This weekend, Devon Yanko returns to the Western States 100 as a favorite six years after dropping from the race. In the following interview, Devon talks about why she stayed away for so long, why and how her approach has changed in recent months, and what she hopes to get out of the race.
[Click here if you can’t see the video above.]
Devon Yanko Pre-2016 Western States 100 Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Bryon Powell of iRunFar here with Devon Yanko before the 2016 Western States 100. How are you, Devon?
Devon Yanko: I’m doing great. How are you?
iRunFar: Alright. It had been a very long time since you’d run 100 miles.
Yanko: Yes, it had been…
iRunFar: Five years?
Yanko: Since I finished or since I started?
iRunFar: No, started.
Yanko: 2010 was the last time I started one.
iRunFar: You were probably right about here…
Yanko: We were actually on my deck at the same place I’m staying now.
iRunFar: Six years ago, that one didn’t go well.
Yanko: No, it went terrible.
iRunFar: What happened there, I mean generally speaking?
Yanko: I was unprepared, I think, mostly mentally to weather the highs and lows. I had heaped so much expectation on myself that when something went totally sideways, it was catastrophic. I didn’t know how to rebound from that. Yeah, I just….
iRunFar: What was the long gap? Why the long gap before another 100. I know you started your business and all that.
Yanko: After that… I think I went into that with the wrong motivation. I did my first 100 as a natural progression. I did Vermont 100 in 2008. Then I didn’t do another one because I was not sure it was my jam. Then when things went wrong at Western States, I needed to reevaluate why I wanted to do it. I was very steadfast that I wouldn’t do another one until I was very excited about it. Then, after that, I actually focused on qualifying for the Olympic [Marathon] Trials and kind of went to that end of my speed because I had never really explored that potential.
iRunFar: You’d done other road stuff like Comrades.
Yanko: Yeah, I had an amazing year in 2012. I was third at Two Oceans, I was fifth at Comrades. I ran a PR in the marathon at the Olympic Trials. I set a course record at Napa Valley Marathon a month later. Then at the beginning of 2013, I started out with Chuckanut, like, “We’re going! This is going to be a great year!” Then we actually unexpectedly opened the business a lot sooner than we thought—spring of 2013—so ultras, I couldn’t fit it in my brain. I could do marathons if I wanted a day off, and running a marathon was a good reason to do that. Over those two years, we were just working so hard, 80- to 100-hour weeks. Running was a great escape from that and a great balance, but I just… I really wasn’t… I could see that in the marathon—no matter how good of training, on the day, I could run… I literally ran a couple marathons that were within seconds of each other but with totally different fitness, totally different course. So it was just a break. I was on the night shift for a really long time which is super not conducive. We just didn’t have the personnel to let us out of that. Finally, fall of last year, I just was like, I burned out on the whole marathon thing. I wasn’t really sure about doing the Trials for the marathon again. I think I had wanted to do that because now all the ultrarunners did it. It was the thing to do. I did it in 2012 and nobody cared. So I actually stopped on the night shift and took a trip to South Africa. I did Ultra-Trail Cape Town 100k. I was totally unprepared for it. I went from summer in California to winter down there. It was pouring rain and cold and all this stuff. It was such an experience in which I just didn’t quit. It set me up for a mentality of starting to become curious about the 100 miler again with that mentality of, I went through a lot of things in that race.
iRunFar: Did you go into it thinking that might be the case to toughen you up or it would be tough that way, or did you just go to have a fun run on the trails in South Africa?
Yanko: I went for a fun run in South Africa. There was a part of me before that that was like, If I’m not off the night shift, I’m just going to go to South Africa and never come back. That didn’t happen. I love Cape Town. I got into the trail community down there. I’ve done Two Oceans which goes around the mountain, so I really just wanted to be on those trails and experience it that way. It just so happened that the entire three weeks I was there, it was like this—beautiful and wonderful. Then race day was just terrible, freezing, pouring rain. I didn’t really go in with expectations. I have this chance to do this race, and I really wasn’t thinking beyond that the way I have in the past where I always have the next thing. There just was this distinct moment where I just decided not to quit. It changed everything in that race. It wasn’t going well. I wasn’t having fun. I just took that off the table. There wasn’t anything really wrong. I just was like, That’s not an option anymore. To have that mental moment, it was kind of an evolution in my own understanding of what I’m capable to do mentally in a race and how you can turn things around.
iRunFar: Do you think that was more important for you taking the steps toward Western States than having a really good 100 at Javelina Jundred not that much later?
Yanko: I think it’s… that was why I decided to do Javelina. I said this to my coach. He said, “Do you think you’re mentally prepared to do a 100?” I said, “I’ve never been more prepared in my life.” I really felt that way. When things came up at Javelina—everybody looks at that race and says, “You ran so fast! It must have been so easy!”—it’s just like, “You’re running around in a desert for a really long time… in loops.” It’s a hard course to master and to get it right. To run that kind of race is very hard. I came into the race with the mentality of… we came up with this idea of, “working the problem.” When you look at it that way, you stop having this… things that happen are catastrophes. I sat down for 10 minutes on two different loops in that race, and I still ran what I did. If I had been in my previous mindset, it would have been game over.
iRunFar: End of the world.
