was going to have to wear spandex to run, I nearly quit my goal to do a triathlon. I’m not kidding. I know it sounds ridiculous, but there were a lot of things I thought were “gay” that really aren’t, but because of how hard I worked at coming off straight I avoided all those areas with as much distance as possible. Luckily, my coach gave me some time to warm up to this and triathlon training was the perfect thing to slowly build my confidence and my ability to utilize acceptance in my life.

The first thing I had to accept about my identity was where I was at athletically. In doing so I began to get stronger and this strength built more and more confidence. When it came time to take on my first spandex run, I had that confidence. It was still, however, very scary. I remember running down the road on training runs thinking that people were laughing at me. But, in time, I got stronger and stronger. Plus, running in spandex felt so good. To me it was like running naked – unhindered and free. Why, I thought to myself, haven’t I always run in spandex!? I also realized that people weren’t laughing at me and they really didn’t care what I wore. FREEDOM!

This confidence led to me being okay with other things, too, like stretching in public at the airport or dancing to music at the gym. Yes, I also kept from doing these things because of what I thought people would infer about my sexuality and identity. I know, maybe I’m weird, but at the time these were very real and challenging things that a lot of folks have fought and overcome and knowing others out there had made this progress greatly increased my confidence. So, if you’re in this spot then know it does get better! I now take great joy in my Lady Gaga jigs around the weight room. It keeps my blood flowing and my muscles limber! But anyway, back to it.

Next, Intimacy. As I began to see that people weren’t laughing at me for spandex, I also began seeing that I could let others in without being hurt. The first was my mentor who was helping me with sobriety and triathlon.

Jim was the first person in my adult life who I told that I had been sexually active with other men and I had only become comfortable with him knowing because he was also my triathlon coach. Trust was built with him by seeing the way he accepted me and adapted training based on my level of fitness.

At this point, I’m also kicking a heroin and prescription pill addiction and severe alcoholism that led to multiple rehabs, hospitalizations, and jail experiences. I was literally just learning to live.

And finally, Faith. Allow me to give you my favorite illustration about faith, which Jim always referred to.

“Mark” he would say when I called him in disbelief, “remember the map” he would say in a soft yet firm tone. “You don’t have to believe yet, you just have to do it.”

The analogy went something like this: Imagine you had to get from Whitefish to Denver and you had no idea (besides going south) as to how to get there. Before leaving you ask a group of people if anyone has a map and someone says, “I don’t have a map, but I know how to get there.” Do you believe that by listening to him you will get to Denver?

“Well, maybe? Hard to say since I don’t know him.”

“Right? You actually don’t believe him, but you trust that this is your best alternative since you don’t have a map, correct?”

“Well, yea, I guess you’re right”

“What about after following his directions and arriving Denver… do you now have belief in him?”

“Well of course!”

“This is how it works, Mark. You trust I’ve crossed an Ironman finish line and you trust that I’ve been sober, but, until you get there, all you can do is believe until you do it yourself. So, take it easy, all you have to do right now is one step at a time and, eventually, as you get closer to your destination, you will begin to believe, your faith will grow, and it will get easier.”

Through this analogy I began following his training plans to the T. I worked very hard and I rested when he told me to rest, which was the hardest thing for me to do. The training was often so hard for so many hours that I thought there was no way I could get through it. The mountain was too high, the challenge too great. So, I began to break the workouts up into smaller segments and I learned to take things one step at a time. Sure enough, it worked and eventually I crossed my first finish line.

I started to progress in triathlon and sobriety at the same time. I began to experience things through the eyes of a triathlete. It had become my life. I ate, slept, and ,breathed triathlon. Day and night. This new person, this triathlete, is someone I never thought I would be. Actually, I used to think people who did triathlons were crazy and I never wanted to be one. But step by step I found that I loved who I was becoming, so I kept going and accepted more and more about the sport and my new-found sober/triathlon life.

I accepted more things like the spandex. I started shaving my legs for events. I wore a speedo. I wore small little running shorts. I did it all and I liked it. As I began accepting these seemingly superficial things about myself, I also began to examine my heart.

Why was it that I had been scared to wear a speedo? Well, I stopped swimming competitively as a child because I thought people would think I was gay in a speedo. Why did I not shave my legs when I was on a youth mountain bike team? I was the only one unwilling to shave. Why? Well, I thought it would strip away what masculinity I had. Why did I not wear running shorts if they are so comfortable? Well… I think you get the point. I realized I had hidden a lot of things that I loved, because, well, I am gay.

Triathlon helped me to start accepting myself. First by accepting my weaknesses and recognizing that it was ok and that asking for help would not hurt me. Rather it would help me. I realized I wasn’t alone, and that other people have done the same things and have been okay. So, I started taking risks, and eventually, it caused me to examine why I had so much fear in the first place and by this point in time the sport had built the confidence in me to finally face the answer.

I knew that no matter what happened after coming out that 1) I could finally be me 2) that people would still love me and I would not be stripped of intimacy and 3) that good things could continue to happen even if I came out as a gay man.

It hasn’t been easy, and there have been hard challenges to rise above. But this isn’t much different than getting past a particularly challenging hurdle in sport. I’ve learned all it takes is accepting who I am, asking for help, and believing that if I put one foot in front of the next that I can make it through anything.

Follow Mark at @markaturnipseed on Instagram or check out his website at www.markaturnip.com.