Wednesday, September 28, 2005

A Family That Goes The Distance - An Interview with Beverley Anderson-Abbs and Alan Abbs

It’s always nice when a husband and wife share a passion for sport, particularly one that incurs the long training hours of ultra running. Take this to the extreme, and you have the Abbs family - two powerhouse endurance athletes from Red Bluff, CA, who excel in ultra runs of all distances, multi-day races, and adventure racing. Both are sponsored by Sunsweet Growers (

(Alan Abbs at the American River 50 Mile)

Alan is a regular top finisher in ultras of all lengths, with impressive finishes at Run On The Sly (1st), Western States (21:39), the Coastal Challenge in Costa Rica (5th), finishing 5th overall in the 2004 Fuel Belt series, as well as top 3 finishes in a slew of Adventure Races (Cal Eco Series, Big Blue, and Eco-Challenge among others), duathlons, and triathlons. By day, he’s a manager for the local waste management/recycling authority.

(Bev Abbs at the Miwok 100k)

“Bev” is no stranger to the podium herself. After finishing a “perfect set” for the 2004 Fuel Belt series (5 wins in 5 races), she raced the Eco-Challenge, placed 2nd female at the 2005 Western States 100 (her first 100-miler in 19:16)), won the USATF Master’s Championships for 50k and 50 miles, and won first overall at the Coastal Challenge, a seven-day stage race in Costa Rica. She has been named one of the top female ultra runners by both Ultrarunning magazine and the USATF, is currently leading the Trail Runner Magazine Ultra series, and it seems her endurance career is only beginning. She recently returned to school for a second graduate degree and began a job as an environmental scientist with a Sacramento River Conservation Group.

I caught up with the Abbs on one of their rare “down weekends”.

First, congratulations on a fabulous ’04 and ’05 season! It’s amazing you have both been able to pack in such a variety of endurance events. How do you go about choosing among them?

(Bev) Thanks Scott. The past few years have been pretty full for us. We did a lot of adventure races from 2000 thru 2003, but we’ve consistently been running 50Ks as training for the big adventure races. For those years we just tried to get in as many adventure races as we could get to, which can be difficult with both of us working full time- we’ve had to choose events that we could get to after work on Friday. Once we had filled in our schedule with adventure races we just started adding running events to the empty weekends. There were some months when we didn’t spend a single weekend at home! Last year was a little different as we really focused on two major adventure races, so more weekends got filled up with running. This year, we just tried to fill up the year with running. We still have the occasional time management issues- I just started a new job in January and immediately went to Costa Rica for The Coastal Challenge so there aren’t a lot of vacation days to draw on yet. My boss let me call my days off for Western States “sick days” since he thought they fit just as well in that category.

(Wife and husband team, Bev and Alan - now that's what I call team bonding!)

Can you tell us a bit about your Eco-Challenge experience and how that compares to ultra running? Do you think that being a husband/wife team helped?

(Bev) Eco-Challenge seems a little like ancient history now- we did Eco-Challenge Borneo in 2000. Although we have done several other expedition races since, including Primal Quest, Raid the North Extreme, and Eco-Challenge North America, nothing quite compares to Borneo. Since it was our first expedition race, our training amounted to racing with our team as much as possible to get used to each other and find out strengths and weaknesses. Adventure racing is really different from ultra-running in a lot of ways. The team aspect of it makes it interesting. You’re never completely relying on yourself, but you also always have to be prepared to help someone else. I think it’s easier to give up and slow down in an ultra when you’re alone out there. But if you know a team has put in a huge amount of training and money to get to one race, it’s a little harder to just sit down and hang out in a transition area if you don’t feel well. The multi-sport training helps keep you a little fresher through the year, and it makes it a little more interesting. For training, we used to just pull out a topo map of the nearby forest, pick a few points and go… run, walk, crawl…whatever. One time we decided to do the Whiskeytown 50k course backwards, in the snow. We ended up stumbling down a mountain beside a creek, switching between snowshoes and post holing in the dark. It took us about 12 hours, which we had been unprepared for, so we had headlights with low batteries and our poor dog. Every time we stopped to check the map she’d curl up in a snowshoe indentation and sleep until we were ready to go again. I’ve never seen her so happy to get to a road before.

