Duy Nguyen Keeps Going, Even After He Quits
On the second day of his first ultramarathon, the runner withdrew just a few miles from the finish line. But that didn’t stop him from completing the race.
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Duy Nguyen told his story to producer Stepfanie Aguiliar for an episode of The Daily Rally podcast. It has been edited for length and clarity.
I knew it was gonna be hard, but I didn’t anticipate, honestly, how, how weak-minded I could become. Really wanting it all to be over like, I don’t care how many miles are left, I wanna go home. And I thought I could beat that mindset, and I was better than that mindset.
I’m in Los Angeles, California. I was born in Vietnam, came to America when I was one years old, and lived on the East Coast, Virginia, for about 18 years.
Professionally I run a couple of businesses. I have a restaurant out in LA. I’m a community organizer, host a couple of different event, I have a run club.
I went on a trip to Haiti to film this documentary about regular people running across the country for this nonprofit. I saw what running could do.
It was 200 miles over seven days, and these people weren’t professional athletes.You would see these people running down the street in your neighborhood. And so when I shot this, I kind of realized, Hey, this running thing is pretty cool.
These are all strangers, they decided to run across this country. The bond that they built, the relationships that were formed, it was such an incredible thing to see. I came back to LA and told my friend Mike, “Hey, we gotta do a run club. We gotta get people running.”
My friend and I started Koreatown Run Club maybe eight years ago. We weren’t runners, and we kind of just got pulled into the running world. Meeting all these people, and wanting to do something different and new, we’d never thought it’d grow and change our lives to how it has today.
This run across Haiti is kind of what started my running journey and starting the run club. I would go back every year when they would do the run. The first year, I brought a friend from the run club, and they finished it, and I filmed them. I documented the whole journey.
The next year, I was like, You know what? I got three marathons under my belt. I kind of know what I’m doing. I’m just gonna run it. I’m just gonna sign up. And I signed up to run the 200 miles. And honestly, I thought I knew what I was getting myself into.
So March or April 2018 was when I ran. It’s a multi-day thing. When you’re running 200 miles across Haiti, you gotta run a marathon, and then the next day you gotta run another marathon. It’s very stressful on the body, obviously. Ultras are different than marathons for sure. It’s a different mindset you go into to finish it.
So the year I ran it, I really knew a lot of people there, but honestly, I was on my own a lot of the time, because the group spreads out when you’re running 30 to 40 miles per day. Me being on the slower end, I was coming in pretty late.
The first day, a 32-mile day, I did it. Obviously it was hard. But I did it, and then I had six days left. The second day was only 13 miles, but it was over a literal mountain.
Throughout the day, I just got slower and slower and more and more tired, as you would, and my mind was just going in a really dark place like, Man, I’m keeping everyone behind, I’m slowing everything down. There was a truck following me, making sure I was OK at that point. That truck had other things to do, but instead it was just pacing me at the end, and I just felt really bad. I was walking, and I could walk fine. I wasn’t injured or anything, but my heart just wasn’t in it. My lungs just were not in it. I was really wanting to stop at that point.
I was just walking and they were walking with me and they were talking with me. “How are you doing?” And I just didn’t wanna talk at all. I just wanted to tell them, “Just leave me, I’ll finish and I’ll see you there.” But they didn’t, and they probably shouldn’t because, you know, safety-wise, you don’t know what can happen out there.
Then it just got to a point where I was like, You know what, I’m gonna call it. I’m keeping everyone up. I don’t wanna be the guy that basically walked this whole thing.
So I called it, I was like, “It’s OK, I’m gonna get in the truck.” And they’re like,”OK no problem.”
I got in the truck, I drove maybe half a mile up the route, and I was at the top of the mountain at that point. From then on it was maybe two miles, all downhill.
That’s when I kind of felt it. I was like, Man, I could have just walked for another ten minutes and I would’ve been at the top of this mountain, and I could have just coasted down. But the moment I got into the truck was the moment I took that DNF, which stands for did not finish.
I knew even if I ran every other day of this race, I’d still have that asterisk of not running those three last miles, of getting into the truck and going back home.
And so the next day I felt really bad. Everyone was sympathetic and everything. They knew where I was coming from. They knew I wasn’t a “real” ultra marathoner, or runner. And, I did too, but I really wanted to be able to say, “Hey, I ran across Haiti, the race that got me into running.”
Even though I didn’t finish that second day, there were five, six days left.
It’s crazy because when you’re running a marathon or you’re doing something really hard and then you come up to the cheer zone where all your friends are and they’re cheering for you, you just get this boost of energy that I can’t explain. You just run hard. You just get all this energy from seemingly nowhere. For a brief moment, everything’s good. Everything’s cool. You’re not in pain.
When that third day came and there was like no real pressure, I was like, Well, no one’s looking at me. No one really is expecting anything from me. I’m just gonna have fun. And I went out there and I just ran. I didn’t really think about finishing it. It’s like, Hey, if I don’t finish, I already didn’t finish.
So I just ran with no pressure, just fun, all smiles. Ran with different groups. And I felt really good. I felt really, really good.
The final day was 52 miles. I had run the whole thing with my friend Iggy. I know he had suffered from an ankle injury, so we’d probably be going the same pace. And we ran the whole thing together and we really pushed that last two miles.
Me and my friend were just running from pole to pole. There’s a little light pole, you run there. Then, “Let’s go to that other light pole. Let’s go to that other light pole.” And it’s just a straight shot, and there’s nothing really around. You’re just running from one light pole to the next endlessly.
And I just remember, Oh my goodness, it’s about to be over. We’re finally going to stop running and we don’t have to run again the next day. And we ran all the way to the beach, and he ran literally all the way to the beach and got into the water. Once I passed that finish line, I just sat down and watched him get in the water and I was like, I’m done moving. Next time I’m moving, I’m going back in the car, going to the restaurant. But I just wanted to sit down, and that’s what I did. I sat down and reflected over the past couple days, and I was proud of myself, because I continued on and I did run 160-some miles. And for me at that time, that was a big thing. So I was proud of myself for being able to finish that, especially that last day. Because the last day was really, really tough.
I knew I wanted to sign up for it again while I was still there. I was probably the first person to sign up, and I came home and I was like, Yeah, I ran most of it. I didn’t do it all. But I knew that it was just a personal thing. No one thought of me any differently. They weren’t like, “He said he was gonna do one thing and he only, he didn’t.” It wasn’t anything like that.
I saw myself how others saw me. It wasn’t a failure. It was like a learning experience. Of course, one thing I really learned from that experience was to really take a step back outside of what’s going on, outside of how you feel, outside of what you’re even thinking. Think more clearly about everything that’s happening around you. I feel like if I had done that, I would not have dropped out. I would not have gotten on that truck. I would’ve said, I’m half a mile from the peak and I can cruise down, and finish and continue on to the next day.
But I wasn’t thinking clearly. I think I was just too in the moment. Everyone says to live in the moment, but sometimes you have to take a step back and pause and maybe just stop running and walk and really think about what’s going on before you make any decisions like that.
Don’t put too much pressure on yourself. And just carry forward.
Duy Nguyen is a creative entrepreneur and community-builder based in Los Angeles, where he co-founded the Koreatown Run Club. He is still hoping to return to Haiti to complete the run again, this time officially. For more information about his work, check out koreatownrunclub.com.