When Filmmaker Billy Yang Lost His Father, He Chose to Run … Toward a Life-changing Unknown

The extra mile.

  • Category
    Health, People
  • Written by
    Jared Sayers
  • Photographed by
    Jeff Berting

What do vanilla ice cream and adversity have to do with one another? Let me attempt to explain.

Comfort. Contentment. Work the safe job, pat yourself on the back when looking at the bank account, pick up a couple vices, have a green lawn and bounce along life’s road, hoping to bump into happiness somewhere along the way.

A widely accepted ideal of how we need to be in the Western world: Play it safe. Stick with the vanilla ice cream, because you know what? Vanilla tastes pretty darn good. And whatever you do, don’t try a different flavor. Why? Well it might disappoint you. And that won’t feel very good. It’s comfortable right here, good ‘ol vanilla.

Someone once told me that if you never bump up against things in life that feel like they’re going to take you out, then you’re not doing a very good job. What? That seems awfully counterintuitive, doesn’t it? If you’re not getting bucked off the horse, then you’re not doing it right? I don’t get it.

Billy Yang gets it. Billy had the safe job. Billy was comfortable with his bank account. Billy had some vices, namely smoking. And according to the world, Billy was right where he was supposed to be. At the time he probably would have told you life was just fine.

Yet in hindsight, he can now see there was also a pull. Almost like a subtle nudge somewhere inside, as if to say, “There’s so much more.” It was around this time Billy tragically and unexpectedly lost his father.

The disorientation that comes with death—particularly the loss of a father—is debilitating. What Billy found in the midst of coping with the loss of his father was that his job, bank account, smoking and living for the weekend were not lending themselves to the answers he now sought.

Why did his father have to die? Why does life take such severe turns? Why is it so hard at times? The way he was told to be in the world and the comfort he had created for himself could not solve any of those questions. This is where most give up. Mask the pain. Choose comfort, sweep things under the rug and hope the road gets a little less bumpy over time.

But that wasn’t good enough for Billy. He demanded more and wanted answers—no matter how much it hurt. His first step: Quit his job and pick up the family business where his dad left off. Then: Quit smoking … but how?

Every time he’d crave a cigarette he would immediately drop what he was doing, run out the door and sprint around the block until the urge went away. Over time the urge began to weaken.

Pause.

A grown man in a dead sprint … in the middle of densely populated urban Los Angeles … in the clothes he went to work in that day? That must have been a sight. Billy was running with his hair on fire from a life he knew was no longer serving him—and running toward something riddled with uncertainty. The outward spectacle was overruled by the internal propulsion moving him forward to life’s larger questions that lie on the horizon.

And so the progression began for Billy. Running around the block turned into signing up for his first half marathon, which gave way to his first full marathon, which dovetailed into the world of trail running. That ultimately put him at the starting line of his first 100-mile race called the Angeles Crest 100. He finished 24 hours later. Let me emphasize for effect: running … for 24 straight hours. Most of us don’t run for more than 10 minutes. Let alone one hour. Let alone 24 of them.

Billy started with what was necessary. He deliberately chose to take the road less traveled and stared adversity square in the eyes. There was no handbook. No reference points. He ventured out into the unknown—searching. Seeking for more. Demanding explanations. He listened to that quiet nudge from someplace deep within. A curtain was pulled back, revealing to him what was possible. 

Which leads me to Western States 100—the oldest and most iconic 100-mile race in the country. It starts in Squaw Valley, California, and ends in an old mining town just outside Sacramento. Each runner will ascend from the valley floor at 6,200 feet above sea level and climb almost 3,000 additional feet in the first 4.5 miles before heading west on high-altitude trail passes and then descending 23,000 feet into Auburn. Yeah, it’s not for the faint of heart.

Western States has hosted names like Scott Jurek, Ann Trason, John Trent and Kilian Jornet Burgada—ultrarunners, gods and goddesses. Larger-than-life characters running unspeakable distances.

And in 2015 Western States also got to host Billy Yang—a kid from Seoul, Korea, raised in Los Angeles, who was forced to cope with the premature departure of his father, and who started asking deeper questions that eventually landed him on the starting line of the most prestigious ultra endurance races in the world. Happily ever after? Not necessarily.

Halfway into his race (let me remind you, that was around mile 50), with emaciated feet from the river crossings and quads that were giving out on him, he thought he was going to have to toss in the towel and go home. But he didn’t. He kept going. His crew was there to physically aid him, and his friends were there to emotionally aid him. And he kept going.

One foot in front of the other. Must. Keep. Going. Small painful steps, one after another, which took him another 50 miles and put him at the finish line in Auburn 100 miles later.

“Start by doing what is necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you will be doing the impossible,” said Francis of Assisi.

Billy started with what was necessary. He deliberately chose to take the road less traveled and stared adversity square in the eyes. There was no handbook. No reference points. He ventured out into the unknown—searching. Seeking for more. Demanding explanations. He listened to that quiet nudge from someplace deep within. A curtain was pulled back, revealing to him what was possible. Doesn’t vanilla ice cream now seem a bit boring?

Wherever life is found, shadows also will be cast. Many ultra endurance athletes can come under the scrutiny of naysayers with accusations of simply running away from problems or exchanging one vice for another. I’m here to say those people probably don’t run and love vanilla ice cream. Running is never the easy choice. It expands the mind, bringing what is true to the surface. It does not fuel a false sense of self, yet it forces a reckoning with humility. It is the ultimate truth-teller and acceptor. It fosters community.

You want answers? Billy would say go find yourself a bit of adversity. Lean into it. It may hurt a bit at first, but what comes out the other side far outweighs the hurt. Things like joy, fulfillment, pride, friendship, community. And with those we begin to find some of the answers we seek.

It should be said that Billy admits to not having this whole thing figured out. He is still searching. And that is fine; he can take as long as he needs because he has tapped into a beautiful alchemy that starts with the simple act of lacing up a pair of running shoes. From there things are brought into focus, deep connections are fostered and, maybe most of all, joy is realized. Yes, this can be fun!

Keep going, Billy. Because life provides a wide array of delicious flavors of ice cream, and no one should have to settle for vanilla.

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