Leah Yingling returns to the 2023 Western States 100 after placing sixth last year. In the following interview, Leah talks about how she plans to race a little more aggressively this year, her new sponsor Lululemon, how she’s ready for whatever conditions the course will deliver, and what her own best race might look like.
Leah Yingling Pre-2023 Western States 100 Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Meghan Hicks of iRunFar. I’m with Leah Yingling. It’s a couple of days before the 2023 Western States Endurance Run. Hi, Leah.
Leah Yingling: Hi, Meghan. Thanks for having me.
iRunFar: Yeah. So the last time iRunFar interviewed you was only 14 months ago, after the 2022 Canyons 100k, but I feel like a lot has happened for you. Do you feel like that?
Yingling: I feel like that. Yeah. 100%. I feel like 2022 was the biggest year of my ultra running career to date. And lots of life happenings in the meantime. So, I feel like Canyons Leah is a completely different version than Western States 2023 Leah.
iRunFar: I feel like there’s a lot of ground to cover in this interview, but I want to start with Western States. Last year, you earned your Golden Ticket at Canyons. Two months later, you turned back up at Western States, took sixth in your first go at this event. Obviously, you’re back. What brings you here a second time?
Yingling: Yeah, I actually told myself when I got into Western States that I was like a one and done Western States runner. [laughs]
iRunFar: So hi, good morning. Here we are.
Yingling: Yeah. And you know, the tides turned, and I came back for one more round. So, I think it was you know, Western States is hard. It’s hard to not come back to after you have the experience the first time. Like there’s this part of you that wants to keep improving, wants to experience it again, wants to experience different conditions, and wants to experience the competitive nature that is Western States. And I think from a female ultrarunning perspective, the sport is getting faster and faster and more competitive. And I think we’re seeing that with the field this year. So yeah, I want to compete. I want to be against the best, and I want to experience the energy that is Western States. So maybe I’ll be two and done, but ask me on Sunday.
iRunFar: There is something you know, there’s a lot of ultras out there where you’re like, I go for the adventure. You have this amazing experience. You’re like, Okay, now I can move on to another adventure. This race is not like that for a lot of people. What are the, I mean, you talked about the specific sort of tangibles of your experience with the race and women’s competition, but this event, this place where we are, what is it you think that makes people come into it 20 times, 10 times? Two times?
Yingling: I think it’s a couple things. A, I think just like, how historic the event is. I mean, this was the first big race that I had ever heard of. It was the first race on my radar that I was like, I need to do that someday. So, I think that hype, that energy, and just the historic nature of the event keeps people wanting to experience it. The volunteers, I mean, like this year in general, the amount of effort that the volunteers and Craig [Thornley] put into the course to revive it to the state it’s in today. I mean, that’s amazing. I don’t think you can find volunteers quite so invested like they are at Western States. So I think it’s just the whole community around it is special. You need to experience it, and I know people that try for years and years and years to get in. There’s something that keeps them putting their name in the lottery every year and it’s just… this race, the community in general…
iRunFar: Is worth it.
Yingling: It’s worth it.
iRunFar: Alright, so back to you. After Western States last year, I think your next race after that was the Trail World Championships in the fall in Thailand.
Yingling: Yeah, yeah. That was an experience of a lifetime. I told myself I would stop my season there, and I didn’t obey myself. And ended up attempting to do Quad Dipsey in the fall, and that did not go as planned. So, the World Championships should have been where I put a pin in it for the year, and it was an incredible race, period. I think like, all the photos people saw of it, all the video capture from that event like, did it justice. It was incredible. The race was so impossibly hard and humid. And what a cool experience it was to be on Team USA with the phenomenal women and men that got to represent USA that day. Very different course than I’ll be seeing here Western States this year, but…
iRunFar: No jungle here.
Yingling: No jungle, no logs, no snakes.
iRunFar: I was going to say hopefully no snakes. [laughs]
Yingling: Hopefully no snakes.
iRunFar: Okay, so 2023 and Leah brings a totally different world for you. You’re sporting the Lululemon logo on your shirt right now. Tell us about that sponsorship and tell us about the arrival of Lulu to trail running.
Yingling: Yeah, it’s really exciting. And something that like, I didn’t really foresee, and I don’t think a lot of people foresaw. But it’s a really great thing for the sport, in general. I started chatting with the company back in December when I was kind of at a transition period in my sponsor trajectory, and just wanted to be embraced as a human. I remember telling my husband Mike [McMonagle], “I don’t care what the next year brings. I just want to feel supported as a human, and I want to feel a part of something bigger.” And I think that’s what Lululemon is really doing. They’re integrating us in such a way into like, their involvement and their interest in trail and ultra running, and making us feel like we are part of something. We’re innovating. We’re part of the conversations. And they’re interested in us from an emotional level, a physical level, mental level, like, everything. They want us to perform our best, feel our best, but also feel like a part of something. I think there’s so much value in that, and I think that’s when I personally can show up the best so really excited.
iRunFar: Speaking of being a part of something, what and who composes the Leah crew for 2023?
