M to IC as WoC with My Mentor

In August 2018, I joined Sequoia’s Ascent program, which aims to grow and retain female leadership within its portfolio companies. The first half of the program involves a mentorship between two women, one of whom is an established leader in her environment and the other of whom is aspiring to grow into the same.

As the first portion of the program is finishing, I wanted to write about my experiences with my mentor, Dio Gonzalez, and what I’ve learned from our conversations. Dio is currently a principal software architect at Microsoft Research, with experience at Microsoft, Unity 3D, Pixar and DreamWorks.

During the six months of mentorship, Dio and I both went through job changes. I think the time period right before a job change is when the most introspection happens, as I evaluated what I want to preserve in my current environment and role, and what I’d change. During our conversations, Dio had several pieces of advice that helped me to clarify my thoughts around this and ultimately lead me to a new role at Confluent.

On the Individual Contributor vs. Manager Decision

During her own job search, Dio shared the criteria for her next role. She’d been working as a senior director at Microsoft, and she was clear that she wanted to return to an individual contributor role in her next opportunity. This conversation reassured me that it’s acceptable and healthy to leave management and seek out an individual contributor role. I’d felt some stress about that particular choice, as it always seems like we’re striving to become managers and to remain in that role.

Generally speaking, it is uncommon for professionals to move from a management position to an individual contributor role.  While there are plenty of resources on transitioning from an individual contributor to manager, we found just a handful of guides and articles on the virtues of going back to the individual contributor life.  As pointed out in a LinkedIn article written by a telecommunications professional, the common wisdom is that ‘successfully moving up’ and ‘progressing’ in your career includes a one-way street from individual contributor to manager.  We believe this mentality is reinforced by the somewhat common cases of managers not investing in the growth of their team or not providing them with opportunities to be visible and to showcase their accomplishments to the rest of the company. This can result in poor promotion rates and salary increases for these individual contributors, and the management path can look more attractive in these situations.

As mentioned, Dio and I were facing similar choices, and we spent time discussing the transition. Dio reinforced that management and technical leadership are equally valuable paths. Every company needs both roles, and both roles require a unique set of skills.  Most importantly, we can demonstrate and grow leadership skills in any environment and from any position. A software developer who has gone back and forth the two paths writes: “you might lose the title of a leader, but you will never lose the mindset."

After I heard Dio’s rationale for her own switch from manager to individual contributor and thought about the most exciting parts of work for me, the seemingly huge manager vs. individual contributor decision became less of a worry. Dio emphasized the power in deliberately choosing a path, and taking comfort in that it’s never a permanent choice. Once this was clear for me, I began to deliberate on other aspects of my next, ideal role.

On the Importance of Individual Growth

Dio encouraged me to do what’s best for my career. I’ve been at Sumo Logic for a few years, and I’ve taken part in building an amazing UX culture. I looked forward to seeing my team each day and I loved seeing them progress. However, each of us is responsible for building our own careers, and while I knew that I loved the people at Sumo, I knew that there were other things to I wanted to learn. Before I moved on, I needed to ensure that my team was cared for and would continue to succeed in their own careers.

When it comes to career growth, sometimes staying is not the best option. As managers, Dio and I believe in loyalty and the commitment to lead the company and people on a journey through good and bad. At the same time, being a good leader also includes realizing when our career path diverges from the company’s path, and acting responsibly with that knowledge. It is a difficult realization process, but we know that company priorities change, or an individual’s career goals change, or both happen in tandem.

The point is that as leaders, it is our job to take care of the team and the company’s growth, and it is similarly our job to lead and take care of our own journey.  A leader also guides a successful transition for everyone. There are best practices for leaving as an individual contributor, and there are also considerations when leaving the company as a manager.

Dio shared how she handled her transition:  

“I spent months discussing my concerns and ideas with leadership, so they could understand my point of view and have plenty opportunities to discuss. When I knew I was close to making the decision to move on, I started working with my team to provide each individual with a shared long term vision, clarity, and a sense of his or her own power to move ahead and execute.  Without telling them too early, I made sure they had plenty of information and confidence to continue and progress. After I communicated my decision to leadership, I then met in person with each one of my employees.I thought that this was essential to demonstrate respect and loyalty to my team, and I allowed time for deep discussion with each of them.

When moving on as a manager, one of the most important aspects in taking care of the team is ensuring everyone’s individual careers progress. Individuals on my team expressed concerns that management changes might impact promotions and performance reviews because they would have to start over again and demonstrate value to someone new.  Before leaving, I made sure to document comprehensive performance reviews, including who was on track for promotion in my estimation. I also used the internal feedback tool to document my employees’ contributions, and explicitly told them to contact me if they needed advice or recommendations. I recognized that this kind of change is always difficult, and it’s necessary to provide your team with psychological safety during this time. “

The template above was a perfect checklist for my own experiences as I moved on. I met with leadership consistently during the fall to discuss my thoughts, and once I’d made the decision to move, I met with each researcher and designer on the UX team to tell them the news and to allow time for honest conversation. As much as possible, I left plans for the team, dispensed the knowledge I could, and shared thoughts on individuals’ career growth with my manager.

