Ultrarunner YiOu Wang: Learning, Consistency & the Pursuit of Excellence

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Ultrarunner YiOu Wang didn’t grow up a runner, or even an athlete. Her form of competition was excellence in academics and you’d find her on the math and debate teams. Fast forward to today and she’s one of the world’s top trail and ultra runners. Her path has one common thread, whether in sport or academics: setting goals and putting in the work to reach her potential. “One of the reasons I really love running is because you get out of it what you put into it. You can set goals and then over time, as long as you’re consistent and put in the work, those goals are achievable.”

YiOu discovered running during college in Boston and has since become a force on both roads and trails. She is a two time Marathon Olympic Trials qualifier, 2017 US 50K trail national champion, two time winner of Lake Sonoma 50, and most recently she won the 2019 North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile Championships in Marin County, just north of San Francisco. YiOu sat down with us and shared insights on her training routine, nutritional strategy and the mental side of running and pursuing goals. 

Our conversation has been edited for clarity.

Listen to the full interview on The Common Threads podcast at: Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Spotify.

The Making of a Runner

David Swain: I like starting with a hard question — what did you have for breakfast this morning?

YiOu Wang: I had black coffee and leftover rice with fried eggs and soy sauce. And a chocolate chip cookie.

I woke up at 6:30 with a grand plan to do a short, easy 45 minute run. I got up and it was cloudy and foggy. So I started with coffee and then I opened my laptop and got sucked into a lot of work emails. An hour and a half later I thought, oh I’ll just run when it gets sunny later in the day.

Tell us about the 10 year old YiOu. Were you playing sports? 

I wasn’t much of an athlete growing up. I was definitely more focused on academics. I started swimming in middle school because I needed it to go on a college application. I quit swimming after a while because I didn’t like smelling like chlorine all the time. 

I never thought of myself as an athlete. My parents placed a lot of emphasis on academics because we were an immigrant family. They wanted me to go to college and build this better life in the US which is why they moved here. It was a very strict household, the classic Chinese tiger parents. Growing up, there were moments where I kind of chafed at that because I saw my peers doing things that I was not allowed to do, like going to sleepovers or going to the mall. I was like, what do you do at the mall? It was such a mystery. 

What were you doing when all your friends were at the mall?

There was a lot of studying and extracurricular activities. I was on the math team and debate team and I did get into theater. I played piano quite seriously. There wasn’t time to socialize. Looking back on it, I’m very thankful that my parents made me pursue things. They instilled in me this idea of if you’re going to do something, try to do it the best you can. Take it seriously and actually follow through. There were many times when I wanted to quit my piano lessons, but my parents wouldn’t let me. I’m glad because I learned to love music and that’s something that I’ll have for the rest of my life. They showed me that you have to work hard for whatever you want in life. 

YiOu and her team winning the Chemathon high school competition in 2002

And you ended up at MIT. 

When I entered college, I thought that I would follow a pretty traditional track – study science,  then get a PhD or maybe medical degree and work as a research scientist for some large biotech or chemical company. When I left home, I finally started developing a sense of what I wanted to do for myself aside from pursuing that very traditional track, like all good Asian children.

In Cambridge and Boston is where I first encountered running. I was working hard in my classes but got inspired by all of the energy surrounding the Boston Marathon. During the entire spring leading up the race, the whole city knows about it. Everyone is training for it or getting ready to watch friends or family who are training for it. It really inspired me to want to do the Boston Marathon. 

My first step was very academic – I did a lot of research. Google had just come out and there were only 10 search results. I would go online and research how to run a marathon or how to start a running program and read as much as I could. I loved learning about the physiology, the footwear, the gear, and the concept of a training program. I always love learning about new subjects or ideas. This was a completely different challenge from what I did in the classroom or in a lab. It felt like a good balance for stress relief and maybe a way to connect with a different group of people. So I started running on my own and really loved it.

Are there similarities between reaching your potential in academics and running?

