By Michele Dillon, Choose Mountains Ambassador
Hillary Allen is pretty well known now for her accident at the 2017 Tromso Skyrace. She was lucky to be alive after a 150 fall down the mountain, but she didn’t survive unscathed. After multiple surgeries, broken bones and fractures and being told running again may not be possible, all I can imagine is Hillary laughing and then seemingly turning around and bouncing back stronger than ever. Only, it wasn’t as easy as she made it look. On the outside, a lot of us watched in awe as it seemed like just yesterday she was broken but today she was getting trophies and crowns all over Strava and racing incredibly strong. But she worked hard to get back to running and it wasn’t a simple journey. Her positive attitude and inspiring work ethic got her back to the trails and that should never be downplayed. Not only has Hillary shown how she just won’t let adversity bring her down, she is also one of the nicest elite trail runners. Everyone I talk to that has met her is repeatedly saying how down to earth, supportive and genuine she is. You can see the absolute joy that she gets from being on the trails and it appears it’s just an awesome bonus that she can run up and down them really fast. As if her strength hadn’t been tested enough, she showed us once again that nothing can keep her down for long after sustaining an ankle break just this January and then 8 short months later she placed 2nd at TDS, one of the hardest, most technical and competitive courses out there. It’s no question that Hillary is a force to be reckoned with and I am hoping by conducting this interview with her, it will somehow rub some of her electric energy off on me…one can dream.
You’ve probably talked a lot about coming back from your injuries, your major one and your most recent ankle break, so let’s skip over that bit and just talk about how you always seem to be able to maintain such a positive attitude toward everything that you do. Is this something that you’ve just always been naturally prone to or do you work hard at it every day?
Yes, I have had a lot of injuries in recent years, and they have not been easy to overcome. I don't think my natural disposition is that of an optimist, more of a realist and a scientist who loves to problem solve. I usually have about 10 solutions to any particular problem so I'm full of backup plans and I'm never ready to call it quits. I think that's what allowed me to get through these injuries. Of course I was super sad and depressed and didn't know if I could get through them, but in the end I told myself to problem solve and find a way through. I'm pretty optimistic if I have a goal, even if it's super small. I had no choice but to keep moving forward and find happiness in the small progresses along the way.
There is no denying that you are an amazingly strong runner. You’ve talked about how you do strength training and mobility outside of running (which I am now a strong advocate for as well!). What foods do you strongly believe in for keeping your body happy and strong during your heavy training?
All the food!! It's important to not be hungry when you are in a heavy training load. It's incredible how much your body burns and uses and food is your best method for recovery (and sleep). I always aim for a super colorful diet and whole foods that come from the earth. I also listen to my body. If it's telling me I'm craving something, then I should eat it!
You work with a coach. Without giving any major secrets away, what’s the biggest focus for when you’re training for something like TDS?
I've been working with Adam St. Pierre for 2 years now. We have been friends since I started running ultras (my first 50 miler) back in 2014. For me and him the key is always communication. We are constantly learning about one another, especially through my injuries. Him and I both learned a lot about the power of cross training in my return to running. For a race like TDS it was a lot of mental training and believing I could be at the top again, in a distance that was new to me.
What drew you initially to the trails? Has that morphed over time?
I was drawn to the trails because I felt so free. I feel powerful too. They are full of discovery and adventure, they are constantly changing and evolving. They teach me to be the best version of myself. That's what keeps me coming back.
Did you always have a competitive drive or did that develop as you started realizing you could hold your own against other elite athletes?
I'm a very competitive person. With myself mostly. I was always wanting to get the best grades, be the best I could be. So that gave me a strong work ethic in general. I played tennis in college and I was drawn to it because the harder you worked the better you got. I liked that about school too. So when I found running, I saw a direct correlation to hard work and success. I really liked that. So when I started racing and winning It wasn't because I was trying to be super competitive, but it was because i was having fun and working really hard at something I loved. It was motivating to be a part of. So I kept at it and kept competing.
I personally feel like competing would be super stressful and I would probably spend the whole start of a race puking my guts out. How do you stay calm at the race start , especially for those with big followings such as TDS?