On Having an External Perspective

Another valuable part of this type of mentorship is Dio’s outside perspective on my team and company. Dio is far removed from Sumo Logic, and her incentives are to share her honest opinion and her experiences. A mentor who is internal to Sumo Logic has different incentives, and is more likely to guide me in ways that will help my company to be successful. Many times, I asked Dio for her thoughts on a specific situation at work, and she was able to reflect on her experiences and tell me how crazy (or normal) it actually was. Dio’s honesty and interpretations of events were invaluable.

On Knowing Your Value

Before the job application process began, I thought that my success at Sumo Logic had been a fluke. I’d been promoted at Sumo Logic but not elsewhere, and I was also worried that the domain knowledge acquired at Sumo Logic was too specific and not easily generalized to other products. I thought I would be lucky to get another job.

I was too embarrassed to even bring this up to Dio before I began speaking with recruiters and applying for jobs, and as it turns out, it would’ve been a silly conversation for a few reasons. Dio knew her value and dove into her own job search with full confidence. I saw how she did this, and even though I had trepidation about my own job search, once I started, it was clear that I do have value and that I would be able to find a job elsewhere.

When we spoke about it afterward, Dio said she had her own moments of doubt as a mentor. She asked herself, “How can I help Bret when I am figuring out my own next steps? Am I terrible for not having all the answers and wisdom? Is my situation negatively affecting the advice I provide her?” She then remembered that good mentors are not themselves perfect, but instead are good listeners and reflect on their experience to help others find their path.   

I’m very glad to have gone through this process with Dio. I was able to learn from both her tactical steps as she stepped away from management, as well as her confidence at all points during the transition. Changing jobs is typically a stressful, uncertain time period, and the hardest parts were cushioned due to this mentorship. For many of us, it’s a rare circumstance to have a mentor, and it’s even rarer to have a mentor who’s going through the same situation at the same time as you are. Many thanks to Dio for the wisdom and patience.

Buying Things: 2017 & 2018

At the beginning of 2017, I decided to clean up my clothes-buying habits. We vote with our dollars on the future we want to see, and I was feeling like I wasn’t making informed decisions when I bought clothes.

I wasn’t a huge one for disposable fast fashion, but I did have a regular athleisure indulgence. It really was an indulgence, because my running apparel needs are simple thanks to the local weather. However, I loved the latest legging technology and sports bra silhouettes and new brands trying to make it. I would occasionally skim the mission and value statements for the brands that I bought, but I was by no means principled about it. So the goal of 2017 was to buy apparel, both work and athleisure, from companies that fell in line with at least one of my values:

  • Female CEO or Co-founder: Female CEOs are underrepresented in leadership in American companies, diverse teams perform better than homogenous ones, and it's difficult to create great products for women without having the perspective of women.

  • Commitment to the Environment: Resources are finite.

  • Human / Workers' Rights: We can all feel better about buying clothes that are made by people who have food, shelter, living wages.

  • Mindfulness about Buying: As a brand, this is a difficult one. The goal of a company is to sell stuff, so encouraging consumers to buy less seems ridiculous. However, I embraced the companies that were on board with the fewer items, but better items ethos.

This resolution forced me to do a fair amount of research before each purchase, and decisions were more deliberate. There were a few categories that were difficult, like running shoes and denim, and sometimes the best option was still relatively terrible.

A few of my favorite brands during this time were Aday, Cuyana, Rabbit, Girlfriend Collective, Outdoor Voices, Everlane, Grana, and Patagonia.

After a year of cleaning up my buying, my work wife Rebecca decided on a more audacious challenge for 2018. She decided to avoid buying clothes and jewelry for the entire year, and she invited me to join. I considered it for a few days, and thought through the items that I knew I’d need for the upcoming year. After buying those items, I started the challenge on January 9, 2018. I also wrote in a few caveats to the no-buying rule - namely running shoes (say no to injuries) as well as socks / underwear.

As expected, the year was tough at certain points, but this was ultimately a very good exercise. I immediately lost two bad habits that I’d picked up:

  1. Idle Browsing when New Clothes Drop: I knew which brands dropped new clothes on which days of the week, and I would idly browse on the day of the drop, even though I didn’t need anything. When I stopped doing this, I felt like I had SO much more time.

  2. Buying Before Trips / Events: I’m hardwired to think that I should wear a different dress to every wedding we go to, and I have a terrible habit of waiting until the last minute to buy a new outfit. I would play a game with myself to see if the new outfit arrived before the day of the event. If it did, I would feel forced to wear it. If it didn’t, I wore something else and then was entirely disinterested when I returned home to the new outfit.

The urge to buy wasn’t bad most of the time, as both Rebecca and I had strategies for reducing our exposure to brands. She unsubscribed from all emails, I closed my ever-present browser tabs. However, there were a few absolutely miserable times of the year, and these were typically when the seasons were changing. Brands were dropping the newest items, and the old stuff was newly on sale. Other than those seasonal changes, we both nearly had lapses at the end of the year. It was within a few days of finishing the challenge, and it seemed like it wouldn’t matter if we bought an item then or waited a few more days. However, we kept it together individually and resisted.

Some of the results of the challenge:

  • Developing a vocabulary: I would never call this developing a style - I still don’t have style. But when I wasn’t adding new items to my closet, it became very clear which clothes I preferred. It was also easier to tell which clothes helped me to feel powerful and competent at work, and which clothes felt like me.

  • Minimize thinking about clothes: I love efficiency, like most of us. If I know that I’m going to feel good in all of my clothes and I don’t have to think about them, I can use that time to do other things.

