By Steph Imig
ABOUT THIS SERIES: As a high school English teacher, I believe in the fundamental importance of stories. Within those stories, representation matters. Who tells the stories? Whom are the stories about? Are the people at the heart of the story also the ones telling the story? As I build curriculum, I am guided by the idea that every student deserves “windows” and “mirrors”--stories that feature people like them, and stories that feature people whom they perceive to be different--one offering a mirror, the other a window.
This series for Territory builds on the idea of windows and mirrors--that in our trail running community, we all need to see ourselves. In stories, in running, in life, representation matters. Seeing people who you consider “like you” doing something has the effect of inviting you into that world. Whatever “it” is, it becomes a part of your possibility. My goal in this series is to highlight the stories of trail runners--trail runners who also identify as BIPOC. The stories are first and foremost about each person’s journey into trail running, exploring a question that is universal to all of us: How exactly did you come to be a trail runner and identify with this wacky sport?
Each feature will be left in interview-form, so that each person’s voice remains central. My hope is that through this series, every single one of us will find both windows and mirrors, and along the way, will enjoy learning about some phenomenal humans.
This interview is with Vivian Tang.
Vivian Tang is a trail runner, rock climber, skier, and occasional mountaineer. However, when she’s not outside trying to wear out any restless energy, you can find her working as a primary care pharmacist at an internal medicine clinic, thinking way too much about her next meal, or cuddling with her dog, ‘Teryx (named after Arc’teryx – she and her significant other met the puppy who was being fostered at the time during an Arc’teryx event!).
Tell me about where you grew up. Did you have an active childhood?
Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area in California, I had a relatively active childhood. In middle school, I swam and played basketball and tennis. In high school, I did track & field and played on the basketball and tennis teams. I also skied and snowboarded in the winter with my family.
I think my parents encouraged sports early on in my life, not just for me to stay physically healthy, but to also learn teamwork, to socialize with my peers and to better integrate with American society. My parents didn’t do a lot of sports themselves growing up in Hong Kong; that may have been related to financial constraints or growing up in a household that didn’t heavily emphasize physical activity.
Do you have childhood memories connected to the outdoors?
Not really. I was a city kid. My brother and I were always active but that was usually sports-related, in a gym, pool, or playground. I remember camping in Yosemite once when I was very young and simply remember being afraid of flies touching my food.
When did you fall in love with the outdoors?
At the end of high school, my growing interest in long-distance running is what really led me to further explore the outdoors. After several years of road running and racing, some friends invited me on their trail runs out in Auburn, CA, and just got hooked. To me It was much harder than road running. The different physical challenge of it was interesting but the trail scenery and solitude of being on the trails ignited something wonderful in my heart in a way that is difficult to describe.
After I finished graduate school and some professional training, I was able to further pursue more time-intensive and expensive activities like rock climbing, skiing, and mountaineering. Hey, gear is expensive! It can be quite the upfront investment. There’s also a lot of privilege that comes with having the time and money to do certain outdoor activities. Many of us are very lucky to even have the opportunity to fully and safely explore the outdoors and perhaps the social network willing to introduce us to certain activities that may require teaching and mentorship.
How did you come to identify with trail running or other outdoor pursuits?
It was a 17-mile trail race in Oakland, CA that did it for me. I will never forget it. Running up and down steep terrain, turning scenic corners near cliffs… the movement of running just felt so natural. It made me feel “the most human” I had ever felt. Completely at ease. In a flow state. All the trail running and races I’ve done since then is basically history.
My other outdoor pursuits (alpine ski touring, climbing, and mountaineering) also tend to revolve around long pushes of endurance. I enjoy the commitment of slow, grinding pushes and going beyond my comfort level. That’s where my mind and skills evolve most. In that sense, I guess I want my identity to be a deliberate effort to evolve and mature as well.
What have you learned about yourself through your outdoor adventures/challenges?
Life is short and to quote the movie, Kung Fu Panda, “Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift. That is why it is called the present!”
