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Leadville 100 women’s winner gets over her own mountain

The 2017 Leadville 100 was the place Devon Yanko was finally going to put her demons to rest. And it worked. This summer, she won Colorado’s notoriously taxing high-altitude 100-mile mountain run, finishing in just over 20 hours.

But the biggest win was how she did it.

Devin Yanko at Leadville
Devon Yanko uses her poles to power up steeper sections of the Leadville 100. Photo: Courtesy of Devon Yanko

Distance runner Yanko, 35, is all business when it comes to training and nutrition. But on the trail, it’s a different story. Her painful past, stemming from sexual abuse, always comes out to haunt her.

“I’ve had plenty of time to relive my experience. The narrative was the same. It was a dark, deep place, and it’s not super fun for me to go there,” Yanko tells GrindTV. “I wanted to know: Can I do this race without that storyline? Can I have a more positive experience?”

Yanko has been to the Olympic trials and run more than 60 road marathon and ultra-distance trail races since 2006, winning and setting course records in a majority of them.

She was the 50-mile Road National Champion in 2010. A year later she set the fastest known time (FKT) on the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim trail with renowned ultrarunner Krissy Moehl. In 2015, Yanko ran the third-fastest trail 100-miler ever for a North American at the Javelina Jundred.

Yanko also took the top spot in the Sean O’Brien 100K, which earned her a ticket to the coveted Western States 100, where she finished third last year.

Yanko was overcoming an injury, which made her Leadville 100 win that much more impressive. Photo: Courtesy of Hoka One One

The reason she counts Leadville as her greatest achievement to date is because she realized she could play by different rules, yet still remain competitive.

While Yanko’s base fitness was supreme, she had sustained an uncharacteristic injury that left her just six solid weeks to train for Leadville, which is situated more than 10,000 feet higher than where Yanko lives and runs a bakery in San Anselmo, California.

“I’ve done a lot of growing and self-awareness this year. But Leadville is a pressure situation and I wanted to see if it could hold true during a race,” says Yanko, who took the race lead at mile 60. “Changing perspective didn’t just change my experience; I was still competitive.”

By changing her perspective, Yanko means she let herself encourage and appreciate support, allowing a crew of pacers to legally “mule” her pack when the strain displaced vertebrae in her neck.

Devon Yanko with pacer
Yanko runs with a pacer, part of her commitment to graciously accepting support in making her Leadville race a positive experience. Photo: Courtesy of Sufferfest Beer

During a critical moment when she stepped off the trail and fell, hitting her head so loudly that her husband heard it, she listened to advice to stop and reset rather than focusing on not crying, shaming herself and jumping into go mode.

She fulfilled a promise to thank all the race volunteers she saw and told runners both behind and in front of her how awesome they were. They inevitably said it back, which fired her up more.

Yanko loaded her iPod with crazy dance mixes, using music as reward.

“It made sections so much fun and so relaxed and kept me focused on being happy,” she says. “[When] one song my sister told me to put on it came on, I got this mental image of my niece and nephew and it just gave me great perspective.”

Maybe winning running’s mental game isn’t about outsmarting the competition, but rather our own minds.

“The way I did Leadville was a very big victory when it comes to surviving abuse, because that abuse is about control,” Yanko says. “Negative thought patterns about self-worth are embedded in that.

“But I realized I don’t have to live with this concept of self-worth. I can continue to grow. It’s the first time I’ve been able to overcome those fragments left from abuse. It was my way of showing myself that I can overwrite those experiences.”

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