Carolyn Su Wants You To Know She Belongs

This article originally appeared on Trail_Runner

Carolyn Su buried her head in a book as she sat on an airplane headed from Boston to Colorado for TransRockies, a multi-day stage race set among some of the highest peaks in the Rocky Mountains. While soaring 30,000 feet above the earth, Su lost herself in images of canyons, blackbirds, storm clouds and cedar boughs, connecting to images of Dine lands near the Ute territories she would soon traverse.

"It gave me a sense of gratitude and groundedness," Su says of reading Dine stories and poems. "And I felt like it prepared me spiritually."

It also distracted her from the lingering fear of everything she'd have to face during her six-day stretch in the Rockies: 120 miles, 20,000 feet of elevation gain, unpredictable weather and the top of a 12,500-foot peak. It was a lot to process and prepare for, especially since TransRockies would be Su's first multi-stage race, and by some definitions her first ultra--not to mention her first time at a trail event.

A Houston, Texas, native who now lives in Boston, Su has been an avid road runner for about 15 years, during which time she's run several marathons and half-marathons. In recent years, she has gained notoriety in the running world-at-large for her Instagram account Diverse We Run, which features weekly profiles of runners with different backgrounds, identities and orientations to promote widespread inclusivity in a sport that hasn't historically succeeded in being welcoming.

Su--who herself is Taiwanese American--started Diverse We Run as a hashtag to address her own frustrations over racial inequity and microaggressions in the running world. When it picked up traction in 2018, she turned it into a dedicated account. Since then, Diverse We Run has amassed 12.6k followers, featured over 400 runners and created a space to address inequities within the running world and foster dialogue and growth.

"It's one of those accounts I didn't realize I needed," says Jennifer Fung, who grew up in the same Taiwanese-American community as Su and remains close friends with her. "When I think 'female athlete,' it's a thin, white woman--it's never someone who looks like me. I didn't realize I had such a narrow perspective."

Though Su had featured trail runners on Diverse We Run, she hadn't been planning a pivot to trails herself--at least not so soon. On the cusp of 2020, she was recovering from a series of foot injuries, including surgery to remove an accessory navicular bone in one foot, and--while cycling to rehab from that injury--stress fractures in both feet.

"I'm just someone who works at a high intensity in everything," Su laughed.

But, Diverse We Run caught the attention of Under Armour ambassador Mirna Valerio, who has competed at TransRockies and who offered Su a free entry into the 2021 race. Su knew she would have a lot of work to do physically and mentally to prepare, but running in a beautiful place while promoting diversity seemed too good an opportunity to pass up. She rehabbed hard, established a training plan with her coach and--when she finally got clearance from her doctor in May of that year--got to work.

No one close to Su was surprised.

"Every responsibility in her life and everything on her plate she will do to the fullest," says Cynthia Tang, a friend of Su's from high school. "She goes above and beyond expectations."

For Su, TransRockies wasn't just a test of her physical abilities. It was an opportunity to show the running community--and herself --that she could be there. That she belonged.

"I love the outdoors, but I don't see myself as a legit hiker, or a legit trail runner, or that kind of person," Su said before the race. Su didn't grow up hiking or camping, or seeing images of people who looked like her in the outdoors. "I immediately disqualify myself," she continued. "Like, I'm not going to be the one who's featured in an REI ad."

These were the worries Su did her best to silence on the plane to Colorado. She had followed her training plan as diligently as she could, found sponsors to help provide gear and even scrambled last-minute to get all that gear shipped to Colorado when the 2021 global supply chain meltdown meant she wouldn't receive it before her flight.

She knew she would likely be one of very few people of color at the race, and that she would be there alone--without friends, her coach or her husband and children, who were more than 2,000 miles away. But it was too late to worry about any of that now.

So instead, Su read stories about the lands she would soon be deep within, and tried to remember that she belonged.

Day 1

Carolyn Su has been striving for success her entire life. The elder of two daughters in a Taiwanese-American family with strong ties to their local church, she took on many leadership roles from a young age.