Yanko: End of the world. I would have dropped or whatever. I learned through that race… and then to have such a great performance there in spite of those things, after that race it was like, I’m ready to go back to Western States. I’d never felt like that. I’d been here most years or avoided being here most years because I didn’t feel it. It just wasn’t genuine. This year it was really genuine. I put in for the lottery. I kind of felt like, “Oh, eventually I’ll put in…” Then, because I’m ready now, someday, seven years from now, I’ll get in. Then I didn’t obviously get in through the lottery. I tried to let it go. I was like, “Oh, it’s fine. I’m going to go back to Comrades. I’ll go to Scotland and do this race.” It just really gnawed at me. I couldn’t let it go. This is the time to do it. So I totally took a left-hand turn and went to Sean O’Brien with no specific training and got my spot. That was also a hard race. The first 40 miles, I was totally in my head and totally in a bad place and was like, Javelina was a fluke! I’m terrible! This is not going to happen! And all this stuff. I learned through that that at 20 miles, I just flicked the switch and…
iRunFar: Had fun?
Yanko: Crushed it. I had a lot of fun.
iRunFar: Good. Good. And another good run at American River. Then you decided not to do Comrades. When was the decision—you were in and you’d had a great run there before?
Yanko: It was pretty early on just because… I was supposed to go to South Africa in March for Two Oceans. I was actually going to do… I actually really disappointed one of my friends because we were going to do this partner race kind of like TransRockies, a three-day race. I was going to stay for three weeks and do Two Oceans. Then I got really sick. Then I got in a car accident. Then I got really sick again. So I couldn’t do that. That’s why I ended up doing American River. It was right in there that I was like… I’m trying to do everything right to set myself up for success at Western States. If I do Comrades, I want to do well at Comrades, too. I just felt like I can’t… at least my first go, I don’t think I can do both well. I just wanted to put everything into this and not just be like, Oh, well—if things go sideways—Oh, well, I just did Comrades, and give myself that out.
iRunFar: That’s easy.
Yanko: Yeah, maybe in the future I will want to do the double, but I think they’re both such big deals on their own… it’s amazing the people who have done both, but that felt like too much on my plate. My coach was like, “Yeah, with all the travel and everything else…” I really suffered when I went to Scotland. I really got jetlag. So it was like, Let’s just clear the docket.
iRunFar: So no jetlag here because you’ve been in Tahoe for a month. How did that happen? Obviously, there’s till the bakery.
Yanko: I have a really amazing husband. Love you, honey! I’ve been off the night shift since before I went to South Africa last fall. My role is basically been running the business side which I was doing and baking which is where the whole 80- to 100-hours thing came in. It just allows a lot more flexibility. I don’t have to be on site. We have amazing staff. Our front-house manager is such a rockstar. We just celebrated three years on Memorial Day. We just built it in a way that allows me to have that space. I still have to deal with things, but I can do my work from here. My friend Thomas Reiss, he’s done this race a bunch of times, he has a house up there and is very generous to let me stay there. So it was just one of those things where I feel like I needed the space mentally. I hadn’t had a lot of space mentally to get focused on a race. So, even more than physically—yeah, it’s been nice to be at altitude and heat train and do all these things—but it gave me the space to say, I’m getting my head right for this race because that is the biggest part for me.
iRunFar: Do you think consciously or unconsciously it’s even more buy-in that you’ve taken that time and dedicated it to yourself and this race?
Yanko: It’s interesting because I thought about that. I was like, Oh, I won’t put so much pressure on myself, But honestly, I’ve just gotten to a place where I’m like… it’s just been such an interesting journey from the beginning of this year where I felt like I was just in my own personal space to where I am today just feeling a lot of gratitude and really excited to be here and also not really having an attachment on the outcome. There are so many sets of circumstances that I just… I know that running 100 miles and putting it together is more than… everybody is fit. Everybody has done the little things. That’s not what it’s about. For me, I‘m just looking at this time as, That was a gift. It’s just made me kind of arrive happy and excited. I’m not… I don’t feel nervous. I just feel like it’s going to be a journey, and it’s going to be really f—ing hard. That’s awesome. So, in the end, I’m glad it worked out that way. I was nervous. Oh, what if I just… I’m going to be like, but I put all this into it… but you know what? One doesn’t have anything to do with the other.
iRunFar: Having known you for a long time, there’s a little bit of…
Yanko: Ten years!
iRunFar: There’s a little bit of intensity in your personality. Are you going to be all bubbles and unicorns out on the course, or are there going to be times where you get that typical…?