(Shasta Abbs back at home)

(Alan) I think the husband/wife aspect in adventure racing is an overall positive. Two people are half of a team, and so we know at least half of us have the same training, equipment, and mental state. We also know when it’s okay to be a little bit mean to each other in order to get to the finish line faster!

One thing I do miss about adventure racing is the feeling of being out in the middle of nowhere, and you’re relying only on your teammates and what you have in your backpack, and you’re just plugging along hour by hour, day by day. There’s something kind of peaceful about fast-walking all night in the dark, and as the sun’s coming up you check your landmarks and realize you’re almost exactly where you thought you were. On the flip side, when you realize you have no idea where you are, that’s kind of a bummer…

How did you meet each other? Were you crazy endurance athletes before getting married?

(Bev) We were actually pretty sane road bike racers living in San Diego at the time. We both happened to take a track racing class to work on sprint speed and started chatting. It turned out that Alan knew my brother, a bike racer in Baltimore at the time, and that opened the doors. He gave me a ride home after the track class and we started going to rides and races together. It was pretty amazing, really. Our first real date was a criterium- pretty romantic, right?

How did each of you get into trail running, and how long have you been at it?

(Bev) Alan kind of pushed me into trail running and longer distance runs. I had been a runner in Junior High and High School, but had hurt my knees pretty badly toward the end of grade 12. I tried everything else through university, settling on body building for quite a while, and then switching to cycling. When Alan and I met, he convinced me to start doing some running races, 5ks, 10ks, nothing too serious. When we moved up to Red Bluff we’d go to some of the local runs and Alan would run the marathon while I would run the 5 or 10k associated with it. When we started doing adventure races, he convinced me that I had better be able to run longer distances, so I did a ½ marathon, a 50k, and a marathon all within about a month. After that was Eco-Challenge Borneo, and as we did more adventure races it became obvious that the good teams ran whenever they could. In 2003/04 we filled in non-adventure race weekends with 50k events as training. This is the first year we’ve really focused on ultra running, and we’re still trying to optimize our training.

Bev, you had an outstanding debut at the Western States 100. Were you expecting to do so well? Alan, you also had a great race - was that your first States as well?

(Bev) Thanks, Scott. I really had no idea what to expect going into Western States. I didn’t think I had trained properly for it, especially after talking to some people who have done it multiple times and hearing how many miles they were putting in each week. I finally decided that with my adventure racing background I would be able to at least finish it, even if I wasn’t completely ready, and I’d just go out to have fun. As I said to my friend Royce just before WS100, “my training will get me about half way, then my stubbornness will have to kick in”. I have to say, I had a blast on the snow at the beginning. It felt more like an adventure race and I was chatting about that with some of the guys I was near. When I found out I was running with Dean Karnazes and Tim Tweitmeyer I started wondering what I was getting myself into. I felt pretty good for the first half but, unfortunately, I got pretty sick after Foresthill and spent the next few hours being sick and sobbing. I learned the importance of a pacer during that time; I don’t think I’d have continued if Trevor hadn’t been with me coaxing me on. (He told me several weeks later he hadn’t thought I was capable of looking so bad…thanks Trev!)
(Alan)- I felt pretty good about Western States - I thought I could break 22 hours, and I came in at 21:39, pretty good for a first attempt. I had a blast in the canyons and passed quite a few people, and I had delusions of a sub 21. But things got a little rough in the last 20 miles once I got down to the river. Matt Simms, my pacer, kept me moving forward and saved the day. He didn’t let me throw up until after the finish line!

I bet recovery day at the Abbs household was pretty scary after that.

(Alan) To be honest, I don’t remember much following WS. I guess we worked our way home and slept. It seems it was hard to keep food in the house for the next little while! Folks around town know that if we’re walking slow or are wearing sandals it’s probably because we just did something crazy. Then Sunsweet asked us to go out and find Dave Horton on his Pacific Crest trail record attempt as he came through Lassen National Park the following weekend, so we did two 40 mile days the following weekend, loaded with water and goodies.

I get “chicked” at ultras all the time (ie, when a woman beats me, usually by a very large margin). Alan, do you ever feel bad about getting “chicked” by your own spouse?