One of the reasons I really love running is because you get out of it what you put into it. You can set goals and then over time, as long as you’re consistent and put in the work, those goals are achievable. I get a great sense of confidence and satisfaction when I achieve something. Whether it’s learning a particular subject or piece of music or completing your first 5K or half marathon or marathon, I think having goals is really important in life. I’ve pursued different things over the years – academics, music, running and athletics. But all this time what’s been most rewarding is not necessarily winning, but knowing that I put in all of this really hard work. It took me four years to even finish the North Face 50 Miler. So it’s been a really long journey. Everybody sees a win on this one day, but it really started five years ago with a DNF and me wanting to just finish this race.

What happened after school? Did you find a balance between work and running? 

I met my husband Sean on the East Coast. He grew up in Mill Valley, CA, and went to Cornell for engineering. We lived together for about a year in Boston. Boston winters are quite tough compared to California ones. After we finished school, we both wanted to be outside, to be more active. We happily moved out to CA in 2009. Sean works for Google and loves it.

I kind of kicked around different ideas of working for Genentech or UCSF or another research institute. But without a PhD or an MD, you don’t have very much autonomy in the kind of work that you do. It’s often the same thing day after day, like running assays or tests. You’re at a bench by yourself doing experiments all day. I dreaded getting into that kind of life. 

Then an opportunity landed in front of me. A small private school in San Rafael was in desperate need of a math teacher. I’ve always liked teaching and tutoring, so I started teaching seventh and eight grade math there. I’d never taught in a classroom before and it seemed really exciting to have to learn a new skill. I’ve learned over time that I’m not someone who can do the same thing day after day. I always want to learn new skills, new knowledge, and that’s what really excites me about life.

Most people hear that story and think it’s so crazy. It was crazy! I couldn’t sleep at night because of how challenging it was. I learned that I can take on a job that I don’t have the skills for because I can learn them. As long as I put in the effort, ask people for help, and try to do the best I can, if I’m passionate about what I’m doing, I can do anything.

And when did the professional runner part happen?

After we moved here, I started running and training more seriously because the climate was more conducive. I was not fully employed at the time, so I had a lot more time to train. I wasn’t  thinking that I would ever become a professional runner, but I wanted to keep improving, especially in the marathon. I started working with a coach for the first time in 2010, and I quickly saw a lot of improvement in my marathon time, from three and a half hours to breaking 2:50. I thought, wow, maybe I can get that Olympic trials qualifying time. At the time it was 2:46.  I put in a lot of training with my coach and ran a 2:38 marathon in 2011 in Duluth, Minnesota, which was above and beyond what I ever could have imagined myself running.

I just enjoyed that day because it didn’t come immediately. It was the result of having dedicated myself to marathon training since 2004. I think after that race I thought of myself as a pretty solid sub elite runner. I ran local road races and marathons for a while. Then I got into trail running just from living in Marin and having access to all these beautiful trails. I found myself doing a lot of training runs on trails, but didn’t really think of it as a space where I could compete until 2013-14. 

I had a major ankle injury in 2013 and I took the whole year off of running. I had surgery and was on crutches for a while. After I recovered, I thought it was time to dive into trail running, especially ultra running. The endurance aspect of marathoning was a strength of mine and what I enjoyed the most. I wanted to extend that and try a 50K and see what happened. Turns out, I really like it! I also love the community around trail and ultra running. After having done well in some races in 2014 and 2015, sponsors started approaching me, which was really cool. It is validation of the hard work and results. It is a very rewarding process to be involved in making a product and representing a brand. 

You just won The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile Championships. We were there. You came through each check point with a completely stoic, almost zen-like expression, even at mile 42 after 8,000+ feet of climbing. Talk about the mental state you were in, and is that normal or was that a special race?

I think that day was special in that a lot of things went right – my fitness going into it, my fueling, and the execution of the race. For every race, I always strive to try to stay as calm as possible. The way I perform best and compete best is when I don’t get overly emotional about the experience. If I get too emotional, I find myself spiraling into ‘I don’t feel good’ or ‘this really hurts.’ It’s a little bit of mind over matter. You have your mind decide that you still feel fine even though it’s mile 42. You try to keep all of those more negative thoughts at bay. I find that I really need to hyper-focus to stay in the “flow state” as much as possible. That is always challenging over the course of a seven-hour plus race.

