When looking at YiOu Wang’s 2017 ultra season, it’s obvious why she was ranked as the number seven female ultra runner of the year.
Wang won Quicksilver (with a course record), Skyline, Lake Sonoma and FOURmidable, and placed second at Chuckanut, That’s an outstanding year for any ultra runner.
Consider that Wang accomplished all of those podium finishes in just six months. She has not raced since Aug. 6 at Skyline.
But what an epic journey she has been on since.
4 months, 17 different countries
Wang and her husband, Sean Pont, are on a year-long world tour where they are seeing the sights and running in places most people only visit by reading National Geographic or travel websites. (To see more amazing photos from her trip, scroll through the images at the bottom of this page.) About halfway through the journey, she paused long enough from her busy travel and running schedule to discuss where she’s been, where she’s going and her return to racing later this year.
Soon after the Skyline race, Wang headed out on a year-long sabbatical from her job as Dean of Curriculum at a private school in Marin County, California. She and Pont traveled to 17 different countries in the first four months.
“We started in Israel and Jordan, then proceeded south to Africa,” she says. “We went to Tanzania, Mozambique, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Angola, South Africa and Ethiopia. From Ethiopia, we had a layover in Delhi and then went to Bhutan, Thailand, Laos, Singapore, Myanmar, and Vietnam. We traveled from southeast Asia to Switzerland, and then back home to California for the holidays.”
In mid-January, they restarted their adventure in South America, followed by Australia, Japan, China, Mongolia, Russia and Uzbekistan.
“I was approached last year by a family who wanted to take a year to travel abroad with their children and also have them complete a full school year,” Wang says. “I have been a teacher for the past several years and now I'm on the teaching adventure of a lifetime. My husband also took a break from his work and is traveling with us as my assistant teacher. I am so grateful to have this opportunity to see the world. I never considered I would even be a teacher and to have the steps in my life lead me to this place ... I just feel incredibly lucky every day.”
New cultures, food and experiences
The first half of the trip has created a lifetime of memories.
Dancing with the Kara tribespeople of Ethiopia during their full moon celebration. Watching a pride of lions successfully hunt a wildebeest. Doing an epic 30-mile run in the highlands of Ethiopia. Exploring mile after mile of huge sand dunes in Namibia, Meeting caretakers of a temple at 12,000 feet in Bhutan. Dodging motorbikes while running in Hanoi.
Not only did Wang dance with tribespeople in the lower Omo River Valley in Ethiopia, she ran with two members in what is one of the most striking images thus far in her trip.
“Our guide took us to meet the Kara tribe, nomadic herdsmen who raise cattle and goats and also depend on flood irrigation to grow a few crops,” she explains. “The only modern possessions they have are weapons such as the AK47. The Kara men traditionally paint themselves using colored clay. Our guide invited the two best painters of the local Kara village to come to our camp. One of the men is named American and he also wore his valuable belt of ammunition. Amongst the tribesmen, running is a means of transportation and young men and children can still be found running after the herds. We laughed a lot that morning and examined each other's pieces of running gear.”
Wang is fortunate that her employer handled the logistics.
“We are mostly focused on the schooling curriculum,” she says. “The most difficult part for me of embarking on the trip was leaving a lifestyle and routine that I already loved. I also knew that I would be on someone else's itinerary for nine months and not have the flexibility to schedule training and racing. Being in the trail racing scene has been a large part of my life for the past several years and I had to change my mindset and focus for this period of time.”
Packing was certainly a learning experience for the educator. She has been limited to two duffel bags, one small and one large.
“I packed very light, even toward the end of the first half of the trip I felt like I had brought too much,” Wang says. “The simpler and more streamlined your stuff is, the easier it is to be constantly on the move. No one cares if you wear the same outfit twice in three days. We usually only stay in one location a maximum of three to four days.”
Flexibility, especially when it comes to running, has also been important.
“There's no time to really settle into a routine so you have to let go of the need to have a set schedule and known places to go and run,” she says. “Usually I am looking at Google Maps when I drink coffee and pick a direction to run. Sometimes it turns into a great route and sometimes I have to change directions!”
As Wang has traveled, her body has made adjustments to time zones, weather and new foods.
“The constant changes in time zone, food and climate has made me a tougher and more resilient runner,” she says. “Back home I was able to control a lot of factors and could optimize just the right conditions for running. While on the road I've adapted to run in more difficult situations: right after getting off a plane, in high humidity, in high heat, at strange times of day. Now I can wrap my head around running at any time, any place. Just get out the door and do it! It may not feel awesome but I can get it done.”
Training on the go
Even as she travels, Wang’s training — she calls it “maintenance mode” — resembles the routines of many runners who crank out the miles after getting out of their own beds.
“I try to always stick to getting up early in the morning, having coffee and heading out for a run no matter where we are,” she says. “Keeping the momentum going is very important, otherwise it's easy to slip into skipping one day which turns into a week. I've also learned to be OK with changes and not to have too many set expectations for each run. Often, we spend a lot of time navigating which reduces the distance we can run. After all, this trip is still a job and first and foremost I have to complete my teaching responsibilities.”
She has also learned to become more adaptable, something that will surely pay off during hard spots in long ultra events.
“I've learned most of all that I can be much more flexible and adaptable than I ever thought possible,” Wang points out. “Things always come up during travel: schedules change, things aren't what you expect, the food is strange and I can now roll with the changes and still maintain a positive attitude.”
Wang and Pont will conclude their trip in mid-June. Soon thereafter, Wang will return to race mode where some ultra challenges await her.
“I have several goal races for 2018, including the Mont Blanc Marathon at the end of June,” she says. “I am also signed up for TDS (one of the UTMB races) in August. Those are my big goal races so far. I'm excited to be on a training plan again and it will be an added layer of complexity to seriously train on top of the busy spring travel schedule.”
Name: YiOu Wang
Hometown: Frederick, Md., by way of Shanghai, China
Number of years running: 13
How many miles a week do you typically run: 60 to 90
Point of pride: Winning Lake Sonoma 50 mile twice
Favorite race distance: 50km
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Coffee!
Favorite piece of gear: UA Accelerate Split Shorts
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: Castle On The Hill by Ed Sheeran
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: Life shines brightest at the edge of your potential
Where can other runners connect or follow you:
• website: wheresyiou.com
• instagram: @ywangruns