By: Devon Yanko
After hanging up my sneakers and retiring from basketball, I took up running more seriously in 2003. I had always loved running and ran upwards of 40 miles per week as part of my training for basketball, but I didn’t see myself as a runner, I saw myself as a basketball player. I defined myself as a basketball player. My identity was inextricably tied to my successes and failures as a basketball player. If I was playing well, I felt good about myself, I felt worthy. If I was hurt or playing poorly, I felt like a failure. Being defined by the game lead me into some very dark and terrible places. Ultimately when I retired from basketball, I walked away from the game completely and never looked back. The love was gone and the game was dead to me. I did an immense amount of self-work to reconcile the things that happened to me in those years, to journey to the center of myself. I had always loved self-work and exploration, but when I walked away from the game of basketball, I had to face down the depths of darkness, I had to work so hard to figure out who I really was.
"When I start smiling like this, you know it's game on!" Racing the Sean O'Brien 100K.
When I started running in 2003 more seriously, just to run, I had one objective: I wanted to run forever. While this goal has now become somewhat of a humorous double entendre given the distances I run, my intention was and is with my running to run for the love of it and to run as long as I can. This meant for me not defining myself by my racing, my accomplishments or my good or bad days. It meant cherishing the joy and the thrill and the challenge that is lacing up your shoes every day. I didn’t start racing because I wanted to be the greatest or to be a legend or even to win. I started racing to challenge myself in new and interesting ways. It has taken a lot of self-awareness not to get sucked into defining myself as runner. When I first started running, I quickly escalated up to marathons and started pursuing faster and faster times. And with each new training plan and each new level of experience, I got faster and faster. After my third marathon which was less than one year after my first marathon, I realized that I was becoming obsessed with my finishing times. If I train X miles and run X in the marathon then it I run X+ miles, I can run even faster. But I realized after dropping my marathon time from 3:38 down to 3:08, that eventually I would stop PR’ing and then what? I was doing this for the love right? How would I keep the love going when I reached my peak? I knew I needed to find a way to invigorate my running in a way that would present me with lifelong challenge and interest. I did not want to lose the love for running. I had and have days where I am running where I simply start crying at how beautiful a gift it is to be able to do this with my body. How free and simple it is. That is what I want to feel, always.
November 2015, Devon raced the Javelina Jundred 100-miler, and won it! Broke the course record in 14 hours and 52 minutes.
And so, I signed up for my first trail race which was also my first ultra and the rest is history. That race, the 2006 Headlands 50k opened up a world of running I didn’t know existed. One which was founded on the principle of community and togetherness. One which could throw an endless array of challenges at me. One which mirrored the journey of self that I was on. I like to say I ran that race like a silly dog, tongue wagging, ears flopping just having a hell of a good time. I had never even run on the trails and here I was, running the 50km National Championship against some of the best in the sport. And I had no idea what I was doing. All I knew was that I could walk up hill (I did) and that I got to drink soda at the aid stations. I ran by how I felt, I felt light and free and never looked at my watch. When I crossed the finish line and was welcomed by some of the top women in the world with a hug and invitations to come run other races, I knew I was home. Since then I have explored distances, terrain, elevation and found that with each goal I choose, I am often exploring the depths of my soul, living a lifetime in one day or expressing the person I have become through the creative act of running. I absolutely love what running has allowed me to do as a person, I have learned so much through it, from it and from the people that participate in it. It is an amazing gift to me. I have used many a trail run to dig deeply into my mind, to uncover things I did not know where there. Through racing, goals and challenges, I had developed a set of skills that has made me confident, strong and courageous. I have been humbled, I have struggled and I have learned to persevere through running. I have run to the top of remote mountain tops and said, “I don’t think I can go on” and found the strength and courage to find my way home again.
When I think about what running has meant to me, I don’t think of times or winning races, I think about the tools, gifts and experiences it has given me. Being a runner has made me a better person in every aspect of my life. But just like the other parts of my life such as being a wife, small business owner and baker, writer, it is not my identity. Running has helped me build that identity through constantly challenging me, holding up the mirror, inspiring me, freeing me and cultivating a deep sense of badassery in me. I want to run forever and each day that I can climb a mountain or feel soft single track under my feet or submerge my feet in mud and drench myself in sweat is a beautiful day.