Name: Abby Levene
Based out of: Boulder, Colorado.
Favorite Distance: 50k! For now… ;)
Favorite place to run: How am I supposed to pick just one?! Because I’ve been on the road for a few weeks now, I’m currently eager to run Lion’s Lair in Boulder. I can run the swooping switchbacks from my house, leading to the top of Mount Sanitas and stunning views of Boulder and the flatirons. I run it at least once a week, and it never ceases to amaze me that I can go from the hustle and bustle of downtown to the solace of the top of a mountain in just slightly over half an hour!
Currently training for: adidas INFINITE Trails World Championships; TNF 50, San Francisco; some other races along the way, including hopefully the Tromso Mountain Challenge in Norway
Q: Can you tell me a little bit about yourself? If someone is thinking about Abby Levene what should immediately come to mind?
A: I am not athletic. I think I have a decent capacity for suffering and solid aerobic engine, but I cannot jump, leap, throw, catch, or do anything graceful or involving coordination. If I can compete, or even go out for a run or attempt to do a strength session in the gym, anyone else can, too. Social media can be both deceptive and reductive; while running is integral to my life, it is far from my only interest or pursuit. I write for Verde Brand Communications, am expanding my journalism and free-lance work, and am a complete dork. When I’m not writing or sweating outside, I’m reading, painting, journaling, and thinking…about how I can contribute more concretely to improving the environment and public health, how to construct meaning in a meaningless world, how to transcend the recursiveness of language, etc. Currently attempting to plough through War and Peace…if anyone has any tips for getting through it I’m all ears ;)
Q: Where did your love of running come from? How did you get started running?
A: I actually hated running when I was forced into it as a competitive swimmer. I will ever forget my first “run” after swim practice when I was about 10. Our coach instructed us to run around a big playing field. It took five minutes tops, yet I was crying by the end. While I was accustomed to jacking up my heart rate for two hours in a pool, lumbering against gravity for five minutes felt excruciatingly impossible. And then our coach instructed us to run around the field again. I thought I was going to die. Running was so foreign and hard for me; I was one of the slowest on my swim team. (And if you’ve ever seen swimmers run, they are generally not the fastest ;)) And then one day it just clicked. I went from being the last one to finish our swim team runs to the first. I fell in love with the sport immediately, partly because I am extremely competitive and like being good at things, and partly because running went from being something so cumbersome and painful to liberating and reviving. My infatuation with running blossomed in high school, where I ran cross country in the fall to stay in shape for swimming. (Since I was trapped at boarding school, I couldn’t just go to swim practice in the fall to get ready for the winter swimming season.) While I had a successful high school running career, I continued to think of myself as a swimmer until two years into running NCAA DI cross country and track in college.
Q: What keeps you running?
A: On the external level: more goals to accomplish; people to meet and lands to protect and explore (including the ones I already explore every day!). I’m also highly cognizant of my role as a female athlete, and as someone who benefitted so highly from having strong female role models growing up, I’m honored and inspired to hopefully help cultivate that passion, strength, and courage in other girls and women. On an internal level: running brings me so much joy and satisfaction, and while I thought I was happy just “running for fun” after I quit professional triathlon, I confronted my reoccurring reality that I do not like— in fact, can’t— half ass things. If I’m going to run, I want to push myself and my boundaries as far as possible. But at the most fundamental level, I run so I don’t go insane. I subscribe to the ancient Greek conceptualization of health, in which the mind and body are indivisible. Ancient Greek philosophers debated and thought in the gym! There is no better nourishment for body or soul than sweating through a forest or up a mountain. And there’s no better place to clear your mind and compose your thoughts. I’m a writer, and I actually do most of my work while I’m out running.
Q: Do you have a weekly mileage that your body is happiest at?
A: Mileage depends on so many variables: the intensity, terrain, other physical and emotional stressors. Additionally, it’s hard to distill mileage down to one weekly amount. I like to view mileage through a three week or monthly lens. While my body can handle 90 to 100 mile weeks occasionally, they need to be followed with a down week of 60 to 70 miles
Q: What does a typical day of training look like for you? Is there anything you definitely need to have or do to feel like you had a successful day of miles?