(Alan) If I felt bad every time Bev beat me in a running race, I’d probably have quit by now. It does give me an excuse to make her drive home from the races- she’s been finished longer and has had more recovery time.

(Bev Abbs sets the pace at the Way Too Cool 50k)

If both of you race, who the heck crews for you?!?

(Bev) Good question. This has been a problem for us with both adventure racing and ultra-running. We don’t have that built-in crew that a lot of other married people have so we’ve had to become pretty self-reliant. For adventure racing, we were at a point where we only chose races where crew wasn’t required, unless another team member could supply someone. Last year when we did PrimalQuest, we made a joke to our friend, Royce, about how much fun he’d have roughing it in a U-Haul while we raced through Washington for two weeks, and an hour later he told us that he’d cleared his schedule for 2 and half weeks! Something like that is a rarity, and we’ll never be able to repay him for that.

For ultras, WS100 is the only race we’ve used crews in- it has become noticeable, and a little frustrating, when I’ve been very close to another runner with a crew and I see how much time they save in each aid station. I’ve spent a lot of time doing the math to determine how much I’ve lost on a runner with a crew. For WS100, I had some friends out crewing, one was the second place finisher from the Coastal Challenge, she flew out from New York to help crew and then pace me the final 20 miles. Alan’s crew was a couple from Sunsweet who live near us. They have been great friends and have helped out in several of the races we have put on.

Do you train with a running club, or have a group of other ultrarunners you train with?

(Alan) We do belong to the SWEAT running club out of Redding, but we don’t run with them very often. Time is usually pretty tight, and an hour of driving to go for a run is often not feasible when we’re home, especially with all the home chores we have to make up for. We do run with Luanne Park from Montrail and Trevor Nelson from Vasque quite a bit- they both live in Redding. We usually just run together and we have a great dog, our beautiful Dalmatian, Shasta, who has been running with us for years.

I’ve been to Red Bluff, CA, and it seems like a wonderful area. Have you both been there long? Where did you each grow up?

(Bev) We’ve lived here in Red Bluff for 8 years and are still exploring the area. Red Bluff is a great area for outdoor activities. We have a wonderful open space area within a 10 minute drive where we go to run and mountain bike, and we’ve put on a couple of short adventure races there. Within 40 minutes or so we have Whiskeytown NRA and Lassen National Park and Forest. Both fantastic places for trail running, mountain biking, paddling… just about anything. And, on top of it all, we have the Sacramento River running through the middle of town! You can’t beat it. Things can get a bit hot and dry in the summer though- most of July and August this year was above 100 degrees.

I grew up in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, a great city with the Rocky Mountains an hour away, but miserably cold in the winter. Alan’s from Northern Virginia, and he claims running there is like breathing water.

What/who inspires you to race?

(Alan) One of the great things about running for Sunsweet, besides the dried plums, is the feeling that you’re running on behalf of all the people that grow and package Sunsweet dried fruit. Tehama County, where we live, and many of the counties in the Central Valley of California provide a significant amount of fruit for Sunsweet, so it’s not uncommon to run into folks wearing Sunsweet hats or shirts, or displaying signs in front of their fields. It makes it harder to rationalize slowing down when you know that so many folks are going to ask you how you’ve done racing! Not only that, Sunsweet has been really excited about running and ultrarunning as a sport- this year they sponsored the Montrail Cup, as well as numerous local races. We appreciate all the support they’ve given us, and the running community.
It’s also nice to know that we’re having a positive effect on others that are interested in running. My niece, Dillyn, who’s 7, just ran her first 10K- for her minutes per mile pace, she’ll be a future Western States champion! Bev also has a little girl here in town that idolizes her named Jackie Hollmer, and she recently won her first elementary school cross country race, breaking away from a pack of 65 to emerge from the woods with a huge lead wearing a shirt Bev had given her. They could be Sunsweet runners in 2020.

What are some of your favorite races/locations?

(Bev) I couldn’t possibly say enough about the Coastal Challenge in Costa Rica. I loved it there. The race itself had way too much running on beaches, but the areas we were in were beautiful. Once we got into the jungle trails…what a joy! Gawking at monkeys hanging in the trees, the birds, everything…that was what running should be, enjoying the area you’re traveling through. Locally, it’s hard to pick a favorite area for a race as they are all put on in spectacular places, but I enjoy Purisima Creek 50k and Rucky Chucky Roundabout 50k. They are early in the season when the weather is pretty much perfect and they are very well managed races, low key and a lot of fun.

