Unbreakable Spirit

A year after Hillary Allen rehabilitated from a devastating fall, she had to recover from another major injury and the darkness that came with it.

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When Hillary Allen toed the starting line of the Sur les Ducs de Savoie (TDS) trail race in Courmayeur, Italy, on the morning of August 29, the previous two years of her life flashed through her mind.

How could it not? The previous 24 months had included extreme highs and lows, from the joyous euphoria of winning international trail races to the dark despair of severe, potentially career-ending injuries.

Oddly, the jagged elevation profile of the rugged, 147-kilometer TDS race that she was about to tackle closely mimicked the peaks and valleys of her collective physical, mental and emotional self during that time. Appropriately, given her relentless and meticulous resolve, the TDS race was going to be the longest and most difficult race of her career and, perhaps just as appropriately, she wore a contrasting race kit that included a bright orange technical T-shirt that matched her typical exuberance and a pair of black shorts that, at least metaphorically, represented the darkness she had been through. Her stoic expression was also a reflection of the cognitive dissonance of the moment, with just glimmer of her excitement peeking through a nervous smile.

“That I was even there on the starting line after all I had been through was a big deal,” Allen says. “It was a distance I had never run and a super technical, super steep, unrelenting course. I wasn’t sure if my training was enough, I was carrying a lot of lingering mental anguish and I had really no confidence of where I was physically. Yet in a lot of ways, it was the perfect situation, the perfect challenge.”

Allen runs through rolling hills, the easy part of the TDS trail race.

Falling Off a Mountain

Allen, 31, of Boulder, Colorado, had already played the comeback kid role to the hilt 2018, so she really didn’t have anything more to prove until she had to in 2019. Much has been made of her horrific, life-threatening fall off a high mountain ridge during a SkyRunning Race in Tromsø, Norway, in August 2017. The 50K Hamperokken Skyrace route includes 15,748 feet of climbing with exposed scrambling, high ridgelines, loose rocks and snowfields at the summits of the profound Tromsdalstind and Hamperokken peaks. Allen, nicknamed “Hillygoat” for her mountain running prowess, was cruising along in her element near the halfway point of the race when disaster struck.

Although she doesn’t remember what happened, witnesses say she took an inadvertent stumble on a rock, knocking her off the edge of Hamperokken Ridge and sending her her sleek and strong 5-foot-8 frame rag-dolling 150 feet down the mountain before she came to a stop in a crumpled heap. She suffered a savage collection of injuries that included two broken bones in her back, two broken ribs, two broken arms, a severely sprained left ankle, a popped ligament in her right foot and lacerations “everywhere” that required hundreds of stitches.

“She was contorted. I thought she was dead,” says Norwegian runner Manu Par, who was first on the scene. She might have died if it weren’t for Par, who kept her from falling farther down the mountain and covered her with his jacket to keep her warm until rescuers arrived.

Allen was extracted off the rugged mountain terrain and air-lifted to the hospital, where she would undergo two surgeries on her left arm, one on her right and two more procedures to fix the ligament in her foot. The right foot injury, called a Lisfranc fracture, was a condition in which two metatarsal bones were displaced from the tarsus. The connecting plates in her arms would be permanent; the screws in her foot were later removed.

She suffered a savage collection of injuries that included two broken bones in her back, two broken ribs, two broken arms, a severely sprained left ankle, a popped ligament in her right foot and lacerations “everywhere” that required hundreds of stitches.

Up to the moment of her fall, Allen had been leading the international SkyRunning series entering the Tromsø race, the culmination of four ascendant years as a competitive trail runner that included podium finishes at some of the hardest mid-distance ultras in the world—Speedgoat 50K, Transvulcania 73K and Marathon du Mont Blanc 80K.

She had been a quick study on the trail-running scene, but her rise was based on the same passionately meticulous approach she’d taken to everything in life, from becoming a standout tennis player in high school and college, to studying chemistry as an undergrad and eventually earning a master’s degree in neuroscience. She loved rigorous challenges, just so long as she could manage them with a thoughtful, almost diagnostic methodology.

It was something that her parents, both professors at Colorado State University (CSU), had instilled in her at a young age, along with a love of adventuring in the great outdoors. (On a career day as a 6-year-old in kindergarten, she announced that she was going to get a Ph.D. in entomology so she could study insects for a living.) She started running as a stress-relieving outlet in grad school but soon found the transcendent vibe of running steep trails touched her soul and believed it contributed to her becoming the best version of herself.

