Humans of HOKA: Carissa Yao

PC: @bryanwalkerting

My name is Carissa. I’m a graduate student at UC Berkeley and a UI/UX Designer. I have been running for just under 10 years. Running is my love language to myself and the communities I’ve been a part of.

What started just as a hobby, running around the neighborhoods and school tracks of Shanghai, I didn’t get into racing until Freshman year in college, which is relatively late compared to many varsity runners who started cross country and track in high school or even middle school. I’ll always be very grateful for the DIII liberal arts college in southeast Pennsylvania I went to, and my coaches Jason and Matt at the time. They were so open to having new runners joining the team, regardless of background or years of training, as long as you had the dedication to train and race on top of school work, and the willingness to challenge yourself. My time on the team was without a doubt challenging: pushing myself in workouts, learning about shin splints, or even buying spikes for the first time. Nonetheless, the seed for running was planted in me.

After landing a job in the Bay Area post-college, running became an important part of my social life. Although I didn’t know anybody in the area, I found it relatively easy and comfortable to connect with other people over mutual interests like running, and before long, I started racing again through local clubs. There was a certain level of purpose and meaning I was able to find through chasing a PR, a half marathon goal time or simply completing a good workout. It provided me with something so pure and attainable that I wasn’t able to find in my first job after college.

However, the true meaning of running didn’t register with me until I got a serious injury. In May 2018, I had to put aside my running shoes because of a devastating stress fracture on my right tibia. All of a sudden it felt like I was sidelined in my own playing field: I wasn’t able to see the friends I’d made in the running communities every week, I got fired from my first job out of college, and I started to feel that I no longer belonged.

PC: @bryanwalkerting

It was during my recovery period that I realized there were a lot of misconceptions about how my communities and sense of belonging was “earned” through fast times and frequent showing up. Without fast times and glamorous racing photos, I realized that fundamentally, running is a relationship with myself, and I was too attached to the preconceived notion about what a “good runner” means and who is “someone that belongs.” Instead, running is a way we show up to ourselves in its most authentic form: no judgement, no better or worse, just being there.

When I recovered from my injury 4 months later and went on the first few baby runs, I told myself to be patient and kind, because I live in this body that allows me to explore and challenge. It didn’t have to go out and “earn” anything for me to love myself unconditionally. Society has put a lot of pressure on finding a sense of belonging in other people, and while supportive communities make one feel like home, belonging was never about fitting in: it was always about coming home to yourself. Your true journey is in knowing yourself so deeply that you feel comfortable in your own skin. You love and accept who you are. You make decisions which feel right in your gut and body versus right according to someone else.

This pandemic has again shed a new light on running. I was mentally down during the first few weeks of quarantine, questioning everything that was going on in my life and the world. The lack of control and uncertainty challenged my mind, which constantly searched for comfort in patterns and plans. At the time, I was pretty inconsistent with running because of stress and unpredictable schedules in grad school. Chronic depression and anxiety make it difficult to just put on shoes to go for a quick run. There seemed to be excuses all the time: the weather was bad, I needed to finish this report first, I might as well not run if I only have time to do 3 miles, I’m not in good enough shape to feel good running… The self-critic in me always finds a way to talk me into not running and going back to dwelling in my anxiety.

PC: @bryanwalkerting

Fortunately, I was able to fall back into running with all the extra time I had during quarantine. The daily routine of lacing up shoes and “checking in” with my neighborhood in Berkeley once again brought me peace. Other than the endorphin rush and mood boost, running has allowed me to find appreciation for my body and who I am as a person. I’ve gained a whole new appreciation for where I live and awareness of the privileges I live with. I realized that without properly taking care of myself, I was not able to fully show up to my friends, families, or greater communities. It made me so happy to know when friends on the East Coast texted me that they recently started running again or when one of my colleagues asked me about which trail running shoes to choose from.

With the running landscape being extremely uncertain at the moment, I hope to continue my training and eventually get out there to race in cross country and my first marathon (I had to DNF the Chicago Marathon last year) when it’s safe to do so. Meanwhile, I hope my voice can inspire more people to go for a run to enjoy the outdoors safely and to take care of themselves with no judgement in distance or pace in mind. Running is never meant to be an exclusive sport for “fast people” with a certain body type only. There’s no barrier to enter and it’s one of the best things you can do for yourself and your communities.

All you need to do is start. What you seek is seeking you.

My home now, California, is hurting. More than 500 wildfires are ravaging the state and taking people’s homes away. Here are some resources where you can help:

American Red Cross: Donations will go to the Red Cross’ disaster relief efforts.

California Fire Foundation: This foundation provides emotional and financial assistance to families of fallen firefighters, firefighters and the communities they protect.

CDP California Wildfires Recovery Fund: Help the Center for Disaster Philanthropy support those affected by the wildfires.

Community Foundation Santa Cruz County: This foundation is seeking help to support those affected by the lightning complex fires.

GoFundMe has started its own wildfire relief fund.

PC: @bryanwalkerting