I find my best performances are when I can tap into that zone for as long as possible. For the North Face 50, it helped that I was very familiar with all of those trails on the course. That made the day go by faster because I knew what to expect and I had run the terrain before.

YiOu’s Kit: Training, Nutrition, Sleep and Recovery

Angela Zaeh: What does your training look like today? How do you plan your race year? 

YiOu: I’ve been working with coach Mario Fraioli for four years, maybe more. He’s a really good friend, as well as my coach. That has been an amazing relationship. After my last race of each year, Mario and I plan out a race plan for the next year. It’s very helpful to have someone like Mario be a second set of eyes, because I always want to do everything. Mario will say, hold on, what’s the race you really, really want to do? Then we work backwards from that.

We typically target something every quarter. That gives enough time for ramping up training, doing the race and recovering afterwards. For example, the first quarter of 2020 will be the Olympic Marathon Trials in Atlanta. Depending on the race, Mario will tailor different kinds of workouts to that race. For the North Face we were doing a lot of hilly long trail efforts, which is very different than what we do for a fast road marathon, which is going to be track work and shorter intervals on bike paths for example. For the second quarter, I’ll do a April/May race. I want to do a 50K and build off of the speed work that I’ve done for the marathon. That would be a great transition. My big goal for the summer is to do one of the UTMB races, probably CCC the 100K. Between May and August I need to go to the mountains and actually get Alps legs, practice my poles and practice carrying a big pack. After UTMB, I’ll need a two or three week recovery period. Finally there’s another build up for a race in November/December.

I get weekly plans from Sunday to Sunday. Typically, Mondays are an easy recovery run. There will be two workouts Wednesday and Friday or Wednesday and Saturday and one day will be shorter, harder like VO2-type intervals and then speed work intervals. Friday or Saturday will be longer threshold tempo work intervals. There will be a long run on Sunday or Saturday. 

I’ve gone through times where I’ve tried to hit arbitrary mileage numbers and I found that I don’t need to run a hundred or so miles a week. Some people respond better to higher mileage, some people respond better to lower mileage and more quality. I think I’m definitely on the spectrum of not needing super high mileage. Going into the North Face 50 miler, my highest mileage week was 80 or 85 which is pretty low for doing a long endurance event. My longest run was a marathon.

Now that I’ve done four or five 50 mile races, my body knows how to run the 50 miles and I don’t have to over-train myself. I’d rather spend the time on quality because as I get older and as I put more miles on my body, there’s so much more that needs to go into recovery. Compared to five years ago, I do much more rehab recovery work. I need time for strength training, yoga, stretching, massage, body work. 

How do you structure your day? 

I used to have a very strict routine, especially when I was teaching full-time because the school day starts so early. I had to be at work at 7:30, so on weekdays I set a 5:00 AM alarm and was out the door running by 5:50. I was very strict Monday through Friday and was going to bed by 8:30. There was zero going out in the middle of the week. 

Now my work schedule is a lot more flexible, since I teach part-time and have some consulting and tutoring projects. I can set my own hours, which is a gift and a curse. Now I have to impose my structure, but I’m also okay with being more flexible. 

I used to think, if I don’t run in the morning then all my runs will feel terrible. But that’s not necessarily the case. It’s more 90% mental and 10% when you eat your meals. I’ve become much more flexible. It’s okay to enjoy life and to not be so rigid, because the more rigid you are, the more stress you feel if something disturbs the routine. If your alarm is late or if your headlamp battery happens to not be charged in the morning, you have to figure it out. You have to be ok with changes in the routine.  

