By: Devon Yanko, Haute Volée
Perhaps at a different time in my life or even in my running career, I would have lined up at Western States 100 filled with nervous dread and anticipation, given all the foreboding omens. Like a diagnosis of a torn labrum 4 weeks before in my hip from a fall at the Hoka Highland Fling. Like coming down with a runny nose, scratchy dry throat race week after being in close contact with some of my favorite little people who happen to come down with colds. Like falling down the stairs hard on race morning. I could have. But I didn’t.
Instead, I stood on the start line of Western States 100 with intense calm, peace. I took bad omens and flipped them, rendered them powerless. My hip hasn’t hurt in weeks, I did a great job on getting my glutes firing! I am not sick, its just the dry mountain air and altitude! At least I got my falling for the day out of the way. I was fit, I was ready. I had done everything, covered every detail I could control to the best of my ability and desire to do so. My heart and mind were ready. I didn’t try to wrap my mind around what we were about to undertake, you simply cannot fit it into your brain. I gave a few last hugs and took a few last pictures with my crew and turned my eyes to the mountain top and waited for the gun.
The gun, the runners breaking over the starting line like the tide. I didn’t run up the mountain into the darkness, being chased by the coming sun. I floated, effortlessly. I knew in those moments as I climbed higher and higher, that if I followed my plan and made no mistakes that I could have an amazing day. Reaching the summit, just behind Kaci Lickteig and Magda Boulet, I paused and took a deep breathe, looking back over my shoulder to the sunrise over Lake Tahoe. Coming into this race, I wanted one thing: not to miss this experience.
As I descended down and into the high country, I felt light, playful. I started singing musicals in my head and soon joined Kaci Lickteig at the lead of the women’s race, and we sang a few musicals together. We chatted, passed our vague concerns back and forth to each other; this is actually easy right? We are running easy? Yes. Miles glided by. We passed through aid stations together, waiting for one another. Kaci passing me a fist bump for teamwork leaving Red Star.
I was excited to see my Duncan/Dusty Corners crew member first at mile 23. My main crew including Sally, Lauren, Kristin (my sister in law), Sarah (my sister), Nathan (husband), Amelia (queen of pain), Krissy Moehl and Larisa Dannis (pacers and ultra super stars) would be patiently or perhaps overwhelmingly excitedly awaiting my arrival at Robinson Flat at mile 30. I came into Duncan Canyon aid station just behind Kaci, having broken up the dream team with a bathroom break and it was there my hopes for a perfect day, changed. My crew had not made it. I had popped out of the woods to a sea of familiar faces, but his was not among them. I searched the crowd, hoping he was just behind or next to, for minutes but nothing. Finally, I frantically handed my bottle to an aid station worker for some water and grabbed a few gels. This wasn’t what I planned and in my haste, frustration and adrenaline left the aid station without proper fueling for the section to meet up with my main crew. And I suffered for it. Quickly I ran out of water and fuel. I reined in my super easy pace and walked every slight uphill as the sun baked me in the exposed section. I had to mitigate my loses. It was too early to be behind, it would cost too much if I pushed or even if I tried to maintain.
By the time I got to my crew, I was over 15 minutes behind Kaci and I was dehydrated. I thought, as my pre-race mantra said, to “work the problem” but my mind responded “this isn’t a problem, this is a catastrophe!”. I could feel my legs going from springy to strappy, tight. My crew got me out of there without a hitch or a misstep, but I felt my depletion gripping me. I tried to fuel, to hydrate, to slow down. I tried to shake off the frustration and anger. Mistakes happen, I had to let it go. I was soon passed by Amy Sproston and Yiou Wang. They told me to hang in there, things would get better. But it was hard at that moment to get my head into the idea that I could dig myself out of a hole with 70 miles to go. I pushed on, making it through Dusty Corners and heading into Last Chance. I knew on the other side of Last Chance was the Canyons. I do not take the Canyons lightly. It is where my race ended in 2010. I have run it 3 times in the last month as training and it is never easy even on fresh legs. I was filled with dread and concern for my rapidly deteriorating state. My legs were cramping, I was feeling dizzy, stumbling like a drunk, I stopped sweating and felt quite cold despite the temperatures being over 90 degrees. On the advice of one of the few men who passed me while I was walking, I decided to sit down and regroup at Last Chance.
The aid stations at 100 milers are something to marvel at. People giving up their time and energy to spend endless hours aiding runners, caring, nurturing and gently pushing them on. I had a flock of volunteers to aid me. I cried, I got medically evaluated, I cried some more. I had told myself I would accept the day that was dealt no matter what, that I would finish even if I had to walk it in. But I felt like I was dangling over the abyss.
Volée, Paulette Ference's posted sign at the place Devon says "I needed it most!"
