How Hillary Allen Overcame a Traumatic Injury
While recovering from a terrible accident, the ultrarunner discovered a new part of her identity that went beyond her sport
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Hillary Allen dreamed about the fall for months after it happened. The dreams were realistic, jolting her back to the mountains of Norway’s Hamperokken SkyRace last August. An ultrarunner for The North Face, Allen was on summer vacation from teaching college science classes in Boulder, Colorado, so she headed to Europe to run trail races. At the halfway point of the 35-mile course, Allen reached Hamperokken Ridge: a steep, rocky section. She excels at technical terrain—that’s how she got her nickname, Hillygoat. “I remember feeling invigorated,” Allen says. “I remember just being like, Yes, this is awesome. This is why I’m here.” But then a loose rock slipped out from under her foot. Suddenly, she was in the air, the horizon upside down. Allen heard her own voice, outside her body, calmly telling her that she was going to die, that she better brace for impact. She fell 150 feet, hitting the side of the mountain several times and passing out at some point along the way.
Another racer was the first to get to Allen, but two photographers who witnessed the fall also scrambled down. She remembers coming to with them around her, along with race director Kilian Jornet. A helicopter airlifted her off the mountain. Allen broke 12 bones in all, including two in her lower back, two ribs, and both wrists and arms. She tore a ligament in her right foot, and her left ankle was sprained black and blue. One of the Norwegian doctors told Allen she was lucky: Somehow her legs weren’t broken, and she had no internal bleeding.
In a video Allen posted on Instagram from her hospital bed in August, she talks slowly; there’s a bandage on her forehead and a metal device over her arm. “It doesn’t look so pretty…But for the most part, I’m okay, and I’m alive.” She was grateful to have survived, of course, but recovery loomed ahead, brutal and intimidating. “There were so many moments where I was like, I wish that that fall would’ve killed me because it would’ve been easier,” Allen says, a sentiment that has ebbed and flowed during the ten months since the accident.
After two surgeries in Norway over nine days, Allen flew back to Colorado. Within days, she underwent three more surgeries, one of which secured the bones in her foot with two titanium screws. The doctors told Allen she’d probably never run again. In an Instagram video she posted that week, Allen breaks down in tears: “I’m trying to hang in there.”
Allen couldn’t do much by herself at first. “In the first month, so many people saw me naked,” she says. “I was like, well, I’m not gonna get bathed unless I have help, so here we go.” She laughs, but for someone who prides herself on being physically strong and independent, it was hard to accept that she needed to rely on others. In the past, people had made comments about her not looking like a runner because of her muscles. But she’d turn it around on them: “Yeah, I’m strong, but I’m still gonna beat you.” Allen was proud of her muscles. “When I had that physical strength ripped away, it was intense,” she says.
Allen was grateful to have survived, of course, but recovery loomed ahead, brutal and intimidating.
Allen couldn’t use crutches with broken wrists, so she got a red scooter and propelled herself using her good foot. To the handlebars, she affixed a miniature Wonder Woman figurine that said in a commanding tone: “I am a one-woman army!” On Instagram, Allen posted photos of the scars on her wrists, legs, and forehead, and wrote about the highs—walking without her boot, going for her longest hike since the accident—and the lows—frustration, crying, and the struggle to get out of bed.
The injury left Allen feeling like she’d lost a substantial part of her identity. Who was she if not a runner? “Having that taken away from me was so raw,” she says. “It just left me feeling disconnected from the world. Running is one of my favorite ways to move in the mountains. When I couldn’t do that, I was separated not only from my friends, but I felt like I had lost myself.”
Allen was surprised by the intensity of these feelings. She’d always considered herself a balanced person: Running challenged her body, while science challenged her mind. “The whole reason I got into running was because I was curious about the world and curious about my body,” she says. Even after she signed with The North Face and collected other sponsorships, Allen chose to keep her teaching job, because she loves it. (Allen is still sponsored by The North Face. She says the company has been very supportive throughout her recovery: “They see my value as an athlete separate from competition.”)
The accident has shown Allen the importance of the other parts of her identity: the avid reader, the cook, the nerd, the traveler, the insect lover. “I can see a more complete and complex person beneath the brightly colored running shorts and shoes,” she wrote on her blog in February. She’s learning new definitions of strength: strength in showing up and in resting. Every day, Allen looks at a whiteboard hanging in her bedroom with some mantras scrawled on it: Did I honor my process today? Did I take care of myself today?
The decision to share the full picture of her recovery came naturally to Allen. “I feel like I’ve always been that way through social media,” she says. “I’m very smiley and very optimistic, but I’m also very raw, and I think that’s important for people to see. It’s not always unicorns and rainbows.” Her educational background—Allen has a master’s degree in neuroscience—played into the realness as well. “There’s this part of humanity and the human experience, this emotional part, that you have to allow space for,” she says. “If you shove it down, I think it can just percolate and gain momentum and come out in very unhealthy and detrimental ways.”
In November, three months after the accident, Allen went for her first jog, slowly up a hill. Don’t fall, don’t fall, don’t fall, she told herself. She could feel the screws in her foot with each step she took, but over the next few months, Allen ran and hiked local trails nearly every day. In February, though, her progress was set back by another surgery, this time to remove the screws. It happened around Valentine’s Day, so Allen wrote an ode to the little metal objects: “You came into my life abruptly. Holding me together, firmly.” After that, she couldn’t run for about a month.
But Allen slowly built up her mileage again. By April, she was running eight to ten miles at a time, starting most of her days at sunrise in the mountains, going to physical therapy in the afternoons, and teaching chemistry, anatomy, and physiology at the college on weeknights. While her cardiovascular fitness is strong, her right foot is still sore. “It’s still very debilitating,” Allen told me in April. “This is the point where I think a lot of people might reinjure themselves, so I have to really rein it in and be super cautious…I feel like I’m constantly battling my inner demons to be like, okay, how much is too much? How much is not enough?”
Striking that balance is difficult for any injured runner, let alone a professional, says David Steele, a Montana-based skier and guide who befriended Allen a few years ago at the Rut Mountain Runs in Big Sky. “The drive that pushes you to be an endurance athlete and run long distances and essentially push your physical capabilities beyond what you think your limits are to your actual limits—you combine that drive with the necessity of taking care of yourself after being injured,” Steele says. “They’re kind of incompatible in some ways.”
In late May, Allen completed her longest run since the fall: a six-hour, 27-mile summit of Pikes Peak in Colorado. Along the way, she crossed Rumdoodle Ridge, the first technical terrain she’s been on since Hamperokken. It was scary at times, but she felt fluid and in control. “I was literally brought to tears at the end of my run,” Allen wrote in an email afterward. “I was just so proud of myself for conquering the mental aspect of the ridge and feeling strong all day with the distance on my feet.” She knows she still has a long way to go, but after ten months of recovery, this was a milestone.
In mid-June, Allen raced both the Vertical Kilometer—3.1 miles with 3,100 feet of elevation gain—and the 32-mile distance at Squaw Valley’s Broken Arrow Skyrace. These were her first races since the accident, and she went into them without expectations. (She still managed a second-place finish in the VK.) Still, she doesn’t want to pressure herself to take on too much racing too soon, and she wonders whether she’ll ever be able to run again the way she wants to. “I have to keep that belief, or else I’ll give up,” Allen says with a laugh.