This weekend, YiOu Wang has a chance to become a three-time winner of the Lake Sonoma 50 Mile. In the following interview, YiOu talks about why she’s returning to race Lake Sonoma, what she did during a year of global travel, and how that travel has changed her perspective on both running and life.
YiOu Wang Pre-2019 Lake Sonoma 50 Mile Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Bryon Powell of iRunFar here with YiOu Wang before the 2019 Lake Sonoma 50 Mile. How are you, YiOu?
YiOu Wang: I’m doing great. How are you?
iRunFar: I’m doing great. I just came from snowy Silverton, Colorado, to here where it’s short sleeves, sunny…
Wang: Welcome to Marin County, California. What can I say? It’s our gorgeous bubble [laughs].
iRunFar: And what a gorgeous bubble it is. You’ve run Lake Sonoma three times before. You DNFed the first time when, I think, you were still figuring out the 50-mile distance. And you’ve won twice here. What brings you back?
Wang: I just love the race so much. Lake Sonoma was on my schedule because it’s a Golden Ticket race and I wanted to get back into the Western States 100 for 2019. In 2018, I was off traveling the world. I missed this race and I missed Western States. So, one of my goals for 2019 was to do Western States again. I’ve had really good experiences here at Lake Sonoma, with wins in 2016 and 2017. It was sort of at the top of my Golden Ticket race list.
Then, I ended up doing Black Canyon 100k and getting my Golden Ticket there. But I was still registered for Lake Sonoma. Originally, I wasn’t planning at all to run Lake Sonoma anymore. Then, I kind of wanted to see how I felt after Black Canyon and how training was going to go after Black Canyon and… training’s gone really well. I had a few weeks after Black Canyon where I just felt really flat and tired. Looking back on it, that was just race fatigue. I was working through all of that damage done to your body after you push it for 100k [laughs].
Talking to my coach this last week, we decided I would do Lake Sonoma, because I like the race so much. But I’m training through it. I’m not tapering. This is going to be a really high-mileage week. We’ll see how it goes because there’s a couple of things that I want to practice during Lake Sonoma in preparation for Western States. I want to practice not having crew, so I’m going to do the race without a crew. I also wanted to get in a really honest long run. Being the competitive field that it is, it’s going to be fast and furious and hard. I’ll be forced to run a lot harder than I would on my own. There are some nutrition things I want to work on ahead of Western States. It’s going to be a sunny and warm day. As you–and probably other people watching this video–know, I have struggled in the past with heat. At Western States, no matter how much snow is on the course, it’s always going to be hot. So that’s something I still have to work on. I want to fine tune some electrolyte and nutrition strategies in a race setting.
iRunFar: You’re going, as you said, at a more intense effort than you would on your own, doing a long training run. That changes how your body can process the fuel.
Wang: Exactly. If I were to go out on a 50k training run on my own, I would stop, take my time, and not really be in a true race-pressure mindset. Going into Lake Sonoma, even though it’s not an A race this year… I’ll be tired, I’ll have tired legs going into it… it’s going to be challenging for me in a different way. I like to race, you know [laughs].
iRunFar: Yeah, you’re not the person who’s going to say, “Oh, this isn’t my A race, I’m just going to jog through it.”
Wang: I don’t jog any race, but I will definitely go into this race more tired than I would if it was an A race. That’s going to force me to be tough and gritty in a different way, which is something I’ll have to be in the second half of Western States. I’ll be tired, but I’ll still have to be in a race mindset. Some of the things that have bitten me in the past is that I get so into racing that I forget about the nutrition and the hydration and the electrolytes. Then an hour or two later, that comes to haunt me. On Saturday, I will really be paying attention to those things, no matter where I am in the field [laughs].
iRunFar: Has the context for this race changed for you now that you have an entry into Western States? Can you be a little more aggressive or push it a little more than if your goal was to get a Golden Ticket?
Wang: Yeah, I think I will probably take more risk in some parts of the race than I have in the past. Versus “Oh, I need to solidify my position and make sure I can make it,” maybe I do try to see how hard and how far I can push, without it being so much like I have to maintain my position and get a Golden Ticket. I can experiment with race strategies and look for places where I might not feel great, but I’m still able to push the effort and see how that plays out.
iRunFar: Maybe there’s an extra percent you can squeeze out there. You think you can improve upon your past times on the Lake Sonoma course?
Wang: I haven’t seen what condition the trails are in right now. The first year that I ran it, the trail conditions were really good. The second year I ran it, the trails were a bit sloppier. I feel the whole course was a bit slower. The weather this year is, I think, going to be similar to 2016. It might actually be warmer this year. So, I think there’s a combination–it’s been very stormy and rainy over the past winter in Marin. From reports, the water crossings aren’t too bad but some parts of the trail are very mucky. It will dry out this week because we have a few days of sun going into Saturday, but there are low spots in the trails. Mountain bikers come through and there’s a lot of wild pigs in the Lake Sonoma area that just churn everything up. So, I don’t know how fast the course is going to run this year. I think it’s going to be tougher conditions in general because of how wet it’s been.
iRunFar: So it might not be the fastest course.
Wang: It might not be the fastest course this year, but you never know.
iRunFar: So, let’s talk about Black Canyon. Was that a good day for you?
