For as hard as it can be, trail and mountain running has some of the most stunning views going. Think bucolic and big sky vistas, snow-capped peaks and vibrant green meadows abutting lakes and rivers. But for all the beauty, some trails have hair-raising steep, technical and exposed terrain. And falls happen, but what happens when you fall, in a no-fall zone? In Hillary Allen’s case, you fight like hell to survive, smile through the tears and focus on recovery.
Allen was in Norway on Aug. 5 to run the third edition of the burly Hamperokken Skyrace 50K, part of the Tromsø Skyrace Series. Known for her infectious smile, sense of humor and easy-going way, the Boulder, Colo., resident approaches every race with the idea of having fun and not taking it too seriously, although she admits to becoming competitive once she gets to the starting line. Her first time in Norway, running Tromsø with its “mountainous but not-too-technical terrain” was more for fun and exploration than competition as Allen was wrapping up her summer racing season.
Top finishes are a regular occurrence for The North Face athlete, who used to play tennis but began running as an escape during graduate school. Allen was the U.S. Skyrunning Ultra Champion in 2014, set course records at the Speedgoat 50K (2015) and The North Face Cortina Trail Path 48K (2016), finished third in the Ultra Skyrunning World Series in 2016 and the Transvulcania 73K in Spain’s Canary Islands earlier this year, and finished first at the 55K Ultra SkyMarathon Madeira in Portugal in June.
The Tromsø Skyrace is billed as a race for “highly experienced competitors” with mountaineering skills. The 57K route includes 15,748 feet of climbing with exposed scrambling, high ridgelines, loose rocks and snowfields at the summits. But Allen, nicknamed Hillygoat, was in her element—until disaster struck.
“I remember thinking it was nothing out of my comfort zone. I was even increasing the pace because I liked the terrain,” says Allen, who was about halfway through the race when she fell. “Then I just remember this dream like state of falling.”
Allen doesn’t remember what triggered the fall. She says professional photographer and journalist Ian Corless and fellow racer Martina Valmassoi, the first two on the scene, believe a rock fell onto or under her feet, changing her momentum and knocking her off the edge of Hamperokken Ridge and down a total of 150 feet before she came to a stop in a crumpled heap.
“I just remember thinking ‘you need to brace yourself, you’re going to die,’ and trying to grab for something to stop me,” the 29-year old says. “The next thing I know I was waking up in so much pain with people around me, and my body went into survival mode.”
Allen wasn’t alone for long. In addition to Corless and Valmassoi, another racer climbed down to help her and race director Killian Jornet was quickly on the scene. She says the rescue operation was “crazy,” with doctors all around, getting stabilized and then being hoisted up to the helicopter.
“That hurt a lot because of the reverberations. I was crying and trying to talk to the doctors,” Allen says. “It was that whole process of trying to figure out if I was OK. Everyone was astonished when they found out I had no internal bleeding and no skull fracture.”
But Allen did have a staggering collection of injuries, including: two broken bones in her back (L4, L5), two broken ribs, lacerations “everywhere,” hundreds of stitches, two broken arms, a sprained left ankle and a popped ligament in her right foot. She’s had two surgeries on her left arm, one her right and a surgery to fix the ligament in her foot. The connecting plates in her arms are permanent; the screws in her foot will be removed.
With an eye towards returning to the sport she loves, the now, self-proclaimed “Bionic Woman” is most concerned about the injury to her right foot. Somehow she managed to slip out of her shoe during the fall—it was still at the top of the ridge—thus the thought that the torsion of the rock trapped her in someway. The injury, called a lisfranc injury, affects the middle area of her foot and her arch. The screws are holding together her first and second metatarsal while the foot heals.
When asked how she was doing with recovery, Allen said, “It’s up and down, honestly. It’s hard to even put into words. But, overall, I’m fine and improving every day.”
Allen has been doing physical therapy, working on core strength and pool running. As of this week she’s allowed to start putting some weight on her right foot, which is still in a boot. She says it’s been hard to go from racing and leading the Skyrunning Series (she ended up placing second overall in the series despite not finishing at Tromsø) to not being able to move. Even with the pain and hardships, she’s looking for the positives.
“The break is good. I can address physical weaknesses and come back stronger,” says Allen, who teaches physics, chemistry and biology at Front Range Community College. “Mentally, I don’t know where I am, it’s all fresh. I’m not ready to run in the mountains yet, and logically I’m not even thinking about it. This is an opportunity to make me stronger mentally too.”
What’s makes her smile right now is being back in the classroom, getting to teach and talk about science—Allen confesses she’s been a “science geek” much longer than she’s been a runner. She also said the community support, including from her sponsors and the Boulder community, has been incredible.
“People are showing up in such a genuine way, I really appreciate the honesty,” Allen says. “Everything else is pretty much a challenge.”
Allen has been vocal about ups and downs of her recovery on social media. (Check her out at @hillygoat_climbs on Instagram.)
“I’m of the belief that I won’t get anywhere unless I talk about it,” she says.
And Allen made it clear she has places to go with her Instagram post after finding out she placed second overall in the Skyrunning World Sky Ultra Series:
“I’m now even more determined to recover well so I can return to racing in this incredible series! Congrats to everyone on a great year!”