Yingling: It is a lot of my same crew from last year.
iRunFar: Okay, okay.
Yingling: So my husband Mike will be leading the charge, while also probably trying to take a picture or two out there.
iRunFar: So he’ll have the camera hanging on his neck.
Yingling: Exactly. And then, my friends Demetri and Theresa from Salt Lake City, they’ll be pacing and crewing. And then I actually have one of the folks from Lululemon named Peter on crew, getting the firsthand experience of crewing and ultrarunning, and everything that is 100 miles for the first time.
iRunFar: The highs and lows in between.
Yingling: Yeah, and then my friend Matt Mitchell will be pacing me the last section and good friend Anna Fisher from Salt Lake, so, bring it. Oh, yeah, my mom. My dad was here last year, and he ran me around the track. So this year, I told my mom she’d better be ready for 300 meters.
iRunFar: Let’s go, Mom. That’s a warmup on Saturday night.
Yingling: Let’s go, Susie.
iRunFar: Susie! So, Saturday. You’re from Salt Lake City. The Wasatch Mountains in Utah had a record-breaking winter. We’re looking at a fair bit of snow behind us. I’m guessing you’re going to feel comfortable with the uncertain high country conditions this year.
Yingling: 100%, yeah. I was actually hoping for like, the snowiest year possible.
iRunFar: You’d like this to be snow.
Yingling: I want this all to be snow. The snow, the heat, I like tough conditions. And Salt Lake City was just, we got slammed by winter. So, a lot of our high stuff actually hasn’t quite melted out yet. So, did a lot of my trail running this year on snow. So, no stranger to it. I prefer a little bit more of it. And I’m really excited to see what these conditions are. I think I’m somebody that can stay pretty just comfortable, calm, and confident on those conditions. So, that’s what I plan on doing on Saturday.
iRunFar: Yeah, staying cool, staying calm and then seeing what the later conditions and miles bring?
Yingling: Exactly, yeah. I like to control the controllables to the Nth degree. I’m a big planner. So, yeah, I’m just going to kind of do my thing out there. I think last year, I played it really conservative. And I mean, it played out great for me. I think at that time I said like, that was the best race of my life. So, I felt like every race I finished last year, I said that. So hoping I can kind of continue that trajectory this year. I think there’s a few areas where I can definitely improve, and put myself in the race a little bit more. And I know that’s a challenging thing for me to do. But I think that’s what will get me kind of where I want to be in the field this year.
iRunFar: Well, that’s what I wanted to ask you to end this interview was that you ran 18.5 hours last year. You finished sixth. It was on the hotter end of the spectrum, more difficult conditions. Like, those are some credentials to be proud of. But, of course, you don’t walk away from 100 miles without thinking of like, I could have done this a little better. What is it you’re going to be working on Saturday?
Yingling: Yeah, I think feeling more comfortable competing and hanging with my fellow female competitors. It’s really easy for me to sit back, and just bank on carnage throughout the day. But I think we’re seeing as a whole that there’s less carnage as these races get more competitive.
iRunFar: Nobody’s coming back anymore!
Yingling: So my strategy isn’t working as well anymore.
Yingling: So, I think just testing myself a little bit putting myself in the mix. So instead of being, you know, 25th at Robinson Flat, hoping to be more in the back of that top 10 and work my way up through the rest of the race. Hopefully charging from the river, like I did last year. I feel like that worked really well for me. So, banking on my pacers to bring me there.
iRunFar: Push you hard.
iRunFar: What is your best day like? If 97% of things go right, what does your best day look like?
Yingling: For me, I think that’s having what I would consider like a perfectly executed race. Getting everything out of myself from the start to the finish. Like, being able to charge from Robie Point, with my community surrounding me. I think having like, what I would consider best day is having everybody out there like, a part of it. And, that’s really special. I think this event is special. I hope to come back even though I said wanted one and done, two and done. We’ll see.
iRunFar: [laughs] Okay, so we started this interview with maybe two and done, but already in like five minutes we’re at maybe next year. You want the option.
Yingling: Yeah. I want the option. So yeah, I think if I have my best day like, I’m shooting for a podium position and I think just running smart, keeping it composed, and having fun will bring me there.
iRunFar: Awesome. Leah Yingling. Good luck to you on your second journey from Olympic Valley to Placer High School, and I look forward to seeing you in 2024.
Yingling: Thanks, Meghan. Me, too.