Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
For many people, conversations surrounding social justice and diversity, equity and inclusion within the running industry only started about a year ago, in the wake of the tragic murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. But Carolyn Su, 37, was already way ahead of the game in that regard.
The Boston-area based runner started the Diverse We Run Instagram account in December 2018, after noticing a pattern in the running stories shared in social and mainstream media, with highlighted runners often being thin, affluent white women with similar stories about how they found running. As a first-generation Taiwanese-American woman, Su knew this narrative wasn’t representative of all runners, and after searching through basic hashtags for Asian, Black and Latino runners, she confirmed that there were many minority runners out there — they just weren’t being spotlighted to the same degree.
“By elevating diverse voices within the running community, my hope was that the page would broaden the worldview of those in the majority, and also affirm to minority runners that our stories were worthy of being shared, too,” Su says.
After seeing growth in the presence of Diverse We Run over the last year, Su was invited to participate in this year’s TransRockies Run, a six-day stage race that involves running about 20 miles per day for 120 miles and 20,000 feet in climbing across the Colorado Rockies from Aug. 2-7. Her invitation came as part of ongoing efforts to diversify the sport and the event field, as the trail and ultra space, in particular, has a reputation for being pretty homogenous and largely made up of white males. Su was initially hesitant to accept the offer, as she had a history of bone injuries, and she was not an experienced trail runner who’d completed an endurance event like this before.
“I knew about the race because my friend Alison Staples was invited to do the race in 2019 and she did an Instagram takeover for Diverse We Run during the event, which was just incredible,” Su explains. “So in my mind, I thought it was so cool, but I would never have thought that I would be someone who would do a multistage trail race, or even an ultramarathon in any capacity. I’m also really prone to tripping and falling and just didn’t think it was for me.”
Even so, Su was excited about the potential opportunity, especially after hearing more about it from writer and ultrarunner Mirna Valerio, who worked with Alison Desir to convince Su to pursue the stage race. Su committed to it in December 2020, thinking she had plenty of time to get ready for race week in August. However, in January, she got injured again, this time with multiple stress reactions in her foot due to not being able to receive regular physical therapy sessions after having surgery to remove an accessory navicular bone in her foot a year earlier, just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
“I was down and out until I was able to start physical therapy in May of this year, and even then, the race was still a question mark,” Su says. “But my PT happens to be a trail and ultrarunner, and after he and my coach, Sarah Canney, did an initial physical assessment on me, they felt confident that I could proceed with caution and have a very closely monitored buildup for the race.”
Navigating Uncharted Territory
Once she started training, Su was initially surprised to see how different ultra-training really is from road-race or marathon training. She initially felt nervous about the fact that, aside from her long runs on the weekend, she was only running 30 to 45 minutes twice a week, while also spending a lot more time biking and focusing on strength training and foot and ankle mobility exercises for her weaker, injury-prone areas.
“From there, I was surprised how quickly the long runs on the weekend scaled up, because for trails, we focus more on overall time than miles to build up aerobic capacity and time on my feet,” she says. “I started from two-and-half hours, eventually building up to 15 miles in five hours, learning to cover softer terrain while also managing obstacles like steep climbs, rocks and roots. I quickly saw how this requires you to engage all of these different micro muscles, which is why time spent strength training actually makes a big difference.”
Su dealt with typical challenges for a first-time ultra runner in her training, from mostly training solo when she didn’t have friends available to spend hours on the trail, to navigating nutrition and hydration, figuring out what she could tolerate while running for several hours at a time. She also occasionally got lost, adding 30 to 45 minutes on several of her trail runs.
“After my surgery, injury and rehab I dealt with earlier this year, it felt surreal that I was able to get my body strong enough to a point where I sustained five hours of climbing and running in the rain and cold on the trail,” she says. “There was a learning curve in just learning how to read the map, of course, and learning how to read trail markers. I feel like there’s a sense of toughness or maybe boldness that you need to have when you’re on the trail to just be willing to move forward, even if it’s unknown or unclear, and then being willing to accept when you make a mistake and maybe take a wrong turn or take a wrong path somewhere.
“I’m both scared and excited experiencing the unknown of this adventure while being out in nature in these beautiful places and getting the opportunity to meet people I otherwise would never have gotten to meet,” Su says. “Aside from pregnancy and childbirth, this will definitely be the biggest, the most physically challenging thing I will have ever done.”
“[Su] has put in a ton of time on the trails and our approach has really been to build strength through hiking as we came back from injury and built volume towards the race itself,” Canney says. “I’ve really encouraged her to be curious about the lessons she’ll take away from everything she will encounter over the days she is out there. This is way outside her comfort zone, and I’m so proud of her for tackling something so unfamiliar and huge.”
Despite the challenges that her race preparation brought, Su, a mother of two, affirms that she’s caught the trail-running bug and it’s something that she does wish to continue in the future.
“I’ve had fun during my training runs on the trails, and there is a feeling of curiosity that gets to me, where I wonder if I can scale that rock or mountain or whatever,” she says. “And when you go and explore, sometimes it’s a dead end, and then other times you discover new and exciting trails. A lot of the time I feel like I’m playing and I wish that I had my family with me so that they could also enjoy it with me.”
Building Representation in the Ultra Space
According to Su, one of the most challenging parts of preparing for the event was recognizing head-on why the ultra-running community historically has been predominantly made up of white males and confronting the barriers and passed down historical trauma that often keep people from marginalized communities from pursuing it.
While she appreciated that the race covered her entry fee, which runs up to $2,099, she quickly realized that was only a small fraction of the cost and didn’t include her travel expenses and trail-specific gear. Su was able to enlist sponsorship agreements from various brands she had existing relationships with, including Paper Trails Greeting Company, whose owner, Kristen Doornbos, is a licensed massage therapist who is sponsoring Su’s physical therapy massages after each day that she finishes the course.
“When [Doornbos] and I talked, she said ‘I believe in the work that you’re doing so why would I not take the opportunity to support you in whatever ways that I can?’” Su says. “That was really meaningful to me, because that’s what is needed. When we talk about diversifying the field, it’s so much more than just companies or brands saying we agree diversity is important; there also needs to be monetary aid, because it’s going to cost somebody something in order to make these changes.”
Su was also able to negotiate sponsorship agreements with Oiselle and Tracksmith for gear and clothing and additional financial support for travel expenses, as well as from Marathon Sports for trail shoes and hydration items. While Su had existing relationships with these sponsors before she committed to the TransRockies run, it made her think about the barriers that could prevent marginalized groups from participating.
“One of my goals is people within my community or within communities of color to see that we can participate in this sport, and then, hopefully for people who are industry leaders, or who are in positions of power and leadership to recognize that there is a lot more involved to try to invite and create a space for diversity,” she says. “Companies need to recognize that creating safe spaces goes beyond financial support; creating inclusivity requires a proactiveness in dismantling learned fears and building trust.
“One of the reasons why I’ve tried to be very transparent about the whole process is to share that one of the barriers people of color have is the unknown — we may not know anything about it, beyond what’s marketed to us in the media, because there’s nobody else in our lives or in our community who has done this, which makes it easy to discount yourself from being able to participate in an event like this, like I initially did,” she says. ”I think that’s what actually has been the most challenging thing about this experience and I’m hoping that our industry sees the value and the need for more diversity and what that entails. At times, it’s been very emotionally heavy and hard for me, but I guess that’s just so much of the work that we do in advocacy.”