  • I also travel for work about once a month, and in the vein of minimizing the time spent thinking about clothes, I became very interested in creating travel capsules. If I was going to be in NY or London for a week, I wanted to have a capsule of five outfits that I could wear to visit customers.

  • Knowing the gaps: the year also quickly illuminated the holes in my wardrobe, and where there were items that I actually needed. One item that I’ve been looking for for a long time is a black hooded puffer that’s packable, and I also realized that I needed another pair of black pants.

Now that I’m all done with the challenge, it’s very exciting to be able to buy things again. It’s hard in some ways, because each decision feels like it has magnitude. Also, now that I’ve determined which clothes I really like, there’s a strong desire to Marie Kondo all of the ones that I don’t like. This feels good because there’s a very clear line between the two sets - there’s nothing that has the veneer of new or sacred to cloud my judgment.

As far as 2019, I’m thinking of the following two resolutions:

  1. I’d like to work on my running wardrobe. I paid careful attention to how I felt in my work clothes this year, but less attention to how I felt when wearing running clothes. I’ll repeat the same process as with my work clothes - paying attention to which items feel and perform best, finding the gaps in what I own, and then buying very specific items for those gaps.

  2. I’d also like to continue to not idly browse or waste time on shopping websites. To do this, I think I might work out some ratio where I can buy things for the first week of each quarter, but not at any other time. That gives me some wiggle room to buy the things I need, but removes the temptation to browse during most weeks.

As mentioned, I’m in the free-for-all phase, and I’m catching up on everyone’s recommendations for clothes. If you have any recent favorites, please send them along!

California International Marathon

Like many of the people who ran or spectated CIM 2018, I wanted to share some feels on the experience.

CIM 2018 was my fourth marathon. I loosely subscribe to the one marathon per year or less plan, and it usually works out to be about two marathons in every three years. Here’s the path that led to CIM 2018, with links to the race recaps.

  • Avenue of the Giants 2014: 2nd, 3:09:45

    • This was a serene race in the redwoods, with nearly identical half marathon splits. I had a stress fracture scare in the last month of the buildup that left me in the pool for a week and lead to an extended taper.

  • Boston 2015: 425th, 3:10:28

    • I was diagnosed with two hip labral detachments about four months ahead of the race, and spent a lot of time in the pool and navigating physical therapists who know hips.

    • I felt very, very lucky to be able to finish a marathon with only 11 weeks of training and one 20-mile long run.

  • Chicago 2016: 56th, 2:55:57

    • This was virtually a perfect buildup. I missed one workout during the ENTIRE cycle. This doesn’t happen if you’re me (see the previous two marathons).

    • Every workout built on top of the previous ones, and I went into the race feeling fairly confident that I would break 3:00.

    • The key workout for me was a 24 mile long run, in 6:53 pace, feeling chill AF.

Less than ideal for marathoning, perfect for vacationing

Less than ideal for marathoning, perfect for vacationing

All of those marathon buildups were radically different, and it’s harder to learn from marathon buildups because you have so much less data than with shorter races. However, now that I’ve gone through training for CIM 2018, I’ve learned a few things about myself. One of those is that I am a perfectionist. This means I tend to hold my breath and close my eyes when things get hard. I know that I can outlast the hard thing, and once I do, things will be easy again. This isn’t the healthiest habit, but I’ve gotten through hard things with this coping mechanism.

For CIM 2018, the training was a bit of a mess. David, my coach, and I adjusted workouts or runs at least once a week. I’ve had a lot of silliness going on at work recently, and I would get to the end of the work week feeling like I had no emotional capacity for Saturday’s hard 20-miler. I was at the point when expectations started to feel oppressive, when the holding-my-breath technique wasn’t working anymore and I was starting to suffocate. At this point, it was either give up the marathon training entirely or learn to handle less-than-perfect training. I chose the latter, and started to feel comfortable with not being perfect or doing the training exactly as David had laid it out. Some days, 20 miles at 7:00 pace wasn’t going to happen (in fact, it never did). If I couldn’t do the workout as planned, I did what I could instead. This is hardly radical, and most people can handle this, but this was a big change for me. I stopped worrying about what a specific workout meant for my future (likely nothing) or an upcoming race (also likely nothing). The messy training cycle meant that I had a few moments of lightness, an occasional workout or mile that might be construed as fitness. But there was no single workout or long run that convinced me that I was ready to run a specific time.

As a side note, I also compared the two most recent marathon cycles. My highest weeks for Chicago were much higher (84, 83, 73) as compared to CIM (70, 67, 66). However, the average miles per week over both 11-week cycles was way closer than I thought, coming in at 60.4mpw for CIM and 62.7mpw for Chicago.

Bike accident carnage - lucky to be healthy, lucky to have nice hair

Bike accident carnage - lucky to be healthy, lucky to have nice hair

About ten days before CIM, I told David the following:

I doubt I’m the fittest I’ve ever been, but I am the toughest.

The past year has been a tough one. Right before the 2017 CIM weekend, I was involved in a bike accident. A homeless lady was biking the wrong way in the bike lane without lights, and we collided. I had a concussion and ended up taking an ambulance to the emergency room. I don’t remember very much of that night. A few months later, after recovering from that accident, a venture capitalist hit me in his car while I was riding my bike to work in broad daylight. I ended up flipping off of my bike and breaking a rib. All of this happened in late 2017 and early 2018, but I feel the effects today. I can’t ride a bike to work anymore, my ribs hurt when I do hard intervals, and I’m generally a little more scared than I was before.

