Open Mic Friday: Meet She-Knows-No-Limits Abby
Today's guest is pursuing more than just a few races on the calendar. She's going after ultras, adventure races, and oh yeah, a doctoral dissertation. And all that after recently finishing law school.
Her energy is boundless and her travels are extensive. Most of us accomplish in our lifetimes a fraction of what she's doing this year. By the end of this interview, we think you'll find time to fit in something you've been putting off.
First, tell us about the race you’re about to undertake on Sunday.
This weekend is my first adventure race of the season, the GOALS ARA Savage. Adventure races are sort of –athlon style, off-road events, where you spend anywhere from six hours to ten days navigating your way through the woods with teams of 2-5 people on foot, mountain bike, and boat. The longer and bigger the race, the more craziness you’ll find added to the mix, from Tyrolean traverses over alligator-packed rivers, to camel riding, to roller blading. My longest successful race to date is only 12 hours.
A few weeks before my husband and I started dating, I began training for my first marathon, the Mayor’s Midnight Sun Marathon in Anchorage, Alaska. Brent complained for about a month about how rigid I was about getting up early in the morning and training, and then he decided that this would be a good opportunity for him to take up something he’d been fantasizing about for years, adventure racing. He had been a huge fan of the first major expedition adventure race, Eco-Challenge, as a kid, but never thought it was something he’d actually be able to do. I like to tease him that I was the driving force in his taking up adventure racing. He raced for about two years with various teammates and had a fair bit of success, and then he convinced me to test the adventure racing waters with him. By that point, he had gotten picked up by an established local team, GOALS ARA, and by circumstance (and maybe a little nepotism), I became a member of the team as well. I’m still a total newbie at all this stuff, though, and often feel like I’m playing dress-up. To race in the premiere division, you need a coed team, so basically, I’ve become the requisite estrogen who gets towed around in the woods (literally!).
Last year was my first full season of adventure racing, and after several months of pressure-filled training and racing, a few of the other women on the team and I decided to compete in the last race of the season together, without the Big Boys. We became GOALS Gals Gone Wild, and had a blast together. So, this weekend, we’ll be staging our comeback.
Then what’s in store for you in May and June?
My two main goals for this season were to qualify for Boston and to successfully finish a 24-hour adventure race. I tried one last June but got really sick during the race and had to pull out around hour 9.
So, my first BQ attempt will be May 3, at the New Jersey Marathon. I’m cautiously optimistic about the prospects, but I’m trying really hard not to get my hopes up.
After that, Brent and I will be celebrating our second wedding anniversary over Memorial Day Weekend by competing together in a 12-hour running/orienteering race, the Michaux Memorial Day Rogaine.
The first weekend in June will be attempt #1 at that 24-hour (or 27-hour, in this case), adventure race, with the NY Adventure Racing Association’s Longest Day.
I’m still trying to figure out what the rest of the season will look like, beyond that.
I am, I’m currently finishing up a joint JD/PhD in US history (Yep, I’m a bit of a glutton for punishment). I’m in the writing stage of my dissertation right now, having finished law school in the spring of 2007.
Brent’s dad once told me that the difference between a lawyer and an attorney is that a lawyer has clients. I told him that I intended to be an attorney for a very long time.
So, this fall, I’ll be entering the fray of the dreaded academic job market.
You probably get asked this often: what historical figures would like to meet and why?
I do get asked often, and I wish I had a better answer! I’m studying post-WWII US history, so a lot of the people I read and write about are actually still alive and making history.
I’d love to meet some of the characters in my dissertation (I’m writing about an often forgotten piece of the northern civil rights movement – intentionally racially integrated communities). I find that it’s relatively easy, through digging around in archives and media clippings, to find out what they were doing, but it’s a lot harder to get at why.
Really, though, I think the people I’d be most interested to meet are the ones whose lives we never get to read about, whose stories never get documented. I decided to study law and history because I wanted to work at the intersection of storytelling and social change, and I think that in some ways, just by chronicling the lives of these ‘unknowns,’ it changes the way we interact with our past. It reorients our understanding of what’s happened and makes us think differently about who has agency in effecting change in the world.
I would love, love, love to be writing books and teaching history at a small liberal arts college.
It sounds like a simple dream, I know, but you’d be surprised at how hard those gigs are to come by, especially once you throw in any geographic parameters (I’m a lifelong Philadelphian, so I’m now trying to wrap my head around the prospect of having to leave my beloved city).
What’s the story behind your choice of blog name Have Dental Floss Will Travel?