"Since she was very little, like preschool age, she has shown maturity among her peers," says Su's Mom, Jesse Sun. "With the first kid, normally parents will take more time to help them, guide them and ask them to assist with things. But she did that automatically."

Su didn't run in her youth; running wasn't really a viable option. For many first-generation Chinese-American households, Su says, the emphasis was on academic achievement, not physical feats.

"In order to have the opportunity to come to America, my parents had to be people who could study hard, work hard and be excellent in academics," she says. "So, with my parents and the Chinese immigrant community, including my friends' parents, that was the mentality we were all raised in, because that was the mentality they knew. To be successful, and then on top of that to be an immigrant here in America, there's almost no room for failure or mistakes or mediocrity."

Part of the messaging Su and many of her peers received about sports was that women's bodies were more fragile than men's. Su's friend Jinghuan Liu Tervalon, whom Su first met through an article about BIPOC runners in which they were both featured, shared similar sentiments about growing up in a Chinese family. Though she grew up in China, Liu Tervalon says the barriers she and Su faced were almost identical.

"It's all the traditional beauty standards: you're not supposed to get your skin dark, your thighs can't be too big, you cannot be too masculine," she says. "The Confucian idea of balance and moderation is very key. And for women, you're not encouraged to push yourself beyond exhaustion, or extend beyond your comfort zone."

At the same time, Liu Tervalon added that while growing up, she didn't experience the struggle to fit in among her peers--until she came to the U.S.

Su didn't fully recognize it at the time, but her deep insecurity and feelings of inadequacy stemmed in part from feeling like, and often being treated as, an outsider within her predominantly white Houston suburb.

"People had parties in high school that we weren't invited to," says Fung, Su's childhood friend. "And there were instances of kids making fun of us for studying at lunch." Both Fung and Su recognized these microaggressions, but they never said anything. They had good families and lived comfortably in a safe community. "Anything we wanted to complain about was not valid," Fung adds. "To call attention to issues was so foreign to second-generation immigrants. It's just not the mentality we grew up with."

Su didn't pursue sports as a kid not because she didn't want to, but because sports were not encouraged--and Su strove for excellence. Besides, as a kid in the 90s, Su didn't see very many images of athletic Asian-American women in mainstream media. In fact, she only remembers one: ice skater Kristi Yamaguchi.

"It felt like the entire Chinese community in Houston would rally together to watch her perform. And when she won gold [at the 1992 Olympic Games], it was this huge, collective swelling of pride and joy, this sense of confidence." Su paused. "It's really interesting for me to think back on now because we were not Japanese, and I did not ice skate . . . at all. But it was the idea that: she looks like us, and she's doing amazing things in America, and in the world."

Yet, athletic success seemed unattainable for Su. So she focused on academic success, and tried to conform to cultural beauty standards. She became so consumed by the desire to be perfect, she developed an eating disorder by the age of 13, which dominated her life throughout high school and college. She restricted food and found ways to burn more calories--which eventually led her to running.

At first, Su started running during her sophomore year of college to lose more weight. But soon, it became more than that. While browsing fitness magazines, she noticed a story about Lokelani McMichael who in 1995, at 18 years old, became the youngest person ever to complete an Ironman triathlon.

"She's from Hawaii and she's Asian-looking, so I think that's why I gravitated toward her," Su says. As with Yamaguchi, Su says seeing and reading about the athletic accomplishments of someone she could identify with helped reinforce what she knew her body was capable of. The transition was gradual, but she began to see running as more than a weight-loss measure.

"These two women did these sports and worked hard and got to a point where they achieved great things," Su continued. "So then, it was ok if people in my family didn't understand. I knew that Lokelani McMichael ran, biked and swam. So I could do that, too."

Despite concerns for her physical health, Su's family cheered for her at the finish line of her first marathon, which she ran at the age of 20. Though she got injured--and her parents hoped that meant the end of marathons--Su trained for a second one, and finished feeling great. She has been running consistently ever since.