I headed into the 11-week CIM cycle with the baggage from both bike accidents, and the addition of a lot of work unpleasantness. There were some rough, rough days in this buildup. However, it felt necessary on some level to train for and run CIM, to prove to myself that I had gotten past the bike accidents and that work stress wasn’t taking away the things that I love to do.

Now, the race.

I expected that I’d be able to run between 2:50 and 3:05, and I finished right in the middle, at 2:57:02. As mentioned, there was no specific workout that convinced me that I could run under 3:00, and I thought my plan would be to go out with the 3:00 pacer and see how it felt from there. David also writes a pre-race email to all of his athletes, and in it, he encourages us to prepare for the worst case scenario on race day and to plan out a course of action. I didn’t quite do that, but I did make a plan for after it started to hurt. I reconciled myself to the fact that the pain was inevitable, and I would acknowledge it when it came.

Amped with our 3-minute turnaround in Starbucks

Amped with our 3-minute turnaround in Starbucks

The morning of the race was a little scattered. I woke up, ate my banana, peanut butter, and clif bar, and then we were off to Starbucks to get coffee for Sam and Caroline. The barista at Starbucks deserved a medal, as we were in at 5:00am and out at 5:03am. Then it was an agonizing 30-minute bus ride to the start line, where I almost peed in Sam’s empty coffee cup. As the sun came up, I did the last shuffling of gels and questioning of gear choices, and after some mild panic with the portapotty lines and gear check, we were ready to go.

I decided early on in the race to not look at my watch, as I knew that it wouldn’t change my course of action and might panic me instead. It would be an effort-based experience - I didn’t see the 3:00 pacer and I also wanted to be a little lost in the sea of people.

I was very careful in the initial miles to chill hard and to not push any uphills. I took my first gel around 45 minutes, and the second at 80 minutes. The crowds at CIM were pleasant and manageable - there’s no wall of noise as in Chicago or Boston and this led to the race feeling very calm. Most of the course is slightly rolling, and this felt great on the legs to switch it up very slightly the whole time. The temperature was also ideal - a little chilly every now and then but very comfortable.

My parents and Caroline had worked out a spectating plan to see us at a few points, and I looked forward to seeing them the whole race. Around mile 8, I recall being so excited that I was going to see my parents in two miles and really hoping that they’d be able to see both Sam and me. I was thrilled when I saw them slightly after mile 10, as they’d made it safely and were wearing their typical secret agent gear. I blew kisses to Deb and tried to stay in position for optimal pictures for Marky Mark.

I saw Caroline at mile 14 or so, and she handed me a fresh bottle of water. We were working with the same plan as we’d had at Chicago - two collapsible 8 ounce flasks to supplement the on-course water and electrolytes. This worked well in Chicago and again here, and that is all due to Caroline being able to spot me and yell loudly enough so I run toward her.

I also had disaster strike twice during this marathon - TWO poop stops. I’ve never even had one during a race, and CIM turned out to be the day for two. Around the halfway mark, my stomach started feeling a little funny, and by mile 14 I knew things were bad. I had a hard decision to make. I could either:

  • continue to run and stop taking down gels to avoid pooping. There was a HUGE risk of bonking, especially this early in the race.

  • Or stop to poop and then continue to eat gels, mitigating the risk of bonking

I chose the latter, and when the gremlins came again at mile 21, I knew that I had to stop again. Looking at the Strava file, I’m pretty impressed that my total stoppage time for both poops was about a minute. I did run pretty good tangents to the portapotties and I didn’t lock the doors (RISKY) but it worked out just fine.

Parents! They’re so cute

Parents! They’re so cute

CIM also has a big arch at mile 20, labeled The Wall. I was at a low point in the race, hurting a bit, and I was cranky to see the wall and know that there was still a 10k left. I was also most tempted to look at my watch to calculate the splits for a 10k at this point, but I resisted. I was pretty sure that I was on track or close to sub 3:00 pace, and I didn’t want to start playing games. I’m not good at calculating splits when I’m clear-headed, and in the latter stages of a race, my cognitive function is poor.

Once we were through 20 miles, I expected to see Caroline around mile 22. My thought process was to get to Caroline, and then cope with the remaining miles. When mile 22 came and went without her, I had a moment of self-pity and then focused on the task at hand. Near mile 23, I heard Caroline yelling and it was one of the most welcome sounds. She knew that I was a little gassed, but she told me that I looked good and that I needed to keep it together.

From there, I had a few thoughts on repeat. One was that pain is a mental construct, and that yes, while I was objectively feeling pain, I could decide how I felt about the pain. I also sometimes thought about the things that felt good - my breathing was never hugely labored and this was comforting to me. The last thought was about this particular journey and all of the things that had happened during the training cycle and during the race.

Jess, one of my training partners, had mentioned that once you arrive in Sacramento, the street numbers start counting down from 120th Street to the finish line, which is at 8th. I was oblivious to this until about 53rd Street, and then I started checking them occasionally. At 17th, I was very ready for the end and we were grinding.

DONE!

DONE!

I saw Pamela, from SWAP, right before the turn for the finish line. She was so uplifting that I was jarred out of the purgatory of the last few miles and finally allowed myself to think that I was going to finish SOON. I saw Deb in the crook of the final turn for home, and then it was the finish line arch and the clock.