Yanko: Oh, no. I don’t know if you watched Billy Yang’s video of me at Sean O’Brien. I’m the most fun person ever to film because I’m super transparent. I am not rainbows and unicorns all the time. It’s not who I am. I’m sure there will be times… There are two film crews who are going to be catching every detail of how I feel, and I don’t have an unrealistic expectation that how I feel at this moment—a deep sense of calm—is going to radiate through me the whole time. I’ve been out running in the canyons multiple times. It sucks. It’s going to suck. I’m not going to come out of there like, “Heeeyyyyy.” If I do, then wow, I’m having a really great day.
iRunFar: You’re still going to be able to smash through that wall and push through it.
Yanko: Yeah, at Javelina, that’s what I realized. Ultra[sports]live had caught me very animatedly and live coming into an aid station, “I’m done! I’m out of here. This is horrible.” Yeah, the whole world got to see that. I know that those moments are going to come, but at this point I don’t take it as seriously as I did before. One of the things that has been really important for my own evolution, and this race is kind of a catalyst for, is not really being as hard on myself—not assigning more meaning. If I’m having a hard time, it’s not because I’m a bad person. If I don’t do well, I don’t have this worthiness tied up in that. I think that’s just me having that self-work and the time. The last time I did this, I was very young coming into this sport. I just don’t think I had the tools to understand this. I was definitely hustling for my worthiness in the community. I wanted to prove… Western States is it, right? It’s like for marathoners, running Boston. That’s the question, right? I just wanted to prove myself in a way that now I don’t really care.
iRunFar: So, say you’re going up Devil’s Thumb. It’s 105 [degrees Fahrenheit], and you’re starting to get nauseous. What do you do?
Yanko: Well, I have a bear friend. Every time I’ve gone up in the last three or four weeks, there’s been a bear hanging out there. I’ve felt that way. The last time, that’s where it went sideways. I distinctly remember the panic. For now, this time when that starts happening, it’s like, Work the problem. Take the time. Last time I was afraid to stop at the aid station and have a popsicle.
iRunFar: Popsicles are really good.
Yanko: They are so good. My crew—chestful of Otterpops for me. Just not rushing ahead—it’s like, when that comes up, you take a step back. That’s what I did at Javelina because I was running around in a desert, and it was really hot, and I got a little sick. Then you start spiraling. If you let that spiral, you can, but it’s like, if that happens, you have to figure out what the problem is. If I need to slow down, you slow down. I don’t go that fast anyway. At least for me, I don’t have the issue about running too fast uphill. I’ve become a very good uphill runner, but it’s not my thing. I’m not worried about pacing myself. When I get there, I’m like, Time to walk! Yes!
iRunFar: It’s a great walk break.
Yanko: It’s such a nice walk break. I’ve done it so many times now that I’m like, Okay, I’m going to walk and it’s going to take me about this much time. The thing is, the three runs that I’ve done in the past month there, none of them have been like, I can’t wait for the Canyons! They’ve all had their issues. When I look at those splits, if I go that slow and it felt glacial at times, that’s still a very… if you compare it to an intra-race split, that’s still very good. That’s what I try and remember. Even when I’m going slow, to have that perspective that there are different sections where… that’s a slow section, and there are sections where I… I think I was second on Strava to the River when I tempo-ed that section the next day on the training weekend. We tempo-ed down to the River, and I just crushed it. So I know I can run that pretty fast. I won’t be running that fast.
iRunFar: That will probably be a good section to run fast though.
Yanko: Yeah, Larisa Dannis is my pacer there, so it’s possible we could set the course record there because she’s super, super fast on the downhills.
iRunFar: So you’re not out to prove yourself to the community like you were in 2010, but you’re fit, you’re acclimated, so what’s your goal? What are you going for?
Yanko: I would like to run as fast as I can. Let’s be real. It would be amazing if everything came together and I could just crush it. I think it’s going to be really hot, so I think the times are… it’s really hard to say, “I have a time goal,” because it doesn’t matter. Time goals are nothing. My goal is to run my race and to set myself up for… what I did at Javelina is kind of what I keep in mind. The last part of a race on a course like this… this is why I wanted to come back. What I did at Javelina was to run the last 41 even faster than the lead guy did. The lead man beat me. He almost broke the men’s course record. This course is conducive to that kind of running, so I just need to take care of myself through Foresthill. Then I want to be in a position of doing what I know my body is capable of doing in those last 38 miles.
iRunFar: So maybe to paraphrase, to put yourself in a position to be proud of your last 38 miles?
Yanko: Yeah, I know how runnable that is. I want to be able to run it. I have the people to do it—Larisa and then Krissy [Moehl]. That idea really excites me. So I just have to be really smart. Part of that is running my own race. You talk about puppies and kittens and unicorns and all that—it’s going to take something in this race that I didn’t have last time which was letting people go. In ultras, a lot of times, I train by myself. It was mine to do what I did. In this race, you’re going to be seeing the next person. There are going to be people passing you and people having different races. We’re all going to get there a different way. I just really have to focus on doing it the way I have planned and not… Last time, I think I was just totally trying to run other people’s races. Then when I was not feeling good, it just freaked me out.
iRunFar: Congratulations on the journey you’ve already taken. Best of luck on your journey on Saturday.
Yanko: Thank you. Thank you.