For this track athlete-turned-ultrarunner, it's a spiritual experience that transcends the body
Ultrarunner Abby Levene is built to suffer. The first signs appeared when she was a competitive swimmer back in her hometown of Dublin, New Hampshire. She was always the “first person in the pool and the last one out,” she recalls. At 10, she’d trail her dad on half-day bike rides through the Green Mountains. And at 13, she and her dad got lost and accidentally rode a century. By 8:30 p.m., she'd "hit some serious walls," she says, and her feet were so sore she could barely walk. But that experience, and the epiphany that she could go 100 miles in one push, opened up her endurance world. An NCAA Division I track career followed. Her specialties: the 5K and 10K. Then she dabbled in NCAA triathlons, winning the collegiate national championships, before discovering trail running in 2016.
Although she runs short distances in training—if you can call 12 miles “short”—Levene is now a regular at off-road ultras throughout the West. In 2017, she won the Dirty 30 50K in Colorado’s Golden Gate Canyon State Park, despite falling and breaking her wrist. Now 27 and charging harder than ever, Levene spoke with us at her home in Boulder.
Thinking back, I’ve always been a person who likes sports that involve physical suffering. But I hated running the first time I tried it. I was in sixth grade. It was after swim practice, and our coach made us run twice around a field. A loop probably took four minutes, but after one lap, I was bawling. We’d just swam for two hours, and this eight minutes of running was the worst thing I’d ever done
My dislike of running persisted for a year. Then one day it just clicked. I got serious about running in college and dropped swimming.
Pushing yourself as hard as I do is harsh, but in a good, masochistic way. It’s extremely satisfying and cathartic. In the moment [of a long run or race], you’re kind of hating the world. But once you’re done, it’s so rewarding.
I got into trail running because there are so many trails in Boulder. It blew my mind that we could run to the top of a mountain (Mount Sanitas) by 7:30 in the morning. It gave me a whole new perspective. I felt like I’d escaped the town on my own two feet.
Then we ran to the top of the Continental Divide and it was like Sanitas on steroids. It was totally mind-blowing—not to mention exhausting. Remember, I’m in this triathlon/track mind-set. When my friend asked me to do a long run, in my mind it meant I was going to run as fast as I could for 15 miles. But our first mile was straight uphill and took 20 minutes. I was like “This isn’t even running!” I needed to broaden my definition.
My first trail 50K was one of the most painful things I’ve done in my life. But also the most rewarding. Every [track and tri] race I’d done before was about just racing. This was like seeing the world in color for the first time.
I won two 50Ks before last year’s Dirty 30. I would have made the men’s podium in one if I’d been in their division.
No one had to talk me into doing the Dirty 30, even though it’s technical and I’m clumsy. I was running a wooded section roughly 10 miles in when two people started cheering and I looked up and tripped. I broke the fall with my arms and lay on the ground crying. The people asked if I needed medical assistance, but I said, “No, I’m winning.”
This might sound weird, but the pain in my arm was a good distraction from the pain in my feet. I didn't know it was broken until after the race.
Trail running is so chill—the opposite of track meets. There’s the post-race beer tent, and everyone’s hanging out.
Once your energy stores are depleted, you zone out and you’re in the flow. Long races are so different from running a 5K or a 10K, where you have to really pay attention. At points you can disassociate from your body. That’s one of my tactics. I like to pretend I’m looking down on my body rather than being in my body.
I’m not religious, but I like to say that running is my religion. That’s where I feel like I reach whatever transcendence I’m going to achieve. It’s spiritual in some way. You’re clearly in a different headspace. Something is going on.
I plan on running for as long as I can and, when I can’t, seeking flow through my mind. It’s like the ancient Greek philosophers said: The body and mind are indivisible. When I can’t train, I get into a flow state through reading, writing, and painting. But trail running is the best way, so I hope to keep doing that forever.
adidas TERREX aims to connect with all outdoor creators. These are the people who find their flow in the outdoors –whether trail running, mountain biking, climbing, or fast hiking. When in this flow, they are at their most creative and progress beyond their own expectations. We want to inspire this community to get outside and discover they can do more than they thought they were capable of. From the highest highs to the lowest lows, how do you find your flow?