Most races never go 100% according to your game plan. You have to be able to problem-solve and not panic. A lot of people can have amazing races until they reach this point when they see a curveball and then they panic. That’s when your race goes totally downhill. Instead, figure out a solution, stay calm and continue on. At this most recent North Face 50, I had a great day, but my legs started cramping between 50K and mile 40. I really thought that there was a point where I would have to stop, but then I thought, ‘no, you’re going to figure out a solution.’

I knew there was an aid station coming up at Muir Woods road, and I thought, ‘just make it there.’ Luckily, it was downhill. I ate a bunch of salts at the aid station and drank water and hiked a little bit uphill. Then my legs felt like moving again. I kept moving forward and I took electrolytes at the next aid station. I knew I had to keep hydrating because it was a very humid day. So even though it felt like one of the best races I’ve ever executed, there were still things I had to keep working through.

You just mentioned it’s been one of the best races you’ve ever done. Where does it rank in your running career?

I think it would be one of the best moments. It was on home trails and so many things came together to make it a poignant experience, like having so many locals and people that I’ve run with or people that I know in the running community out there cheering for me.

There’s nowhere else that I could replicate that experience. Racing on trails that I run every week and have so many good memories on was very special. I enjoyed that finish across the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s such an iconic San Francisco Bay Area experience. I actually don’t run across the Golden Gate bridge very often, so it was exciting for me at the end of the 50 miles to run across it. I was also very happy with my nutrition and execution of my nutrition plan during the race. I think nutritionally it was the best I’d ever done in a 50-mile race in terms of feeling like I was adequately fueled the whole day.

Ultrarunner YiOu Wang winning The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 miler in California
YiOu Wang winning the 2019 North Face 50 mile championships. Photo: iRunFar/Bryon Powell

Can you talk a bit more about how you injury prevention and recovery work into your week? 

I’m not very good at doing them on my own. I do a lot of classes. I do a strength training class once a week in the city that’s tailored towards endurance running and triathlon sports. I don’t do heavy weights, usually just the bar and the lightest weights that will fit on the bar. It’s excellent for activating some of the muscles that get turned off when you’re sitting or driving. There’s a lot of work on glute activation and hamstring activation versus being overly quad dependent. That class also works on mobility and flexibility. We do box jumps and lunging and that sort of thing.

I do a yoga class at least once a week to work on extra stretching. I also do some TRX maybe once or twice a week. I have that at home and it’s a quick 15 minutes routine. 

Do you do anything for active recovery after hard workouts, races?

I walk or hike. I don’t do any cross training because I don’t want to spend that much time working out. If I’ve run for the day, I really don’t want to go and spin. I’d rather just go for a walk and be outside or sit with my legs up against the wall. 

How important is sleep?

Sleep is so important. People often say, I’ll wake up an hour earlier and go to the gym and do my strength training. It’s so much better if you just sleep, which is another thing I’ve discovered. I’ll allow myself to sleep in now. Nowadays I sleep in as much as possible. 

A lot of times I wake up in the middle of the night and can’t fall back asleep for a long time. I’ve been trying things like listening to Headspace before bed, which helps me a lot. It’s something that I’ll continue to work on and try to fine-tune.

What’s your philosophy on food or diet? 

I am all about eating a lot of food. I think it’s so important to properly fuel your body with not just the energy but also the nutrition that it needs to rebuild and recover after hard efforts. I’m not on any sort of fancy diet. I like to eat whole foods, meat, vegetables, starch, and fruit. 

I always find it fun to shock people with how much food I can eat at certain meals. I don’t track calories. From my science background, I have a pretty good knowledge of nutrition and energy expenditure and that sort of thing.  I know I need to take in carbohydrates, proteins, fats and micronutrients from fruits and vegetables. I listen to my body, especially after a race. I know there are certain things that I crave, whether it’s French fries or a hamburger or avocado toast for five days straight.

I’ll eat until I’m full and I’ll eat when I’m hungry. I’m interested in a long term running career and for that you have to adequately fuel your body and not fall into an energy deficiency cycle, which will lead to adverse effects down the road. If you’re on a restrictive diet and you’re training heavily, you can get super lean, super light, super-fast, but that’s a very short term result. Long term you’re going to have bone fracture injuries. You’re going to have the side effects of losing your period. You’re going to have mood disorders because being hungry makes people unhappy.

