This week’s conversation is with Hillary Allen, an endurance athlete and one of the best mountain ultra runners in the world.
Hillary’s career as an endurance athlete has not been straightforward.
Through injury, setbacks and unexpected challenges, Hillary’s had to re-think what she considers impossible.
Early in her career, Hillary earned the nickname “Hillygoat” when she proved her ability to run fast on steep, technical mountain terrain – a style of running known as Skyrunning.
Since then, she has raced all over the world, racking up wins and course records, establishing herself as one of the best mountain ultra runners in the world.
In 2017 she had a life threatening accident, where she fell 150 feet off of a ridge-line during a Skyrace in Tromsø, Norway. She was told she would never run again.
After several years of rehab and recovery, Hillary made a full recovery and returned to elite level racing, racing some of her longest and most challenging events post-accident.
She maintains the belief that ‘your best athletic days are ahead of you, if you’re willing to work hard for what you love.’
“Literally, if anyone is wondering how I did it – from being completely broken to racing and competing again – it was believing that my best days were ahead of me.”
In This Episode:
What is skyrunning?
I’m a trail runner and I’m an ultra distance trail runner who specializes in skyrunning. So trail running and ultra running, the main definition I think people are familiar, ultra running is anything more than a marathon. Typically, the barrier, the entry level is the 50k. It’s about 31 miles. And trail running is anything off of pavement. Right? It can literally be even a rail trail. It’s just a crushed gravel path. It’s just something that’s different than being on the pavement and the asphalt. But I am based in Colorado, Boulder, and I like to add mountains to the mix. So my form of trail running is a bit steeper than most. And that’s where kind of skyrunning, this other specific niche of trail running, kind of gets a little bit even spicier. Skyrunning is probably some of the steepest and most mountainous terrain that’s out there.
Curiosity as a driver
This curiosity that I’ve always had that put me down this path to science is what actually completely switched my trajectory from a career standpoint to pursuing running. And it was because I was curious about where my body could take me. When I first started running, I loved it, because I could work so hard at it and I could see that it was leading to progress and getting better. And then when I started racing, it was this whole other world. Then when I started running on the trails, I discovered this whole world of trail running, which I didn’t even know existed. And I had spent my whole life growing up in the mountains and on the trails. And so this spark of curiosity led me to question, huh? What can I do with trail running? What do I want to do with this? Do I want to use it as a form of expression? Do I want to challenge myself physically? And all those questions were yes.
Running experiments on herself
I would literally run this experiment on myself. I would say, okay, one day, you’re going to pretend that, it was normally on a weekend when I didn’t have to go into lab, that this was my life that I could… That this is what I had to prioritize for the day, this being trail running and this lifestyle. Or I would do this when I was at a race over a weekend when I was traveling to go there. And I would visualize and try to picture my life on how I would structure my day and weeks if I didn’t have to go back to lab on Monday morning. And the biggest thing with that is I would journal about it. I’ve always been a fan of journaling and writing things down. I think that’s my scientific background.
Visualization and feelings
I would just visualize what I would want my life to look like. But the main thing that I would record is how I felt. And it’s so hard because for me, as a hard scientist, as a chemist, I like black and white answers. I like, okay, this is the reaction and this is not the reaction. There’s no in between. But the beauty of neuroscience and the irony of me in a neuroscience program is someone who can be so black and white, right or wrong, is that the beauty of the brain is that we don’t really understand the majority of what’s happening in it. That, to me, gave me permission to explore these other areas in my life and give importance to them because they made me feel fulfilled. That is what life is about. I finally was able to make more steps towards pursuing this career, that was a complete 180 from what I was doing and have the courage to face that fear of the unknown, because I saw the benefit of pursuing a life that made me feel a certain way and feel fulfilled even if there was a chance of failing altogether.
What was she afraid of before pursuing running?
At first I was afraid of letting down my family and myself. But I don’t think that that’s a good enough reason to not do it. That’s why I continued asking myself the question and letting myself continue to visualize this potential career change, because I didn’t feel like that was a big enough decision to shape my life. If I was afraid of letting other people down, I was then effectively keeping myself prisoner in this decision and this lifestyle that I didn’t feel completely fulfilled by. That’s why I allowed myself to keep asking the question, why eventually I decided to pursue it is because, sure I was afraid of failing. I mean, I’m a perfectionist, I don’t want to fail, but if anything taught me in the lab, like I learned some of scientific breakthroughs were learned from the failure of experiments and the best discoveries in scientific history were learned from failure. That can seem like a very easy thing to say. It’s very different in practice because it’s your life. But I also just thought that I just had one chance to do it. I think I was more terrified of letting the opportunity slip away than I was at trying and failing.
Describing her near-death experience
The last thing I remember is I saw a friend of mine, a photographer, who was waiting for me to take my picture as I rounded this corner. He calls me “Smiler” because I’m always smiling, even when I’m in pain. I remember saying, “Hi, Ian.” And then he’s like, “Just smile for me big around this corner.” As I crossed the corner I remember stepping on a rock. And one minute I was running and then next the horizon literally had flipped on its head. Then the world went into slow motion and I realized that I was falling. I remember just hearing my own voice. I remember telling myself to take a deep breath, that this was it, that you are going to die, but do your best to stay calm and like it’ll all be over soon. That was on repeat.
