Real Recovery with Devon Yanko
Devon had surgery on October 20th to her tarsal coalition and the fractured part of the anterior process of her calcaneous removed (aka knarly foot injury), but that’s the not where the story begins. If you’ve followed Devon’s running career, you know she dealt with mysterious pain in her ankle and foot since fall 2016 — with no clear answers. In that time she had comebacks and valleys. And she won a huge race, The Leadville Trail 100 Run, before finally getting clear answers about her foot pain. A massive break.
This isn’t a comeback chapter, but more of a comeback novel. Devon’s been on journey of intense growth, leaning into the present moment, no matter how uncertain, even when she could only see the footfall in front of her. And she’s found an important role for Jasyoga along the way. Here's the latest from Devon + be sure to check out her official Athletes for Yoga page!
It's been a year of plot twists! But throughout the ups and downs of the last year, you found a way to stay present and positive. Looking back now, how have you kept yourself in the game?
Last fall, when the injury journey began it was harder to stay present and positive because I didn’t know what was wrong with my foot and no one could give me a clear answer, diagnosis, and plan. So every day, I would wake up and not know which way I should direct myself. Once I was back running last December, I just found a better way to ground myself back into why I run: because I love it. Thus, I could focus better on the act of doing it instead of the big picture of training and racing. Ultimately, this served me very well when my foot actually snapped in March. Instead of doubling down on feeling bad about the (new? same? different but in the same area?) injury, I looked at what had served me during the initial injury. That was one: doing what I can do instead of focusing on what I can’t and two: not settling for “I don’t know” as a diagnosis.
Interestingly enough, back in March, the diagnosis that was given to me was just that my tarsal coalition had broken which was a good thing since those bones aren’t suppose to be connected anyways. I was told I could run and that I should expect some arthritis type pain but I was not injured. I threw myself back into training for some big races including the Two Oceans Marathon 56km and Comrades Marathon 89km in South Africa. Instead of lamenting the missing training or not being as peaked as I would have liked for these events, I instead tried to practice giving myself grace and focusing on doing the best I could with what I had at that moment.
The last way, I kept myself in the game both physically and mentally, was practicing acceptance. Whether that was accepting time off post-surgery or accepting the grind of doing cross training, I learned that struggling against things I could not change only served to drive me crazy. So I stopped doing it.
The major plot twist after all the plot twists had to be when you went from an epic battle in Leadville, claiming victory in what you call your best race, to just weeks later finally having a real (and not great) answer for your chronic foot pain. How did you feel after getting your diagnosis?
I actually felt relieved. Once I had a clear idea of what surgery and recovery would look like, I was just happy that there was an answer to the pain that had plagued me since March. I actually also found it hilarious that I had been able to run so much and so well on a gigantic full fracture in my foot. Before Leadville, I had reached out to my doctors to say, “Hey after Leadville, I think we should revisit the diagnosis in my foot and take care of it." I was being proactive about fixing an issue, so ultimately, surgery never felt like an injury. I binge raced leading up to surgery, so the surgery recovery just served to be a perfect off season and the mental toll was minimal.
It seems like the last year, despite being incredibly frustrating at times, has been one of intense growth. How did you consciously turn the perspective? What tools do you use to shape your mental outlook when things get hard?
I had a moment in March, just a few day after my foot broke, the morning after I had been released from the ER for bad food poisoning that I got during Birdstrike, that really game me some perspective. I was sitting on the floor of a terrible casino in yesterday’s gross clothes, without my contacts in, trying to charge my cell phone while talking to my mom on the phone to tell her I was alright when a security guard came by and started screaming at me for loitering. It was a low moment, during an extremely low week, during a rough beginning to the year. But in that moment, I just started laughing. Blind, desperately ill, with a broken foot in the middle of nowhere Nevada and I was belly laughing like a crazy person. I was laughing because the extreme ridiculously of it all just made me realize that I was going to accomplish nothing in that moment by being upset, angry, or sad. The only thing I could do was laugh. I have taken that forward as a tool to remember that just because something is hard or beats you down, doesn’t mean you have to let it mentally beat you down.
Other than humor, the other tool that I made a conscious effort to utilize was keeping perspective. I’ve been through some extremely tough things in my life, much tougher than a running injury or some low moments. And I have survived and I have thrived again. It is not to say that I tell myself “Buck up, you’ve been through harder,” but instead to say, “You can and you will get through this." It is a way of reminding myself of my own ability to endure and also reminds me that no matter how bad I feel in this moment, I will not feel that way forever.