A: To run my best (and happiest/chattiest), I need to drink coffee before I run in the morning. Really before I do anything, for that matter. I also highly prefer to run with one or two pieces of toast (slathered in almond or peanut butter) in my stomach. When it comes to the run itself, I try to look at my training holistically, rather than day to day. If you get caught up too much in being “successful” or satisfied each day, you might run yourself down. For example, I take a complete rest day every week, which is sometimes super hard for me but enables me to run much for effectively throughout the rest of the week. And I don’t give a sh*t how slow I take my easy easy days. While it’s hard to not use workouts to gauge your fitness and instill you with confidence, I try to take a long-term view to those, too. Sometimes your shittiest workouts end up providing the best physical and mental fodder in a race, and hence are successful sessions. Most importantly, though, I try to remind myself each day how lucky and grateful I am for any day I get to spend outside sweating. It’s one of life’s greatest gifts! And it could be taken away from us at any second.
Q: How do you shape your training? Do you run based on mileage or elevation gain?
A: My coach David Roche and I mostly structure my training around mileage. However, I’m cognizant of how trails and vert play into that equation. For example, if I’m assigned 10 miles easy and I run on steep, rocky trails, I will often cut it down to 7 or 8 miles, or just stop when I finish the loop for feel like I’ve done enough. I try to go with the flow and not get anal about hitting specific mileage or vert targets.
Q: I would venture to say you’ve become notorious for your switch from triathlon to trail and mountain running! Is there anything about triathlon training that you miss or try to incorporate into your trail training?
A: “Notorious” haha!!! While triathlon training was a little too life consuming for me, I thrived off of the challenge and high aerobic output. One thing my coach and I learned during my offseason this past winter is that I respond uniquely well to high aerobic volume. While I don’t swim or bike nearly as much as I did as a triathlete, I still try to incorporate low intensity cross training into my routine. This winter, that entailed one or two easy bike rides on our classic warm, sunny Boulder winter days. Or when the conditions and time allowed, I skimo-ed and cross country skied. Skimo changed my life this year. It is the perfect marriage of my two favorite activities: suffering and flying. These cross training sessions also help me loosen up, and prevent me from running too much!
Q: You’re based out of Boulder, CO, basically the trail runner’s mecca! Is it easy to keep feeling fresh in your training when your access to beauty seems like it’s unending? Do you have any advice for other women who may feel a little stuck in their training right now?
A: Find friends to run with! I feel so grateful to live near and train with some of my best friends. I include podcasts in my friend circle, too :) I’m a podcast-aholic, and there’s something uniquely satisfying about learning and laughing while getting your run done. Find podcasts your’e super excited to listen to, and save them for your runs. Social media can also be a highly effective motivator. When I’m feeling unmotivated to get out the door (yes! it happens even in Boulder), I open STRAVA and see that my college friends now living in New York City managed to get their butts out the door at 4:47AM to run loops around Central Park for an hour. So freaking inspiring!!! One of my other favorite tactics is to turn my run into a little documentary by Snapchatting some photos and videos to my family. I have no clue whether they appreciate watching me sweat and huff and puff and seeing the same views over and over, but feeling like I’m on a mission to share the experience with them (and hopefully motivate them to sweat too!) pushes me out the door.
Q: You are partnered with adidas and Skratch Labs! I think a lot of people are always curious with elite runners: did you have the goal to become sponsored or did the relationships surprise you? Has your training changed any since becoming sponsored?
A: Ironically, when I switched from triathlon to trail running I gave up my aspirations of becoming a sponsored athlete. I was ready to abandon that stress, especially the centrality of self-promotion. As a triathlete, posting on social media about my training and racing felt disengenuine. I personally didn’t find running circles around a track, sprinting on a flat road back and forth on my bike, or staring at the black line on the bottom of the pool to be that exciting or interesting, and didn’t want to impose that monotony on others. I knew something was wrong when I won the pro Draft Legal National Championships and didn’t care enough to post about it.
Serendipity just worked in my favor. Adidas was looking to expand their global trail running team to the US, and my manager is a retired professional triathlete himself so he was impressed with my results and had an idea of how they would translate on the trails. I don’t think getting sponsored has changed anything about why I run or my love for it. I’ve been in the running world for long enough to see how sponsorships can change people, and also to retain perspective about my (trivial) place in the world. A sponsorship just enables me to do what I love with a little bit less financial stress, and also magnifies my opportunities to use running to give back to the sport, inspire others to join the party, and also use running to draw attention to public health, conservation, and community issues I’m passionate about. For example, my sister volunteers for YES, a Boston nonprofit that helps get kids in sports. I was able to donate about $1000 worth of adidas gear for a raffle to benefit the organization. And at our team camp in Fuerteventura, we had the honor of putting on a trail running clinic for guests at the resort. Some people had been to the resort over five times yet had never ventured onto the immediately adjacent trails! And one man, Pit, hadn’t been on a run in three years. Seeing their smiles of satisfaction when we reached the top of the mountain overlooking the ocean and surrounding hills was the highlight of the trip for me. I just feel extremely grateful for this opportunity, and what to make the most of it to spread the joy of running and sweating outside to others.
