BY: DEVON YANKO
If there is one thing in life that is constant, it is that everything will change. Sometimes things just gently refine, sometimes things do a complete 180 turnabout and go the other direction. Sometimes change is gentle, sometimes it is sudden and shocking.
Photo: Glen Delman Photography
I feel like I have a lived my life a little bit like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. The path long and winding with ample highest of highs, lowest of lows. Filled with change, growth, adaptation, curiosity and challenge. Along the way, I have tried to always stay open to change, challenge certainty and be willing to be humbled or even go back to the drawing board. This year has been on particularly zippy and unpredictable, it has again forced me to examine, forced me to wipe the sand from my face while face down in the arena, forced me to learn, grow and change. The layers of force upon me at times have felt immense, like everything I held to be true was at once threatened. But I have found, that under such immense pressure often comes the greatest clarity. When you are reduced down to your lowest, you stop hiding from yourself and you start examining the parts about yourself that you want to take with you when you rumble and rise again.
The Wild Ride of this year has taken me all over the globe and to the deepest reaches of myself at the same time. I fought back from injury to race again, I found out how to give myself grace in the process of coming back, I learned the meaning of true real friendship, I examined the assumptions I made about myself and I made about others. I felt every color in the emotional rainbow. I did it (it being life and any manner of things) the wrong, clumsy way. I found myself in many deadends. But I kept the faith in change. That things could get better, things could be different, that I could find a new stasis.
And slowly, over the summer things calmed down for me. I calmed down too, I let go some of the fire inside that had just been burning me up anyways. I tried a new and novel approach to the way I interacted with the world, or at least, I tried to.
Amidst this transition over the summer, I made the decision to run Leadville 100 mile. Leadville has been on my bucket list since even before I started running ultras. I have been in love with Leadville and the Colorado mountains since I first set foot there in 2009 and did a double hoop pass crossing with friend Bryon Powell after driving 20+ hours straight from California. I have been signed up for the race two times before, first unable to do it because I was still working on the bakery night shift. Last year I was super excited to race Leadville after a good race at Western States. But after traveling to Colorado to try and get altitude adapted, I found myself in a very physically depleted state and unable to race. I have never thought Leadville would be easy despite the fact that some people think it is. In fact, if you do your homework you’d find that few people (besides Ian Sharmain) have really nailed it every single time. Running at 10,200 feet is no joke and so I have always respected the challenge. This summer as my perspective, attitude and outlook changed, I found myself excited to take on the journey. It didn’t hurt that I had some training under my belt and that altitude didn’t totally suck when I trained in Tahoe, Mammoth Lakes and Colorado.
I knew that Leadville would be an extreme test of me physically, but I also knew it would be even more of a mental quest for me. I wondered if under the extreme stress of racing a competitive ultra at high altitude with so many different factors would have me default to old behavior, beliefs and thought patterns or if I would be able to keep perspective.
Many people must assume since I am fast/have been competitive in the past, that my goal must always include winning. However, for Leadville that goal, while on the list, was pretty far down the list of priorities. My goal was to finish and more important even was to run happy, run calm, be incredibly gracious to everyone out of course from my crew, to pacers, to volunteers, to spectators. Frankly, I just wanted to be the happiest damn person out there. Because really when you consider it, ultras should be fun, challenging as hell, but fun. We are not changing the world, but I wondered if I could be the type of person in the race that positively affects the world. Can I always be gracious? Can I smile and be encouraging? Can I lift other people up along the way? Can I inspire people to see themselves and treat themselves differently?
Leaving Twin Lakes out bound at mile 40, with HOKA teammate Mike Wardian. Photo: Amy Leedham
Approaching this race this way is a big change for me. While I have often approached races with calm, in the past few years my emotional wild horses have run amok at times and taken me to some very dark places, mostly of my own creation. Everyone by now has seen me crying in Billy Yang’s film “Life in a Day” sitting in the chair, trying to convince myself to keep going. Yes, I was having some minor physical problems, but the deep dark self-worth questioning places my mind went go far beyond that. The narrative of my biggest races last year was “Devon runs great, Devon gets mentally annihilated temporarily by mental demons and nearly quits race, Devon comes out of it and hard charges to the finish triumphant”. Dramatic and honestly, not super fun for me to spend so much time thinking super unkind things about myself. Also, in hindsight, I am not proud of who I was at all times during those races. I spent very many miles angry at one of the kindest best people I know who has been a great mentor to me in the sport because he wasn’t at an aid station (through no fault of his own I came to find out). I didn’t want my crew to experience the stress of me being emotionally on edge (hearing stories of me crying and sitting in an aid station), I didn’t want to show anger to people who were there to support me. Heck, I didn’t want to even be so wrapped up in my own self that I forgot to look up and see the volunteers and supporters out there along the way and give them my gratitude.
