Words & images by: Lucas Beyer
Here’s an idea: when you don’t know what to do, quit your job and move to a new state. Move to a different part of the world where, you don’t know anyone, have no foundation, and work a job in the wilderness because you can. This is the path U.P. Nguyen, a coach at Heartbreak, will be taking for the next six months. For many people, leaving a well-paying stable job to live in the woods would be a sign they are losing their mind, but for U.P. it means finding out what makes her happy.
Originally from Albuquerque, Nguyen began playing soccer which has lead to an active lifestyle including running, backpacking and rock climbing. Today, U.P. is known for her high energy and uplifting attitude. For the past three years, she has been involved at Heartbreak Hill Running Company, attending weekly workouts and eventually leading them.
In college, her roommate walked into the apartment with a large shining medal around her neck. She had just run a half marathon. U.P. then thought, if she can do it, so can I. After struggling tooth and nail to make it to the finish line, she did it. She completed her first half-marathon and thought “well that sucked but let’s do it again next year.” After moving to Boston for a software engineering job at Bose, she saw how deep the running community was and began looking for a space where she could get involved.
Nguyen’s search for a running group was more methodical than most. After attending events from each of the major running groups in Boston, Heartbreak was the last on the list. On an early Saturday morning in November, she went to see what Heartbreak was all about. Nearly 200 people showed up for a long run. U.P. recalls thinking, “What could gather this many people together on a cold winter morning in Boston?” She knew she had stumbled upon something special.
It was her attitude on twenty-mile-long runs which was unique. She would be fighting to stay in it at mile eighteen and Dan Fitzgerald, her head coach at the time, would come along to ask how she was doing. While sweat was burning in her eyes, and her legs were heavy as lead, her response would always be “Oh I’m doing great!”
As U.P. speaks to me, I feel admiration while I listen to her explain what Heartbreak means. I feel as if she is commanding a room full of people, yet it is just her talking to me on the phone. The goal she explains was to simply get more people to the starting line. “You don’t have to look a certain way or do your easy runs at a certain pace to be a runner,” she tells me. If you run you’re a runner. The workouts are meant to celebrate all types of runners she explains, by keeping them accessible and keeping them free. She got fast while training with the Heartbreakers and she had fun doing it, but ultimately she tells me, “we are people first, then runners.” When she is out and around Boston while wearing something with a heartbreak logo on it people will say, “go heartbreakers!” Even though they may have no idea who Nguyen is, they believe the same things about running.
Although many people know U.P. as a running coach, and Bose software engineer, a large part of her personality is intertwined with the outdoors. She recalls showing up for her first backpacking trip and feeling out of place, yet today she believes “I would certainly not be the person I am today without the experiences I was fortunate to have in the outdoors.” She goes on to explain how outdoor adventure is an excellent environment to develop skills like leadership and conflict management. Her parents being refugees from the Vietnam War held traditional views about women. Nguyen being the first family member to go to college had high expectations to fulfill. Explaining her decision to quit her well-paying job, and move to the Blue Ridge mountains was not easy to justify. Her conviction in her beliefs and confidence in herself is certainly something one can admire.
U.P. has acquired a collection of characteristics. She loves developing the most efficient code to make a process more sustainable, hiking through the backcountry with everything she needs to survive on her back, and offering the joy of completing a challenging workout. Coming from Brown University, U.P. was surrounded by some individuals with a narrow definition of success. Landing a job at Facebook, Google, or Amazon was considered success. She had thought that her desire for a career in the outdoors was simply a daydream which distracted her in class. After landing the big job, and making all the money she has found money doesn’t make her happy. “You work so much of your life,” she tells me “that you should enjoy what you do.” She explains that working as an outdoor guide in North Carolina is not going to solve everything, but it feels right in this moment. Nguyen’s eagerness to see the world, and willingness to risk everything resembles a childlike curiosity. A curiosity that thirsts to know. Which yearns to be fed and which strives to understand.
This was a special story for me to tell because I am someone who admires the unconventional route. I am not interested in banking, computer science or software engineering. Although I can appreciate these skills, my interest lay in more nontraditional things. I enjoy trying to cook a dish I have never made before or spending a week in the Adirondack Mountains. While listening to Nguyen, I saw much of myself in her and felt seen as I listened to her share her authentic struggles. While being surrounded by high-achieving students every day, it can be easy to see my interests as dreamy or unproductive. As U.P. has shown, excellence is not always found on the well-beaten path, but instead, is something already within oneself — simply needing to be unveiled.
U.P. is now in the process of moving to North Carolina where she will be working as a wilderness guide for Outward Bound. She will be back in Boston this April to compete in the Boston Marathon. Following her time at Outward Bound, she plans to attend business school to explore the possibility of pursuing a sustainable outdoor business venture in which she can provide access to the outdoors for a broader population.