Honestly the days leading up to the race are the worst. I'm used to being very active so all that energy I usually expend in my training is all pent up due to my taper. So I can go a little stir crazy. But, instead I focus on rest, I journal more, I visualize the race. But by the start of the race I'm actually really calm. I'm excited to start moving and I tell myself that I get to spend the whole day running, which is really fun. All the hard work is done and I just get to enjoy and run, I get to do what I love. That's not nerve racking at all, it's really fun!
Do you ever feel like the competitiveness during a race leaks over into regular life with the athletes that you compete against? Or does all of that usually melt away after the race is over?
I think it can. It depends on the athlete, however I think in our community of ultra running is extremely connected and supported. I'm good friends with those who I compete with and it's like a reunion every time we see each other at a competition. It's very inclusive and supportive. It brings out the best in everyone I think.
You did a 200 mile bike race this year as a pretty new athlete to that specific sport. How was that experience for you compared to trail racing?
It was incredible!! I prepared for this gravel bike race in 2 short months! So my bike handling skills were non existent. Good thing I'm an endurance athlete because that definitely came in handy riding on a bike for 14 hours! I had a great team to help me learn all I could about bikes. I worked with Allen Lim, co-founder of Skratch Labs and he connected me with lots of people who had all sorts of tips about bikes. It was a really fun challenge. Super scary to get on a start line with 2000 other people and it being my first time riding in a peloton and on those technical of trails. But I rose to the challenge and it was exactly what I needed to stay focused and motivated on a new goal/adventure. The coolest part was the fact that I did another gravel bike race (a stage race this time) two weeks later and now I regularly incorporate cycling into my training schedule and plan to do more bike races next year! The gravel bike community is amazing too, I really felt at home there.
You do a Podcast for Strava and personally use it, so obviously you are an advocate. What is your favorite thing about using Strava? What advice would you give to those that struggle with using it as a comparison tool?
I use Strava to build new routes and find new runs in places I don't know. It's so great for that. I started using Strava when I was recovering from my first injuries and it was a great way to see progress. My advice to others is to not get caught up in the comparison game. It's important to realize that your training is your own and your worth is not determined by your splits.
Who in your life inspires you to be your best?
My parents. They are incredible people and they have taught me to go after my dreams. Also J'ne Day-lucore, who got me into trail running. She inspires me to go after what I love for no other reason than the love of it. Also my coach. He keeps showing up for me and I want to make him proud.
You are known for being a bit of a bug nerd, what insect is your favorite and where did the initial fascination come from?
I love bugs!! I've had this fascination with them ever since I was a little girl and my curiosity is constantly sparked by them. I think it's a major reason why I love trail running, I can always find bugs!! My favorite bug is a weevil. They have these super cool snouts that vary in length depending on the type of weevil. I've found a different type in every country I've visited!
What is the song that when it comes on your playlist, instantly motivates you to kick up your speed?
It depends on the mood I'm in and the playlist but as of late it's been this song by Yuno called "No Going Back". I'm a sucker for a good electric guitar rift. If it's not that then it's anything Led Zeppelin.
Do you have a funny story of someone getting completely star struck by you?
Ha! I don't consider myself famous at all! I like to talk to everyone and make friends. But there was this one time in Chamonix I was walking down the street and out of nowhere this woman sprinted up to me and said "You're Hillary Allen!" she was clearly running hard and was super sweaty and couldn't get two words out between gasping for air. She was just so thrilled. We took a selfie and she went on her way.
What was, to date, your favorite race you have ever ran of any distance? (Yes you can only choose one)
That is so so hard!! Honestly I will have to say TDS! It's so fresh in my mind, but it was so hard and beautiful and my longest race ever! After everything that I've recovered from, it holds a really special memory for me.
What do you look for in a training/trail partner?
The ability to suffer quietly together. I really like to talk but sometimes on a training run (especially the long ones) you need the ability to be quiet and suffer together in silence.
What your advice be for someone just getting into trail running for the very first time?
To have fun!! Enjoy it! Dream big and enjoy the ups and downs! Trail running is about the adventure, the challenge and an opportunity to learn about yourself.
What's the one question that you never get asked in an interview but you always secretly hoped to get to answer?
Ha! This is a funny question. Uummm I'm also a huge nerd soooo I'll tell you my favorite topic in school was chemistry, specifically organic chemistry. I'm also bilingual (Spanish) and have a masters degree in neuroscience and physiology and structural biology. Super NERD!