One of the lessons that seems prevalent is that you have found a way to be present, and to also approach racing, training, and even injury rehab with “joy, grace, flexibility, and gratitude." How does that look? What does that outlook mean to you?
I think ultimately what going through hard times makes you remember is that a lot of things that we normally make so serious and so important (like winning a race, running a time, etc.) in the great scheme of things aren’t what it is really about. I want my running to be a reflection of the way I live my live and thus “joy, grace, flexibility, and gratitude” all should be reflected in how I run and race and how I live my life. I would rather run a race and be a person that I am proud of and others can be inspired by, instead of running a race, not enjoying it and not reflecting my best self. This year, I used Leadville as a testing ground to see if I could maintain my perspective while doing a very hard physical event. I went out there to be the happiest person racing and I succeeded. But at the same time, I still was able to perform thus confirming that I race my best when I maintain the positive present perspective.
As you rehabbed from this surgery you’ve been using Jasyoga, what videos or poses have been particularly helpful? Why?
I’ve been really into the Comprehensive Hip and Hamstring Reset. Originally I set out to do it while not training to increase flexibility and range of motion. The way it really worked out was that I was kicking my own butt in cross training and really needed the hip and hamstring love.
You talked last spring about battling to be “deeply connected to the process, not the prize.” It’s obvious how that looks in a race, or training block, but what does that mean to you now as you comeback from this long injury finally?
Coming back from injury, it is really easy to put some big goals on the calendar. This year, I definitely went back to racing before I was race ready. I went from not running, to return to run, to racing. There should have been a step in there between return to run and racing, which is the actual meat of training. Now, coming back from surgery, I do have big goals, but I have put them far enough out that I feel like I can do the proper steps to get towards those goals.
And, I have never had such a big injury in my running career. Not since my basketball career ended because of a back problem have I had any really big injuries. So, there is also a lot of curiosity about the process of building myself towards the athlete that can accomplish the goals I’ve set out. I am not trying to get back to a former self or return to someone I use to be, I am working through a new process of becoming who I will be. And that is fascinating when you really dig into it. For instance, today I did my first workout of my return to run training. Just 10 x 1 min. hard, 1 min. easy. It would be easy to fall into the comparison trap of what I’ve done in the past. Instead, I just did the work, didn’t pay attention to the pace, enjoyed what my body could do, fought like hell to execute, and enjoyed the suffering. When I uploaded to Strava, I was able to be delighted by what I saw because I hadn’t put expectations on my performance. I could just be present in it.
Whether in an ultra race or the ultra task of coming back from a huge surgery, how do you stay within yourself when things get hard? Is this mental strength something you train? How?
One of the things that I feel like I actually gained/refined during my surgery recovery was the mental strength to stay with hard things. Every time I would get on my bike trainer and push watts or undertake a hellaciously long trudge on the stairclimber, I focused on staying with the pain. Most cross training activities I do very hard or utilize areas that I am not strong, so instead of opting into an easier gear, a shorter time, I instead decided to take the opportunity to “sit in the suck.” Not resist it when it was sucky or boring or extremely hard. I feel like a lot of ultra training is like this, training the mind to go through the pain and find a way to the other side. I just feel like during surgery recovery I started seeking out training that was hard mentally and practice not resisting it.
You’re already back to some running! How will you continue to tap into the hard won lessons of staying present, and valuing recovery, as you return to healthy training and racing?
I think like all skills it just takes practice. Right now it is easy because it is still so new that I can run and full health/training is still ahead of me. It's easy to have the positive feedback loop keeping the lessons fresh. But when I get deep back into training, when the race goals seem to be charging towards me, when the comparison trap swallows me whole, then it is just a matter of practice, focus and honestly, getting it wrong sometimes, but staying conscious of the effort it takes to stay on track. Also, it is a matter of cultivate habits and lifestyle that makes it easier to naturally stay with the process.
If you could suggest one video for a runner, what would it be?
Couch Reset. No doubt.
Do you have a mantra or goal for the New Year?
You are your own limit.
Keep up with Devon's adventures in running and beyond at devonyanko.com! And keep sharing your own journey with #athletesforyoga!