Despite a lupus diagnosis, ultrarunning legend Devon Yanko finished 2022 very strong and has her eyes on even bigger things to come.
The race season is over for Devon Yanko. This year she set out to do five 100 milers, but only completed 3 100-mile races and a 50-mile race at Brazos Bend in December. It’s not what she anticipated when she started out. But during this rollercoaster year, she’s had to navigate both monumental highs and lows.
The latter was a notable victory for the unsponsored Yanko. Yet, the news was fairly quiet despite besting one of the best women’s 100-mile fields this year.
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The lows? Just 3 weeks before Javelina, Yanko was diagnosed with lupus, a chronic disease that causes inflammation and pain throughout the body. She’d been unknowingly fighting the disease as she attempted to run five 100-mile races as part of her self-created “DY DIY Slam” (a twist on the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning).
While her life will continue to change as she adapts to a new reality, her performances at Javelina and Brazos Bend have Yanko focusing on more good days to come.
“I can’t control what my body will do, not while racing and not with lupus,” Yanko said. “But I can control my mind.”
The ‘Devon Yanko DIY Slam’
Yanko kicked off the year with a 14:23:13 at Umstead 100 in April. That gave her the outright win and set a new course record and a personal best. Needless to say, Yanko’s confidence was high.
“The last time I ran a hundred was 2017,” Yanko said. “I started to think, ‘Oh, no, I still got it. The hundred is still good to me. This Grand Slam is going to be fun.'”
That was the original plan. But, she said, “Definitely, it didn’t work out that way.”
In June, just ahead of her second race at the Kettle Moraine 100, she felt off physically. She had a hard time breathing. And 7 miles in, she collapsed.
Because a race worker tested positive for COVID on race week, a doctor shrugged Yanko’s condition off as a case of COVID.
But she was determined not to let that slow her down on her DIY slam. So as Yanko battled an undiagnosed problem, she booked even more races to keep her hopes alive.
Sadly, though, she was only able to run one more of the original five races she signed up for: the High Lonesome 100. And she said it was the worst she’d ever felt in an ultra.
“I started with a combination of an autoimmune flare-up… and PMS, so all of my fitness was erased,” Yanko said. “It became laughable. I couldn’t eat anything. Then, I had the worst blisters that I’ve ever gotten in my entire 16-year career. The bottoms of the balls of my feet were coming detached, fully. At a certain point, you’re just like, ‘What next?'”
Yanko still managed a fourth-place finish. But that’s when the dominos started falling. Doctors tried to treat her low iron levels but to no avail.
She had to bail on the Leadville 100 in August. Then, she did not start (DNS) again at the Run Rabbit in September. Yet still, that month, she knocked off two fastest known times (FKTs) in Colorado on 22-mile and 41-mile trails — the Mt Yale 360 and Rio Grande Trail. And she completed both in 1 week.
Confidence slightly restored by her FKTs, Yanko signed up for the Hennepin Hundred in early October. Her fitness was feeling good as she started. She was ticking off the miles in under 7 minutes. But at mile 50, again, she dropped.
The following week, Yanko went in to see another doctor, searching for answers.
“They were like, ‘There’s nothing wrong. And you should just stop running,'” she recalled. “I thought, how are you going to tell me there’s nothing wrong with me, and then tell me to stop running? That makes no sense.'”
So she got a third opinion the next day. And it paid off. Finally, Yanko was able to get a diagnosis: She had lupus. That realization came just 3 weeks before the Javelina Jundred.
Taking It in Stride
The news was bittersweet. An answer provided a pathway forward with treatment. No one could ever tell her, “There’s nothing wrong with you” again. She knew what was wrong with her, and she knew what she had to do.
The old adage of “don’t do anything new near a race” went out the window. She started treatment immediately, less than a month before Javelina.
“I was put on the COVID-famous hydroxychloroquine. But it caused bad side effects. So my doctors advised to stop taking it,” Yanko said. “I am still on methotrexate, a chemotherapy drug. I take that once a week, and took it the two weekends before Javelina. My doctor said, ‘Pick a day you want to do nothing because you’ll probably feel like death.'”
When Javelina arrived, everything was different. Yanko had stopped eating sugar, cut out alcohol, and tried to limit stress to mitigate and prevent inflammation. That’s likely why her first gel during the race came right back up. It was the first sugar she’d tasted in a month.
She pushed through the nausea, though. And on the other side, she felt a little better.
“[Yanko] wasn’t sure if she would ever be able to reach her full potential again,” said Sandi Nypaver, Yanko’s friend and pacer at Javelina. “[But] watching her on the first loops, it looked like she knew that good days were still possible. She was dancing with the race director. She had her game face on.”
That flow state carried throughout the race. Yanko slowly picked off runners throughout the day until there were no women in front of her halfway through the fourth of five 20-mile loops. For 30 miles, she was all alone up front.
“We all go on the crazy train to nowhere, but all of my worst-case scenarios had already occurred,” Yanko said. “They happened. I survived. And I’m still showing up at the next start line.”
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She took the win in 14:36:10, booking a golden ticket to the 2023 Western States.
“It was kind of surreal,” Yanko said. “It’s so validating to be authentic to myself, when I am true to who I am, and I race the way I want to. That is what this result [is]. It was just so much more than I could’ve imagined, having this chapter end on a high note. [And] to do it at a race I love with people I love.”
There are still miles to go for Yanko, both literally and figuratively.
Literally, she capped off the year with the 50-mile win at Brazos Bend, though she initially hoped to do the 100 before a lupus-related issue made her choose the 50-mile race instead.
Figuratively, she’s still learning about her chronic disease. She’s still adjusting to life with her new medication. Within 3 hours of finishing Javelina, Yanko had to take her chemo drugs again.
She hopes to get on a different one that is approved for lupus but has to wait to prove that this one, which is cheaper, doesn’t work. Because, in her words, “insurance companies are assholes.”
Yanko has also been educating people about lupus, especially on her blog.
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On the other side of the coin, Yanko is also stoked about the future. Javelina proved she was still at the top. She can compete. If all goes well, she could return to the Western States podium. It’ll depend on the day and something out of her control. But overall, she’s ready.
“I’m at a stage where I don’t have sponsors,” Yanko said. “I’m not accountable to anybody. What sounds interesting to me? Maybe it’s a ridiculous version of the DIY slam. I’ll see what opportunities come my way next year. If I get an invite that sounds fun, maybe I’ll do that.”
“A doctor told me to stop running this year,” she said, “But I’m obsessed, and I can’t stop.”