“When she first started trail running, I had no idea about the technicality and difficulty of the races she was entering,” says her mom, Glenda Taton-Allen, who teaches and conducts research at CSU’s veterinary parasitology lab. “It was a shock when I really understood what she was doing, but that’s how Hillary does things. She goes into things with a full head of steam, but she does it very analytically and really wraps her mind around it. And that’s how she had to approach her recovery, too.”

Norwegian runner Manu Par, above right, was the first one on the scene after Allen tumbled 150 feet off a high mountain ridge in a SkyRunning race in Tromsø, Norway, in August 2017. Photo by Alexis Berg

Coming Back

Allen was facing a gruelingly long rehab that included hundreds of hours of physical therapy, monotonous strengthening drills and pool exercises. But her comeback from her physical demise also required the typically jovial Allen to overcome penetratingly despondent moments and deep-rooted depression from not being able to run and move freely.

True to form, she dug deep, and, with the help of renowned psychotherapist Timothy Tate, worked through the mental and emotional trauma of the ordeal, found the courage to believe in herself again. With painstaking dedication, she employed the same relentlessness that helped become one of the world’s top mountain runners and came out the other side, albeit with a lot of gnarly scars to forever remind her of what she had been through.

Miraculously, just 11 months after her accident in Norway, she not only lined up to run the Broken Arrow Vertical K race in Lake Tahoe, California, last June, but she was fit enough to finish second. The next day, she ran the technical 52K race against a strong field of American women and placed sixth.

She’s tough as nails, but it’s more that she’s so unyielding and methodical about how she trains and approaches steep mountains.

—Leo Lesperance

A week later, though, she stood on the starting line of the Lavaredo Ultra Trail 48K Race in Cortina, Italy, still crippled by fear.

“Before that race, I had horrible jitters of nervousness on the starting line,” she recalls. “I was scared, wondering if I was still an elite runner.”

Doubts aside, she won that race in 5:19:20. Although it wasn’t as competitive as the 120K or 80K races, followers of the sport relished in her return to racing.

“She’s tough as nails, but it’s more that she’s so unyielding and methodical about how she trains and approaches steep mountains,” said Leo Lesperance, a Boulder friend and occasional training partner. “For her to come back from those injuries less than a year later and, not only race, but to race competitively is amazing but it’s definitely not shocking, either.”

The 147K TDS is the most technically challenging race during the UTMB week, the type of terrain Allen excels on and similarly challenging to the Tromsø course.

Back into the Abyss

Yet despite the massive comeback she made in the first year, she was far from 100 percent. She was still experiencing pain in her right foot through last fall, and, all of the rehab and strength training she had put in notwithstanding, her left ankle was decidedly weak with limited range of motion. Although her success motivated her to train hard through the winter, she knew deep inside she wasn’t 100 percent mentally, either.

Still, she charged into 2019 full of optimism, planning a full schedule of races, inking a book deal, signing up to give a TEDx Talk and immersing herself in training. But then, just as she was getting fitter and stronger, she was met with another devastating low point. Early one crisp, snowy winter morning in Boulder, she ventured up and down the steep, technical Mt. Sanitas trail. On the way back, she slipped on a snowy sidewalk and crashed to the ground, feeling an awkward snap in her right ankle.

After calling a friend for help, she broke down and sobbed, knowing her ankle was broken. Turns out, she not only sustained a lateral malleolus fracture, but also a stress fracture in her tibia. She was put into a soft cast for a week, but a subsequent X-ray showed one of her ankle bones was displaced. That led to surgery in early February, which resulted in her hobbling around for five weeks without putting weight on it.

Between realizing her entire race schedule was null and void and struggling to get around on crutches and a knee scooter, she found herself in yet another physical, mental and emotional vortex.

“When that happened, I really just wanted to give up,” Allen admits. “Knowing how low I was the first time I had to go through a long recovery, and knowing I was going to have to do it again, I just wanted to quit.”

In the darkest moments of her despair, she felt doomed, jinxed and trapped. Before her running career exploded in about 2015, Allen had been working as a science teacher at a local community college. She had reduced her workload to that of a sub in the past year, but now she couldn’t do that. It was hard for her to get around because she couldn’t drive, leaving her at the liberty of friends who would shuttle her to doctor visits and physical-therapy appointments.

Anything worth doing is really hard. It’s worth it to challenge yourself; it’s worth it to work hard and sweat a little bit and cry a little bit. You don’t really know what happiness is until you experience pain.

—Hillary Allen

She vented to good friend and training partner Jason Donald that she didn’t think she could get through another hard rehab cycle. Nonsense, he told her.

“Hilary, you love hard things. You’re going to be fine,” he reassured her. “This is how you are; you were made to persevere.”