Telling the story is therapeutic for her
Obviously I know what happened, but every time I tell it, I understand, although I don’t remember every aspect of it. I’m trying to come to terms with how intense this accident was, how extreme it was and yes, how lucky I am to have survived, but then also trying to draw upon this wisdom and this strength that I had. But I wasn’t aware of it at the time because I feel like, why didn’t I panic when I was falling? But instead I clearly remember my own voice telling me to stay calm, that although, I thought this was it, that stay calm. It’ll all be over soon. What I see in that is just like relax and kind of accept the reality of the situation, but still fight like hell to survive. I feel like every time I tell the story, I’m reminded of that strength and I think that’s therapeutic.
The match that lit the fire for her recovery
I was surprised how quickly I could fall into a depression so deep and vast. And how important it was to have people around you to not let that happen. But I think the first light of the fighting fire inside of me happened on day five when finally a nurse looked at me and said, “You have to fight. You can’t sit in this hospital bed and let your life slip away.” She’s like, “It starts now. You have to make that choice.” She didn’t make it for me, but she provided the ignition and the fuel, and I just had to get the match lit. That match happened the next day, where it was as simple as literally moving from my hospital bed, which I hadn’t been able to move from to then having breakfast in the chair literally right next to me.
For me, it’s about perspective. I learned this early on in my scientific training. That if you zoom out and you try to take a step back and look at the problem as a whole, it can seem insurmountable. That’s exactly what I was experiencing when I was injured and I had no idea what steps I had to take to reach this goal of, “Would I run again? Could I run again? Did I even want to run again?” I took a step back and it seemed impossible. I didn’t know how to get there. But if I zoomed in and I kept zooming in, this idea of mini goals is something that was incredibly helpful. Sometimes depending on how I was feeling, it’s zooming in as close to getting through each hour, linking together certain hours of a day. If it was painful or I just didn’t really know how to get through it, or one day at a time, a week at a time.
Her experiences with Post Traumatic Stress
I remember early on I was running on a local trail here in Boulder. It was a flat trail. It wasn’t anything steep to it. They’re practicing using a helicopter off in this field where I was running. I remember just hearing the sound of the helicopter. I just immediately fell to the ground and started crying. I had to use physical sensations. I was telling myself I was okay and not judging myself for it, and saying, “This is honestly a normal response”, because it was the first time I’d heard a helicopter that close to me since the rescue. Then it can be zoomed out into this concept of fear if I’m in a fearful situation like on a rocky ridge, if I’m trying to practice in some terrain that might bring me back there, of using techniques. Usually for me, it’s things I say in my mind to keep me calm and focused in the current moment. Not thinking in the future or thinking in the past, but being immediately in the present, which allows me to… I visualize it as I see fear as this big, scary monster. Instead of letting him control where I go, I can acknowledge fear. He still is scary, but I can walk past him without letting him deter me or scare me off of my path.
Anyone can learn from her experience
Life is not linear; it’s full of twists and turns. This was one of those turns for me, but I’m not special. I feel that. I want to push back and I want to urge anyone hearing my story to know that this allowed me the opportunity to discover strengths that I already possessed. They might have been buried deep down somewhere inside of me, but this is what allowed the opportunity for me to uncover them and use them. Then to continue using them throughout my life. I hope that it encourages other people who are challenged. They don’t have to fall 150 feet. I really don’t recommend it, but they can use whatever pivotal moment they are at in their life and use it as an opportunity to do set those mini goals; to discover how incredibly strong they are as people and how resilient we are as a human race; to make it to that next step; and then to set bigger goals.
Practice being uncomfortable
The more you practice being uncomfortable, the easier it becomes. And that’s something I had to get used to, it sounds cliche, I know. A way that people can do it, even if it’s outside of sport, is writing things down. I think that there’s a really important visualization that happens if you write your fears down, because it can become this big, scary thing in your mind, the dragon. But then as soon as you write it down or you draw the dragon on a piece of paper, it’s like, oh, this thing, it can seem a bit less scary. So I think that’s something that is a practice and it can be even a daily practice, is something I do every day.
I really am a fan of positivity and the power of self-belief and positive self-talk. And this has come in the form of mantras that I wrote down during my recovery and I’ve taken them with me today. And something that I always write is believe that your best athletic days are ahead of you. And I think you can even take out the athlete part and say, believe that your best days are ahead of you. And it’s a way to keep striving for being a better person no matter how old you are, no matter what obstacle comes your way, it’s timeless. And it’s something that I still believe. And it’s something that’s allowed me… Literally, if anyone is wondering how did I do it from being broken to racing and competing again, that’s how I did it, is believing that my best athletic days were ahead of me. And that’s what got me out of bed every morning and I kept trying when I was re-injured and when recovery was not linear, because it never is, that’s really what got me through. And I think it can be applied to anyone, athlete or not.
Rebuilding – brick by brick
It all relates to visualization for me that believing your best days are ahead of you… I always think about this. It’s weird, but I was doing this visualization of when I was really deep in the recovery process of me building a house and that it was a brick house and that every brick represented a day. And even if that brick had a crack in it or was imperfect, I would still lay it down into the foundation knowing that each day after that I’d put that brick around the broken one, it would reinforce it. And that I was building this house and that I didn’t know what it looked like, but I knew that that foundation was going to be a strong one.
Who is she working on becoming?
The simple answer would be the best version of myself. And I think about it as a recipe. I know certain things that bring out the best in myself and it’s not even running, it’s just movement, surrounding myself with a community. And for me, that can be as few as one person that I can fully be myself with. But, I mean, maybe that sounds like a cop out, literally breaking it down because, I mean, I know that tomorrow is not guaranteed. And so really focusing on how I get the most out of myself this day and adding a pinch of that or a cup of this each day so I know that I’m putting my best foot forward.