American ultrarunner and skyrunner Hillary Allen was ranked number one in the 2017 Skyrunning World Series when she fell 150ft from an exposed ridge-line during the Tromsø Skyrace in Norway. During the fall, her body took the full force of several impacts and by the time fellow racer Manu Par had scrambled down to her, she had broken 14 bones, including both wrists, five ribs, both feet and vertebrae L4 and L5 in her back.
Incredibly, Hillary survived. But being ‘alive’ and enduring multiple surgeries was just the beginning of her battle for survival, as she recounts in her new book, Out And Back: A Runner’s Story of Survival Against All Odds.
Doctors told Hillary she would never run again, but after two years of rehab and recovery, she returned to ultrarunning, even setting several new course records. The 32-year-old also discovered cycling as part of her recovery and her gravel riding resume now includes none other than the notorious Unbound Gravel – considered the gravel race to end all gravel races.
I chatted to Hillary over the phone back in July about the long road to recovery, the setbacks and further surgeries she endured, and the freedom she now feels when she lines up on the start line.
You’re now an author as well as an athlete. How did you find the book writing process?
I was surprised by how long it took to get the ideas on paper. I was training and travelling at the time, so I would use my training runs as brainstorming sessions. I’d bring my phone with me and I’d record voice memos, then I’d listen to them after the run and sit down to write them. It was fun, actually.
I started writing the book when I had my second injury. I had broken my ankle just as I was getting into my run stride again after the accident, so when I started writing, I was in a pretty dark place. It was almost good and cathartic to revisit those feelings of injury and what that felt like during this new injury.
You’re actually recovering from a different break now, is that right?
So the ankle break was in 2019, a year and a half after the fall. Of course, it’s all related because that was on the right side, the same side that I wasn’t weight-bearing for three months.
Obviously, my biomechanics had changed and I was running in these new shoes over the pandemic, during which time I was based in France, so I didn’t have access to my PTs and my normal routine. I developed some sort of compensation issue and ended up breaking my left foot, which needed surgery. I actually had surgery [on it] in April this year, right when the book came out, which was the worst timing! So I’m recovering from that.
I know you cover this in your book, but how much do you remember about the moment of your accident?
That first chapter that I wrote, that’s pretty much from memory. I don’t remember exactly what happened that caused me to fall, but I just remember the feeling that one minute I was running and the next I was in the air, and then kind of the blur of hitting the ground.
You said you could remember the sensations and hearing your bones break?
Yeah. I don’t remember the pain, I remember the pressure. It was almost like the rustling and things blurring around me as I kind of braced for impact, and I remember the sensation – not feeling the pain yet – as if someone was kicking or sitting on my chest as the wind got knocked out of me.
You were airlifted to a hospital in Norway. What was it like in the days after your accident?
The first couple of days in the hospital were a blur. I don’t think I realised it had happened to me if that makes sense. People would come visit me and I was like, What accident? What happened? And it wasn’t until my mother came [from the US] that I realised that I was the one that had fallen. I was really the fittest I had ever been, and so capable – and then all of a sudden, I can’t move. I literally did not even get up out of the hospital bed till day 5 in the hospital.
I remember this nurse, who was so kind and caring. She could see that I was slipping away into depression, and she came over to my bed and said, ‘This is when you have to fight. You cannot give up on yourself.’ And she sat me up and rolled my feet over, and then took me to the shower and helped me shower. That was literally the first time I got out of bed. I was on a walker, and I remember being lightheaded and feeling so weak, even walking. The nurse assured me that this was normal but she told me, ‘You have to do these things. These little steps make such a difference.’
That was the beginning. The next day I got up out of bed with help and had breakfast in the chair next to my bed. And from there my mum would take me on rolls [on a scooter] around the hospital. And then it progressed, and before I left to go back home to the US, I went to dinner outside the hospital with Manu and a few other friends I had raced with. I was in a wheelchair and could hardly eat or feed myself, but that was kind of the beginning of just understanding that this isn’t the end – I can’t give up now. I need to find a way to keep living and keep moving forward.
How did you cope with going from being fiercely independent and enjoying your own company to being totally dependent on others?
It was really difficult because I like time alone. Right now, I’m on a month-long road trip and I’ve been living out of a van, staying by myself on remote camp spots, driving alone. I need alone time. I’m extremely extroverted and can make friends anywhere, but I need time to myself to recharge. And that was one of the hardest things because I didn’t have that – ever. If I wanted to do anything, I needed supervision because I was such a fall risk. I couldn’t cook for myself, I could hardly even eat. I had to make some Styrofoam adaption to a fork so I could actually hold it. Showering, going to the bathroom… I had very limited time to myself other than just sleeping!
Normally, being outdoors is when I get to recharge and let my thoughts wander, and I couldn’t do that, so I felt like I was trapped. I felt like I was a rat in a cage being monitored and supervised. It was really the first time in my adult life that I did not feel like myself. I didn’t know who I was anymore, I didn’t know what my future held. And I think that more than anything was the hardest thing to overcome on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis.
In your book, you said that the battle for survival was in your head. Can you elaborate?
I think everyone thinks, ‘Oh, wow. You survived the accident,’ but that was one moment. The real survival was choosing to stand up for myself and choosing to keep going every day after that. I think, honestly, the really big survival for me was when I appeared normal: when I had the casts removed; when I could start to walk again after not being able to weight-bear for however many months. That’s when the recovery for me started, that’s when the survival started. Because I was still so far away from my normalcy and what I wanted to do. That’s how I defined ‘survival’ – the day-in, day-out struggle of trying to find myself.