Looking back on the splits for the race, I’m pretty surprised at how even they were. With a few exceptions (💩), it was 6:40s the whole way through. I also felt like the effort was very evenly meted out, and that engagement was high during the entire race. I didn’t lose touch with the mile I was running or the pain, and that’s all new for me. Much like Boston 2015, the results after a marathon cycle with constraints are very interesting.

As far as the next races or plans, I’m mostly enjoying five whole days of downtime. Perhaps we’ll do a holiday-themed race in a few weeks, and Bay to Breakers 2019 is a certainty. Much love to everyone who’s been there along the way: Sam for being my training buddy, Caroline for the meticulous logistics and for being real about all of it, David for the quiet wisdom and belief, Jess and Nicole for the moseying and funny texts, my parents for their excitement about my hobby jogger athletic achievements, and all of the friends I wish I could run with more regularly.

CHICAGO MARATHON

Here we go on Chicago thoughts! The actual race was a very long time coming. After the 2015 Boston Marathon, Sam and I were married in July and moved from Boulder to the Bay Area in October. Running-wise, I mostly did whatever for the rest of 2015. It had been a struggle to get to the Boston start line after being diagnosed with two hip labrum detachments, and training afterward was very scattered with the wedding and the move. I finished 2015 by racing 7 consecutive weekends, which Sam enjoyed immensely (ha).

At the beginning of 2016, I met a new training partner, Jess. I'd seen her Strava and Instagram, we had almost identical PRs and I knew she lived nearby. On the appointed morning of our first run, I had raging food poisoning that manifested at 4am. We met at 7am, made it through a few introductory questions and then I started projectile-vomiting margherita pizza onto the sidewalks of downtown Palo Alto. It was one of my better first impressions and afterward we were either going to be buddies or we were never going to talk again. Luckily, we became friends and Jess convinced me to run Chicago in the fall. We also talked to David Roche about coaching for Chicago and he welcomed us into the SWAP family. David, Jess and SWAP have become an integral part my running life, and I look forward to their wisdom and humor everyday. 

Jess and I with our bibs! [I'm also wearing compression socks and tights, the first of many grandpa outfits]

Jess and I with our bibs! [I'm also wearing compression socks and tights, the first of many grandpa outfits]

Briefly, this is what Chicago training looked like. I had a decent base of 50-65mpw going into this, with 1 longer run and 1-2 speedier sessions per week.

  • Week 1: 73 miles
    • 16 mile LR at 7:06
  • Week 2: 43 miles
    • Small half-marathon PR of 1:23:57. Ugly race though- major positive split.
  • Week 3: 64 miles
    • Track 5k in 18:16
    • 3-hour run in Breckenridge for Laura's bachelorette!
  • Week 4: 67 miles
    • First 20-miler! at 7:02 
    • A David Roche staple: a power hour! 6:19 pace for an hour.
  • Week 5: 55 miles
    • 20-miler on a 1-mile stretch of trail. Rough, at 7:03
  • Week 6: 84 miles
    • Biggest lifetime mileage ever!
    • Train-cation in Missoula, MT for 20-miler at 7:28
  • Week 7: 54 miles
    • Only missed workout of the training cycle (boo), but being smart with injury niggles
    • Tuneup half marathon in 1:24:47. Negative-split and controlled.
  • Week 8: 83 miles
    • Mid-week 14-miler at 6:47
    • 24-miler at 6:53
  • Week 9: 49 miles
    • 30 min tempo at 6:04
    • 16-miler at 6:53
  • Week 10: 64 miles
    • Pre-race David Roche special: 10 at MP + 1 under
    • 14-miler at 6:53
  • Week 11: 55 miles (race week!)
    • 3 at MP + 1 under
    • RACE! New 26.2 PR of 2:55:57!
Marathon training also included time with Addie, David and Megan's pup!

Marathon training also included time with Addie, David and Megan's pup!

Going into Chicago, the big goal was to break 3:00. With David's coaching, I did more mileage than I've ever done before and also way more easy/moderate paced running. Jess and I always joke that I have only two gears- sub 6:00 or over 8:30. Under David's guidance, I actually worked on those middle gears. I also did many more 20-milers than I've ever done in a marathon training cycle; I would typically do one 20-miler and call it good before the marathon. Going into race day, I was more prepared than any marathon I've done.

The race plan was to keep it at 6:40s until 15, start tightening the pace at 15 and then all out for the last 6.2, assuming there was something in the tank. It actually worked out like 6:40s the whole way through. I started the race off a little slow (6:50s), panicked a bit and cranked it down too hard (6:30s). The race start was overwhelming- the quiet of the park turns into a wall of noise immediately and it doesn't stop for about 10 miles. I was on 6:40 pace through 10 miles, and caught the 2:55 pace group right around then. The group was mostly brooding men and the Fleet Feet Chicago guys were doing a fantastic job of running evenly. After they dropped me at 20, I was still pretty sure that I was going to be able to run sub-3:00 so it was head down, feet moving and don't dwell on the hardship too much. Once I crossed that finish line I WAS PUMPED!

Caroline's snapchat story (@cocoscosco14) from the race day was excellent. Here's a video where she is recording, handing me a new bottle, and cheering. 12/10 would hug.

