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When Devon Yanko crossed the line at last weekend’s Javelina Jundred 100-miler in Fountain Hills, Arizona, I was surprised.
I wasn’t surprised that Yanko, 33, of San Anselmo, California, was first female and second overall, or that her time of 14:52:06 was over 48 minutes faster than Kaci Lickteig’s course record, set last year. I wasn’t even that surprised that she ran the race’s latter stages slightly faster than overall winner Paul Giblin, who finished over an hour faster. This is the same Yanko, after all, who from 2007 to 2013 rarely finished a trail ultra out of the top three, winning competitive races like the Lake Sonoma and JFK 50-milers, and who ran a 2:38:55 at the 2012 US Olympic Marathon Trials.
I was only surprised because since March 2013, following a second-place finish at the Chuckanut 50K, Yanko had all but gone silent, not racing another ultra until August of this year, when she placed second at the Skyline 50K. (She was also third at the Ultra Trail Cape Town 100K in South Africa October 3, and won a 35K trail race in Oakland October 17.) She ran some road marathons in 2014, she says, but none at a race effort.
So I wasn’t surprised that, when she decided to race, she won handily. I was just wondering where she went in between.
Business to Handle
On Memorial Day 2013, Yanko, along with her husband, Nathan, and some help from a Kickstarter campaign, opened M.H. Bread & Butter, a bakery in San Anselmo.
“From then on, racing was very much a secondary thing to [the] business,” says Yanko. “I was able to run a decent amount, but we were working between 90 and 110 hours a week with the bakery. There was really no time to just focus on racing.”
Yanko making it look easy. Photo by Deron Ruse/SweetM Images
Yanko notes that in addition to running the bakery’s business operations, she and Nathan were busy with the physically demanding job of baking, and usually at soul-sucking hours, with shifts running either 3 a.m. to 11 a.m. or 6 p.m. to 2 a.m.
By late 2014, Yanko says, the business was stabilizing, and she began planning a return to racing in 2015. “But it did not end up working out that way … as I was still working seven days a week on the night shift,” she says. “So my goals got bigger, but my ability to have a life conducive to supporting those goals didn’t.”
All the while, Yanko was managing 100-mile weeks and great workouts, but 80 to 100 hours of work each week, mostly on the night shift, took its toll. She developed a foot injury that worsened the week of South Africa’s 2015 Comrades (89K) Marathon—the race she had planned to make her return to ultras—and couldn’t compete. She raced Skyline in August, but otherwise had not fulfilled any of her 2015 racing plans.
Then she discovered another South African ultra, the challenging, technical Ultra Trail Cape Town 100K, which features almost 15,000 feet of ascent on treacherous rocky terrain. “Since I adore Cape Town … I signed up despite knowing that I was more road trained than technical and gnarly-climbing trained,” Yanko says.
As soon as she was done with her night shift duties at the bakery—“for good!” she says—she spent three weeks in South Africa and ran the October 3 race, where she was third in wet, slippery, miserable conditions. She was surprised at how good the effort felt, aside from slipping on rocks throughout.
“I discovered that even with how hard that race was, I was still able to run really well at the end of the race,” says Yanko. “I bounced back quickly and was inspired that race to pursue another challenge.”
So she signed up for Javelina three weeks before toeing the line.
Despite her apparent fitness and confidence going into Javelina, Yanko had not started a 100-miler since 2010, and hadn’t finished one since 2008. Plus, Javelina’s loop course and heat made for a notoriously high drop rate.
“I was having a hard time wrapping my head around the distance as the race approached,” says Yanko. “I came in with a plan of how to attack it, but really had a mentality of taking the day as it came.”
Her first two 15.8-mile loops were fast, and Yanko struggled from 50K to 100K in the desert heat, throwing up several times and contemplating quitting. But just before halfway, she says, she realized her splits were still ahead of her 15-hour goal pace, which itself was 40 minutes under course record pace, so she soldiered on.
After four loops—100K—she was joined by pacer YiOu Wang, and the heat started to pass.
“I was really amazed how good my legs [started to] feel and very purposefully started to push harder and harder,” says Yanko. “We just started running hard and I made it my goal to finish the race as fast as I possibly could. I wanted to see how hard I could push myself.”
After two loops with Wang, Yanko ran the last partial loop—less than 10 miles—herself. “I couldn’t believe that after 91-plus miles I still felt like I could push, so I just kept pushing.” She would run the last 41 miles faster than anyone, including the overall winner Giblin, who barely missed the men’s course record.
“It really came together in those last 41 miles to make a truly special performance,” Yanko says. “I just wanted to see what was possible for myself.”
With her night-shift duties at the bakery done, we will probably see more of Yanko racing in the next year and beyond. First up is the Houston Marathon in January, where she will attempt to qualify for February’s Olympic Marathon Trials; then, among other races, she will target Comrades, the Western States 100-mile Endurance Run (if she gets in) and the Leadville Trail 100.
“I have a good mix of road and trail ultras, and am very excited about the challenges,” says Yanko. But, she continues, “ultimately, my goal is to the fittest, fastest, strongest version of myself that simply loves to run. Racing is truly secondary to that.”