The Ultra Lady

We caught up with Yvonne Naughton, who represented Ireland in the 2017 World 24 hour Championships in Belfast and in the World Trail Running Championships in Penyagolosa in 2018 to talk about her past, her achievements and what we can expect to see from her in the future.

OPT: You told us you used to be into track and field; what brought you into the world of endurance?

YN: It was kind of strange. I ended up falling out of track and field, I had appendicitis and a perforated appendix during the summer of when I was 18 and ended up having more surgery after that due to adhesions from the first surgery. So I kind of fell out of track.

Then I went to Trinity College to study medicine and was just really busy and couldn’t do it anymore. Then I met my husband who is from the states and after doing my intern years in Dublin we moved to do our residency training in Arizona where I specialised in paediatrics. It is so hot down there, it’s like the desert, so I think I maybe went out for a jog there all of about twice.

I was out of it for a number of years until we moved to Washington in 2011 and about a year after that we got a family dog who I assumed would need to burn off a lot of energy so I basically began to get fit so I could go running with the dog. It was a simple as that.

Everyone up here [Washington] trail runs. It is quite like Ireland really; everything is green and there is evergreen forests and nice trails. So I would bring her out on the trails and think to myself “oh wow, four miles and I’m not dying.” So you would just keep going to explore the trails. Eventually I ended up doing 25km and loved it.

If you have that kind of personality where you think, “oh ok so now I can 50km and next I can do 100miles.”

OPT: Did your running career blow up in the last year or was there more behind the scenes?

YN: I moved to Arizona in 2008 and by 2011 moved to Washington.

So, in 2013 I did two road half marathons but I still kept to running on the trails mostly. Then in January of 2014, I did my first trail race, and in May I did my first 50-miler.

I laid a bit of the foundation in 2015. I wanted to do the 100-miler so I signed up for one right here in Washington called the ‘Cascade Crest’ where 30 miles of it is on the Pacific Crest Trail. It is beautiful and takes you up the Cascade mountains.

But to qualify for that you had to do a 50-miler in a certain time frame and there was a lottery within that. So, I got my spot and had to do the qualifier which was fine because I knew from the year before that I had done 50-miles. But, given my personality I wanted to do a practice 100-miler for the actual one.

So, I signed up for one at the start of the year as practice for the main one which was also a part of the slam. I did the one at the start of the year which is the Badger Mountain 100-miles in March and it was horrendously stormy with high winds and rain and took me 29 hours. It was brutal.

Two weeks after that I signed up for the second of the slam, that’s called ‘The Lumberjack 100-miles’ and it was a looped course. So, I thought this is easy enough because if I’m dying I can just drop. But surprisingly my body didn’t feel too bad and I ended up being the first lady home and second overall. I was leading the race until the guy got a second wind in the last 5 miles and got around (laughs). I didn’t even realise I was leading until he passed me.

Yvonne ended up completing five 100-mile races in 2015, four of which add up to what they call “The Slam,” making Yvonne the second woman from Washington to complete it.

OPT: How did you get on the Irish team?

YN: I’d have to thank the Wexford Marathon Club because they were the ones who were more on top of the Belfast race the year before it became the track for the 24-hour world championship race. They alerted me to it and told me to look into it.

I was intrigued because it was in Belfast and on a track. I was probably a bit cocky when looking into it. I had an, ‘you can run 100 miles on trail and this is flat’ kind of attitude and apparently, this can happen to a lot of runners coming from the trail running community (laughs).

I had attempted to run 24 hours in Arizona that New Years in ‘Across the Years’ race and fell short, doing only 110 miles. I had probably should have cancelled it but I went and it was the first time I was falling asleep during a race and had to lie down for 15 minutes. So, I looked for another 24-hour event and found one in California and this one was actually on track.

This time I made 132 miles [212km] where I qualified for the 24 hours in Belfast.

OPT: You were well set for the World Champs. How did it go?

YN: Unfortunately, this didn’t go as well as planned. I came over to Ireland a week early and stayed at my sisters in Dublin who has two young kids and of course they had a snotty nose that I picked up off them.

I thought I was ok but apparently not. Within two hours I was in the bushes vomiting. I was a bit distraught, I hadn’t even eaten yet and we had barely even started. You know in an event like this you have a pace and even if you can’t stick to your pace you want to be at least trying to walk. So, I ended up in the tent where the crew were making me Irish cups of tea and feeding me ginger nut biscuits.