After the race we celebrated the proper way, with food and beer and naps. I also reached the reflective point and started talking to Sam, my husband, about how the race had gone. I thought that I had had a shot at the low 2:50s if everything went perfectly. Sam's thought was that if I tried for low 2:50s, then I would need to be comfortable with the possibility of blowing up and running 3:10-3:15. Looking back on it, I would have never taken that gamble for this Chicago. It was too important to me to break 3:00. I am delighted with an evenly-paced 2:55, and Sam's pretty smart. 

Sam after the race! Plus, another grandpa outfit. SWEATPANTS.

Sam after the race! Plus, another grandpa outfit. SWEATPANTS.

A brief look at the great things:

  • David somehow got both Jess and I into the American Development corral, which starts right behind the elites. THIS WAS AWESOME. Jess and I walked from the hotel to the start line, which was a little chaotic, and went into the American Development tent. It was an oasis of calm with a zillion portapotties, everything you could ask for before a big city marathon. The actual start was awesome too- we watched all of the elites file in and do their pre-race prep. I saw Lauren and Rachel, two very speedy college teammates, lining up amongst the elites. Eph hugs all around at the start! 
  • Fluids! I'm usually good at taking fluids during a race, but David suggested taking a collapsible flask in addition to course support. I felt a little ridiculous at the start but I was jazzed to have the extra water later on. My sister also handed off a new flask at mile 12, so I had an additional 16oz total. 
  • Our spectators! My sister, Caroline, and husband, Sam, are both wonderful humans. Jess' husband, Will, was also there and it was SO uplifting to see all of them at four points on the course. Caroline has spectated every marathon I've done, and she is almost always the one who spots me first in the crowd. It is so comforting to come out of a hard stretch of miles and to hear her yelling for me. 
  • All of the faraway friends who sent messages! To the Eph cross country teammates who tracked me between medical residency shifts and after getting out of remote nature, to the Tuesday Tempo folks who bet on my finishing time, to my parents making pasta in Italy, to the friends who were on their honeymoons or hanging with their babies, THANK YOU ALL! 

As far as what's next, I'm still on the one marathon per year plan. No more 20-milers for a while. I'll be doing some 5ks and 10ks at all of the appropriate holiday intervals, and spectating many of my sister's upcoming races. 

 

Remember when I talked about how much fluid I had had? Yeah, at mile 21 it all came back. Pee everywhere!

Remember when I talked about how much fluid I had had? Yeah, at mile 21 it all came back. Pee everywhere!

Scoshear Nuptials

After I posted about our honeymoon, I got some sass about not posting about the wedding. So here we go. We got married on July 3 at Chautauqua in Boulder. The wedding was an all-weekend affair (rehearsal dinner! runs! wedding! 4k race! tubing! fireworks!). Am I deluded enough to say that it was the best wedding ever? No. But it was pretty sensational.

Honeymoon: Taiwan

Shei-pa National Park: Holy Ridge Trail

While preparing for our honeymoon, which was admittedly a bit scattered due to the wedding madness, Sam and I looked for information on the Holy Ridge in Shei-pa National Park. There isn't a ton of information out there, at least in English. We ended up with a handful of blog posts and few maps to guide us, and I'm documenting our adventure to add a small amount of knowledge for the next people who are attempting it. 

So many mountain ridges

So many mountain ridges

Preparation

·      Necessary Permits: one through Shei-pa National Park and another through the local police. We applied for the Shei-pa permit about a month in advance of our trip, via the website, and received confirmation shortly thereafter. We applied for the police permit a day before the trip, once we had arrived in Wuling, and that involved a fair amount of pantomime and smiles.

·      We took the bus from Taipei straight to Wuling and stayed at the Hoya Resort for the night before the trip. The resort is one of the fancier ($180 USD/night) options in Wuling but the room rate includes unlimited buffets for both breakfast and dinner. This is nearly a priceless option when traveling with Sam’s hunger. They also let us store our camping backpacks while we were out in the woods for a few days- all in all, a good choice for us.

·      Based on the few trip reports we’d read, we thought we could do the Holy Ridge O Route in 4 days and 3 nights with lightweight packs. As a disclaimer, I am not recommending that. We gauged our fitness and abilities and planned accordingly.

Packing List

·      Lightweight backpacks: I carried running-specific Salomon one and Sam brought a North Face daypack.

·      Water: we each carried a 1.5L bladder as well as a 12oz hand-held water bottle. We used Aquamira for purification.

·      Sleeping: We brought Sea to Summit Spark II sleeping bags. These have 850+ fill down and compress very well. They’re temperature-rated to 35 degrees Fahrenheit, and I would estimate that we tested that limit. Bizarrely, Sam was cold in his sleeping bag and I woke up sweating. We also carried inflatable sleeping pads. Mine is a ¾ length pad, which works for me but may not be as great if your feet need to be off of the floor.

·      Food: This will be a highly contentious subject, as everyone’s needs are different and we chose to go on the lean side. We brought dehydrated meals and then boiled water using our small pot (4 cups), denatured alcohol and our cat food stove. The cat food stove has worked very well for us in the past- it’s ridiculously cheap, lightweight and effective. We also brought forks and matches, which were very tightly waterproofed. For breakfast, we had oatmeal with Justin’s squeeze packs of peanut butter, and for snacks we brought clif bars and powerbar gummies.