That’s not to say that I am 100% immune to social media. I do look at people’s photos and think, wow, they look super lean or super strong. I’ll look critically at my own photos. But I try not to let those thoughts dominate and dictate my training, which should really be an expression of what I love to do.

What have you learned about nutrition that made this race the best from a fueling perspective?

I have learned that you need to fuel a lot, you need to practice your fueling and then do what you practice in a race.

I used to be very bad about taking in calories. For a marathon, I would take only two or three gels. When running a 50K or 50 miles, I would usually end up in a calorie deficit and barely make it through the end of the race. I would wonder why I felt so horrible at the end of the race. 

Now for any length of race, I try to eat some sort of breakfast before the race. During the race, starting around 30 or 40 minutes, I’ll start taking in calories. I have an alarm on my phone that goes off every 40 minutes and I’ll take a gel. I’ve been trying more solid food in the beginning part of the race. During the North Face 50, I ate Stroopwafels at the first two aid stations and then moved to gels. Toward the end of the race, it felt like I ate a gel every mile. I felt great. If your stomach can handle it and if you’re used to it in training, then take in all the nutrition you can.

Do you practice any kind of mental training?

When I am doing a workout, I am pretty serious. If I’m running with someone who doesn’t know me well, I warn them that I’m probably not going to smile until we finish. Any sort of hard run that I do, I am very serious. An easy run is for socializing or for having fun. 

How do you deal with lack of motivation or even depression or post-race blues? 

I think everyone goes through it. Obviously I’ve had races that go very poorly and I’ve found that it’s helpful to express my feelings about it. I talk to close friends. I’m not someone who likes to share a lot with a large group of people. Having a couple of close friends that I really trust to talk to has been very helpful.

One thing that helps is to have the next goal in mind. Then you can’t dwell on whatever happened at your previous race. I also think that not spending 100% of my time on being a professional runner helps. I can’t just stay home and be miserable. Having other things in your life is key, whether it’s another career, another interest, people that you can focus your energy on. These things help to dissipate feelings. When a race is fresh, it can feel very overwhelming or very emotional. But over time, those feelings tend to fade and you can revisit the race with a less emotionally charged perspective. You can say, ‘okay, why did this race go poorly? What did I learn from it?’ You can always learn from it.

You have running, your career, you’re also married, and you have friends. How do you manage all these parts of your life, as well as an intense training schedule?

It helps to be in a relationship with someone who also runs. We spend a lot of time together on the trails. I’m very thankful that Sean is a good runner and likes to run with me. That’s how we met and that’s a connection that we’ll always have. It’s something we’ll do for the rest of our lives. 

I’m also very thankful that I’ve found a close community of runners who are also good friends. We run together and socialize together. And we’re all home by 9pm because we’re up early for a long run. Finding a group of people that share your passions is very important. 

For people in an intense training program, it can be very lonely. You have to be pretty selfish about how you spend your time when you’re training. Having a few people who I run really well with is also important. Then I don’t feel as if I’m alone all the time. I also stay involved in the community by volunteering at races, going to events, being interested in what other people are doing in the space. 

I think that having running helps me to be successful as an educator because I bring the same energy and passion to my teaching. When people who excel at a sport retire, their dedication and ability to work hard can be brought to another career. 

I get a lot of questions from young runners who want to be an elite or professional runners. I always tell them: that’s awesome, but here are some things you should think about. Find relationships and maintain them. Don’t just isolate yourself in a cabin in the woods for 10 months out of the year because that’s what you think you need to do. It’s so important for you to be a well-rounded person and to make connections and be part of a community. Think about what you want to do outside of running. It can be related to running – maybe you want to coach, maybe you want to be a nutritional consultant, maybe you want to write about running, but do something other than just run all the time. If you’re injured, if you decide to retire from a competitive career, what are you going to do next? 

