By Keysha Drexel
Tracey Abbott says she learned a lot about herself and about setting and reaching goals as a runner.
And now almost 21 years after she graduated from Homewood High School, Abbott is coming home to launch a nonprofit aimed at connecting girls from around the world through a shared passion for running.
Abbott, who currently lives in New York City, returned to Alabama in late December for a cocktail reception at Slice Brew & Pizza in Birmingham to introduce Culture Relay.
Culture Relay seeks to connect high school girls from distinctly different backgrounds and instill in them the love of running as a way to promote cultural awareness and build leadership skills to prepare them for the job market, Abbott said.
“My mission is to create a global exchange to teach girls life skills through running,” Abbott said.
The pilot program for Culture Relay will include 10-30 girls from Homewood High School and 10-30 girls from a school in Amman, Jordan.
The names of those selected for the pilot program will be announced on Jan. 17, and the two groups will start training in February for a relay race that will be held simultaneously in Homewood and in Amman, Abbott said.
“We’ll have coaches in both places, and the girls will get to train together and talk to each other using webcams. The girls will be training for a relay and on race day, we’ll have the team in Amman start and then virtually hand off the baton to the team in Homewood,” she said.
And it is not just the relay baton the girls will be passing to each other during training and on a race day, Abbott said.
“We want it to be a transfer of culture, learning and knowledge at the same time it’s a physical relay race,” she said.
Abbott said she hopes by training with the same goal in mind, the girls in Homewood and the girls in Amman will learn that they are not all that different.
“I hope that they can see each other as individuals and we can break down stereotypes,” she said. “Once you’ve established a relationship with someone that you initially thought was very different than you, it makes it impossible to see the world–or people–in big, sweeping statements.”
Abbott said she got her first lesson in not generalizing people when she was a fourth-grader in Homewood.
“I remember at that time everyone was afraid of the Soviet Union, and it was America against Russia during the Cold War,” she said. “I will never forget Mrs. (Linda) Maxwell throwing away our history curriculum that year and teaching us about Russian art and history and culture. It was then that it clicked in my head and I saw people as individuals. I didn’t fully understand Mrs. Maxwell’s brilliance until I was an adult.”
Abbott, who has lived everywhere from Paris to Dubai, said she’s seen firsthand how running has the potential to break down stereotypes and connect people from all walks of life from all around the world.
“I’ve traveled all over the world, and everywhere I have been, people run. You don’t need any special, expensive equipment. There’s a community of runners that spans the globe,” she said. “Sports can separate people, but what I’ve seen running do is connect people in much the same way music does because they are both very universal ideas.”
Abbott said her passion for running began when she was a student and track team member at Homewood High School.
“I’ve just always loved to run and through running, I’ve developed skills that I use every day to be successful,” she said.
After graduating from high school in 1993, Abbott earned a business degree from Wake Forest University in North Carolina. After college, she took a job with Eastman Kodak in Atlanta and was transferred to the company’s Paris office in 2000.
It was while working toward an MBA at a French business school in Paris that Abbott discovered her passion for long-distance running.
“I had always been a short-distance runner, and I quickly learned that long-distance running is a lot different,” she said. “Before, I just ran, but when I was training for my first marathon, I realized I had to have a plan and a strategy.”
Abbott said Culture Relay will help teach girls to translate the skills they need to be good runners into the skills they will need to succeed in their careers.
“We want to teach them that whether you’re talking about training for a race or preparing for a job, you have to set goals and follow a process,” she said.
By following that process of setting goals and defining strategies to reach them, Abbott said she’s also found success in the corporate world and fulfilled a dream to see the world.
The 38-year-old has lived and worked in Germany, Amsterdam, South Africa, Moscow and the Middle East and has worked for PepsiCo, Bain & Company and Adidas. Abbott is currently the vice president of strategic planning for Footlocker, Inc. in New York City.
“I’ve always wanted to live in New York City. That dream started when I was 14 years old and was a Star Spangled Girl marching in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade with the (Homewood High School) band,” she said.
Abbott is launching Culture Relay as part of her leadership project as a Henry Crown Fellow at the Aspen Institute, an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C. The Aspen Institute is aimed at fostering leadership based on enduring values and providing a nonpartisan venue for dealing with critical issues.
Henry Crown Fellows are chosen from a wide pool of accomplished entrepreneurial leaders who are looking toward the broader roles they might take on in their communities or globally.
“The fellowship program takes leaders at a critical time in their careers with the idea to create leadership that is infused with a love of service,” Abbott said. “As part of the program, we are expected to create an impactful program that will live well past the two-year time frame of the fellowship, and that’s my goal with Culture Relay. I am starting it with girls from Homewood and from Amman, but the vision is to have a global program that involves many cities around the world.”
Abbott said she hopes Culture Relay will also instill a love of service in the girls who participate in the program in Homewood and in Amman.
“I hope they are inspired to use their skills to try and make a difference in their communities and realize that they have the power to make things better,” she said.
Culture Relay is now looking for volunteers and for donations to pay for running coaches to train the girls in the program for the relay, Abbott said. She said the race is tentatively scheduled for the first weekend in April to coincide with the Dead Sea marathon in Jordan.
For more information on Culture Relay, visit www.culturerelay.org.
TIPS FROM TRACEY:
Whether you’re training for your 10th marathon or your first, Tracey Abbott of Culture Relay offers some tips for getting started, staying motivated and reaching your running goals:
Once you’ve set a goal to run a marathon or half-marathon, Abbott said, the secret to getting started on a training program is simple.
“You just put one foot in front of the other to start,” she said. “You just keep going and keep your eyes on that goal.”
Abbott suggests first-time runners try a 5K before they try to tackle a full marathon.
“The distance doesn’t really matter, but for most people, starting with a shorter race is good advice,” she said.
Abbott said runners need to break out their calendars and write their goals in plain sight so they are reminded of them every day.
“Put it on the calendar. Make it a priority. Try to train for at least 30 minutes a day and work your way up from there,” she said.
Proper nutrition is a key component of the strategy runners need to successfully complete long-distance races, Abbott said.
“I can’t say enough about giving your body the proper fuel and plenty of water while you’re training,” she said. “I’ve used training for a marathon as an excuse to eat extra French fries, but you really should watch your diet carefully when you’re training as a runner.”
Remembering to have fun while working towards your fitness goals is important, Abbott said.
“Setting a goal and sticking to your training can feel like a slog if you forget to just try to have a great time doing it. Have fun, put on your favorite music and think about how good you are going to feel when you cross that finish line,” she said.
And if the path gets rocky or motivation wanes, Abbott advises runners-in-training to hold themselves accountable for the goals they have set.
“You have to remember that the only person holding you back from succeeding and reaching your goals is you,” she said.