·      Toiletries: Travel toothbrushes and toothpaste, sunscreen and lip balm with sunscreen.

·      Outerwear: rain jackets and lightweight down jackets.

·      Clothes for sweating (ie, for hiking during the day): I wore running shorts, a sports bra and a tank top. I was very hot on the first day, when we headed out of Wuling Farm, but comfortable for the rest of the trip. I wore merino Feetures, just in case of wet feet. Sam wore basketball shorts, half-tights and a tank.

·      Luxury clothes (when we arrived at each hut): I had a headband for cold ears, ¾ length tights, extra socks and a dry sports bra. Sam brought an extra pair of half tights and running shorts, but thought he might’ve brought full tights for comfort.

·      Shoes: Salomon Speedcross 3 for me and Salomon Fellcross for Sam.

·      Luxury items: iPhones, a deck of cards, toilet paper, an external power source for the iPhones (the Jackery), Suunto Ambit3 for GPS and navigation.

Bunk living

Bunk living

 

Day 1: Hoya Resort to Snow Mountain Trailhead to 369 Cabin

Total Mileage: 6.82 miles

Total Vertical: 4,951 feet

1,467 feet from Hoya to Snow Mountain TH

3,484 feet from Snow Mountain TH to 369 Cabin

Peaks:

East Peak of Syue (10,501 feet/3,201m)

 We started from the Hoya Resort in Wuling, thinking that we might be able to hitchhike to the Snow Mountain (Xueshan/Syueshan) trailhead. No such luck- we walked on the road through some idyllic campsites and tea farms to the trailhead. Once at the trailhead, we watched a quick video on what to expect on the Snow Mountain trail. We also received a phone call from one of the rangers, who told us that we had a hard day ahead of us and that maybe we’d overestimated our abilities. Keep in mind that we’d been walking since about 8:30am and had rolled in to the trailhead at 10:30am with tiny, lightweight backpacks- not exactly the picture of responsible hikers. We reassured the rangers, left our permit at the trailhead and started the trek to the 369 hut, thinking it was going to take all day.

 Luckily, the hike before us was not too bad. It’s a staircase and there’s a ton of vertical gain (3500 feet), but nothing is too technical or terrifying. The Cika hut is very close to the trailhead and it gave us the opportunity to fill up our bottles before hitting more stairs and switchbacks. There is a tough section before the summit of the east peak of Snow Mountain (Xueshan/Syueshan), called the Crying Slope. The grade is probably about 15% and the slope will take about 20 minutes. After the Crying Slope and the east peak summit, the rest of the hike to the 369 hut pleasantly rolls through bamboo forest.

After the Crying Slope, heading into the 369 hut.

After the Crying Slope, heading into the 369 hut.

However, in terms of food this trip was the opposite of our adventures on the Milford Track in New Zealand. There, everyone was eating dehydrated backpacking meals to save weight and we’d carried in pounds of fresh vegetables and fruits. To the amazement and eventual delight of our fellow trampers, Sam also carried a 3-liter boxed wine. We were obviously not very concerned with weight on that trip. But in Taiwan, we were obsessed with keeping everything as lightweight as possible and moving relatively quickly. One of the families staying at the 369 hut had pots of dumplings and a whole chicken. We were positively jealous as that feast appeared.

The 369 hut is relatively large, with separate structures for the toilets and for cooking. There are bunks for probably 80 or so people, although only about 50 people were staying there that night. Most people were trekking with their families, and there were several very impressive kids climbing the 12,000 foot mountains in the area.

Most of the trekkers in the 369 hut were going up Snow Mountain, Taiwan’s second highest peak, or to the North Peak of Snow Mountain. Very similarly to Colorado, Taiwan has an obsession with bagging peaks. In Colorado, there are 58 14,000 foot mountains and many people make it a life goal to summit all of them. In Taiwan, there are over 100 12,000 foot mountains and the equivalent goal is to summit 60 or more. Several of the trekkers at the 369 hut were looking to cross new peaks off of their lists. We spent some time with two college friends, now in their 50s, who had completed 50 peaks and were working on those last few with their teenage children in tow.

One last note on the first day: the trail was pretty heavily traveled and well-maintained. There were small wooden signs every 0.1km in both languages.

Sunset from the 369 Cabin. We'd be traveling that ridge shortly.

Sunset from the 369 Cabin. We'd be traveling that ridge shortly.

Day 2: 369 Cabin to Sumida Cabin

Total Mileage: 4.25 miles (including backtracking for water)

total vert: 1,451 feet

peaks: Kailantekun (12,110 feet/3,691 m), North Peak of Syue (12,149 feet/3,703m)

 We were probably the last ones to leave the 369 habit, given the Taiwanese habit of leaving at 2-3am to catch sunrise from atop a mountain. We rolled out around 7am, full of oatmeal and peanut butter and enjoying the sunshine. The weather was very typical mountainous summer weather: sunny in the morning, with clouds/thunderstorms in the afternoon.

The trail heading toward Kailantekun went through a very thick forest, and the trail was not as well-worn nor as well-traveled as the previous day’s. We became slightly lost and then noticed that, in addition to the wooden sign posts, the trail was further marked with ribbons hanging from the trees. These ribbons became the new standard for navigation, as they were far easier to spot than the lower sign posts.