Outdoor adventures have been great opportunities to reflect on my mortality and learn more about what kind of life I want to lead given my finite time in this world. The Earth is going to be around longer than me. I have limited time here. So why not try something new? Why not try a new trail? Why not gain a new experience that may positively influence who I am and how I perceive the world? Tomorrow and our health are not always guaranteed.
I always feel the most “me” when I trail run or do stuff outdoors. So I don’t think I’ve changed as a result of outdoor pursuits but rather discovered more of who I am at my core along with my personal values. Even when I am pushing past my comfort zone and do something I’ve never done before, I feel like I’m still me. I didn’t change, I just revealed a part of myself that had yet to surface until then.
What have you learned about others?
I was in a running club and a fellow runner was finishing the 10-mile loop as I was finishing the 7-mile loop. I asked, “How’s it going?”. He said, “I’m tired.” I replied, “Me, too” as we ended our runs together. Sure, it was a terse conversation, and our paces and distances were different. However, we both pushed hard that day and reached a certain level of fatigue. So, when it comes to challenging ourselves physically and mentally, I’ve learned that we are all more similar than different.
Also, camaraderie and shared empathy can develop when we do challenging things with others. Increasing our ability to empathize is a unique feature of being human. In that sense, outdoor adventures with others have increased my ability to connect and learn from others through empathy.
What has trail running meant to you during Covid?
Early in the pandemic, one of the patients died from Covid19-related complications. He was only 43 years old. I have a friend who is still managing lingering complications of Covid19 even 6+ months after recovering from it. As a healthcare worker, I can’t emphasize enough that people, young and old, male and female, healthy and those with underlying conditions, are at risk of facing serious adverse health outcomes from this virus. If we, as runners, take our personal health seriously, we must take public health seriously as well. We must take action in protecting ourselves and each other from further transmission of this virus.
Long story short, the role trail running plays in my life has both waxed and waned since the pandemic started. Sometimes it’s important to run, to clear my head, to remind my body of what it can do…to feel empowered and in control. Sometimes it’s very depressing, I may run without my watch because thinking about mileage or effort seems trivial when people are dying from Covid19 every single day or my patients share that they are too afraid to see their own grandchildren and families due to fear of contracting the virus. Trail running in the setting of Covid19 remains a daily reminder to not take my life and health for granted.
Do you have any big adventure dreams that you hope to achieve in the next couple of years?
Not really. Sure, I have things I want to try and do but my aim is to not put any type of activity, adventure, or location on a pedestal. There are days when running 5 miles in Forest Park with my dog brings me just as much joy (or even more) as running 20+ miles through the Enchantments in Leavenworth. I’m grateful for anything and everything my body allows me to do. In that respect, being alive each day is a really a daily grand adventure! Haha. That being said, I tried ice climbing a few weeks ago and had an absolute blast. I’d love to try that again soon!
I am so grateful for Vivian taking the time to share her story with me. I was struck by her zest for the outdoors, her care for others, and her commitment to expanding the trail running community. Her story reminds me to do what I love, love what I do, and care deeply for people and our planet with every step we take.
If you want to learn more or connect with Vivian, you can find her and her group “PDX Women of Color Trail Runners” on Instagram and Facebook.
Facebook: Vivian W. Tang – *Note from Vivian: I started the Facebook group “PDX Women of Color Trail Runners” this past spring. I rarely meet or see other trail runners who are not white. To me, it was always apparent that I may be the only or one of a few minorities at a running club event or meet up. However, as a POC, you don’t really say it aloud because you worry it may make others feel awkward and/or that it will highlight that you may have grown up significantly different from your running peers. However, the death of George Floyd and the nationwide movement it started afterward gave me courage to not be afraid of standing out and to seek out a community with whom I could identify. There are other WOC trail runners out there, we just may not have found each other yet! Once the Covid19 vaccine becomes relatively accessible, I’ll start organizing group runs. ☺