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A relentless drive powers Leah Yingling to overcome challenges

By Henry Howard

After just missing a Golden Ticket earlier this year, Leah Yingling took second place at the Canyons 100K and earned her ticket to this June’s Western States 100. Her relentless drive is fueled by a deep passion for the sport, a love of the mountains and the perseverance from overcoming an assault.

While growing up, Yingling never considered herself a runner. Soccer and basketball were her thing. She followed an older sister onto the high school cross country team and eventually four Yingling sisters made up more than half of the team’s varsity spots.

“I loved the community I found through it,” she recalls. “Our cross country team felt like a bunch of misfits who found an accepting place to thrive. What made running even more special early on was being able to share it with my sisters. Qualifying for the Pennsylvania XC State Championships as a team, alongside them is still one of my favorite athletic memories to date.”

After high school, Yingling saw running as an escape, a reprieve from academics and as a tool in her mental health toolbox.

I appreciate the time she took for the interview as she prepared for this year’s Western States. The following is a question-and-answer, which has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Question: What did running look like after high school and college?

Answer: I moved to Washington, D.C., after college and lived right off the Capital Crescent Trail and C&O Tow Path. It became routine; every day, one to two hours of just me and all my fellow city-boppers chugging along on the trail. But, I wanted to see more. I wanted to explore more, but I just didn't feel safe enough to really do so alone. I started seeking out a community and found the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club for weekly runs at Great Falls on the trails. Yes, my daily tow path was nice, but this was trail running. Rocks, roots, huffing and puffing up hills — it was multifaceted; it was hard; it was fun. There were no metrics or pace to keep track of, it was peaceful.

Question: How did you progress from there to ultra running?

Answer: Coinciding with this time, I met my now husband, Mike McMonagle, who had conveniently been trail and ultra running for many years. When we met, I told him I wanted to race my first 50K. The first summer we dated long-distance between Washington and Virginia Beach, meeting halfway most weekends to find a trail race or do an adventure run in Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey or Delaware. It was a really magical time and one that I look back on fondly because it was when and where we built the foundation for our future but also shared the beginnings of a lifelong passion. Mike deployed seven months after we met, but we made sure that I got in my first 50K one week before he set off on a seven-month deployment with the Navy.

I was hooked after my first one, and moving to Utah in 2016 for grad school just took my love for the sport, the trails, the distance and the community to the next level.

Question: How long have you been a client of Megan Roche’s? What led you to be coached by her? (See earlier post about how Megan Roche is helping female runners get faster.)

Answer: I've been coached by Megan since winter of 2017. At that time I had lived in Utah for a little over a year and was diving deep into the trail, mountain and ultra running scene. But, it's really easy to get carried away and do long adventure runs every weekend. I didn't have much structure to my running my first year in Utah, and while I think it allowed for me to really explore and figure out my new home, it also would've eventually led to burn out. I had come off a few good local race results in 2017 and was hoping to train for my first 100 in 2018. I knew I couldn't do that without some guidance, accountability and structure. I listened to Megan and David on a podcast before reaching out, and I knew that their energy, their spirit, and their approach to training and longevity were everything I felt strongly about. I come from a background in science and research and enjoy digging into that element of my training and racing. I also wanted to make sure I found a coach who values not only the science of training, but also the science of women's health, nutrition and injury prevention.

Question: How has her coaching helped you develop as both and athlete and a person?

Answer: Megan knows how to work with an athlete and not against them. She knows my strengths and we lean into those, but at the same time, she knows in which areas my confidence lacks and how to build me up. Before Bandera 100K in January, she knew that I was nervous about lining up next to a bunch of women with raw leg speed, being that I come from a more mountain-focused training background. She instilled in me the confidence to take the race out confidently and put myself in a fighting position. She helps me look at the big picture of longevity, but she's also not afraid to try something new with me. We have a really good balance, and we don't overdo it. I think that's why I've had such a healthy, consistent few years of racing. We know how to train hard, but we also know how to recover, and recover extremely well. Having her as a coach keeps me energized by running every single day and keeps me looking at it as a lifelong journey more than a destination.

Question: Before we talk about Canyons, let’s discuss your great race at Bandera where you just missed getting a Golden Ticket. Tell me about how you transitioned from that outcome to — just a little while later – coming back even stronger at Canyons and getting that Golden Ticket.

Answer: While, yes, it would've been nice to have a perfect race at Bandera, I don't think I would've had my spring of racing if it weren't for the struggles, troubleshooting and lessons learned from Bandera. Coming from a dry climate to a really humid (but pleasant) day in Texas, I made some major mistakes with my electrolytes and that completely derailed my race in the last 15 miles. After the race, I went back to the drawing board with my nutrition and electrolyte plan and started rethinking the way I do things. I was a little disappointed, but mostly just excited to see how I could put one more piece of the puzzle together for future races. When it was all said and done, I really enjoyed my training block going into Bandera. I was doing more road running, rolling trails and tempo work in my long runs. I was trying to focus on some of my weaknesses and gain some leg speed. It was a blast focusing on a style of running I don't typically gravitate toward. So, even though I had a tough outcome, I knew all the training was in my legs, and I had a great base physically and mentally to build from.