After nearly an hour I went back out, just walking. I eventually settled enough to start running again but the energy levels weren’t there so I just said I would see it through until the end. I did 113 miles, which was obviously way off the mark for the qualifier.

OPT: Did you bounce back in the trail world champs?

YN: I got back to the trail stuff, what I was more used to.

I knew the world championships were coming up this year so I contacted them [Ireland squad] and knew they were using the Glendalough Rovers as their qualifier and I found the equivalent to that over here.

So after running the 50 mile over here and looking at my points they were just like “yep, we’ll take ya.”

I was 83nd place in the woman’s race. The winner came in around 10 hours which is amazing. But I mean it was a lot of climbing with around 16,000 feet of climbing. It was the first race where I was paying more attention to the gain on my watch than the miles. Because you were trying to get into your head, “ok I’m over that now and only have 5,000 feet left.”

I did a lot of power hiking which was just up and down, up and down, with big repeats trying to do 3,000 and 4,000 feet of climbing in a training session with almost 1,000 feet per mile, kind of like hitting that vertical Kilometre .

But doing repeats hammers your muscles because you have to come back down each time. That’s where a ‘Stair Master’ comes in handy. It really sets a new appreciation for steep (laughs).

The poles came in handy [during the race] but it was technical too; I mean you had to get down on your hands at some points and climb a little bit. Even the flattest part was following along a dry river bed covered in rocks and you had to do a lot of high stepping and the down hills were pretty scary.

This year’s trail running world championship was held in Spain on the Penyagolosa and was 88km. Yvonne completed it in 13hours 25 minutes – a national park area about two hours from Barcelona. You start at sea level and head up to above 4,000 feet.

OPT: Do you see yourself trying them again?

YN: I think so. I had in my mind about trying to do another qualifier for the 24 hour. But I also have a few trail races coming up over the summer where I’ll be trying to keep the points going for the UTMB next year, for that lottery. But definitely at the end of the year I was thinking on doing another track 24-hour, but we’ll see because after my performance at the Worlds, it was not an automatic qualifier for the team again so I’ll have to get onto it again.

And it would be nice to think about the Trail Worlds again. It will go back to the shorter distance; around 50km. So, we will have to see because I’m probably a bit better over the longer, like the 100-mile distance.

But I guess I’ll probably have to be a bit flexible and train a little bit different at the more uncomfortable, faster zone.

OPT: How do you see the state of ultra running:

YN: Since I first became involved in trail and ultra running in 2014 , it’s certainly become more popular. Unfortunately this means that many races have to resort to a lottery system for their application process and that the lottery odds for popular races like Western States and Hardrock seem to become so much less favorable every year. However, each year seems to bring new races in amazing locations so there’s never really a shortage of opportunities to race. Many people elect not to race and enjoy self supported adventure runs and chasing ‘FKT’s’ on popular trails. So despite increasing popularity in general there’s always an endless supply of trails for people to enjoy. 

The increasing popularity has meant that trail maintenance and the building of new trails has become very important.  In the US most trail runners will spend time doing volunteer trail work which is a nice way to give back to the community. Another great change to see is that more women are getting involved in trail and ultra running. People like Courtney Dauwalter and Camille Herron are hitting mainstream media and and are a huge source of inspiration for women to step outside their comfort zone and try something crazy! Of course along with its increasing popularity, ultra running continues to become more competitive. 

Many college cross country and track stars are transitioning to ultras, as are road runners. In recent years athletes have been pushing the boundaries of what’s humanly possible to achieve as a runner. World records for fastest 100 mile and farthest distance over 24 hours have been crushed, 200 mile events have become so popular they’re now the new 100 mile race, ‘sky’ races have bred a new type of hybrid runner who seem to scramble and bounce over the most technical terrain without a care in the world, while yet another amazing endurance athlete has succeeded in summiting Everest twice in a week without fixed ropes or supplemental oxygen. It’s certainly an exciting time to be involved in ultra running and I’m sure we’ll continue to be amazed in 2019!

OPT: Lastly, tell us why do you love running?

It’s a way of seeing lovely places and getting off the beaten track where maybe tourists wouldn’t usually go. But then again, I am embarrassed to say that was my first time going to Spain, but you get to see so much on your own two feet. 

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