And yet, more than a decade and several marathons later, Su toed the line at TransRockies feeling as if she was starting from scratch.

In the brand new trail gear she had only put on for the first time a few days before, Su was surrounded by people with gadgets, gaiters and nifty accessories--people who seemed to know what they were doing. As she had expected, Su was one of few people of color at the race, which exacerbated her sense of feeling like an outsider. Regardless, she put her discomfort aside and set out to run 20 miles.

She ran well for the first part of the day, but by the time she reached the latter half of the course, Su was cursing. As she trudged up the tiny hill to the finish line--a negligible climb, in the grand scheme of things--she was alone, annoyed and already sore. Su began questioning why she had decided to do the race at all when suddenly, she heard a voice call her name: Here's Carolyn Su! Coming to us all the way from Boston, Massachusetts! She's doing it!

Su burst into tears. It was the last thing she expected to do at the finish line, but hearing her name over the loudspeaker filled her with an overwhelming flood of emotions. And it was palpable. The announcer began to cry, then a few runners Su had met on the trail earlier that day began to cry. For the first time since arriving in Colorado, Su felt--in some inexplicable way--like she belonged.

Then she snapped back to reality. Don't think about the fact that you have five more days of this, she immediately cautioned herself--which was easier said than done.

Day 2

Overnight rains had turned the TransRockies trails to mud and made sleep hard to come by. Nevertheless, Su woke up on day two feeling rejuvenated. That day, she was set to complete 13 miles and scale the highest peak of the whole event: Hope Pass (12,500 feet).

Unfortunately, just a couple miles in, Su's soreness returned and her mental fatigue grew worse.

She found herself trudging up a muddy single-track trail that gripped the soles of her shoes like sloshy glue. The ascent was barren, surrounded by grey skies and endless rows of distant peaks.

"It really messed with my vision," Su says. The drop-off on one side of the trail was so steep she lost her sense of depth perception, which caused her to feel dizzy. "I couldn't focus," she added. "And the air was so thin . . . "

Su began to ruminate on the difficulty of the race, both physically and mentally. What am I doing here? Am I running too soon after an injury? Am I even a trail runner?

Part of what drove her to keep pushing forward--even more than her competitive spirit--was knowing what finishing TransRockies would mean for the greater running community. She was here to promote diversity and inclusivity. But being with a group of people she had never met before--for six days straight, no less--added a layer of stress.

Regular social anxiety, Su says, only grows when you're a person of color in a majority-white setting. "I feel like I need to either make myself fit in and be relatable. Or, if I cannot relate to the experiences people are talking about, I'm constantly having to filter through those things, internally, for an extended period of time. It's really tiring."

While struggling through thin air and straining to lift her trail shoes from sticky mud, Su felt defeated. "I got to a point where I was just like, This is it. I can't keep moving."

Back when Su first started running, she had been attracted to the idea that the sport put a positive spin on suffering. She would set goals and push herself to achieve them--running to injury, if that's what it took--because she craved the validation that came from a type of success that could be measured and quantified.

But eventually, as Su began to recover from her eating disorder, she stopped believing that running was as much about punishment as it was about reward.

"It really is remarkable, the changes she's gone through," says Su's sister, Gloria Sun Chang. Now, "her goals aren't for self-gain."

Su made friends at races, met fellow runners in Boston and attended running panels and retreats that fostered an even deeper sense of community in the running world. But as she became a bigger part of the community, she noticed a significant lack of diversity.

"There have been times where I felt like [the running community] was not a club that was necessarily meant for me," says Connie Shieh, whom Su befriended after having featured her on Diverse We Run. She said she and Su have talked a lot about their shared experiences as Chinese-American runners, including being ignored by other runners in large group settings.

In 2018, Su attended a panel event about women's running that featured several professional female runners--all of whom were white. Out of a couple hundred women at the event, she also realized that she was one of only a few women of color.