I wanted Leadville to have a different storyline. I hoped that having a different storyline would also allow me to run my physical best as well. And so, at 4am on August 19th, I set out into the dark to find out. I had prepped my crew with the perspective I wanted to have: it was all about dance parties (I even bought glow sticks) and earning a big ass belt buckle. We set out into the dark and I settled in with fellow sea-level bay area friends for “SFRC saturday group run, Leadville edition”. We chatted, I ran according to my plans of staying comfortable and easy and let the race go ahead of me. At every aid station, I smiled and thanked the volunteers. I kept my heart and mind light, I let myself be buoyed by all the awesome spectators who were out supporting their runners (with over 600 runners you get great crowds at aid stations!). I dance partied my way over Powerline to the most amazingly ridiculous pop music. I ran my race, the way I wanted.
When I had my first low spot as I began the first crazy big climb up Hope Pass, my head dizzy, my energy low. I just threw my hands in the air and yelled out loud “PLOT TWIST” and immediately fell into stitches laughing. This low spot was not where the story ended and it was certainly not where I was going to let it derail my happy mind. It was just my body reacting to running 40 plus miles at altitude! I kept my eyes on the goal of just getting to the top with a smile. And I did. And I felt better. And I felt proud that I had weathered the storm.
Photo: Sufferfest Beer
I picked up my pacer husband Nathan at mile 50 and we were zooming back towards the second and much harder climb up Hope Pass. I was having fun telling everyone person that was heading out towards the turn around of the out and back race “great job”, “you are rocking it” “good work”. And then I caught a toe and landed hard, hitting my head on a rock so loud Nathan could hear the thud. I wrecked my forearm and nearly cramped. I jumped up quickly and momentarily angry at myself declared “I just want to keep going”. Nathan grabbed me and bear hugged me and wouldn’t let me. “Just take a minute. You can cry.” I had said I wouldn’t cry this race but in the moment, it was the right release. I took a moment, reset and let it go. And pretty soon we were back to hauling ourselves towards the summit.
100 miles is a long time to keep your mind occupied and I have come to realize through my experiences that sometimes your mind will just come up with problems to chew on as the miles drag on and on. When I took the lead just before mile 60, my mind had a new thing to wrap itself around: Holy CRAP I am winning (yeah!!), Holy CRAP I am winning this thing (anxious!). But, with the help of my pacers, I just kept focused, I remembered to smile, I sang silly songs, I leaned in to a calm and contented mind. I focused on being physically strong and let my mind reflect that. When I came into the final aid station, my crew told me that I didn’t have an exceedingly comfortable lead (only 18 minutes) and that I would have to run hard for those final 13.5 miles. Maybe a look of concern flashed across my face at that moment because Nathan said, “but this is what you do. No one closes like you do.” And the fire was lit, the joy was there, the fun challenge of the push ahead. My pacer Rebecca and I took off into the dark and ran our hearts out.
Photo: Mario Fraioli
We ran uphill on the darkest longest stretch of fire road and the whole time, I wouldn’t let myself believe quite yet that I was going to win the race. A race that has meant so much to me for so long and I was going to win. I didn’t want to give in to the truth because I knew if I disturbed my calm mind with that ecstatic truth that I might just start crying tears of joy and crying makes it very hard to breathe at altitude while running uphill. With one mile to go, my amazing crew, Amy and Braden, and Nathan joined Rebecca and I as we ran quietly through the sleepy streets of Leadville. When I crossed the finish line to take the win, I felt the sweet sweet relief of being done running after 20:46. And I was thrilled. But only as thrilled as I had been all day. I was thrilled that the work I’d done to be the person I was on that day was able to remain true even under the stresses and pressures. My life did not change because of my run at Leadville, I changed and therefore was able to have the run I did at Leadville.
And life will keep on changing. Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride will continue to have its twists and turns. But one thing I am certain that I want to carry with me is the joy, gratitude and calm that I so throughly tested at Leadville.