Weekend Warriors: How Devon Yanko Makes Ultrarunning Fun

Devon Yanko won the Javelina Jundred, a 100-mile race in the desert outside Phoenix, Arizona. And she shattered the course record by 48 minutes. Sweet M Images

Keeping up with Devon Yanko isn't easy. We're running through wooded trails on the side of Mt. Tamalpais in Marin County, California, one morning, before she's due at the bakery she co-owns with her husband. She's talking about -- well, I'm not sure exactly what she's talking about. It's taking all my focus just to stay upright and close to her heels. But the gist is that she's having fun, and having fun means she has been running faster than ever, faster than almost any woman has ever run.

This past fall, Yanko, 33, made a triumphant return to ultrarunning with a win at the Javelina Jundred, a 100-mile race in the desert outside Phoenix, Arizona. She won the women's race in 14 hours, 52 minutes, the third-fastest female time for a trail 100-mile ever. Only one man beat her across the line that day, and she ran the last 41 miles faster than he did. She broke the women's course record by 48 minutes and crossed the line over four hours ahead of the next woman.

Ultrarunners hailed it as the performance of a lifetime. "Where Has Devon Yanko Been All This Time?" wrote Trail Runner Magazine. And then she followed it up last month with another commanding win at the Sean O'Brien 100K in Malibu, California, where she was the first woman and third overall, earning a coveted "golden ticket" to the famous Western States 100-Mile Race in June.

All this success wasn't preordained, though. In fact, to everyone else, it appeared unlikely. After winning dozens of races in her 20s, including the 50-mile and 100K national championships, Yanko struggled with injuries and motivation the last few years, disappearing from the ultrarunning world. The last 100-mile race she finished was in 2008. So, where has Devon Yanko been all this time?

Yanko, tall and lanky, started out as a basketball player. That was her original dream. But she walked away from a scholarship at Fresno State a week before the first game of the season. She was burned out and injured.

She'd always liked running for conditioning, though, more than most basketball players. It made sense, then, once she transferred to the University of Washington and was studying abroad in South Africa, to run casually with her roommates. They wanted to do the Cape Town Half-Marathon, so she did it with them. "I thought, 'This is so fun,' " she says.

She got more invested in running and training. In 2005, while living in London, she ran the Edinburgh Marathon in 3:38 and started to wonder how fast she could get. Here was a sport that rewarded hard work over talent, and Yanko could work hard.

She was living in San Francisco a couple of years later when she saw a flyer for a 50K race just on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge. It also happened to be the 50K national championships. She decided to give it a try and came in seventh. Those were the early days of ultrarunning, and those pioneers took Yanko under their wings. They told her to try out for the 100K national team, which led her to races all over the world. She did 10 races that first year and her first 100-miler in 2008.

Devon Yanko, then Devon Crosby-Helms, ultrarunner extraordinaire, had arrived.

"She's been around the ultra scene for a really, really long time," says Amelia Boone, a training partner who was second to Yanko at the Sean O'Brien 100K. And with that, Boone says, has come "confidence, knowledge, and perspective about the sport."

What followed were a number of years where Yanko rose to the top of the ultrarunning ranks. She got on the podium in almost every race she entered, winning a range of things, from the 100K National Championships to the San Francisco Marathon. She was the first ultrarunner at the 2012 Olympic trials in the marathon, running a 2:38:55.

During that time she met her husband, Nathan, an accomplished runner and a baker. Nathan had previously worked under the famous Chad Robertson at the popular Tartine Bakery in San Francisco. Devon had owned a catering business, too, and enjoyed making high-quality healthy food. In 2013, the two of them decided to open a community bakery and cafe in the town where they live, San Anselmo, about 15 miles north of San Francisco. They raised $33,000 on Kickstarter from friends and Bay Area runners, and opened the doors to M.H. Bread and Butter during the local Memorial Day 10K -- even though they had only two types of baguettes to offer that first day "and we just learned how to make coffee yesterday," jokes Devon.

Running a bakery is hard work too, just a different kind of hard work. At first, Devon and Nathan did everything themselves. He would get to the bakery around 1 a.m. to start making the day's bread. She'd wake up at 2:30 a.m., run the 2.2 miles from their house, and jump right in to help with the baking. They did that every single day, week after week, with no breaks. At one point, a few months after they opened, she got to run the San Francisco Marathon. It was a joyful, fun experience, she said, because, "I was just so happy to have a day off."

During the next year, Nathan still worked from 2 a.m. to early afternoon, And Devon worked the opposing night shift. All the while, she was still running 70-100 miles every week. It took its toll physically and mentally.

"People always ask how do you balance it all?" she says. "And the answer is you can't." She felt like she never saw her friends -- or even her husband, except for a few hours each afternoon. She kept running because it was her only stress relief, but she felt alone, and the physical and emotional stress was building.

She had a string of injuries and accumulated fatigue. She ran a lot of marathons in the last two years, chasing the marathon Olympic trials qualifying standard, but never came close to the 2:38 she had run before. She got an ulcer before one race, a respiratory infection before another. Before the Pittsburgh Marathon, she had an emotional breakdown. As she sat on a bench, watching other runners have fun, she started crying. Life just felt too hard.

It was a breaking point, and then things started to even out. They hired more people and took Devon off the night shift. They also found a community around their bakery. Today, Olympic runners and national champions stop by on a regular basis. It's a bit under two miles to the nearby trailhead, so running groups meet in front of the cafe beforehand and come in for treats after.

"We've now, three years later, finally gotten to the point where we can go away on a long weekend and know the bakery will be fine," Nathan says.

And Devon put the fun back in her training. She goes on social runs from the bakery, and she doesn't worry about her times. She has friends she runs with regularly -- those who push her pace, and some who don't. She likes to do all types of races -- short ones and long ones, road races and ultra races -- so she does them all. It has helped her keep things fresh and to enjoy the sport again.

Halfway through the Javelina Jundred, Devon was ready to quit. She couldn't keep food down and was struggling in the heat. But you don't quit when you're in the lead. The race is a looped course through the desert, with runners coming through the start/finish area every 15 miles. That makes it easy to drop out when things get hard and tough. And things always get tough and hard in ultra-races, and that is where -- if she can get through it -- Devon comes out the other side stronger and faster than anyone else.

Devon was ready to drop out, when her pacer, YiOu Wang, a fast friend from home, jumped in a lap early and they ran the way they always do on the trails around the Bay Area. Devon started having fun out there in the desert. She thought to herself, Let's see if I can crack YiOu, if I can make it hard for her, because she'd never been able to make YiOu hurt before.

So, she ran harder and harder, getting faster as the miles went on. In the end, YiOu stopped after two 15-mile laps and Devon finished on her own, running the last laps faster than anyone, than any of the men, out there.

"It's been really cool to see how Devon's gotten back into her groove and is having so much more fun," Nathan said. "Once she started getting her confidence back, there was just no stopping her."

After Javelina, she ran one more marathon, but she realized her heart wasn't in chasing the Olympic trials standard anymore. It had started to feel like someone else's dream, so she left it behind. She didn't want to worry about what other people thought she should be doing. This time around, she wants to do what she wants to do.

"I have this opportunity for a second chance," she said, and she's not wasting a single second of it not having fun.