Su had grown to expect people in such circumstances to resist making eye contact with her, or to only talk to her white friends. She noticed the microaggressions, and either said nothing and quietly disengaged, or said nothing about and continued socializing--as if nothing had happened.

"A lot of the reason why I most often choose to do the latter is because doing the former--just blending in quietly--plays so much into the stereotype that Asian women are just quiet and passive and have no voice," she says.

Su estimates she was one of about 20 people of color at TransRockies, among roughly 350 runners. She knew she had been invited to the race in large part because she moderated a platform that cultivated diversity, and she was grateful for the opportunity to be there. But that in itself is an awkward dance: to be grateful for an experience, while simultaneously feeling like a token person of color.

Back on Hope Pass--feeling dizzy, breathing heavy, feet sticking to trails--Su queued up a podcast she'd prepared for just such a moment. In it, a woman spoke of a lesson she'd learned from her parents, both of whom had survived the Holocaust: You have to keep moving forward; the alternative is unbearable.

"And on that freaking mountain I was like, ok, I guess," Su laughed. "Either I give up and sit here and wait for someone on the TransRockies staff to get a pack animal to carry me down, or I just figure it out and keep moving forward. So I did."

Day 3

The morning of the third day, Su finally felt that sense of groundedness she had begun to cultivate on the plane out to Colorado. She felt good going into that day's 25-mile run, and even ran the first seven miles laughing and cracking jokes with other runners. However, she hit a wall around mile 14. After two long days and about 47 miles of mountain trails, she felt an even deeper sense of cumulative fatigue.

Whether it was the altitude, the terrain, the truncated training schedule or the persistent mental lows, she wasn't sure--but Su walked 10 lonely miles to the finish line on that third day. As she walked, an endless carousel of competing thoughts circled through her mind: You shouldn't be here . . . Finishing will prove you belong . . . Your body wasn't made for this . . . You need to show everyone else they're wrong . . .

As she trudged on, Su didn't want to make any rash decisions about the race she might regret later, so she calmly reminded herself of her goals: to represent diversity, the fullness of the running community and to see what her body could do. She had accomplished both.

On her last morning of TransRockies Run, Su woke up, had breakfast and booked a flight home to Boston. She knew friends, family, and the Diverse We Run community were watching from afar, and she certainly hadn't planned to stop halfway--Su wasn't accustomed to settling for anything less than excellent. She still found it difficult to ignore the pressure to succeed, which is especially potent in sports, where success is measurable and failure feels absolute.

But, Su had learned over time how to make room for different types of success.

"I was at a point of clarity and peace when I decided to stop," she says. "And that was really a big milestone for performance and perfection-driven Carolyn . . . I'm more proud of myself for doing that than even having run 60 miles."


Of course, deeply ingrained patterns don't change overnight--or vanish after a decade. Carolyn Su went into TransRockies unsure whether she could truly call herself a trail runner, hoping that by the end of six days she'd have her answer. But after three days and 60 miles, she was still unsure.

Su struggled with imposter syndrome after the race and questioned whether she could have done more. "Maybe I could have been grittier," she wondered, "or run farther." But that was also beside the point. Su hadn't come to TransRockies for a finish line, or a label. She knew what her purpose was before she got on the plane to Colorado.

"Reflecting on all the written work by Navajo people before arriving in Colorado reminded me of the value and importance of showing up in this space, which is very much out of my comfort zone," Su says. "Not just because I had never done a trail race, or multi-stage race, or camped for a race," she emphasized, "but also knowing that, historically, this is a very white, male-centered and -dominated space, and I showed up not knowing if I would have anybody in my corner--that's a really scary thing."

Ultimately, Su's three days in Colorado not only compelled her to keep running trails, but to remove the intimidating aspects of trail running for others. She invites people to join her for runs and brings extra gear to make sure they feel prepared--to remove any barriers to entry.

Before TransRockies, Su didn't know whether or not to call herself a trail runner.

But several months, many miles and another trail race later, Su has her answer: "I'm a runner, and I can run roads or trails--it's just a matter of what I choose."

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