She couldn’t disagree. She’s always accepted challenges head-on, academically, professionally and athletically. As a teacher, one of her biggest pet peeves is when she senses a student is looking for an easy way out. She worked Tate more than she had the year before and, little by little, started to climb out of the darkness of the rabbit hole.

“Anything worth doing is really hard. It’s worth it to challenge yourself; it’s worth it to work hard and sweat a little bit and cry a little bit. You don’t really know what happiness is until you experience pain,” she says. “That’s not masochism; it’s just reality. How can you appreciate the sun unless you know what darkness is?”

So, Allen leaned into it. By mid-March, she was riding a road bike indoors on a trainer with running shoes and flat pedals. That gave way to riding outdoors on the gravel bike she bought a year earlier and, by early April, easy running on smooth surfaces. But when she started running, she was weak and knew it would be at least a month before she could start running technical trails.

In the meantime, she gave a successful Ted Talk in Boulder and also delved into working on her book project with Blue Star Press—the same company that published Emelie Forsberg’s Sky Runner: Finding Strength, Happiness and Balance in Your Running. She found it cathartic to talk and write her way through the darkness and doubts that lingered (her book Out and Back will be published next July).

Partly to take the pressure off but also to motivate herself to get stronger, she immersed herself in gravel riding and channeled all of her physical, mental and emotional energy into the June 1 Dirty Kansa, a notorious, 200-mile gravel bike race through the rolling and surprisingly technical Flint Hills of eastern Kansas. After a conservative start, Allen’s competitive juices kicked in and she moved up the entire second half of the race.

She wound up finishing 17th among women, 190th out of about 900 overall and, more importantly, suddenly brimming with fitness, strength and confidence and ready to run again.

Less than a month after the bike race, Allen was back in Cortina to run the 48K. Despite just two 20-mile runs under her belt, she won again in dominating fashion, even if slightly slower than the year before.

Allen went hard from the start of the TDS, taking an early lead up the first steep climb out of Courmayeur, Italy.

Returning to Tromsø

After winning again in Cortina, Allen was finally ready to amp up her running training and also stick with her plan to run TDS. She knew her training wasn’t going to be perfect and she wasn’t sure how her ankle would hold up, but all along she wanted 2019 to be a year of doing scary things. She also made the difficult decision to return to Tromsø in August to rebuke the remaining demons of her 2017 fall and hopefully make new memories.

She spent three days in early July on a solo recon run on the highly technical TDS course, running 51K from Courmayeur to Bourg Saint-Maurice on the first day, followed by a huge 72K effort from Bourg Saint-Maurice to Les Contamines on the second day and finishing up with the final 24K from Les Contamines to Chamonix on the third day.

While that was a key training segment for her, the most important training of the summer was her return to Norway in late July to visit the scene of her 2017 accident and run the Tromsø Skyrace. She had asked Mau Par to tour the course with her on the Wednesday before the race. When they got up to Hamperokken Ridge where she had fallen two years earlier, Allen was stunned as she looked over the edge.

When Par reached Allen that fateful day, he found her body motionless and grotesquely contorted, both in the awkward position she was stretched out on the rock and snow but also in the way several broken ribs jutted out from her chest. It wasn’t until he tried to move her body slightly to secure her that he realized she was breathing. He later admitted that he was terrified and didn’t think she’d survive, while he waited 30 minutes for the rescue crew to arrive.

After revisiting the scene of the accident with Par, Allen was shaken to her core. She says she spent the rest of the day in uncomfortable silence. She was overcome by a fight-or-flight sense of fear and nearly booked a flight to leave that day.

“I didn’t cry at all, but I was at a loss for words. I really didn’t know what to say,” she says. “I remember running the ridge during the race in 2017 up to that point, but then my memory is blank. Looking down on that place where I fell, I had a weird flutter in my body, in my heart.

“It was a huge bout of PTSD because I think my body and my brain subconsciously remember what had happened. After seeing that place and talking to Manu, it made me realize how lucky I am to be alive.”

For me, going back to Tromsø was about mental healing much more than it was about racing.

—Hillary Allen

True to form, Allen worked through the difficult moments and on August 1, she ran the Sea to Summit Vertical K—a 1.6-mile race with 3,400 feet of elevation gain—and placed second among women, three minutes back of winner Johanna Astrom of Sweden and still under the previous course record.

Then two days later, she and Par ran the Tromsø Skyrace together, not all-out but still at a hard enough pace that she finished 11th among women and 39th overall in just over 10 hours, with Par just 7 seconds behind. Along the way, they had sung songs, played the alphabet game and hugged volunteers. When she finished, she felt relief, joy and a sense of being whole.

At the finish, she hugged her mom, who had flown over for the week so she, too, could get closure on the traumatic reunion in the hospital two years earlier.

