Rising to the Challenge: A Conversation with Leah Yingling

A profile of ultrarunner and biomedical engineer Leah Yingling, after her top 10 finishes at both the 2023 Western States 100 and the 2023 UTMB.

By on September 28, 2023 | Comments

Placing in the top 10 at both the Western States 100 and UTMB in one season is a lofty goal for anyone, but even more so for someone juggling a full-time job with frequent work travel alongside training and racing. That’s exactly what Leah Yingling had in her sights for 2023, and she hit the target on both counts. I caught up with her to find out how her recovery is going, and to learn more about the course she’s traveled to become one of the top 100-mile racers in the U.S.

Leah Yingling grew up in Johnstown Pennsylvania, an hour outside of Pittsburgh. Together with her three sisters, she had an active upbringing, participating in soccer and basketball as a child, until her freshman year in high school where she added running to the mix. She said, “My sisters and I, we all ran on the cross-country team together, which to this day is still among my fondest running memories. We ended up making it to the Pennsylvania cross-country state championships together, which was really special.”

Leah Yingling - 2005 High school XC PA State Championships

Leah Yingling (second from the left) at the 2005 Pennsylvania cross-country state championships with her three sisters. Photo courtesy of Leah Yingling.

Yingling continued running, alongside basketball, throughout high school, but left feeling a little jaded from the competitive aspect of the sport. She said: “I ended up going to school in Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh. It was highly intensive, really challenging. I started running again more as a mental reset during my freshman year there.”

Then Yingling’s relationship with running was hugely altered, when at the end of her freshman year, she was a victim of a sexual assault while out running. After this life altering event, running became more meaningful and an act of defiance for Yingling, who said, “Up until that point, I was just running casually for fun. But after that, I took a little bit of time off and when I returned to running, I started seeking out the longer distances. Just because I felt that running was something that was almost taken away from me at that moment, and I really wanted to take it back for myself, and just explore a little bit more of what I could do, and just see where the long distances could take me.”

She became involved in advocacy against sexual assault, and through a local charity, helped to raise money and awareness to help others affected by the issue. Of this advocacy work, Yingling says: “To this day, that was still one of my big passion projects.” Simultaneously, she was training for her first marathon, the 2013 Pittsburgh Marathon, which was made more challenging by the feeling of being unsafe running on the streets, and she said, “I ended up doing probably 75% of my running on a treadmill.”

Leah Yingling - Pittsburgh Marathon 2013

Leah after her first marathon, the 2013 Pittsburgh Marathon. Photo courtesy of Leah Yingling.

Already growing in comfort with longer distances, it was when she moved to the Washington D.C. area for work in 2014 that Yingling first discovered trail running. She said, “I was really looking for community there … I had heard about the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club, and I knew that they did a weekly group run out at Great Falls Park. So, I started joining them every Wednesday, or as many Wednesdays as I could make it, and that was really my first introduction to trail running.”

Here Yingling found the connection she was looking for, with a welcoming and experienced bunch of trail runners, who were already planting the seeds in her mind to delve into ultrarunning. She added, “Conveniently too, that was right around the time I met my now husband [Mike McMonagle.] When I met him, I think he had probably 50-plus ultramarathons to his name. So, our first summer together — we were dating long distance between Washington D.C. and Virginia Beach — most of our weekends were spent meeting halfway, or somewhere on the East Coast, or running a race. He would do the 50k or 50 miler, and I would typically do the 25k or the trail marathon.”

The following year, in 2015, Yingling stepped up to her first 50k, at the Belmead Trail Fest, outside of Richmond, Virginia. Her first foray into the distance went off well, and she said: “After that I set my mind to completing another 50k, and then some time in the future, with eyes on the 50-mile distance,” but added, “I remember vividly at that time — my husband Mike had done a few 100 milers, he’d done the Burning River 100 Mile and Western States 100, and told me his horror stories. And I was like ‘There’s no way I want to do a 100 miler,’ and yet here we are!”

Leah Yingling - 2015 Belmead Trail Fest 50k

Leah Yingling racing her first 50k, at the Belmead Trail Fest in 2015. Photo: Mike McMonagle

In 2016, Yingling moved to Salt Lake City, Utah, for graduate school. Building on her earlier education, and her work as a researcher at the National Institutes of Health in D.C., she pursued further studies in the field of biomedical informatics. She said, “I would say that is really when my ultramarathon running started to take off. In Salt Lake City, our proximity to the mountains is really unmatched for being a larger city. We have the Wasatch Mountains just outside our back door, and it’s really hard to do a run that doesn’t go straight up.”