Wang: I felt like that was a really good day for me. I was really happy with it. I think that I tend to be very hard on myself in terms of race results and one of the things I wanted to be conscious of, coming back from my trip and my time away from racing, is just to appreciate how every race plays out in its own context. It’s not a matter of, “Oh, you didn’t win. It’s not a successful day.” Or, “You could have run faster.” I don’t want to regret all of those things about the race. It’s more a matter of celebrating. I had a plantar flare-up a month before the race that meant I was unable to train for three weeks. I had other difficulties in traveling and getting to the race. It was a really long day.
Then, I had never done a 100k race successfully. I think I had started one 100k before Black Canyon and had DNFed. The 100k mark is the distance where I fell apart at Western States in 2017. There were all of these things that I conquered at Black Canyon and that I should be proud of and which I should celebrate for having achieved and conquered. I’m just super happy with Black Canyon in general. Meeting my goal of getting the Golden Ticket and putting together the performance that I did given training and all of these other things.
iRunFar: And you’ve taken a new approach to appreciating a race. That’s important.
Wang: Yeah, one of the things that I learned on my travels is that we need to just be so appreciative of all of the opportunities and the great fortune that we have. I mean, running is a gift. Racing is a gift. Being able to run as a choice is a gift [laughs]. Seeing people who are living in extremely tough conditions and conditions of extreme poverty who don’t have the opportunities that we have growing up in Western, developed countries. I think it really changed my perspective about running and racing. In one way, it’s made running less important, so I’ve become more relaxed about it… almost [laughs].
iRunFar: Nice! So, we’ve talked about it a couple of times and it’s on my list of things I wanted to talk to you about: this trip. Can you tell me a little about this world trip that you took? It took you out of racing for about a year.
Wang: Right! So, my husband and I were given the opportunity to work for a family, and to travel around the world teaching their two kids. We left in August of 2017 and traveled through 30 countries in 10 months. We went everywhere, all over Asia, South America, Africa, Australia. We went to places that were very modern, with huge metropolitan cities like Hong Kong, Singapore, Tokyo. And, then, we went to places that were very undeveloped. We went to rural regions in Africa, we went to Myanmar, we went to tiny villages that didn’t have electricity or running water.
We saw a whole breadth and diversity of cultures and experiences and ways of life. It makes you really think about how you live your own life, first of all, and how your life can impact other people. I went through this whole period right after the trip where I thought, “Man, I probably do the most selfish thing in the world: be a professional runner.” It’s all about me, me, me [laughs]. With the training and the racing and the travel. I’m thinking about my carbon footprint and how do I actually influence and help the planet, the community, the world, other people. How can I do that as a runner? That’s really a difficult thing.
iRunFar: So how do you answer that?
Wang: I’m still teaching. Wait, you have a giant mosquito on your arm [swats it off Bryon’s arm]. One of the things that spoke to me is how important education is. Education and also providing kids with opportunities to use that education. In a lot of places, especially in Africa, we saw a lot of good-hearted initiatives to bring running water, electricity, and education to rural villages or tribal communities. But then there was no follow-through afterward.
iRunFar: So people could become healthy, literate teenagers, but then what?
Wang: Right. Where do they go? What do they do with that? One of the things that I’ve been thinking about is: how do you have a bigger impact on a community through education, but also providing them with opportunities to do something with that education? I still haven’t started my NGO or anything [laughs].
iRunFar: You haven’t started some micro-lending organization…
Wang: No, no. That might be in the pipeline. Another thing that I noticed was how people respond to running. It is this crazy thing that we do for ourselves, but it also brings people together and it speaks to communities. For example, we ran in Ethiopia. If you’re a person running around, everyone wants to talk to you. Everyone wants to run with you and to meet you and get to know you. I think there’s an opportunity there for me to use running as sort of an ambassadorship. There are a lot of organizations that I’ve noticed recently that are taking that route. There’s Girls Gotta Run, which is doing great work in Ethiopia. I look up to Clare Gallagher’s work a lot, with how she’s been able to connect her running with saving the planet or environmental activism.
iRunFar: She does environmental activism, but you’re thinking more about the human aspect?
Wang: Well, we saw a lot of environmental degradation all around the world: glaciers receding, deforestation, desertification. I think I felt at the end of the trip, taking all of those pieces and putting them all together… it’s human-caused, but at the front lines, it’s people that are desperately trying to survive and to make a living. They’re not purposefully trying to turn all of the savannah into desert. They’re just trying to feed themselves by grazing their animals on this land.
iRunFar: Economic world history shows that as you increase income and standard of living, the individual’s ability to care for and improve the environment goes up at a certain point. There’s more and more pollution, but then it goes down again as you increase income.
Wang: It’s very hypocritical of us here to say, “Oh, you people in Africa, you shouldn’t cut down your forests. You shouldn’t overgraze your lands.”
iRunFar: We did that here. That’s how we got here.
Wang: Yeah, we did that hundreds of years ago. And now our forests are starting to grow back because we’re not subsistence farmers anymore. But a lot of people in the world are still subsistence farmers, and until they have the same education and opportunities to raise themselves up economically, that’s just what they’re going to do.
iRunFar: You can’t have an expectation… they have to survive first. Well, that took a turn [laughs]. As I would hope and expect. That was great, YiOu.
Wang: Yeah, in summary: going into the rest of my racing career, whether it’s one year, three years, five years… I think I just have a broader perspective on what running means to me and how I want to use running to help other people and save the planet, eventually. We need to save the planet.
iRunFar: Well, good luck in your race on Saturday, and on saving the planet.