YiOu Wang won the 2019 The North Face 50 Mile Championships by being patient early and staying strong all race. In this interview, YiOu shares the play-by-play of how her race played out, how it feels to finally win her hometown 50-mile race, and what she’s looking forward to racing–and not racing–in 2020.
Read our results article to find out what else happened at the front of the race.
iRunFar: Bryon Powell of iRunFar here with YiOu Wang after her win at the 2019 TNF 50. Congratulations!
YiOu Wang: Thank you so much, Bryon. That was awesome [laughs].
iRunFar: Awesome and, dare I guess, painful?
Wang: You know, 50 miles always hurts. Regardless of where you finish and how well you’re feeling, it’s painful at the end, that’s for sure.
iRunFar: Well, you’ve definitely secured yourself now as someone who can nail 50 miles. You’re phenomenal at it.
Wang: I’ll just stick to that for a little while, per our pre-race conversation.
iRunFar: But let’s talk about your race. The women’s race went out really…
Wang: Bonkers [laughs].
iRunFar: Were you part of that? Who was the pace setter?
Wang: It was interesting because everyone has different strengths when it comes to trail running. Some people are better climbers, some people are better descenders. This course lends itself to a lot of back-and-forth because you have long climbs and long descents. I think it starts with a pretty good climb up until you get to the top of the ridge and then you have a long descent down Rodeo Valley. There was a group of us – it was hard to tell how many because it was still dark – but there was probably five or six of us together at the top. Once we started descending down Rodeo Valley, Clare Gallagher is just kamikaze-ing [gestures that her arms are windmilling on a descent] Clare-style down Rodeo Valley and a bunch of women followed her.
I’m not a great downhiller or a super fast descender. I think part of the tricky part of this race is that it’s tempting when it’s dark and cool in the morning to run really fast – especially going down Rodeo Valley because you’re so excited and fresh. So, I kind of held back from that group and I figured I would bridge them again on the climbs and I did. I bridged the lead group of women going up Bobcat, which we go up the first time. Then, we go down Rodeo Valley again and I think people were a little more controlled going down Rodeo Valley. I think Clare did end up falling early on in the race. She had dirt prints on her butt, but she looked like she was okay. She was back up running.
So, climbing up Miwok, a group of women went in front of me and was running maybe 15 seconds in front of me going down Rodeo Valley. Then we started climbing up Miwok. I bridged up to that group and got in front of them, and Addie Bracy and Anna Mae Flynn came with me. The three of us were going just a bit faster up Miwok. Then, going down Marincello, Addie and Anna Mae really put the jets on. So did Abby Hall. I just ran what I thought was reasonable without letting them get too far away. I know all the trails. I know that as soon as we hit Coastal, it’s going to be another grinder.
iRunFar: You knew you’d make up some time.
Wang: Yeah. I passed Abby going up Tennessee Valley and then I caught up to Anna Mae and Addie going up Coastal. Once again, they got ahead of me going down Coastal.
iRunFar: It sounds like you could rationalize your approach of letting them get ahead on the downhills, but then catching back up. Did it also take an emotional toll?
Wang: One of the things I was doing was listening to everybody’s effort. I felt like everyone was trying so hard going downhill. I was trying to just breathe through my nose going downhill. I was running 6:15-6:20 per mile pace going downhill and I wasn’t working as hard as everyone else. This course is so runnable that you don’t want to be working that hard, even on a descent. Okay, you gain 15 seconds per mile, but that’s really going to come back to bite you.
iRunFar: Rather than letting that get to you [that other women were faster on the downhills], you’re thinking, “I’ve run one mile easier.”
Wang: Yeah, I’m just chilling on the downhills here.
iRunFar: And you know they’re not.
Wang: Yeah, because you can hear them breathing. After doing the climb up Coastal we get on Redwood Creek. I moved in front of Anna Mae because she sounded like maybe she was working a bit hard at that point. I could see Addie in front of me, so I gradually caught her on the climb. Then we were pretty much together going up through Cardiac. I was climbing a bit better, just based on effort level. All of those climbs just feel so familiar. I know what to expect, where to expend more effort.
iRunFar: You literally know which side of the trail is rutted.
Wang: Exactly [laughs]. Well, I haven’t done that climb in a long time because it’s a horribly long climb, but I think that kind of grade suits runners such as myself and Addie because we can run them really well. Coming out of Cardiac, at that point I felt like I was running strong and controlled – not redlining or anything. I just wanted to keep my legs moving and feel like I was staying at a good pace. I thought that Addie would catch me going down Matt Davis, because I’m not great going down the technical descent going into Stinson. She was right behind me going into Stinson. We were pretty much together.
iRunFar: Yeah, pretty much. She was just behind. Seeing you both there, I was a little worried for both of you. You looked really focused and I know that if I say something I normally at least get a smile from you, but it was… game face. And so was she! I was thinking, “It’s a little early for this.”
Wang: Well, I think that with TNF and the quality of the field, you have to just race. Maybe we went out too hot and our finishing times could have been a little faster if we’d held back, but you never know if someone’s going to go out front and stay out front.
iRunFar: There’s enough talent there that somebody could send it from really early.
Wang: Yeah, and I think: Nothing ventured, nothing gained. You shouldn’t be turning yourself inside-out at that point to stay with the leaders. But if it’s comfortable, then you can’t let people get too far away at that point, because if you don’t see them, then it’s also less motivating for you to try to bridge up and catch them.
