Life During Lockdown: Devon Yanko

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In 2011, Devon was an aspiring elite marathoner who had signed up for the LA Marathon, where I worked. I helped her, and three other sub-elite women, get to the front corral in the start chute, and I met them at the finish with their gear. Devon finished 10th in 2:43:32 in brutal cold & rainy conditions to qualify for the 2012 Olympic Trials marathon in Houston. That was also the day I decided that I enjoy working with young elite athletes, something @peterabraham/what-i-learned-at-the-olympic-trials-marathon-f7243df89cfc">I still do to this day. Devon was an important part of that realization for me.

From that point on, Devon has had a stellar career as not only a winning distance runner and ultramarathoner but also as a chef, baker and co-owner of the popular bakery M.H. Bread and Butter in San Anselmo, California. She and her husband Nathan, a highly accomplished baker, opened the restaurant together in 2013. Running a restaurant is a Herculean task on its own, but Devon has managed to simultaneously maintain her career as a professional runner. She’s run more than 50 marathons, set the prestigious FKT (with Krissy Moehl) on Grand Canyon’s Rim to Rim to Rim trail, run on five USATF 100K National Teams, won the Leadville Trail 100, and finished 5th in the world’s largest ultramarathon, Comrades, in South Africa. The list goes on, and you can read more about Devon’s impressive results here. What is most meaningful to me, however, is that she’s made space for us to connect during important events in her life: starting the restaurant, working with sponsors, and meeting up at races like the Olympic Trials. I always enjoy talking through ideas and possibilities with her. You can follow her on Instagram, and I reached out to find out how she and Nathan were doing during the pandemic.

Give me some highlights and lowlights from your first three months in lockdown.

Interestingly the first 11 weeks of lockdown were great for me even though as a small business owner it was extremely difficult. I think that I thrive when the challenge is the highest/most intense. Immediately when shelter-in-place started and we had to lay off all of our employees due to wanting to protect our employees and the business, I went to the ultra runner mode and just put my head down and worked. My husband and I did everything (he baked, I sold everything) with the help of two volunteers, just selling bread, pastry and coffee, 7 days a week for 11 weeks without a break. I would wake up usually around 4 am and run before starting work at 7:30. I felt like my ultra runner training came in handy, I didn’t think about the end or resist being in the uncomfortable miles, I just did as I started to say “dog paddle across the ocean”. Some of the highlights included doing some virtual racing like the Wings for Life in which I ran a 3:27 50km and was 5th in the world for women in an incredibly competitive race.

Another highlight, was really finding my groove and a next level to my running. Even while working every day, I started averaging more miles per week than I did before I ran the Olympic Trials. I started running over 100 miles per week and this translated into running two other virtual event in the space of a week. First I ran a solo 50 mile (1/4 on trail) and ran a 6:26, which would be the fastest time an American women has run the distance this year. A week later I participated in the Ultra Virus Race put on by Obstacle Racing Media and ran 50 miles in a running time of 5:47 (even with the mandatory stops every 5 miles to upload the data I still ran a 6:21). I ended up winning that race outright with 80 miles at an average of 7:13/mile. While some people have struggled with being motivated, the pandemic has had the opposite affect on me.

Lowlights are mostly small and in the grand scheme of things, insignificant. Not all of my customers have been pleasant or respectful to me or understanding that we are doing the best we can to survive this thing just like everyone else. I’ve been screamed at a few times. Now that we are more open and have 2/3rds of our staff back, I find the demands on my energy to be more draining- such as dealing with racist customers who want to yell about being offended by us supporting Black Lives Matter.

How have you grown personally and professionally during this disruption?

I have realized/been reminded of two big things. One, that my capacity and tolerance for being a work horse is huge. I actually am my best self when the demands are the highest (but clearly defined). Two, that I often let my head get in the way of my own success. I am an introspective person, but sometimes can overthink things and talk myself out of what I am capable of. My coach, Ian Torrence, even asked me at one point “what has gotten into you?” because I am running so well and I think it is because the running/racing I am doing right now has freed me from the self-consciousness that I feel and also from any perception of expectations.

Devon racing the Comrades Ultramarathon in South Africa

Has your relationship with running and racing changed as a result of being limited due to the pandemic?

Not really. If anything it has proven that what I believed to be true, actually is true. That I run because I love it and would continue to do it even if races didn’t exist. It has clarified that I race because of the challenge it presents me not the accomplishment or accolades, which is why I have been able to run as fast or faster on my own for not-race races than I have for real races.

It has broken me out of a pattern of rushing from one race to the next. Right now, I am just following my motivation without a plan and not worrying about what every thing means for a specific race. I was lined up for some pretty epic things this summer (the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning) and it didn’t happen, but my reaction was very neutral- i.e. I have really come to a place in my career where there is not one race or one thing that I think is the be all to end all. I basically feel like if a race is supposed to happen for me, it will when it is supposed to.

Ultimately, the pandemic has cemented my running as my own. There have been periods of time where I “gave away” my running and let sponsors or others dictate my path, but I feel like I am truly running as my true self.

Can athletes create positive change in the world during a crisis like this?

Of course. I think sometimes we think that in order to create change we have to do something big, but what about the every day small actions? Those are much more important. It is like training for a race. You don’t get ready for a race with one run, you do the work day in and day out. During a crisis like this, I think the small positive changes we make every day are what will add up to huge change. Whether that is continuing to be a positive role model or whether that is committing to wearing your mask out in public. Maybe it is just being kind to your neighbors or giving someone an extra helping hand. Perhaps it is standing up for social justice through joining a protest or perhaps it is educating family members or friends when they do or say racist things. I actually did an experiment when I was working during the pandemic. I wanted to see if I could influence the behavior of my customers through my behavior. So one day, I was exceedingly positive and joyful. I made a conscious effort to make each customer walk away a little bit happier. On a different day, I made little to no effort to bring joy and was even a bit grumpy and sullen. The day I was joyful, I was met with enthusiasm and joy, the day I was sullen and grumpy, customers were ruder and less engaged. It just proves that we are always influencing those around us with how we behave. If we all focused our energy on creating positive change and being a positive force, it would change the world.

Meeting up at MH Bread & Butter after a run with our mutual friend Mario Fraioli
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Peter Abraham

I help brands & athletes find their voice and build a community.
Cycling, Running, Trail Running, Gravel Biking, Surfing
Los Angeles, CA

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