« Simulated Annealing

Coming into focus

Finally seeing myself as a runner and good engineer

This morning, I was one of thousands of runners participating in the 1st half marathon race of the San Francisco Marathon. We started from Crissy Field, ran across the Golden Gate Bridge to Fort Baker, and then looped back across the bridge to finish in Golden Gate Park. It was absolutely perfect day for the run—cool but not too windy, with beautiful sweeping views of the bay.

sf-marathon-2023 Clear views of the Golden Gate Bridge and across the bay!

I am very proud of my results. I finished in 2 hours and 39 minutes (12:11 min/mi average pace), a personal best. I’m not a fast runner and this is only my second official half marathon, so these results are an exciting achievement for me. But perhaps more than the specific race times, I was happy that I ran the entire 13.1 miles through without walking.

I’ve never thought of myself as a runner. I was able to avoid learning the basics of running through all of grade school. I mostly did drama as my extracurricular activity, with a year here and there on the varsity swimming and JV tennis teams. I managed to get out of required P.E. classes through middle and high school because I was in gifted and magnet programs. The Florida education system allows smart kids to skip doing anything physical, apparently. So I only began running only as an adult, here in the Bay Area.

I started running mostly because I love the idea of being a runner. Running is such a primal activity, something humans have been doing ever since we evolved to be upright and bipedal. As a form of exercise, it’s so convenient. You only need your own body, a good pair of running shoes, and the great outdoors. And I think there’s something so charming about running as a form of exploration. You only get a real sense of the character of a city by seeing the different textures and elements of the street landscape. Running allows you to easily create a mental map of a new place when traveling, passing through main thoroughfares and quickly dipping in and out of small side streets and alleyways.

I love the idea of being someone who runs but I’ve never been very good at running. I am slow and don’t do a good job of pushing myself during training to increase my average pace. My form is probably questionable, having never had a coach or experienced runner give me any tips. The Bay Area certainly doesn’t make things easy for runners, with dramatic elevation changes from endless hills.

Despite running for many years now, I have always thought of myself as “someone who runs” (slowly/badly/awkwardly) rather than a “runner”. In my mind, a “runner” is someone who knows what they’re doing when they run. These people know how to train, how to pace themselves, understand their pronation and foot strike type, and usually did cross-country or track in high school. Meanwhile, I got into this later in life. I have no idea if I’m doing the right thing. Even when I signed up for races in the past, I picked random training schedules and had no idea what pace I should be targeting on race day.

Something changed today, though.

There wasn’t any one specific thing that suddenly made me see myself as a “runner.” It was a series of little things that all added up to something bigger:

  • I trained regularly for the three months leading up to the race. I used Hal Higdon’s Intermediate I Half Marathon training plan and managed to stick to his suggested run schedule about ~50% of the time.
  • Over the course of training for the half marathon, I started to consider 4-mile training runs as “short runs.” Compare this to when I first started running, when it was a struggle to even run one mile.
  • The night before the race, I went to bed at 9:00 pm to make sure I had a full night’s rest.
  • I prepared a race-day packing list and made sure I had post-race recovery snacks, comfortable shoes, and warm clothes. I even scheduled a massage for the next day.
  • In the morning, I successfully forced down a pre-race breakfast of steel-cut oatmeals, two hard-boiled eggs, and a bottle of electrolyte water. This was despite my body loudly complaining it didn’t want to eat anything.
  • I had created a full race playlist with 3-hours of hype music.
  • I had a pretty good prediction for the different phases my body would go through over the half marathon: resistance and struggle in the first 3-4 miles, settling into a comfortable state the next 4-5 miles, and then grit-your-teeth-and-power-through for the final miles.
  • At various points throughout the race (mile 5, mile 7), I had the distinct thought that I felt well-trained for this race. My body felt comfortable and I didn’t get any muscle cramps or strains.
  • I ran consistently the entire half marathon!

Taken all together, I finally realized that I was actually pretty knowledgeable about my own body and running. If I wanted to keep upholding my own artificial divide between “people who run” and “runners”, I could no longer deny that I had firmly crossed over to the side of being a “runner.”

Before today, I had never actually taken a step back and reflected on how much my running had developed. I was still stuck in an outdated view of myself as an unskilled runner and it took a major achievement to shake me loose. In many ways, it reminds me of the problem of hedonic adaptation where our brains so quickly forget incremental gains in happiness and settle back to a base “set point” of emotional experience.

I’ve gone through a similar mental journey in my career as well. When I initially started working as a software engineer, I was deeply unsure about my technical skills. I didn’t know if I was going to make it as an engineer. Maybe I’d be fine as an entry-level engineer, but I had no confidence I could develop the chops to reach the highest levels of technical leadership. This was despite getting excellent grades in my computer science degree, despite getting high praise from my first few managers, despite getting a “high performer” bonus at work in my first two years in industry, despite knowing women in tech disproportionally feel imposter syndrome.

I count myself extremely fortunate that my circumstances and support network strongly encouraged me to stay a software engineer long enough to finally make the mental switch. At some point, I finally internalized that I am, in fact, very good at engineering. It was again a series of little things that all added up together:

  • Failing to get a return offer from Google as a new grad product manager. Losing that opportunity encouraged me to interview for SWE positions, despite being concerned I wasn’t going to succeed as a software engineer long-term.
  • One of my earliest managers telling me to “stay an engineer” for as long as possible and not switching into engineering management. Others had told me that my communication ability was outstanding and set me apart, but my boss said my technical skills were even better.
  • Mentoring other junior engineers and interns, realizing that I had in fact learned a lot of important things to teach others.
  • Getting promoted to senior and then staff level.
  • The accumulation of successful projects, increasing in ambiguity and complexity over time:
    • Building my first education onboarding experience on iPad.
    • Building and maintaining my first internal framework for iOS, which was used by all iOS engineers at the company.
    • Advocating and successfully convincing other senior engineers to adopt a new library based on my technical recommendations.
    • Building a production mobile app from scratch, which was critical for closing a major sales deal.
    • ... (and others that I can’t even remember anymore!)

For those with more base confidence, I must seem very dense for how long it took me to shift my mental identity to see myself as a runner and a good engineer. But I think it’s fairly common for this situation to happen—what might be stunningly obvious from the outside is not so obvious internally. Even if you can understand your achievements intellectually, it can take a long time to feel them emotionally.

The parts fall into place, and you can see the whole picture and finally understand the role each individual part plays. The dawn comes, the sky grows light, and the colors and shapes of the roofs of houses, which you could only glimpse vaguely before, come into focus.

— What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami

This article was last updated on 7/23/2023. v1 is 1,438 words and took 2.8 hours to write and edit.