Beverley Anderson-Abbs: Tough Undefined
As long as I’ve been an ultrarunner, Beverley Anderson-Abbs has been a role model to me. I met Bev at The Coastal Challenge in 2007, a week-long, 150-mile stage race in Costa Rica. I kept a journal then, and made in it a couple notes about her:
“I think her muscles could squish men, even.”
“When I finished running today, Beverley was gone, getting stitches in her leg. She got bit by a dog and kept running. People at camp discussed whether they thought she would finish the race after this injury, how bad her injury was. Someone said, ‘you see what she’s made of on the outside? Just think of what’s inside. She’ll finish.’”
The Coastal Challenge that year was my second ultramarathon race and third ultra-distance event. (My first event was a 50k. I ran 4:27 while chasing a 4:30 goal, but did it by running 2:10 and 2:17 splits on an out-and-back course. That is to say I died at the end. My second experience was a Grand Canyon R2R2R where I blew out my quads so badly that I couldn’t bend my knees for days. That is, I turned up to The Coastal Challenge a supreme noob.) I finished the race as crippled by muscle failure as I was after the Grand Canyon and couldn’t help but notice that Bev finished with what looked like a spring in her step (and a line of stitches on her calf).
I didn’t really know any ultrarunners back then, and I knew nothing about the sport except that I desperately loved the environment. Bev was my first introduction to the badassery of ultrarunning women.
Fast-forward a little more than six years to an early afternoon in March of 2013. Bev’s whole world is pretty different and so is mine. I call her up to interview her, and I’m compelled to begin by asking her about what I noted as her obscene toughness down in Costa Rica.
She deflects my inquiry. “I’ve been called ‘tough’ by so many different people, and I’m never entirely sure what that means,” she says. “I mean, what is ‘toughness?’ If toughness is setting a goal and then achieving it no matter what, then I guess that’s me.”
And that’s precisely why I’ve called Bev up for a talk, because she’ll shortly be applying her toughness to one particular and almost-impossible goal. In just a couple days, the 48-year-old environmental scientist with the California Department of Water Resources will toe the line at the start of The Barkley Marathons, the “100-mile” race located in Frozen Head State Park, Tennessee that has occurred since 1986 and so far has just 12 total finishers. Yeah, you heard that right.
The Barkley Marathons are run on a loop course. One loop equals something around 20 miles and the whole 100-miler involves more than 59,000 feet of climb and an equal amount of descent. The “lead men” each year generally take a bit more than seven-and-a-half or eight hours to run their fastest 20-mile lap of the race, and things degrade quickly into 12-hour laps for the winning boys. And so far, all of Barkley’s 12 finishers have been male.
Last year, Bev completed Barkley’s “fun run” of 60 miles in 34:29:10. 60 miles in 34 hours. Yes, 60 miles in 34 hours. It’s easy to get lost in the intangibility of those numbers unless you really start thinking about the mile-per-hour math of that, and then you realize just how insane the race is.
Her fun run finish doesn’t sate Bev. “I let something get in the way of the goal of finishing. This year, there is no option,” she speaks as if stating fact. I ask her what impeded her goal last year, “My head. In the back of my mind, my goal was three laps. I don’t think I was mentally ready to do five. I needed to be. This year five laps is not an option. It’s either get dragged off the course, or finish it.”
If just about any of the dozens of wicked-talented ultrarunners out there today said the same thing Bev just did about their chances of finishing The Barkley Marathons, I would wonder which rocker they’d fallen from. After all, history has proven that finishing that gosh-darned race is just plain not realistic. But this is steely-eyed, massive-bicep-ed, and obscenely stubborn Beverley Anderson-Abbs we’re talking about, and I believe her statement as fact just as much as she does. This weekend, she will finish The Barkley Marathons.
For some inspiration, go to Ultra Signup and type in Beverley’s name. Ultra Signup shows she’s run around 100 races between the year 2000 and now, and only four of those results are not podium finishes. Her top results over the years include a trio of second places and one third place at the Western States 100. And even her earliest results include a bunch of wins. Clearly, Bev arrived to ultrarunning an already talented athlete.
Before becoming ultrarunners, Bev and her husband, Alan, competed in a passel of other sports, including road biking, mountain biking, and adventure racing, in that approximate order. Bev, Alan, and their sports over the years have existed part and parcel to each other. It is, in fact, sports that brought them together in the first place, “We met at the velodrome in San Diego, taking a track bicycling class. Our first date was an evening criterium. We’re coming up on our 19th anniversary now.” She talks and I think, is there anything these two can’t together do?
Though I didn’t mean to, I’ve apparently asked that question aloud. Bev laughs then answers, “Well, every eight years or so Alan tries to get me into triathlon. I can barely swim. I’m slow. I’m bad. I never learned how. I sink. I’m terrified. I just don’t swim. He convinced me about 10 years ago to try a triathlon. I thought I was going to die. Then last summer he convinced me again. It wasn’t good. I hope he doesn’t try to convince me again.”