I started my blog last summer, at the suggestion of a couple friends. Brent and I had rather spontaneously decided to take a five-week road trip through New England (after finishing law school, taking my preliminary exams for the PhD, passing the bar, and defending my dissertation prospectus, all during the 12 months before, not to mention getting married, I was in serious need of some decompression. And Brent’s a teacher, so he’s always game for a summer adventure). So the blog was meant to be more of a travelogue than anything else, a way for family and friends to keep up with our trip without forcing mass emails upon them.
The summer before, we had spent a month backpacking through Italy for our honeymoon, and every night, whether we’d spent the day meandering through cities or running along canals or hiking across mountain ranges, we’d take out our Lonely Planet guidebook and a piece of dental floss, and track how many miles we’d covered. It was totally neurotic, at least on my end – Brent wrote it off as ‘good training’ – but it was still a cool way to see how far we’d traveled together.
By the time I was trying to come up with a name for the blog, I had already discovered online tracking tools like usatf.org, which kind of negated the need for the waxy string, but it still felt fitting.
I do worry sometimes that people just think I’m neurotic about dental hygiene!
Assume your dissertation advisor isn’t reading this…what percentage of your time to do you spend blogging, reading others’ blogs, and running compared to working on your doctorate?
Hmm… I’m not sure I want to add up how much time I spend reading and writing blogs instead of chapters ☺ When I’m not working as a teaching assistant, I spend most of my days sitting at my computer researching and writing, always with gmail and google reader open at the bottom of the screen. I know, such a bad idea. So, I know that it takes up way more time than it ought to, but I’m generally pretty happy with the progress I’ve been making toward having a completed manuscript. It’s all about balance, right?
In terms of running and racing, though, I totally lucked out. My advisor is an avid mountain biker/hiker/rock climber who used to write for Triathlete Magazine, and the rest of my committee is rounded out by my advisor’s wife, a recreational biker and hiker herself; a runner; and the husband of a triathlete. So they all sort of get it, and I think some of them actually think it’s pretty cool. At the end of the last school year, my advisor made a comment about how now that law school and the bar exam were behind me, I could really focus on the dissertation, the most important part of this whole process. He said, “I know you, Abby, and I know how you operate. Be careful now not to take this as an opportunity to fill your schedule with more stuff just because you can. Keep up with the training and racing, of course, because I know that keeps you sane, but try to keep the rest of it to a minimum.”
So, the racing stories I share with him. The blogging? I keep that to myself!
Last fall I completed Ironman Wisconsin, which was definitely one of the coolest racing experiences of my life. I was relatively undertrained, after our impromptu summer road trip, and I was totally intimidated when I got out there and saw all the space-age helmets and quads the size of my head, but it turned out to be an incredible day, from start to finish, even taking into account the nasty flat tire I got 20 miles into the bike section!
In terms of marathons, I’ve only done three so far, not including during the ironman, and they’ve all been totally different. Anchorage was great, though, because it was my first one, and having done it through Team in Training, I’d trained with this amazing group of women. None of us had any idea what we were doing, but between post-run brunches and 20-mile sing-a-longs, we had a blast during the lead-up to the race, and carried that energy onto the course with us.
Adventure racing is a whole ‘nother beast, because you’re competing with a team. It’s not about beating a time or getting a PR; instead, you’re vying for positioning. My favorite adventure race to date – other than the GOALS Gals Gone Wild debut – was probably a 12-hour race last May in the southern Catskills, where we actually had our worst finish of any of our races last year (other than the DNF). I was racing with Brent and another teammate, Chris, and after getting off to a bit of a rocky start, something just clicked and we ended up really working well together for the last 10 hours of the day. It was probably the only time I raced competitively last year where I felt like I was contributing something more than my gender to the team. So even though we came in sixth or seventh, it still felt like a pretty major accomplishment.
Can I share one more highlight for a race I didn’t actually compete in?
In May of last year, Chris and Brent and I qualified for the USARA (US Adventure Racing Association) national championships (this sounds far more impressive than it actually is). Over the course of the season, I sort of psyched myself out and put way too much pressure on myself about this race. Finally, in order to preserve my own sanity, I decided that the ironman would be my last real race of the season, and that I was going to skip nationals. Another teammate took my place, the indefatigable Ali Bronsdon, and I decided to go down with the crew as a spectator.