But I sat. And like the med tent assured me, the good hydrating and rebalancing I had been doing would catch up. I watched runners come and go. I could feel my body recovering, but how could I recover my mind. As I sat, filmmaker Billy Yang, who has witnessed my greatest comebacks at both Javelina and Sean O’Brien and race director Craig Thornley, assured me over and over again; you know you can do this. We’ve seen it. You can turn this around. At that moment, I couldn’t believe in myself but I could believe them. I got up out of the chair. And headed out of the aid station. I didn’t try to believe in myself, instead I let my mind be filled with everyone who was with me on this journey, my crew, my running community around the world, my Oiselle family. I thought of everyone who was #ultrawithdevon. I thought of my niece Audrey and nephew Jonah and felt overwhelmingly strong that I wanted to be their hero. I wanted to fight back. I wanted to rise again, like a phoenix. And my heart was again full, my steps light, my spirits buoyed. I didn’t want to miss this experience. I had to let go of the day I might have had for the day I was having. That is the beauty of 100 miles, everything can change and you have to make what you can out of the cards you are dealt.
Posted by Volée, Kimberley Teshima Newberry
The Canyons, which had once been my nemesis, I instead embraced like an old friend. I walked where I knew I always needed to, I saw the same bear I have seen every week that I’ve been out training, I laughed and said, eh the Canyons aren’t THAT hot (it was probably over 100), I cracked jokes and smiled at Devil’s Thumb aid station. I knew, deep in my heart, that I would make it to the finish line. And I knew that if I stayed patient through the last canyon and got hungry to make chase after Foresthill that I might even salvage a good performance. I danced up from El Dorado, feeling more powerful with every long stride I took towards the top. I even passed three woman putting me back in 4th place (I was passed when I was walking up Devil’s Thumb). I came into Michigan Bluff where six years ago my race ended, with legs, ready to run.
“Let’s go rabbit hunting!” I said. “Tell my pacers, I have legs”. My legs felt fresh, my energy was great, my stomach holding down the liquid and calories I was throwing at it. I was gathering momentum. I no longer had to hold on to just other people’s belief in me, I too believed in myself and what I could do in those remaining 35 miles. It wasn’t a perfect day, but I was making one hell of a lemonade out of the lemons I’d been dealt.
At Foresthill, I got to have the amazing experience of running down the road to Cal Street. Through a tunnel of people, cheering and pulling for me. After a quick pit stop to deal with a minor foot-pacolypse, I was off to the river with pacer Larisa Dannis, who was 2nd at WS in 2014. She and I were magic and we let the trail draw out of best. Both of us love this type of downhill terrain and know this section, we flew together and without effort or pushing caught 3rd place and moved past charging to the river. I felt unleashed, free. I was flying free. It was over too quickly it almost made us feel nostalgic as we dunked in the river and carefully crossed over to some of awaiting crew. We ran up to Green Gate, hungry to keep moving with word that 2nd place was just 11 minutes ahead. 20 miles, 11 mins. I would have to work for it.
Mid-race through the river, photo by Gary Wang
Krissy took over pacing and we took up the charge again. I moved well, my blistered feet not hampering my stride, except for a small emerging pain in my shin. I breathed deeply and went to the deep magic that is running with Krissy. I paced Krissy through this same section in 2009, pushing her to her limit and to 2nd place. I had the F2 pace crew and we were going to fight to have me join them. My legs still felt great, I still could fuel and drink well. Night fell and by Brown’s Bar, mile 89.9 we had closed the gap to Amy to mere minutes. My shin was angry and painful on any slight descent, but we pushed as hard as we could to see the crew one last time at Hwy 49. 3 mins back. I was only 3 mins back then. I hurried out of the aid station, suddenly feeling the gravitational pull of Auburn and the finish line. I tried to chase but now, the gazelle knew I was coming, she was not going lightly.
On the descent down into No Hands Bridge, I realized I would not catch Amy (she went on to drop her pacer after hearing I was closing in on her and the chase pushed her to her best finish time ever). My shin hurt with a ragged sharpness so fiercely on the descent to the aid station that I cried and moaned, but did not stop. I ran across the brightly lite up bridge, feeling weighed down, absorbed with not being able to chase to the end. And then I remembered, I don’t want to miss this. Look what I had done. I crawled back from the abyss and rose again. I cannot think twice about this, there is no failure. The lightness returned, the peace. We ran up (yes ran, my shin only hurt on down) Robie Point being pulled ever closer to my whole crew that was waiting at mile 99 to share the final mile with me. When I saw them, waiting, hoping, worrying, my heart broke open. We did this, together. We flew through the streets of Auburn together, tears on my face, joy in my heart.
Finish photo captured by IRunFar, Bryon Powell
I hit the track and my stride opened up. Head up, wings out, I thought. There is nothing like that finishing straight, so hard fought, so well earned. 3rd place in 19:10. We did it. Together. I did not run this race by myself, my competitors, my crew, my pacers, all the spectators, volunteers and every single person who gave a damn anywhere across the world staying up to all hours of the night hitting refresh on twitter to see me finish, we did it together. Like I did as I stood on the start line, ignoring bad omens and turning them on their head to find calm and peace, so did I stand on the finish line, contented with all of the good I pulled from the day, distracted by none of the bad. I had accomplished my goal for the day, I was true to myself and what a joy it was to accomplish that.