Her training may be unconventional, but it’s working.
When Devon Yanko toed the line at the Caumsett 50K on March 6, she went into it with the attitude that it would be her “first pancake.” The 34-year old pro was coming back from an injury and didn’t know what to expect from her fitness level. Much like the first pancake of a batch, she thought her race may be a bit messy and imperfect but would lead to bigger and better things down the road.
She placed second, producing a near perfect pancake, perhaps due to the fact that, in addition to being a professional runner, she’s a real-life chef, baker, and bakery owner, along with her husband. Or maybe it’s that Yanko's talent, grit, and determination have carried her to three stints on the USATF 100K national team, owning the fastest known time (FKT) on the Grand Canyon R2R2R, and a third place at the challenging Western States 100 last year. Probably a recipe made up of all the above.
By 2005 she had run her first marathon and in 2006, she jumped up to the ultra. She hasn’t looked back since.
Yanko has always been a runner to some degree, although her original focus was basketball. At six feet tall, she played in high school and college and ran to keep in shape. “I ran about 30 miles per week in college,” she says. “After a back injury forced me to quit basketball, I picked up my running.”
Living abroad in 2003, Yanko jumped into a half marathon on little training. “I was totally hooked,” she says. By 2005 she had run her first marathon and in 2006, she jumped up to the ultra. She hasn’t looked back since.
While Yanko excels on the trails, she’s also a fan of the road and her accomplishments there rival those from the muddier counterpart. “I think having both types of racing in my life challenges me,” she says, “and one complements the other.”
Yanko has run more than 30 each of marathons and ultras. Her road merits include a 2:38 marathon PR and a showing at the 2012 Olympic trials, third place at South Africa’s Two Oceans Marathon, and fifth place/first American at the Comrades Marathon.
Coached by McMillan’s Ian Torrance, Yanko, for the most part, puts in what looks like a pro marathoner’s training schedule, hitting a typical week of 100 to 120 miles. “I run more volume than a lot of trail runners,” she says, “but it seems to work well for me. I think keeping up road speed translates well to the trails.”
Her weeks usually include a cornucopia of running. “We’ll do both road and track workouts,” she says, “and then on my easy days, I run trails.”
“I was running, but couldn’t fit in ultra training because the bakery work was hard physical labor on my feet.”
Based out of Marin, California, Yanko has no shortage of great trails to choose from. When prepping for a big goal race, however, she sometimes heads straight to the course. “Last year, I trained in Tahoe for a month to get ready for Western States,” she says. “While I was there, I got on the course, but I also threw in a road half.”
The last few years have been good for the Oiselle- and Hoka-sponsored Yanko. She earned her spot at Western States through a win at the Sean O’Brien 100K last year. She set a new course record at the Javelina 100 in 2015 and won the 2016 American River 50 Miler.
Coming off her injury, Yanko is uncertain how her year ahead will unfold, but she’s off to a good start and has ambitious goals. “Comrades is my big focus right now, with Two Oceans, an important stepping stone along the way,” she says. “Everything else is a lead-up.”
Just as Yanko’s training approach is a bit unconventional compared to many elite ultra runners, so too is her life outside of running. A chef by trade, she and her husband, Nathan, own and operate their own bakery, M.H. Bread and Butter. A four-year-old operation, the bakery represents a labor of love—and a time-consuming one at that. “For most of 2015, I worked the 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. shift by myself,” says Yanko. “I was running, but couldn’t fit in ultra training because the bakery work was hard physical labor on my feet.”
Yanko kept up this grueling schedule seven days a week and before long, it took its toll. “I was baking, running, taking care of the business, and it was too much,” she says. “I realized that as a business owner, I had the ability to make changes.”
"I cried through the whole thing. But I didn’t quit and it liberated my thinking about ultras."
She stepped back her hours at the bakery and began to focus more on her running. “I had a rebirth of my ultra career,” she says. “I took on a 100K with a technical course and bad weather—I cried through the whole thing. But I didn’t quit and it liberated my thinking about ultras. It didn’t matter how I competed, it was making the choice to endure.”
Soon after she scored her win at Javelina 100, and then a week later ran the third-fastest American time for a 100-miler. “It confirmed my desire to have balance with my running and my career,” she says. “I was afraid to define myself as a pro runner because I thought I would lose my intrinsic motivation. But I found a way to have boundaries with it.”
Yanko points to her sponsors for adding support to her running that extends beyond the financial. “Oiselle brought me on as its first trail runner, and they have collaborated with me on how to focus my energy,” she says. “They consider how my journey can relate back to their core group of runners—I’m a storyteller and they relate well to that.”
Hoka, which has been immersed in trail running from the start, has a value system that meshes well with Yanko’s. “They have never directed my racing,” she says,” and I appreciate this because I’m never going to run things that don’t interest me.”
With her injury now in the rearview mirror, Yanko can focus on her 2017 race schedule. If her result at the Caumsett 50K is any indication, that first pancake is going to lead to a nice-looking stack.