(Alan) The Where’s Waldo 100K is an outstanding race in a beautiful location (SW of Eugene, OR), directed by one of your recent interviewees and great guy, Craig Thornley. We’ve been heading up there a lot lately to train, and we’ve only scratched the surface of all the trails in the area. In his interview with you, Craig said (in jest, I think) “Don’t come to Oregon,” but we like the area so much, we’re planning a trail running festival in late July 2006- a 5M hill climb, a 5M downhill, a flattish 10 miler, and a 50K. Hopefully we’ll attract some long distance and shorter distance runners looking to see what trail running is all about…

Since Bev already mentioned Rucky Chucky, I’ll put in a plug for one of our local races, the Whiskeytown 50K just outside of Redding in late October. John Luaces, if you’re reading this, let’s go back to the original course where we climb Shasta Bally!

Lastly, a few training questions. What’s a typical training week look like for you? How many miles? Is it the same in preparing for adventure races, stage races, and ultras?

(Alan)- Our training has really varied the last few years based on what have been the most important races of the year. Prior to 2005, it was always a long adventure race, and so we’d split training time between biking, running, kayaking, and weightlifting. Since we’ve focused on running this year, we’ve cut back a bit on the biking, and a lot on the kayaking. Generally, our runs during the week never last longer than 90 minutes, and on the weekends we’re able to go longer. We probably run a lot less than we should- we’re lucky to get 60 to 70 miles a week. Embarrassingly enough, we also don’t do much in the way of intervals or specific hill work, and I think that’s where we’ll really need to focus if we want to improve for 2006.

For 2006, we’re thinking about trying the Grand Slam, and throwing in the Hurt 100 as well, so we’ll have to get a bit more serious about getting in the long miles over the winter.

(Bev)- I’d like to point out that I have tried to get Alan to do intervals and hill training but he can be a little stubborn. I did find that sticking to the 50k distance, I could get away with not much specific training. With the much longer races we’ve done this year, I seem to be getting more injuries than I’m used to. I enjoyed training for adventure races because it was always something different. One of my favorite days was driving up river 15 miles, kayaking down to a park about a mile from home where we’d attach wheels to the kayaks and roll them to our house. Then we’d drive back to a place about 12 miles from the original put in and trail run back to the start. It was a great all day event!

What are your favorite foods/race snacks?

(Bev) I typically don’t eat much when I’m racing. My system pretty much shuts down so I just force down Clif Shots. I know I need the calories so for me that’s what it’s all about. I’ve tried to eat “real food”, but I have a hard time chewing and swallowing. That’s what made me so ill at Western States, my crew tried to force feed me. Of course Sunsweet dries plums, have been great. They’re easy to chew and swallow, and have excellent levels of sugars and potassium. They saved me in The Coastal Challenge, when one of the aid stations didn’t have water and all I had was a couple of packets of Sunsweet plums to get to the next aid.

(Alan) My stomach can handle food a bit better than Bev, but for long races I usually end up eating fruit (dried and fresh), and gels. Obviously, the only dried fruit is Sunsweet- I’m partial to orange essence dried plums, dates, and mangos. You read a lot about the need for antioxidants in exercising to aid recovery and prevent inflammation, and dried plums kick serious butt when it comes to antioxidants. Blueberries, raisins, strawberries- all posers!

And while I’m on my soapbox- look for Sunsweet stuff in your local grocery store. :-)

A lot of the blog readers love to hear about “lessons learned” (ie, things that didn’t go right that perhaps they could avoid). Any you would like to pass on?

(Alan) A long time ago, I thought to myself “Hey, I think I’ll run a marathon.” So I came up with this plan that for the 8 weeks leading up to it, every Thursday I’d do a long run where I’d go for 15 minutes longer than the week before. I got up to about 2:15. Of course, on marathon day I was feeling like a champ until right about the 2:15 mark, and the last few miles we’re pretty miserable- I think it was just a mental block because I’d never run that far. The lesson- It’s always easier to do something when you’ve done it before. That’s probably pretty obvious to your readers. I’ll bet most ultrarunners could log off their computers, lace up their shoes, grab some food and run a marathon or 50K or 50M, without even thinking about it or otherwise preparing for it. For people that haven’t done that distance before, believing they can do it is half the battle.