Q: You are vocal about your passion for protecting public lands. Particularly now, in this moment our country is situated in, when so many things seem to need protection, why would you encourage women to get involved if they aren’t already? Do you have any recommendations for where someone could get started?
A: YES! (Yelling at my computer in my grating screech.) Given the direction our federal government is currently heading, there has never been a more imperative time to stand up for public lands, the environment, and by extension our health and happiness. I can give you innumerable reasons why preserving and protecting public land and recreational areas is crucial, but let’s just focus on the connection between nature and our sanity. Research (and common sense) shows that we are happiest and healthiest, most grounded and invigorated, when we spend time outside in “natural” landscapes. There are so many ways to get involved, it can feel overwhelming. I recommend that you get involved with what is accessible, and what lights you up. For my mom, that’s traffic calming and pulling out milfoil, invasive weed, from the little lake in our hometown of New Hampshire. There are so many opportunities (and a dire need) for local civic engagement, everything from running for office to volunteering to just reading about local issues and making sure to vote on them! I’m currently in Paris, and am so inspired by France’s action to solve issues associated with urbanization with planting more trees and forests. This is only happening because people voted YES to these bills, and are devoting time to helping to make their spaces greener. But the first and most important step might be just getting outside. If everyone spent time sweating outside, they would feel a deeper connection to the environment and would want to live in “green” places, too.
Q: Getting more women into trail and mountain running has been a major conversation recently. Do you have any tips for a gal who is maybe thinking about trying it out but feels intimidated?
A: I find the dearth of females in this sport intriguing, given how popular road running is among women. At it’s core, trail running isn’t any different from simply “running.” Or if running is intimidating, think of it like hiking. The concept of “trail running” is just a social construction, after all. It’s really whatever you want it to be. If you have a pair of running shoes (yes, road shoes will do!) you can go out for a trail run. Start short and slow; find a path or a hiking route that you love or want to explore, and run when you want to, hike when you want to, and take breaks when you want to. Focus on enjoying the journey. That’s the point, after all! No one cares how fast you go, how much you hike, or how many times you stop :) Just this morning, I joined Team Trail Paris for a run in a forest on the edge of the city. I was just one of two females, yet everyone was so welcoming, friendly, and inclusive. We waited for everyone along the warmup, after the workout, and during the cool down. This mentality extends all the way to Boulder, Colorado. The geniality of trail runners is one of the best parts about this sport! And getting more women into the sport will be a generative process: the bigger our presence, the more other women will realize that they belong here, too. So help precipitate the trend! Trail runners don’t bite.
THE FUN STUFF
Q: Do you have a best run ever?
A: Another tough question! No, I don’t have one best run ever. But I do have many. One of my most significant runs was running up to and along the continental divide in Colorado for the first time. We started from my friend Clare’s cabin in the little town of Montezuma at about 10,000 feet elevation. Clare promised we were going on a “long run,” and I was still a triathlete and very much inculcated into the “I need to run fast for a long run to be a success” ethos. Well, we immediately started heading up the wall of a mountain. The sleepiness of the grade combined with the altitude meant that we were hiking for over an hour. I was frustrated and defeated. I was walking, this was a waste of time. But then we got to the top of the divide, with 360 views of endless mountain ranges. I was enchanted. While it still took some time for me to fully embrace trail running, this was the formative start of that transformation. Not only did we work hard that day, we reaped the intangible benefits of blissful awe for the world, and where our two feet can take us.
Q: Dream races or places to run?
A: One of my adidas teammates, Yngveld, lives in Tromso, Norway. While I have no interest in doing the sky race the town is famous for, I’m dying to do the Tromso Mountain Race there this summer. I’m also drooling over going to Chamonix to race CCC, hopefully soon. But many of the best new running finds come when you’re least expecting it, so I’m just trying to keep my eyes and ears open each day, no matter where I go.
Q: Do you have any favorite runner you follow?
A: Have to go with one of my best friends Clare Gallagher :) Her unbridled passion for the environment, conservation, athletics, and just life in general fills me with zeal! She’s also both thoughtful and hilarious, sparking scintillating debate and uncontrollable laughter.