I think it took me all of one day before I signed up for Canyons. I ran it in 2021 and I knew the course well. I knew it played to my climbing strengths, and the level of competition it was bringing out gave me so much nervous excitement. There were several areas I knew I could improve on from the prior year, so once it was slated on my calendar for April, I began building everything else around it while still staying true to the things that excite me — like our local running events and fundraisers, in addition to some international travel. I did a few races that pushed me outside my comfort zone, and by the time Canyons rolled around, I had a consistent spring of training, a solid nutrition plan and very recent race experience that left me feeling like I had a shot.

Question: What role did Megan play in both the mental and physical side of preparing you for a solid race at Canyons?

Answer: Megan knows that I like to race on the more conservative side with a surge later in the race to move up, and she's been encouraging me to put myself in the mix of the competition earlier in races this year. In 2021, I had a great race at Canyons, but I felt like I raced it a bit too conservatively and ran out of real estate late in the race to truly have a shot at a Golden Ticket. This year, I wanted to run a smart race, but ride a little closer to the edge of my effort all day. Megan had so much confidence in me that it made it hard not to share that same belief in myself. My training wasn't anything special leading into the race — just really consistent mileage and a good bit of racing. Looking back, the amount of racing I did this spring really allowed me to be resilient and have the quads and leg strength late in the race to move up in the field on the climbs. We experimented a little bit more than we normally do this training block, and it couldn't have worked out better.

Question: That strong finish at Canyons got you into Western States. Now that you've had some time to process the race, the outcome and your first Western, what will your approach be in training and on race day?

Answer: It was an incredible day, and it was how you hope every race day will play out. My training wasn't anything out of the ordinary. In terms of other competitive runners, I tend to be a lower mileage, higher vert runner, with most weeks in the 60- to 70-mile range. My main focus after Canyons was on recovery and to make sure things are feeling good before jumping too fast into anything. I think getting a Golden Ticket at Canyons can be a blessing and a curse. It's exciting to get into Western States, but it's also really easy to want to dive right back in and not honor the recovery because you have a 100-miler to train for! My plan was to keep a similar vert and mileage focus and add a few back-to-back long runs, including the Western States Training Camp over Memorial Day weekend

Question: Tell me about a time in your running career when you faced adversity — maybe an injury, performance-related challenge or outside stressor — and how you were able to overcome it.

Answer: After my first semester of college, I was running on a trail in my hometown and was attacked at knifepoint and sexually assaulted on a trail I had run hundreds of times. It was life-altering and nearly destroyed my relationship with being alone and being a runner. For the next few years, I struggled to see running as a reprieve, as it became a source of anxiety. I began partnering and volunteering with organizations with women, runner safety and sexual assault advocacy at the center of their mission. The empowering people and work surrounding me was the push I needed to lace my shoes back up and set a goal that felt bigger than myself. In 2013, I committed to running my first marathon to close out my senior year at Carnegie Mellon and to celebrate my four years in Pittsburgh. That was the first step towards repairing my relationship with running but a critical one on my journey to becoming an ultra marathoner. (Related: Michelle Magagna's inspirational story of overcoming a sexual assault.)

Question: What do you want other runners or would-be runners to know about facing their own adversity — whether it's weight loss, a relentless injury or something else — that may prevent them from trying or continuing to run? What's your best advice to them?

Answer: Everything doesn't always happen for a reason. And, adversity isn't always a blessing in disguise. Adversity is hard, it's confusing, it's even hopeless at times. It's OK to not be OK. I like to invest my time in other ways when I'm facing adversity. That might mean investing in relationships, volunteering at a local race, or just working on weaknesses that I don't otherwise have time for.

Speed drill

Name: Leah Yingling

Hometown: Salt Lake City, Utah

Number of years running: 18 years!

How many miles a week do you typically run: 60 to 70

Point of pride: My ability to fuel a 100-miler with 50 gels and no solids :)

Favorite race distance: 100K.

Favoriteor pre-race or training food/drink: Coconut rice

Favorite piece of gear: S/LAB Ultra 3 Trail Shoe

Who inspires you: My husband, Mike, is my biggest source of inspiration, energy and a constant force for building and being part of a community

Favorite inspirational song to run to: I am Woman by Emmy Meli

Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: "You Belong."

Where can other runners connect or follow you:

• Instagram: leah_yingling

• Strava: Leah Yingling


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