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This year, 32-year-old Leah Yingling is back for her second Western States Endurance Run.
In 2022, Yingling was the top American in the women’s field, finishing sixth place in 18:30 in her Western States debut after progressively making her way up through the field on a very hot day.
It was a fitting end to an adventure that started years before when Yingling began working towards a Western States entry via a Golden Ticket.
“I’m hoping to put myself in the mix a little bit more this year. I don’t think I entered the top 10 until the river crossing last year,” Yingling says. “I hope I find myself a few places higher at the River this year and able to charge hard for a podium spot.”
Yingling is known as a ferocious competitor who can put her head down and dig deep during tough conditions, from heat to deep snow. She trains in Salt Lake City, which had near record-breaking snowfall this winter, leaving Yingling to do many of her training runs on snow, which she says will give her an advantage going into this year’s historically snowy Western States.
“Leah is focused, hilarious, and incredibly insightful, all of which are based on a foundation of brilliance. She, and her partner Mike, are the type of people you dream to have as a best friend, on an ultrarunning crew, or at a dinner party,” says her coach, Megan Roche, who she has worked with since 2017. “She’s similar as an athlete and is dedicated to training while being flexible and smart to listen to her body when she needs to adjust.”
In a pre-race interview with IRunFar, Yingling said she originally thought she’d be a “one and done” runner at Western States, but the event’s gravitational pull was too much to escape, and she’s back for more, to see if she can improve her time on the historic course.
Seasons of Change
Yingling says the past year of her running career has been marked by change. Her 2022 was defined by a strong third-place performance at Bandera 100K, where she was third and narrowly missed a Golden Ticket. Then she turned in a second-place finish at the newly rebooted Gorge Waterfalls 50K and then raced her way into Western States with a Golden Ticket as the runner-up at the Canyons 100K. She also took third at Transgrancanaria 80K.
This year, racing has taken a backseat for Yingling in favor of more specific focus on training.
“While racing a lot has worked well for me, I have always desired a bigger chunk of training that has periodicity and feels a bit more progressive,” says Yingling. “I worked on my speed all winter and raced a 50K in March, ran a 50 miler in April and have just been stacking volume since then. I feel really fit, healthy and happy. Excited to see how it translates!”
Yingling also competed on Team USA as part of the women’s 80K at the inaugural World Mountain and Trail Running Championships in Thailand in November. A relentless cheerleader for the sport, she also frequently lends her analysis in on-air broadcasts and live streams, as well as on the Singletrack podcast.
In addition to a shift in training focus, Yingling also signed with Lululemon on the heels of the brand’s new FURTHER initiative to orient more scientific research on female athletes. Under the banner of FURTHER, Lululemon has chosen to bring together a collective of diverse female athletes to investigate and celebrate human possibilities and product innovation in an ultra-distance setting.
For the next nine months, culminating on International Women’s Day 2024, 10 female athletes will work with Lulelmon and the Canadian Sport Institute to offer themselves up for scientific studies to understand their limitations, discover their athletic potential using science, and how they can push their own personal boundaries.
The group comprises a wide range of athletes in their performance, geography and age ranges. There are experienced American ultrarunners Devon Yanko, Leah Yingling, Stefanie Flippin, and Camille Heron (Heron and Yingling are both racing WSER, while Flippin and Yanko have recently withdrawn due to health concerns).
Yingling says the sponsor change is a more holistic reflection of her goals.
“I feel supported as a human first and an athlete second. And, I’ve never realized how much that distinction matters to me,” says Yingling. “It’s been a ton of energy the last few months leading up to the launch, but the invigorating kind of energy. I know on race day I’ll be lining up as the best version of myself, and part of that is having the best people behind me.”
Stress is Stress
In addition to her training and partnership with Lululemon, Yingling works a demanding, full-time job in biomedical engineering.
“Stress is stress is stress. I’ve had the busiest season of my life the last six months with a demanding engineering job that has me traveling around Utah, Idaho and Montana most weeks, coupled with the FURTHER launch with lululemon and squeezing in training,” she says. “Anytime I feel the life scale start tipping in one direction, I take a step back and reevaluate.”
While she had originally planned on racing internationally this spring, Yingling pivoted to focus on adventures closer to home that enabled her to reconnect with family and community. Yingling ended up racing, and outright winning the Bull Run Run 50 in April, with her family as crew.
“My two-year-old nephew ran me into the finish and my parents and twin sister were slinging ice down my sleeves and down my shirt,” she says. “It was such a special and emotionally re-invigorating day that I know I’ll tap into when the going gets tough during Western States.”
Roche says Yingling brings her scientific knack for inquiry to her running, which is a huge boon for the inevitable problem-solving that occurs when running 100 miles through rugged terrain.
“Leah is a brilliant scientist! I get to hear stories from her work life, and I am always blown away by her intellect and how she balances training and work. Sometimes she will get out for training around the time I am going to bed for the night, and she always makes the best of these situations,” says Roche. “Before one of her key workouts, she was dissecting an animal brain in a hotel room for her work, and these are just the casual comments that make her training log.”
Balance and hard work are integral parts of the process for Yingling, who has been racing ultras since 2015.
“It’s not glamorous. I average 10-12 hours of training most weeks and peak around 15 hours, with one off day. It’s good old-fashioned hard work, structured around my full-time job,” says Yingling.
Up For A Challenge
Yingling hopes to improve on her performance from last year in a historically deep women’s field with athletes like Courtney Dauwalter, Katie Scheide, Emily Hawgood, Taylor Nowlin and Katie Asmuth among others. Yingling says the high level of competition, and skyrocketing performances among elite women is what keeps her coming back.
“I know my race experience will be different this year, but I’m excited to soak up the uniqueness. The new views, the new growth, the oppressive heat—all of it,” says Yingling. “I think the biggest challenge I’ll encounter is just self-comparison. I had, by my standards, a picture-perfect day last year, so I think it’s going to be easy to compare this year’s race to last year’s. I’m excited to work with what the day brings and celebrate the differences.”
“Leah applies her science and life brilliance to running and training theory,” says Roche. “I think the nature of this year’s Western States course suits her well because she’s so great at adjusting her racing and fueling strategy on the fly and has a history of successfully troubleshooting some of the most challenging ultrarunning variables that get thrown her way.”
Yingling has bold aspirations to finagle a Western States-UTMB double at some point in the future and go for top-ten finishes at both events. But, for now, she’s focused on making her way from Olympic Valley to Auburn, and to embrace the inevitable challenges that will arise as she strives for her potential—and maybe a podium finish.
“I’m excited to celebrate the course. The course has been through the ringer the last year and all of the volunteers and the entire Western States organization have contributed so much blood, sweat and tears to make this year’s rendition what it is.”
More than anything, Yingling’s run will be a celebration of a transformative year, personally and athletically.
“It’s indescribable, and I feel extreme privilege. I know arriving at the Placer High School track is a dream for so many,” she says. “I’m excited to live out that dream one more time with the unwavering support of my rockstar crew.”
Zoë Rom is Editor In Chief of Trail Runner magazine and Managing Editor of Women’s Running.
When she’s not running, she’s writing or reading. You can catch her doing stand-up and improv in the Roaring Fork Valley with Consensual Improv. Southern story-teller turned mountain-dweller, she starts every day with a cup of strong coffee and a good story. Her work has appeared on NPR’s Marketplace, Morning Edition and in REI Co-op Journal, Discover, Rock & Ice, Trail Runner, Backpacker, and Threshold Podcast.