Q: Favorite post-run food:
A: Breakfast! Doesn’t matter the time of day. Any version of eggs with veggies and cheese (and lots of ketchup and hot sauce) and toast or potatoes. Follow that up with a bison burger and sweet potato fries for dinner.
Q: Favorite coffee:
A: I kind of hate to be picky because coffee is my life force. Choosing one drink feels both disrespectful to this medium’s vitality, and also unfair to all of the other scrumptious and invigorating coffee beverages. As my twin Italian teammates say, “no coffee, no party.” However, I will go with what got me through every freezing run this winter: a pour-over with milk and Skratch Vanilla and Coffee recovery mixes. (If Skratch is unavailable I sub chocolate milk.) The thought of this slightly sweet, protein-rich, piping hot concoction powered me through many a frozen mile this winter. You can’t beat a perfect cappuccino, though.
Q: Something that is challenging you right now?
A: Probably my biggest challenge is figuring out how to productively position myself as a “professional” athlete. I’m from a Puritanical New England family. My dad is a doctor, my mom is a lawyer, and my little sister works in healthcare consulting. After graduating in the top five percent of my elite boarding school class and with honors as a pre-med student at Princeton, the pressure to continue down that path of classic, culturally normative excellence persisted. Actually, it still does. At my Jewish Christmas party hosted by my parents’ friends this winter, people praised my sister and her career choice, asking detailed questions about her job and living in Cambridge, MA. The only question directed towards me: “people watch trail running?” Being a “professional” athlete— especially as a female in an obscure sport— is not valorized in that circle. Just last night my mom told me she hoped I was thinking about “what I was going to do after this phase is over.” While ultimately I don’t give an eff what other people think, and in fact have always been motivated to question normative values and conventions, on a day to day basis confronting that negativity and lack of understanding and support is hard. My decision to sign a contract with adidas factored into the demise of my relationship with my boyfriend of two years. Formerly a professional athlete himself who stymied his athletic aspirations for a (very noble) career in clean energy, he did not support my less noble choice to continue down that path. Coping with that very tangible, painful alteration in my life and losing my biggest support system was hard. But if anything, these impediments only motivate me more to wield my position productively and to defy the stereotype of athletes as selfish. Yes, running is partly selfish. But so is working on Wall Street or even becoming a doctor. We can do things because they singularly bring us joy and benefit others and the world.
I’ve been passionate about inspiring and empowering others to sweat, especially outside, and explore the world for as long as I can remember, starting with trying to get mom to run and branching out to friends and classmates in school, elderly and minority populations in my hometown and places I’ve worked, and now increasingly on a global scale. While I’ve currently veered from my original path of going into medicine, I still want to achieve the same ends, just maybe through different means. And I’m thinking and working diligently to determine how best to do that, while also balancing my running and current work commitments. Maybe that means more school, maybe not. Figuring out the “right” path while navigating social norms is tough!
One final issue I feel almost obligated to try and address (yet have no clue how to) is eating/weight issues in high school and collegiate running. It’s fascinating and frustrating examining this phenomenon from the “other side” of the post-collegiate world, where most runners are healthy. But only the strong survive. There are so many casualties to under fueling and over training among high school and college runners, partly because it temporarily works (you get fast quickly before imploding), and partly because that culture is so intractable. Given the nuisances of this issue, though, it’s hard to address effectively.
Q: Something that is rewarding you right now?
A: In conjunction with the Garden Club of America, I’m working on a producing a children’s coloring book featuring landscapes in my hometown of Dublin, NH, with pollinators and their flora. Not only do I love drawing and doing the research, I’m so excited to share the fun with kids! Hopefully they will get excited about the key role of pollinators play on earth, too.
Q: What are you most looking forward to in 2018?
A: Well the thing I’m looking forward to most in the immediate future is traveling to Ethiopia next week with Clare and some other wonderful humans to scout out a film project on Girls Gotta Run. There is a massive issue in Ethiopia of girls getting married off super young, and then being curtailed into lives as wives and mothers. While only a very small percent of people will become professional runners, running is seen as one of the only ways out of this system. Girls Gotta Run empowers girls to get an education through enabling them to run competitively in school. We are going to do a relay across part of the country with the girls next year, and are going down now to figure it out! So excited to meet the girls, explore Ethiopia, and take steps to bring awareness to this amazing organization.