Devon Yanko’s battle with lupus
By Henry Howard
Devon Yanko is on a roll, even as she battles a fairly recent diagnosis of lupus. Little did she know at the time but a lupus flareup knocked her from leading to recording a DNF at the Hennepin Hundred last October.
Her drop was a surprise to my crew and me as I also was running the 100-miler at Hennepin. Yanko looked strong and in control at the beginning of that race. Her disease had other plans that day.
The elite ultra runner rebounded quickly from that setback, winning Javelina Jundred for the second time a month later. Her time of 14:36:10 set a new master’s women’s course record and improved upon her personal best of 14:52:06 in 2015.
And last month, she won the 50-miler at Brazos Bend, taking second overall. Winning races is nothing new for Yanko. But her diagnosis with a chronic and incurable disease represents a journey into the unknown.
Recently, I interviewed Yanko about lupus, her new podcast and more.
Question: Let's start out by talking about your recent lupus diagnosis and how it is affecting you as a runner and human. First, what is lupus, when did you get diagnosed and how does it relate to Hashimotos’s?
Answer: Lupus is an autoimmune disorder. It is a disease that occurs when your body's immune system attacks your own tissues and organs. Inflammation caused by lupus can affect many different body systems — including your joints, skin, kidneys, blood cells, brain, heart and lungs. It is extremely hard to diagnose because a lot of its symptoms mimic other diseases.
For instance, this summer when I first started having the worst flare I’ve ever had, which is ultimately what finally led to the diagnosis, I had extreme fatigue, joint pain, breathing problems, headaches, dizziness, dry mouth and other symptoms. I thought many times that I must have COVID or maybe it was low iron, etc. I was finally diagnosed the week after Hennepin, the first week of October 2022. It only relates to Hashimoto’s in that they are both autoimmune disorders and people with one autoimmune disorder often actually have multiple autoimmune disorders.
Question: Upon the diagnosis, you have made some changes, like eliminating dairy and alcohol from your diet. What's your prognosis, and how are you dealing with lupus and Hashimoto's on a daily basis?
Answer: Hashimoto’s is the most common autoimmune disorder. It is easy to manage. I have been on thyroid medication for 15 years. In the past five years since it was diagnosed as Hashimoto’s (previously they just thought it was hypothyroid which is the non-autoimmune version of the same thing essentially), it’s been under control. It is not a disease that worries me at all.
Lupus however is a different story. Until recently, the survival rate of people with Lupus past five years was only 50 percent. Now, with modern medications and advancements, about 80 to 90% of people with Lupus can expect to live a normal lifespan. That comes with a huge asterisk because you actually have to treat the disease and stay on top of your treatment plan FOREVER. If I did nothing, I would likely have organ failure in the near future.
I have had to make lifestyle modifications such as reducing stress, slight dietary changes and avoiding germs. I am also on heavy duty medications that suppress my immune system so that it will not attack my organs. I was until recently on a weekly chemotherapy drug treatment but it didn’t seem to be working and so my doctor changed my medications. Since the drugs suppress my immune system, I have to wear a mask all the time and be very careful not to interact with people who are sick.
Lupus is not easy to control so on a daily basis I have to monitor how I feel and modify daily activities accordingly since even with medication disease activity can flare. Thankfully my rheumatologist encouraged me to keep running.
Question: At Hennepin, you were dealing with pleuritis, inflammation brought on by lupus. Walk me through what happened that day. And is there any reason why pleuritis struck severely that day but you've been able to run fast and long at other races like Javelina since then?
Answer: The pleurisy was just another symptom of the lupus flare I had been suffering through all summer since June 2022. Leading up to the race I had some tightness and cramping under my rib cage but I just attributed it to stress. I decided to race since I felt fit and wasn’t super worried. However somewhere around 25 to 30 miles in I started having severe pain under my ribs and even though I slowed down the pain did not dissipate. So I made the hard call to stop. It was clear to me that this was not a normal cramp. The pain lasted for several days. Since we have been treating my Lupus since the week following Hennepin, we finally managed to get the flare to calm down. So that is why Javelina was much more enjoyable.
Question: Did you learn more from the DNF at Hennepin or the success you had soon afterward at Javelina?
Answer: I don’t know if either race was particularly profoundly enlightening. At Hennepin, I leaned into the self-trust I have to make the decision to drop and know it was the right call for me. At Javelina, I just had a day that was fun, calm and very much in line with what I have shown I am consistently capable of over my 17-year ultra career. I will say I learned the most from the time between the races because I had to grapple with the huge life changing diagnosis of Lupus. That wasn’t easy and I had to work extremely hard to get myself to a mental place where racing Javelina so well was even possible.