I ran pretty well up Dipsea. I think I was climbing better than Addie at that point. I think I put some time going up Dispea – I got a pretty good gap. I felt really great going up Dipsea. Then, I started the descent and that’s when I think the heat at the top and the humidity started to get to me. It sounds like everyone else in the field suffered, too.
iRunFar: Yeah, it’s crazy because for the entire race, everyone who wasn’t on those ridges was thinking, “This is a cool, perfect morning.” But that wasn’t the case.
Wang: It was humid all day and that was a bit deceptive. In the fog, the temperature was cooler and you were out of the sun. Once you pop out of the fog… it was actually quite humid and I was worried about getting low on electrolytes. I actually did start cramping. This leg [her right] started cramping going up Dipsea. Then this leg [her left] started cramping.
iRunFar: And there’s still a long way to go.
Wang: There’s still a long way to go. But I think I was really proud of myself for not panicking and figuring it out. I think at Cardiac I was starting to feel a little bit wonky on that long descent to Muir Woods. What’s that aid station you get to after Cardiac?
iRunFar: You would know far better than I would. [YiOu lives and trains in the area.]
Wang: I think it’s right at the bottom of the Dipsea. I think there’s an aid station there when you cross Muir Woods Road. So, I ate potatoes with a handful of salt. I was like, “I need salt!” Going up Dynamite, I really started cramping, so I walked up Dynamite and I actually stopped and stretched a little bit at the top, and ,then, I ran down Deer Park fire road and things started to be working themselves out. So, I knew that every aid station, I needed to pound the salt. That’s what I did, and it kind of made the cramping go away… eventually.
iRunFar: So, you start building a lead on Addie. Is there any point in those last 20 miles where you thought you were giving back time to someone behind you?
Wang: It was interesting, because after Stinson no one really told me any splits. I was like, “I’m just going to keep running.” At that point you also merge with the 50k runners. So, the trail is a bit more crowded, but you also have people to pass at that point. There’s a lot of carrots on the trail [laughs]. It’s a lot better than feeling like you’re alone out there. So, I just kind of stayed within my effort level that I thought would be sustainable.
I was still feeling pretty good on the climbs. I was just passing people, like 50k runners. But nobody told me any splits until I came down Fox. I thought Addie was still right behind me. Then I saw [my coach] Mario Fraoli on my way up to the Tennessee Valley aid station and that’s when he told me I had eight minutes on Coastal. I thought, “Okay, I still feel pretty good. I’ll keep this effort and just keep moving toward the finish.”
iRunFar: Did that work for the rest of the race, more or less?
Wang: Yes. I just focused on running the rest of the race.
iRunFar: You could run it, but you didn’t have to put the hammer down. You weren’t right at the red line.
Wang: I didn’t feel like I was redlining. I didn’t feel like I could because I was still battling these cramps, especially my adductors. They would start seizing. I’d be like, “Oh, back [the effort] down.” I’d run some more. “Oh, back it down.”
iRunFar: Just keeping it on the edge there.
Wang: Just keep from full-body spasming until the finish line.
iRunFar: Perfect! And you did: You made it, you won The North Face 50. How does this compare to your wins at Lake Sonoma or something like that? Is this maybe your best performance?
Wang: I think this is one of the best races that I’ve executed. I felt really great about my nutritional plan. I could’ve done a little bit better with the electrolytes, but that was kind of hard to predict. I’m really proud that I problem-solved my way out of a potentially really bad cramping situation and now I know that I can come back from that and it’s not the end of your day if your legs start cramping. You just have to find a solution. It’s certainly the best I’ve felt in the last five miles of a 50-mile race. I also saw Rob Krar at Tennessee Valley [laughs].
iRunFar: I think this is the part where we hear about how you passed Rob Krar.
Wang: Well, I think he let me pass him going up Marincello, because I was like, “Oh my, it’s Rob Krar! I have to keep running, I can’t let him see me hike up Marincello.” Then, he passed me right before the bridge. So, I was chasing Rob Krar’s shadow across the bridge. I was like, “Can’t slow down! Have to keep up!”
iRunFar: You just held on as long as you could?
Wang: Yes, yeah.
iRunFar: And this is the end of your season, I’m assuming?
Wang: This is the end of my season. I am going to go Thanksgiving – as a verb [laughs].
iRunFar: Yes! Fully indulge.
iRunFar: Nice. Have you started thinking at all about next year?
Wang: Next year, I’m really interested in doing CCC. That’s the only major thing that’s on my calendar. After this race, I’m going to take a few weeks off. Then, in December, I’m going to start ramping up for the Olympic Marathon Trials in Atlanta. So, I’ll do some marathon training, run the marathon, and then I haven’t really thought about what I’ll do in the spring or summer yet.
iRunFar: One thing that you have alluded to is that it won’t be 100 milers.
Wang: No, I’m going to stay away from 100 milers.
iRunFar: Why is that?
Wang: I think I’m really good at distances and terrain where I can run. 100 milers just require different skills. It requires a lot of hiking, a lot of eating. It requires being out there for a long time and, honestly, I get kind of bored [laughs]. Mentally, I can’t stay focused for that long. So, I think that I will stick to my sweet spot for a while.
iRunFar: Right on. Well, it certainly is. Congratulations on a great race out there today.
Wang: Thank you so much, Bryon. It was so great to have you out here.
The second article in a two-part series about the hip-hinge position for efficient running.