Yingling quickly discovered a strong community of runners called the Wasatch Mountain Wranglers, who helped her to find her feet in the mountains, and to learn and hone the skills she needed for long days of autonomous exploration and longer distance racing.

Leah Yingling - 2016 Dead Horse 50 Mile with husband Mike

Leah Yingling smiling her way through her first 50 miler, the 2016 Dead Horse 50 Mile, with her husband Mike. Photo: Mad Moose Events

Then in 2018, she stepped up the distance to her first 100 miler, the Bear 100 Mile in Utah. She recalls, “It was a fantastic day. I remember crossing the finish line and thinking, That was my best race ever, which is really cool to say about your first 100 miles. I went in really humbled by the distance.” Although it all worked out on the day, Yingling had a stressful lead-in to the race and said: “My training for that race was pretty great, but then I stepped on a nail 10 days before the race. That’s actually a race memory I reflect on often, because I ended up having to take 10 days off before running that 100 miler. So, any time I’m in training and have to take a week off because I have a little niggle, I remind myself of that.”

Yingling placed second at the Bear 100 Milr and continued to rack up wins at around the 50k distance. Growing in confidence, she said: “I remember having a conversation with my husband at the end of 2019, and I was like, ‘Next year, 2020, I’m going to put myself in it a bit more.’ That was the first year that I felt I could be competitive with the other women in the sport. But then 2020 hit, and I had to put those goals on hold for a bit.” She went on, “Chasing a Golden Ticket [into the Western States 100] was definitely on my mind, and I signed up for the Canyons 100k in 2021. That was the first time I really stood on a start line and believed that I could be part of the front women. I think just having that belief in myself really flipped a switch in my mind and in my racing.”

On the day, Yingling performed well but fell short of contention for the Golden Ticket, placing sixth in a competitive women’s field — amongst big names such as Beth Pascall, Audrey Tanguy, and Emily Hawgood. She said, “I think that race really instilled a lot of confidence in me. I raced it conservatively and then moved my way up, but I just felt so strong at the finish line and thought I could definitely take a few more risks in the future.”

Leah Yingling - training in Moab, Utah

A training run in Moab, Utah. Photo: Mike McMonagle

Early the following year, Yingling lined up at the Bandera 100k, still in pursuit of the elusive Golden Ticket. She again ran a strong race, but was passed with four miles to go, slipping into third place and out of the required placing for the Golden Ticket. Undeterred, she signed up for another attempt at the 2022 Canyons 100k later that spring. In the interim period, she raced the Gorge Waterfalls 50k, the Transgrancanaria 65k, and a local Running Up for Air 6 Hour. This build-up helped her transition from the type of training she had been doing for a fast runnable course at Bandera, to prepare for the more mountainous Canyons course.

Finally, her luck was in, and she recounts: “In that race I started conservative early in the day and then moved my way up in the last 20 miles into a Golden Ticket spot, and then moved into second place with about 5k to go.” Yingling’s place on the Western States 100 start line was sealed.

Leah Yingling - 2022 Canyons by UTMB 100k

Leah Yingling takes second at the 2022 Canyons by UTMB 100k and accepts her Western States 100 Golden Ticket. Photo: iRunFar/Meghan Hicks

She prepared diligently for the big day, and said: “I really wanted to make sure that no stone was left unturned with regard the cooling strategies, I really wanted to take care of myself out there.”

Her diligence paid off, as she recalls, “I think that led me to having the day that I had, where I was in top 20 early on. I moved up I think to top 15 by Foresthill, and finally at the river I think was the first time I entered the conversation in the iRunFar tweets, which meant I had moved up to the top 10.”

She went on, “Between the river and the finish, I had taken four spots. Those four hours from the river to the finish last year were some of the most fun racing I’ve ever done. I was being paced by my friend Matt Mitchell. I’ve never felt that good late in a 100 miler, that was a foreign feeling. That day was just incredible.” She finished in sixth place, in a time of 18:32.

Leah Yingling - training in Chamonix- 2023

Training in the Alps, in the summer of 2023. Photo: Mike McMonagle

To polish off an already busy 2022 season, Yingling was then selected to run for Team USA at the 2022 Trail World Championships 80k in Thailand, in November. She said, “Representing Team USA was such an honor. It’s very seldom that you get to participate on a team in our sport, and you’re running for more than yourself then.”