Question: You are a veteran of the sport and have seen a lot of changes. While more women are running trails and finishing ultras, the percentage remains low. First, tell me what it was like to be a woman trail runner when you started — were you welcomed?
Answer: You are correct, the percentage of female participants in the sport is still low. When I ran my first ultra in 2006, I was welcomed at the finish line by a waiting group of top women in the sport at the time. (She finished seventh at the trail national championships, the Tamalpa Headlands 50K.) They waited for me and introduced themselves and basically recruited me deeper into the sport. So I felt very welcomed.
However, there were not a ton of women in the sport at the time and so it wasn’t long before I knew almost every woman at the front of the pack. In some ways, that made us all close and allies for each other. I remember moving to Seattle and being connected with Krissy Moehl and Alison (Hanks) Naney because they were some of the only female ultra runners around that area then. I grew up playing a lot of sports with boys, so being in a male dominated space didn’t bother me and I always felt welcomed. I feel like ultra running is and was a very welcoming place.
Question: And what changes — good, bad or somewhere in between —have you seen during your career?
Answer: There has certainly been a lot of change in those 17 years. I would say the “professionalization” of the sport has been a mixed bag in terms of effect. There is obviously good in that there is more money in the sport, but the reality is most “professional” runners are not actually making their living solely from sport. And women are making significantly less than men in the sport. The professional side of the sport has also had an effect on the grassroots, community feel of the sport. I think there is room to have great big elite competitions and prize money, etc. I would just also love to see classic races not be destroyed by large corporate events. I look at a race like Chuckanut 50K, which has managed to be both community-centric and competitive over the years as a model of a race that has struck a really great balance. I don’t think I ever want to cross a finish line in an ultra and not get a hug from the race director. In this sport, the race directors are also our friends and our running buddies, a lot of them deeply care about the sport. I would love to see that continue.
Question: What specific steps or actions do you see or recommend that need to happen in order for the percentage of women trail and ultras to increase?
Answer: There seems to be some backlash in recent times against people and policies who are trying to make meaningful change in this arena. It seems like a portion of people want to pretend that equity has been reached and nothing else needs to be done. You can just go online and read the comments about policies such as Hardrock or High Lonesome to see many people opposed to policies that could increase female participation. Female representation in sport is not a trail or ultra running specific problem, it is a systemic problem. In terms of getting women into the sport there need to be MORE policies like High Lonesome and more opportunities for women in general. I think what Trail Sisters is doing is amazing. For instance, they hold a women’s only Trail Half Marathon and it was so much fun to see women out there feeling comfortable, being supported and diving into the trail world. I also think sponsors have a huge responsibility to highlight and support their female athletes equally to their male athletes. I know that many companies pay their top male athletes much more than their top female athletes and I think that needs to change. I wish I had all the answers, but I am always pushing for change.
Question: Let's move on to your podcast, which I love, by the way. How does your podcast, Women of Distance, play into your interest in attracting more women to the sport of trail and ultra running?
Answer: I started my podcast after a friend of mine was repeatedly snubbed by male podcast hosts after she accomplished an iconic feat. Instead of just being pissed that there were not enough female-led podcasts in the space, I just decided to start one that would amplify the voices of women in the sport. I think we need to have women represented throughout the sport and the space. We need female podcast hosts, female commentators, female athlete managers, female race directors, etc. I did some research on the major podcasts in the space and found that male podcast hosts have male guests on 70% or more of the time. Doesn’t give a lot of space for the women of the sport and tends to mean that only a small handful of women are heard from. On my podcast, I want the audience to hear from more women and through a female lens.
Question: What would success look like for your podcast?
Answer: I feel like my podcast is small but mighty. I haven’t done a ton to promote it or make it huge, but that tends to not be my style. I would love to see if have a bigger reach and continue to have the conversations make meaningful impact on the sport.
Question: Years from now, looking back on your career and impact on the sport, what do you want your legacy to be?
Answer: Ultimately, I want to have changed the sport for the better. I don’t necessarily need to be remembered for what I have done as I know that I have worked very hard to ensure that I am moving the sport forward in a meaningful way and making things better for other women.
Name: Devon Yanko
Hometown: Seattle, Wash.
Number of years running: 20
How many miles a week do you typically run: 90 to 100
Point of pride: “I have the world’s cutest baby mini donkey.”
Favorite race distance: 50 miles
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: “Coffee. I use Gnarly products for training and racing fuel.”
Who inspires you: “Super inspired by the women of the Ark Valley, where I live, we have some amazing badass ladies here and have built a really cool community here!”
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: “I am really into rave music and remixes right now.”
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: “This is not hard.”
Where can other runners connect or follow you:
• Instagram: @fastfoodie
• Strava: https://www.strava.com/pros/550641
• Substack: https://devonyanko.substack.com