What have you seen in terms of similarities and differences in the running community in different parts of the world?

I think the similarities are that people who are runners are always excited to meet other runners. On the other hand, there are still very different attitudes or philosophies about running in different parts of the world.

Running is booming in Asia, for example. Marathons sell out immediately. But people still have a lot to learn about running. There’s a big appetite for education. Through my travel, it was interesting to see how running for pleasure or as a hobby is related to economic development. We went to Ethiopia and sub-Saharan Africa where many elite runners are from, but no one there runs for fun. If you run, it’s a very serious career. It’s a way that you’re going to better the life of your family or your village.

In a place like Myanmar, which is still opening up after decades under a military junta, running is not very popular. You can find people in the park doing their morning group workout class or you might see expats jogging, but very few locals. Then you go to a place like Shanghai and there are a lot more locals running, but they’re still wearing tights and long sleeves all the time. This is a reflection of more conservative cultural norms. Singapore is very wealthy, very multicultural, has a lot of expats and everyone runs. There are bike paths everywhere, so the infrastructure is a lot more conducive to running. There are races every weekend and you will see tons of people out on their morning runs along the water. It was interesting to observe the running culture as we moved from country to country. But no matter where we went, the running community was always welcoming.

YiOu running on sand dunes in Namibia

David Swain: Let’s talk about sponsorships.

My primary sponsor is Under Armour. I use their apparel, footwear and accessories. They make pretty much everything. I’m also sponsored by CamelBak, which is a local Petaluma company that makes hydration vests and bottles. My nutrition sponsor is GU Energy Labs for gels and waffles and sports drinks and I work with Equator Coffees cause I’m a coffee fanatic. 

When looking for a sponsor, you have to figure out what’s in it for both of you. There’s something that you can offer the sponsor and there’s something that the sponsor can offer you. The sponsor pays you to represent their brand and to give them product feedback. They need athletes who are wearing their gear.

I’m paid by Under Armour to represent the brand. That means I wear all their products and talk about their products. I provide feedback, especially on the shoes. I tell them what I like about new prototypes that they send. They want to know what works or doesn’t work. It’s a solid commitment from my end, which is why I’ve always limited myself to a smaller group of sponsors. The more sponsors you have, the more responsibilities you have: appearances, photo shoots etc.

Because I have another job and career, I’d rather keep the sponsorships more limited and just give my best effort and time to the sponsors that I’m really passionate about and that I’m really comfortable working with. I think that helps me better maintain those relationships and also be a better representative of those brands.

YiOu’s Resources & Gear

What are the resources that help you do what you do, whether it’s apps or devices? 

I use Headspace a lot. My coach and I use the Final Surge for the training plans. I do a bit of socializing through Instagram. I’m on Facebook less now. I’ve had a lot of interesting connections happen just through these apps because they open up a line of communication that would not have existed otherwise. I use Gaia GPS to find new trails. I’m on Strava, but I’m moving more towards using MapMyRun, an Under Armour product.

What about your watch?

I have a pretty simple Garmin GPS watch. I don’t use a smartwatch because I’ll just look at my watch all the time. My Garmin does heart rate and GPS. I find that’s all I need. I do take my phone a lot because I love taking photos – you know, constantly generating content.

Books or podcasts. Anything that you’re reading or listening to that hit the spot for you? 

I’m currently reading a book called The Body by Bill Bryson. He is one of my favorite authors. I really enjoy using his work as teaching tools for my classrooms. He writes about subjects in a very entertaining and approachable way. 

Running shoes?

I’ve been wearing the Velociti shoe line by Under Armour, and I actually wore a pair of Velociti 2s for the entire North Face 50. I still prefer more minimalist shoe construction over maximalist. As someone who’s used to road running, I love wearing road flats for any kind of race trail or road. The feedback I gave to Under Armour was that I want a road racing flat with sticky tread and lugs. That’s what I want as a trail shoe. They have some prototypes that build upon this Velocity racer and put a different outsole on it that’s more appropriate for trail.

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