(Bev) Have fun. I’ve seen too many people who tie themselves to a rigid training schedule and forget why they do this in the first place. We had an opportunity to meet a group of friends at the Grand Canyon this spring and run rim to rim to rim a few weeks before Western States. We just went there, ran it, and came home. What a blast that was, and we’re already trying to figure out an epic place to do something similar for 2006. But some friends we asked to join us wouldn’t go because it wasn’t on their training calendar- their loss...

On the stage races and adventure races, it seems there isn’t much time to recover. Any recovery tips/secrets you would like to share?

(Bev) Regular massage and chiropractic seem to do a lot for us in working out the day to day pains. We have a great friend who is a massage therapist and has been taking care of us for several years (she made me cry when she was working on my quad pull from Where’s Waldo). She also set us up with a sponsorship from Kremer Chiropractic in Red Bluff. We’ve been seeing Scott Kremer 2 or 3 times a week for a year and half now. I don’t know if I could do the distances I do without that.

In an adventure race you are typically going straight through so recovery isn’t really an issue. You try not to stop because that’s when you stiffen up and have to get moving again. For a stage race, recovery is really not an option. In a race like The Coastal Challenge, if you’re going for it every day you recognize that you will hurt for the first 30 minutes to an hour each day. The best thing I found was to try to force myself into a “normal” form as quickly as possible, the longer you let yourself limp or protect the sore muscles, the longer it will take for them to stretch out and put up with what you are doing. Day three was really bad for me in that race, and I’ve talked to other stage racers who have said that’s pretty common. If you can force yourself past day 3 you’re pretty good for the rest of the time. It’s tough though. You have to train yourself to go day after day, even if it does hurt, to prepare for stage racing. Oh…and eat! This is where I usually blow it. When I finish a race I usually don’t feel like eating, although I know I should right away, so I’ll often wait around for Alan so I can eat with him, but then he doesn’t want to right away either. There have been some races I’ve finished and not eaten for more than 2 hours after. This is absolutely not good for recovery.

Any tips you would like to pass on to somebody trying their first ultra? How about a first stage race, or a first adventure race?

(Alan) It seems a lot of people have a misconception that you have to “run” an entire ultra, and so they’re afraid to give it a shot, because they don’t think they can run longer than a marathon. Take it from me- it’s o.k. to walk sometimes!

If you’re looking to do your first adventure race, come up to Red Bluff in late April and do the Sunsweet Tehama Extreme Adventure Race! In two years, we’ve had a 99% finishing rate, and when you’re doing something for the first time, nothing beats being able to cross the finish line. You’ll get dirty, wet, sweaty, tired and you’ll have lots of fun. Best of all, proceeds go to charity for college scholarships for future farmers.

What’s next on the race/run agenda?

(Alan) We’re taking a bit of time off, but October and November will be busy. We’re both doing the Whiskeytown 50K and Helen Klein 50 on back-to-back weekends, and then I’m heading east to run with my sister in her first marathon (Richmond Marathon). For both of us, I think that’ll put us at around 15 races for the year. After that, we’ll be putting in miles for 2006. The Hurt 100 kicks off the year in January.

Anything else you’d like to add?

(Bev) I’d like to say thank you to the ultra runners I’ve met and raced with the past few years. Everyone in the ultra running community has been so supportive and has had a lot more confidence in me than I’ve had coming into this sport. I’m always amazed when people know who I am and the cheers and comments on the trail go a long way toward keeping me moving. The race directors, volunteers, and racers give so much to the sport and we are hoping to be able to give some back by putting on races ourselves. We’ve put on a couple of adventure races and 5 and 10k races in the past and we are planning a two day trail running festival in Oregon for July 2006. We hope that we can give back to the racers who have been so great to us. Look for information about the Sunsweet Trail Running festival in Oakridge, Oregon.

Thanks for a great interview!

- SD


  1. I had the privilege to watch these guys race WS100 up close. Awesome, the both of them.

    The Puget Sound contingent salutes you for these and all the other freak show race performances you came up with this year.