Although she had been signed up for UTMB as well as Western States in 2022, Yingling shared that there was always a question mark over whether she’d be in a position to follow through with the double. In the end, the decision was made for her, as a minor calf tear after Western States had not sufficiently recovered to allow her to race again come late August.

In 2023, however, the double was a goal that was front and center in Yingling’s mind. She said, “My goal for my 2023 of racing was that I wanted to be top 10 at both Western States and UTMB. And I knew my way of accomplishing that would be by racing less earlier in the season and focusing really heavily on the recovery between the two races.”

With the luxury of already having her place in the 2023 Western States secured through her 2022 top 10 finish, Yingling didn’t have the same pressure to follow Golden Ticket races early in the season, and could indulge in an easier build-up. She said, “I kept it a little bit on the low volume side, less racing, just keeping consistent enough.”

Despite drastically different build-ups, her 2023 race at Western States played out in a similar fashion to that of 2022, and she recalls: “I was shooting for an 18-hour finish, and luckily the weather gods were on our side, so it ended up being a little under 18 hours. I finished three places lower, but I remember crossing the finish line thinking I never would have thought I’d feel this happy with a ninth-place finish. I didn’t really have anything go wrong all day, and I just executed it exactly how I wanted to.”

2023 Western States 100 - Leah Yingling - Eszter Csillag - Meghan Morgan

Leah Yingling, Eszter Csillag, and Meghan Morgan running together at Robinson Flat during the 2023 Western States 100. Photo: iRunFar/Jaja Ferrer Capili

Yingling’s training, racing, and recovery are made more complicated by upholding a demanding career alongside running. She still works full-time as a biomedical engineer. She explained, “I work in the electrophysiology space, which is a branch of cardiology, and I work for a medical device company — launching all of our new technologies regionally.”

Yingling’s work demands quite a lot of regional travel, which requires her to be flexible with her training, and she credits her coach with helping to make this happen. She said, “I’ve been working with Megan Roche as my coach, and she’s been so great for being flexible with my training and also adapting with what’s going on in my life. I am historically a lower volume trainer, compared with my competitors. I usually stick to around 60 to 70 miles per week of training with a day off. Sometimes I can choose when I travel for work, so I’ll try to overlay it a little bit with when I have an off day in training, and I’ll take my running shoes with me.”

Yingling is currently enjoying a leave of absence for three to six months, which began in August, and has been using the time to build in more recovery into her schedule, rather than adding more training miles. She shared, “The month I’ve had off with UTMB has been the best routine I’ve ever gotten into. I was sleeping eight hours a night, I was eating well, and actually recovering from my training. Recovery has been my Achilles heel over the past few years. I took this leave of absence and I think a lot people might be adding training when they are off from work, but my training has stayed exactly the same and I’m just adding more recovery to my calendar, which I think is one of the reasons I was able to make it to the UTMB start line healthy [so soon after Western States.]”

Leah Yingling - 2023 UTMB - Courmayeur

Leah Yingling runs through the cheers of crowds in Courmayeur at the 2023 UTMB. Photo: iRunFar/Jaja Ferrer Capili

Yingling said the experience she gained crewing and spectating the year before, and titbits of knowledge picked up just from attending the event, were invaluable when it came to racing her UTMB debut. Although she feels some mistakes were made and there is still room for improvement, and another chapter to be written in her UTMB story, the day played out well to an eighth-place finish — thus accomplishing her goal of top-10 finishes in two of the world’s most competitive 100 milers in one season.

As for now, she says: “Recovery is going well. We’re about two weeks and a couple of days after UTMB and I’ve done three or four runs. Just brainstorming what to do for 2024 and the rest of this year.”

For one thing, her name will be in the lottery for the 2024 Hardrock 100, and with a return for a second crack at UTMB potentially on the cards. Yingling was reluctant to commit to hanging up her racing shoes for the rest of 2023, and hinted at racing Ultra-Trail Cape Town later this year. For now, we’ll watch this space.

Call for Comments

Calling all Leah Yingling stories! You know what to do in the comments section.

Sarah Brady

Sarah Brady is Managing Editor at iRunFar. She’s been working in an editorial capacity for ten years and has been a trail runner for almost as long. Aside from iRunFar, she’s worked as an editor for various educational publishers and written race previews for Apex Running, UK, and RAW Ultra, Ireland. Based in Belfast, Ireland, Sarah is an avid mountain runner and ultrarunner and competes at distances from under 10k to over 100k. When not running, she enjoys reading, socializing, and hanging out with her dog, Angie, and cat, Judy.