Somewhere along the way, I signed up as volunteer, and I was assigned the coolest job ever – I became the official blogger of the USARA National Championships. The race was held on the Georgia/Tennessee border, and a good friend of mine had driven down as well to hang out, so we spent the day and night tracking teams, driving out to transition areas, and reporting on the progress of the race. It was such a cool experience. This summer, Brent and some of the other GOALS gang are competing in a 72-hour race in New Hampshire, so I’m hoping to get on the blog team for that one, too.
How did you develop your interest for running and fitness?
The honest answer is, I have way too much energy for my own good. When I was nine years old, my parents signed me up for a local swim team because they thought it would help channel some of my bounce-off-the-wall-ness. That led to a competitive swimming career that spanned more than a decade, including upwards of 30 hours at the pool a week during the height of it, and resulted in two torn rotator cuffs.
At that point, I was mildly terrified of running, but I still had ‘finishing a marathon’ somewhere down on the list of ‘crazy things I want to do before I die.’ When I stopped swimming, I flitted around a bit, trying to find another outlet for all that energy. Piling on other activities and doing a few long-distance biking events helped a little bit, but when one of my closest friends signed up for the San Francisco marathon through Team in Training in 2005, I started to get intrigued. My friend had been in a pretty catastrophic accident during college, and I felt like if she could run a marathon after that, I could certainly do one.
A year later, I got a flier in the mail about running the Anchorage race through Team in Training. Alaska had always been on my list of top five places to go in the world (can you tell that I like lists?), so it seemed like a great way to kill two birds with one stone, so to speak.
And I guess the rest is history…
Here’s hoping for that ever-elusive BQ… (I almost feel like I should be taking a cue from Harry Potter and saying ‘that which shall not be named.’ My friends and I all speak of it in hushed reverent whispers.)
What gets you excited about running?
My friends, without a doubt. I’ve actually been getting nervous recently that I’m forgetting how to run by myself, because at least four times a week, I’m out on the roads or the trails or the track with a running buddy or two (these days I spend most of my time with Natalie, Bess, and Ali.
And then, of course, there’s the physical - and mental - challenge of it; the gratification that comes with seeing tangible results (so much better than the never-ending dissertation!), and, I’ll admit it, the bragging rights.
Right now, I’m really digging the long stuff – partly because I don’t think I’m fast enough to be running shorter races, and partly because I don’t feel like I’m getting my money’s worth otherwise.
Current running goals?
Seriously, I’ve done far more with this running and racing stuff than I’d ever imagined possible when I attended that first Team in Training meeting in January 2006.
That said, I’d really like to do an ultra, either this fall or next year. And at some point, I’m hoping to tackle a multi-day adventure race.
Does dissertating count?
I’m a bit of a cinephile, so I love seeing/reading about/talking about movies – and, of course, watching all of the awards shows that come with that! I’m also really close with my family and have an amazing community of friends. I spend a lot of time with all of them, playing board games or having coffee dates or making dinners or going hiking.
And Brent is from Massachusetts, so he and I have an ever-growing intra-marriage, inter-city sports rivalry. We’ve been to three of the four Sixers/Celtics game this season, several UMass/Temple basketball games, and a few Philles/Red Sox games. Brent’s definitely ahead this year on the NBA front, but I have faith that the Phillies will pull it out in their series against the Sox in June. Someday, I’m hoping for another Eagles-Patriots Superbowl. We didn’t know each other when the teams played in 2005.
What is one unique thing about you that most people don't know?
I’m kind of obsessed with finding out who people have on their ‘list.’ You know, The List. I’m actually not a big fan of the intention behind the list–which celebrities you have a free pass to sleep with and not have it count as cheating on your partner–but it’s one of my favorite games, to ask my friends who their celebrity crushes are.
A few years ago, at Thanksgiving dinner, I had my entire extended family playing along, more than twenty guys and gals ranging in age from ten to ninety. And a couple months ago, my mom called me to update her list (she decided to add Sayid, from Lost).
Brent hates this game!
Who are some of your virtual running friends you would like to meet up and run with?
Other than peripherally following the blogs of some of my real-life friends, I didn’t know much about this whole blogging world until Natalie told me about Amanda’s Holiday Booty Buster Challenge last December. I was nursing a post-Ironman injury at the time, and it was the perfect antidote to my non-running malaise/stir-craziness. I think Brent will forever be indebted to Amanda for that one!
There are obviously lots of other great blogs out there, too, and I’d love to go for a run pretty much of any of those folks passing through the Philly area, but I think it’d be really fun to race with these ladies at some point.
Best running advice you’d like to share?
Oh, I haven’t been running nearly long enough to talk about this one…
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