  2. I'm not going to talk about the time that Al and I tried to cook a huge pot of pasta over a campfire (didn't work) during our road bike racing days rambling through Pennsylvania in my VW van.

    I'm not going to talk about the many times we daytripped to hike the Appalacian Trail. And especially not the time we saw the rattlesnake as I jumped out of my skin and looked back to see Eagle Scout Al poking it (coiled up) with his walking stick saying, "It'll only attack if you provoke it."

    I'm not going to talk about how in '89 at the Collegiate National Cycling Championships we watched future Mt. Bike Goddess Juli Furtado win the women's road race.

    There are countless other stories as well.

    I met Al at college when I squeaked through tryouts for the Naval Academy's cycling team and made it. He was a Junior and I was a lowly Plebe (Freshman.) The 2 yrs that followed were a whirlwind of activities including running, mt. biking, swimming, stair running and lots of cycling. Al is an incredible person. I learned alot from him and was heavily influenced by his dedication to an active lifestyle.
    I spent a ton of time with his parents and sister too over that 2 yrs and they are great people. They were really just like a second family to me.

    We were "Best Man" at each other's weddings in the year's since. I even got the pleasure of being their one-man support crew at one of their first adventure races years ago around Fresno, CA. I've only been able to hang with Bev a couple times but she was great to me on those occassions just like the rest of Al's family was in the past. When you hang out with Al and Bev it is easy to see the two of them were meant for each other.

    I'm out of shape and overweight these days but in my spurts when I actually let life release it's grip on me and I get motivated it is the influence of Al that is right there with me when I climb back on my bike and roll out for a training ride.

  3. These two are amazing! I love the picture of the dog too. I bet a dalmation is a perfect match for their active lifestyle. - Larry

  4. Scott, another great interview! I love your blog and check it everyday for new articles. But you are missing out on interviewing some great runners from the Eastern U.S. Annette Bednosky and Sean Andrish are two that quickly come to mind. I would really like to see an interview with Annette. Keep up the great work!

  5. I read this interview and then read all of your interviews until 2am! Every one of them are world class runners. I like that they are so approachable. Very down to earth. This one is great because they found each other through their passion. That's so cool!

    Why don't the run 'zines cover these guys? I would think they are the most extreme of all runners.


  6. Hey, if you have contact info for Annette and Sean, I would love to interview them! Both of them had a stellar year this year.

    I appreciate the suggestion and will try and track them down.


  7. Getting "chicked". That's a good one! I get chicked all the time. There is no shame in that.

  8. J-Tear bike room brother.

    Nice posting. Me and Bone and Tumultous and Van-o and Murph and Haldog and the rest of the boys miss leading you out, so get your *ss back in shape why don't you.


  9. These are two great runners who push the limits of ultra running. I've seen them at many races over the past couple of years and hope to continue seeing them out there.
    Keep it up Bev and Alan!

  10. Scott:

    Don't have contact info for Annette and Sean but I believe both are members of Virginia Happy Trails Running Club (VHTRC). They have a website If you email Anstr Davidson at he may be able to get you in touch with them.

    VHTRC is biggest trail running club on East Coast so it may give you a pipeline for future contacts. I believe Serge Arbona is a member of the club as well and he has won a few 100 milers in addition to setting world treadmill record.


  11. Chris -

    Through VHTRC, I got in touch with Sean and Annette so expect interviews soon! Thanks so much for the suggestion and lead.



  12. Thanks for your help in getting in touch with Sean and Annette. Here's an interview with Annette!

    Sean is coming...


  13. I hear a lot of frustration that I just didn't see on the course. I had a hell of a fun day and I think my team would say the same. Great job North Face for a first try. I know that you will take the valid comments and make it even more fun next year. I can't wait. Bring warm clothes people!! Their are animals out there that don't eat gu wrappers and space blankets. THAT'S WHY there are DROP BAGS! Congratulations to all that finished the races and hope everyone is recovering well. I can not wait to see you next year......

  14. Would like info on trails to run while vacationing in Costa Rica!! I am staying at the Four Seasons Papagayo. Any ideas??
    PLease send to:


  15. wow, running together with a partner must feel great!! I wish my wife would be supportive of my running, encouraging words would do...

  16. Great interview. Seem like a great duo.


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