I also brought along my Suunto Ambit3 for navigation. There weren’t any .gpx files of the route to preload, but I was able to add in several of the mountains as waypoints. Then, whenever we reached a sign post with ambiguous markings, we could use the watch as a compass to point us toward the nearest waypoint. It was remarkably easy to use and it was a great backup option.

The dense forest eventually gave way to a scree field. Climbing up the scree field was a two-steps forward, one-step back sort of maneuver, with some gnarled bushes on the side for support. Once at the top of the scree field, we’d reached the Holy Ridge. The Holy Ridge is a thin dragon’s spine that connects several mountains, and the views from either side were incredible. No trace of civilization, just mountains and mountains.

First few of the ridgeline!

First few of the ridgeline!

Walking along the ridge during this section was mostly protected. The trail was wide enough to be oblivious to the big drops on either side, and there was also a fair amount of foliage. The only exposed situations were the north summit of Syue and one other rocky bump on the spine that popped out of the forest. There was also one small rock climbing section, but the slant was not very sheer and it was more of a scramble than a pure rock climb.

Atop Syue's North Summit.

Atop Syue's North Summit.

We had planned to stop at the Xinda hut for the night, but we’d hiked over Kailantekun and had arrived at that hut at 10am. Instead we elected to continue to the next hut, the Sumida hut. Both Xinda and Sumida are far smaller than the 369 hut; they are simple A-frames with about 20 beds each. There are large water tanks behind each hut, but some were half-full and others were empty. We ended up backtracking from the Sumida hut to the nearest stream to fill up our bladders and handhelds. Many of the guidebooks recommend inquiring about water conditions upon encountering other groups, and several blogs had mentioned side trips specifically to find water.

We were the only ones staying at Sumida that night and it had been hours since we’d seen another group. The hut was also located deep in the forest and the fog had rolled in, creating a Baba Yaga atmosphere from childhood nightmares.

Our quiet night in the Sumida hut.

Our quiet night in the Sumida hut.

 

Day 3: Sumida Cabin to Hoya Resort

Total Mileage: 9.13 miles

Total Vert: 262 feet

peaks: Sumida (11,538 feet/3,517m), Bushoulan (11,279 feet/3,438m), Pintian (11,561 feet/3,524m)

We woke up to sunshine and a group of trekkers breakfasting on the front porch of the Sumida Hut. I knew that today was going to be a hard day. We had read several blog accounts of the Pintian cliffs, a group of three climbs required to complete the Holy Ridge loop. Several of the accounts involved crampons, ice axes and freezing weather and I was hoping that the climbs would be much easier without those obstacles, especially as we did not have any rock climbing equipment.

Not far from the Sumida Cabin, we reached the first climb. This was not the Pintian cliffs and only one blogger had mentioned this climb, in his account of a 12-hour day of hiking. This climb was to reach the top of Sumida, and it was an absolute beast. The route was exposed and funneled climbers toward a drop of a few hundred feet. There were leftover ropes knotted to the gnarled roots of bushes, but none of these felt or looked particularly stable.

Extreme trepidation before the Sumida climb

Extreme trepidation before the Sumida climb

The climb itself was not a particularly difficult bouldering problem, but the margin of error was tiny and we were also carrying more equipment than I ever carry when bouldering. I had a complete meltdown during the first hard move, and told Sam that I didn’t want either of us to die. I had the shaky adrenaline pumping through my muscles, the kind that makes me hyperaware of the smallest movements of my body in space. After some tears, I made it to the top and we continued down the other side of Sumida. The descent was all large rocks and boulders, along a windy exposed ridge with huge drops on either side.

The ridge meandered along, popping in and out of thick trees. We summited Bushoulan without incident, probably because it’s actually lower than Sumida. I was still coming down from the adrenaline high at this point and I felt exhausted. I was deeply dreading the Pintian cliffs but I also knew that there was no way I would be able to go back down the Sumida climb we’d just completed.

A little bit of rocky scrambling.

A little bit of rocky scrambling.


By the time we reached the Pintian cliffs, I was collected and much calmer. There were three separate climbs, each in the corner space of an L-shaped area of the rock. Sam was a champ, giving me beta on where he’d tried placing his hands and feet on the way up. There was one section where I remember seeing his feet very near the edge, with a long drop behind him. Other than that moment of fear, these climbs felt much more controlled and manageable than the Sumida climb.

Here we go! Pintian Cliffs

Here we go! Pintian Cliffs

So thrilled to be atop the Pintian cliffs.

So thrilled to be atop the Pintian cliffs.

Once over Pintian, there were two more rope scrambles and then we were descending through bamboo forests to the Xuebei hut. We thought we might want to stay at Xuebei for the night, but we reached it around noon and instead decided to complete the Holy Ridge and head back to Wuling Farm. The descent was mostly on rocky trails, which were a bit slick from the rain. Once we hit the Taoshan Waterfall Trailhead, we mistakenly thought that we might be able to hitchhike back to Wuling Farm. Again, no luck. But it was a glorious night at the Hoya Resort- showers, unlimited buffet, free wifi, and best of all, no cliffs to climb!

We ended up doing the Holy Ridge in 3 days and 2 nights. As you can see from our mileage, it’s not a terribly long route. Doing the whole route in a day is likely a brutal endeavor, but I think it would be possible to do it in 2 days and 1 night with the proper combination of good (mountain) fitness, rock climbing skill and route planning. 

Some ridge line shots. Whoa.

Some ridge line shots. Whoa.