Who is Cat Runner? Louisville man brings trans representation to HBO Max rock climbing show
Imagine dangling over the ocean in Majorca, Spain, with nothing to hold onto but the cliff above.
Cat Runner did.
Climbing is "intuitive" for Runner, from Louisville, and he's been at it since he was a kid, so it was only natural that when a new HBO Max series about rock climbing opened for casting, he would be part of it. Runner, a local trans masculine person of color, is set to appear in "The Climb," an elimination-style rock climbing competition show, and he hopes that his presence on the show will folks understand why representation and community are important.
"The Climb" premieres Jan. 12 and features ten amateur climbers from around the world competing for a cash prize of $100,000 and "prAna sponsored climbing career." The show is hosted by actor Jason Mamoa and Chris Sharma, a professional climber. The first episode tests contestants' skills with an "intimidating deep water solo challenge" while facing inclement weather and working with a randomly-assigned partner and takes place in Majorca.
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"Conversations regarding race, queerness, transness, whatever. It needs to exist in the climbing community because I exist in the climbing community," Runner said. "That's part of my life. I want to talk about it." And he's sure that the importance of those topics will shine in the show, but that didn't come without hesitation."
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Representation on the show was initially a source of tension for the climber since he wasn't sure if he'd be the only trans person or person of color. Runner, who graduated from Francis Parker, a private school downtown, in 2016, hopes his presence will empower other queer folks and people of color to try climbing.
"You don't have to call yourself a climber," he said. "You can just, like, go up and try a wall, and you can do it once and never do it again, but you should be able to experience that if ... you want to."
Even though "The Climb" is a step towards better representation, right-wing political rhetoric is still targeting trans folks in a dangerous way, Runner said.
Though he can't give exact dates, the climber said part of the show was filmed during recent mid-term elections where right-wing legislators were "brutally" attacking queer folks with pushing anti-trans and anti-LGBTQ+ bills, he said, and it puts a strain on the mental part of climbing.
"I have no choice but to ... bring that into the climbing world with me," Runner said.
Last year was a record year for anti-trans and anti-LGBTQ legislation, and it hasn't slowed down into 2023. Attacks on trans folks and drag were a prominent theme due to harmful conservative rhetoric surrounding the queer community.
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More than two dozen anti-LGBTQ or anti-trans bills have been filed by legislators across 11 states, including Kentucky. The Commonwealth has introduced a bathroom bill that would allow parents to sue schools if a child encounters a transgender student in a bathroom. Another bill could force transgender patients on hormones to medically detransition.
Community was one of the biggest takeaways from Runner's time on the show as well. He said the show turned out to be an "incredible gift" and he made the "closest" friends of his life there -- a testament to how supportive the tight-knit rock climbing community can be.
"It's just given me some a core group of people to learn from and to have more experiences with, and I couldn't have asked for anything better," Runner said.
Runner's desire for community led him to create the Queer Climber's Network, a queer and trans climbing group, earlier this year. The group meets once a week at Climb Nulu, and Runner said it means he doesn't have to worry about holding back his identity.
Vulnerability is a prerequisite of climbing, Runner said. You fall more than you ascend, and there might be a crowd of people watching you fail. A group of friends can help ease the tensions associated with "what other people may be perceiving you as" as well as make it "a little bit less daunting to try something new or try something hard."
Runner's life revolves around community service that supports climbing outside the gym as well. He works as a commercial photographer and videographer and often shoots other climbers for social media. He also serves community organizations like the Board of Directors for the Red River Gorge Climbing Coalition and Flash Foxy, which hosts an inclusive climbing festival. Runner also helped No Man's Land Film Festival establish Pitchfest, a grant for queer filmmakers sponsored by Chronical Cinema.
Runner is an athlete outside the climbing gym, too. As a kid, he stopped climbing - which he started in the 4th grade - to play basketball, eventually coming back as a senior in high school. And that athleticism led him to compete in events like Spartan races with his longtime climbing partner Amanda Bastien.
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Life was put on pause to go film the show, but now that he's back with his crew at Climb Nulu, Bastien can't wait to see her friend advocating for queer folks on a large platform. Bastien isn't queer, but she said Runner helped her learn about what it's like to be a trans person and hopes that will translate on "The Climb."
"So much of the representation in, like, movies, TV, and, like, all the things that we get exposed to is not necessarily positive. It's almost made fun of," Bastien said. "To see someone going out and doing something really spectacular is a really good thing."
How can I watch Cat Runner on "The Climb?"
Where: HBO Max
When: Jan. 12
What: An elimination-style competition show that features 10 amateur rock climbers from around the world competing for $100,000 and climbing sponsorship
Contact reporter Rae Johnson at RNJohnson@gannett.com. Follow them on Twitter at @RaeJ_33.
This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: HBO Max's 'The Climb': Who is Cat Runner?