Bev and Alan live in Red Bluff, California, and their “kid” is Trinity, a rescue mutt. Bev defines her job at the California Department of Water Resources as part office, part fieldwork, and mostly focused on monitoring the health of water-based ecosystems around Red Bluff. For instance, it was an office day on the day we talked, but Bev was getting ready for a couple upcoming days of fieldwork where she and her field partners intended to collect water samples for quality testing. “Yoga, a little bit of TV-watching, yard work, looking out for the dogs and cats, and now supervising chickens,” is her answer to my question about what she does when she’s not running.
Just before our interview, she posted on Facebook photos of her and Alan’s baby chicks, which looked like squirmy, fuzzy bundles of perpetual motion. I comment on the cute-factor of the chicks’ pic and Bev offers, “we named them. Phoenix, Pegasus, and Griffin, after the flying mythological figures. Well, chickens have to have high self esteem, too, right?” Chicken wrangling/self-esteem boosting is just one part of Bev’s very full and entertaining life.
Her history with sports hasn’t been all heaven-scented perfume and dream-cloud pillows, as she’s had a coming-and-going knee problem since high school. “My knee cap was never situated properly on my leg. All these years it’s been grinding away at a particular piece of cartilage.” Bev remembers racing Western States in 2005 with a knee brace and some pain, but her knee’s so-called tipping point was the 2010 Way Too Cool 50k. “It swelled up so badly that there was nothing I could do about it. That’s when I finally went in and they did an exploratory arthroscopic surgery and found all the damage there was. None of the damage was showing up on xrays or MRI’s. It wasn’t until they went in with the scope that they found what was really going on.
Since then, Bev’s had multiple procedures on that knee. “First they loosened up the tissue holding the knee cap where it was to try to get it to fall where it’s supposed to. Then they took out all that damaged articular cartilage. I run bone on bone and hope I can keep my quads strong enough to hold my knee cap where it’s supposed to be.”
She continues, “If it drifts back to the side, that’s when I start to get a lot of the pain and swelling. While we’re talking, I’m wearing a knee brace because the training for Barkley has been so intense that I overdid it a little.”
I do time-and-date math in my head. In March of 2010 that knee disabled her at Way Too Cool. In March of 2012, she ran three laps at Barkley. I know two years can seem an eternity to an injured person, but to me that just doesn’t sound like very much time for the treatment and rehab of a major knee issue. I suspect Bev, in addition to being tough, is also stubborn as shit.
“You wouldn’t have wanted to be around me during that time,” she says when I ask her to walk me through the emotions of those two years. Her answer becomes a soliloquy, as if she’s still processing the emotions by simply saying them aloud. “There was a long period that was really rough to deal with. Sometimes I would break down crying. It was emotionally very difficult for me. In my gut, I knew I had to be able to run again, but doctors kept telling me that I wouldn’t. That’s a really hard thing to reconcile in your mind. It caused a lot of problems. It was hard for me to take and I don’t know that Alan or anyone really understood how hard it was. He has seen me as that tough person and just assumed that I was going to be that tough person again. I didn’t have that in me for awhile.”
But there was a light at the end of her pain tunnel. She explains, “Finally when I was able to start running again, for a long while, all I could do was run on a track. I couldn’t run any hill up or down. It had to be a soft surface. I couldn’t run on pavement. You know, you have to try to wrap your head around that that. You think, this is all I’ve got. When you start hitting 50-60 laps around a track, there has to be something for you to hang onto. Otherwise, you’ll go crazy. You make games out of it. You meet up with people. They’ll do five or six laps with you and then you go on your own. We would go up to our place in Oregon, which is right across the street from a high school. Alan would go out for a two-hour trail run with the dog. I would go over and run laps. That’s a really hard place to be.”
As she speaks, I begin to wonder what it is about running that made her persist until she could do it again. After all, Bev has pretty much every sport (except swimming) that she can compete well at if she wants. “I had to come back,” she explains. “It might sound cliché, but I live for those few steps on the trail—sometimes just 100 of them, sometimes more—where everything just falls into a rhythm. No other sport takes me to that peaceful, strong place of being.”
This weekend, Bev will be out on the steeps, in the briars, and through the muck of Tennessee at the The Barkley Marathons, looking for those 100 or 100,000 steps of feeling fine. She’s got a lifetime of sport success and stubbornness on her side, as well as three laps’ experience last year and a fire in her belly to collect five laps this year. She’s also got a ferocity that’s been doubled down over her knee injury, her husband who will be out racing, too, and a motley support crew of Craig Thornley. Finally, she has a sick amount of specific training for Barkley now in her reservoir or readiness, including a sleep-deprived, 100-mile training weekend that I can’t wrap my head around.
Bev keeps talking about “when” she finishes, so I ask her what she’ll do when that happens. Shout with joy? Call Santa Claus? Have a hamburger? The options are endless when you’ve achieved something like this after the couple years she and her knee have had. “What do you mean?” She has no idea how to answer my question. I understand now; Bev is so focused on finishing this beast—to be the first woman to complete this very hard race and to avenge her cartilage-challenged knee—that she hasn’t thought a single second beyond it. Defined or undefined, it doesn’t matter. This focus, her focus, is toughness.