“When she told me she was going back to Tromsø, I didn’t even know how to respond,” her mom said. “I just felt sick. I didn’t realize how much I had bottled up and put on a shelf and hadn’t really addressed. Because I am the mom, I’m not supposed to. But it was really something special for us, the best thing we could have done together.”

Before leaving Norway, Allen and Par engaged in another 10-hour adventure that included biking and sea kayaking. Finally, she could silence the demons of Tromsø and earnestly, and without hesitation, focus on racing in the TDS.

“For me, going back to Tromsø was about mental healing much more than it was about racing,” Allen says. “I needed to face the dragon and close the loop on that chapter. I will always have the scars as constant reminders, but they’re also a reminder of how far I have come too.”

Allen is back to a happier place now, after two years of mental and physical turmoil. Photo by Mike Thurk

Tackling TDS

With a mix of lingering doubts, uncertainly about her ankle and eagerness to test her updated fitness, Allen charged off the starting line in Courmayeur, Italy, on the morning of August 29. She announced her presence with authority—both to the deep international field, but more importantly to herself—and took the lead on the first climb. She felt good, but almost too good. As Allen pushed off the front, only Audrey Tanguy (France) and Kathrin Goetz (Switzerland) went with her.

On one of the first descents along a very non-technical dirt road about 20K into the race, Allen tripped, stumbled and hit the ground, landing awkwardly on her right hip. She ripped a hole in her shorts and suffered a small but painful cut on her upper thigh, about six inches above one of the biggest scars she received two years earlier in Tromsø.

“It wasn’t a bad fall, just a stupid one, but it scared me a bit,” Allen says. “My quad tightened up on the subsequent descent and I didn’t want it to become more of a problem. Audrey and Katherin went by me, and that’s when I said to myself, ‘OK, just slow down, there’s a lot of race left.’”

The fall might have also helped her snap back to reality. The first part of the race gave her confidence that her ankle might hold up, but it also reminded her that it was going to be the most grueling test of her life and she didn’t spend those endless hours of rehab and training so she could blow up and drop out in the first half of the race.

Instead, Allen dug deep. Although she was losing ground to Tanguy and Goetz on the descents and fell off the lead by as much as 10 to 12 minutes at various points, she always closed the gap on the climbs. The farther into the race she went, the stronger she felt. On a climb up Pas d’Outtray beyond the halfway mark, she took the lead and then increased it to three minutes on the long descent into the 91K aid station at Beaufort.

When Tanguy pushed hard over the next two climbs up and over Col Very and Col Joly, so did Allen, who trailed by only a minute at the 121K mark at Les Contamines. Their combined efforts cooked Goetz, who lost nearly an hour on that section. From there, Tanguy proved to be the stronger runner, but not by much. She increased the gap over Allen all the way to Chamonix, winning the race at 1:37 a.m.

She suddenly was overcome by the belief that nothing was impossible.

With cheers from her support crew, Bastien Perez, Vince Hyed and Sami Sauri, plus a smattering of American friends, Allen ran across the iconic finish line 17 minutes later with a huge smile on her face, one that showed the boundless joy and calm presence she felt after nearly 22 hours of running and two years on a soul-scorching rollercoaster ride.

Immediately as she finished, she posed with Tanguy for a few photos and was interviewed by the live stream camera crew. With that precocious smile on her face, she looked into the camera and recounted the devastating fall in Tromsø, the endless rehab that followed, the partial comeback last year and the broken ankle and another round of rehab this year.

Just before she signed off on camera, she said hi to her mom who was watching back home in Colorado. Then, as soon as they stopped filming, she hugged Perez, a Frenchman she’d developed a romantic interest in while training in Europe, and broke down in tears.

Although she’d always been in awe of runners who ran 100-milers so well, she’d always taken a cautious outlook to that distance. But now, after running 92 miles with 29,000 feet of elevation gain as strong as she did, and especially after all she had been through the past two years, she suddenly was overcome by the belief that nothing was impossible.

And even more than that, she knew that struggles she faced along the way, all of those celebratory highs and defeating lows—and the realization of how grateful she was for all of the love and support she had received along the way—had helped her become a better version of herself.

“I could have given up two years ago, I could have given up this year and not done TDS and just wallowed in my disappointment, but that’s not really me,” Allen says. “One of the mantras I kept repeating in my recovery from the accident was, ‘Believe that your strongest athletic days are ahead of you.’ I think I believed that last year, but now I really believe it.”

Finishing TDS, Allen flashed her trademark smile, knowing her she had just put forth one of her best efforts.

Brian Metzler is a Contributing Editor for Trail Runner.

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