You wrote that you found positive affirmations helpful during your recovery…
Yeah, that’s been huge. Writing, for me, has always been like a safe space – I could write anything I wanted and have no judgement because no one could read it. The affirmations took this place where I could admit my fears and say, OK, I don’t know what my future holds. I needed a place I could say all of those things to myself. The affirmations took this awesome place where I could actually start to believe. Just by writing down all these crazy goals, which I didn’t know if they were possible, they became almost attainable. The belief mantra has been a really big one that I still use today.
Since returning to racing you’ve had some incredible results, including breaking course records. Do you approach your training and racing differently?
Absolutely, I have to because my body’s not the same. I was able to discover cycling through this whole process and it’s been amazing. It’s been a way that I can give my body a break from the pounding but still get outside and have a great workout. It just keeps things fresh. And then strength training, having that as an integral part of my everyday training and rehab.
How has your mindset changed, if at all, when it comes to racing?
For me now, the cool thing is, I don’t feel pressure. Before, I thought I was only as good as my results, and now I don’t believe that at all. I think the accident was a way for me to rediscover and fall in love with running all over again, but also to realise that I’m so much more than a result. I’m so much more than a runner. Sure, I love to run, but there are so many other aspects that make a healthy athlete and a healthy human being.
A huge motivation behind the book was a focus on mental resilience and mental health because that’s something I really struggled with, and what that actually means as an athlete. It’s not just putting your head down and running through the pain all the time – I need to have fun! The happier I am, the less pressure I feel when I’m on the start line. Sure, I’ve had great results since the accident, but the difference is, I get to the start line and I’m happy to be there. And I know that no matter what happens, I still value myself whether I get last or if I get first. It’s that freedom. I don’t tie my worth as an athlete just to my race results. I know it’s so much more than that.
You mentioned discovering cycling during your recovery. You’ve actually done some pretty major gravel races since your accident?
Yeah, which is awesome! I’m going to do some more this year, maybe even Steamboat Gravel which is a race in Colorado, and I get to do Rooted Vermont in a couple of weeks.
Were you an experienced cyclist prior to your accident or was cycling new to you?
Completely new. I had never really even ridden a bike as a kid. Of course, I knew how to ride one, but it was to get to the tennis court and back or to get to school. I had done a little bit of road biking, but I didn’t really like it because it was on the road with cars which I didn’t find that fun. I used a bike to commute to grad school but that was kind of the extent of it.
Being able to learn new skills is awesome, but I think it’s pretty hard to do as an adult. Especially coming from being an elite athlete in one sport and being a total beginner in another. I’m fit, obviously. I can go uphill. But I had zero bike handling skills, and that really matters!
Does your coach, Adam St. Pierre, tailor your training to specific races or do you aim to keep a more general fitness?
Adam is such a good friend of mine. He knows I love to adventure, and whether that’s a long ride or a long run, based on what I’m training for, we kind of listen to my body. If something is not feeling right, we might swap out this long run with a ride, and I use riding to help train for my running events.
You’ve got a smart bike trainer that you use as well, is that right?
Yes. I’ve been able to work with some new sponsors for the bike, and Saris is one of them. They’re a company based out of Wisconsin, and they do bike trainers and bike racks, so it’s been the perfect addition to my routine, especially in the winter in Colorado. I actually love doing trainer workouts – people think I’m crazy, but I really like them!
I was totally expecting you to say you preferred going outside…
I definitely do, but unless it’s a sustained climb or something like that, I prefer to do it on the trainer if it’s an actual tough workout. I can then just focus on doing the effort, whereas like if I was doing it outside, there’d be a few more distractions like terrain and roads. I actually really like it.
So what do you do while you’re using the smart trainer – do you use Zwift or listen to music?
I do use Zwift, but usually, in the background, I have on a show or a movie. If it’s a workout, for the warm-up I’ll watch something and then for the actual workout, I’ll usually have music.
What about running – do you have any races in the pipeline?
Yeah, I do – hopefully! I hadn’t put any in the schedule because I’ve been trying to focus on my recovery and seeing when my body felt ready, but I’m actually out at this race called the Hardrock 100 in the San Juan Mountains in Colorado (this interview with Hillary took place at the beginning of July). I’m not doing the race, but I’m going to do the 100-mile course over 4 days starting tomorrow, kind of like a training run. And after that, if I’m feeling good, I’m actually going to do UTMB (Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc). And if I don’t feel like I should do it, I’ll do another race in Europe, probably in October!
Who are you sponsored by at the moment?
The North Face is the title sponsor for running, and they kit me out with everything from apparel to shoes to running packs. Another essential piece of equipment for runners is a watch, so I’m sponsored by Corros. I use Julbo sunglasses for running and also for biking. For nutrition, Scratch Labs is my main sponsor for cycling and running. I just love them. My specific sponsorship for cycling is Saris bike trainers.
Komoot is a sponsor for both cycling and running. It’s just this really cool route planner, which is awesome for me because I’m always training in new places. It’s really popular in Europe and is gaining popularity in the US. If I don’t know a route, I can map one out on Komoot and then I can follow the GPS tracker and make it available offline.
Out And Back: A Runner’s Story of Survival Against All Odds is available to buy now. You can follow Hillary via her social media channels: www.instagram.com/Hillygoat_climbs and www.facebook.com/hillaryallenrunner. To find out more about Hillary and read her blog visit www.hillaryallen.com.