After Horrific Fall, Trail Runner Hillary Allen Returns to Competition

Trail runner Hillary Allen poses for a photo for The North Face

Last year, American trail runner Hillary Allen suffered a horrific fall during a 50K race in Norway and barely lived through the ordeal.

Allen played tennis growing up but began running as an escape during graduate school. Since then, top finishes at major races have been a regular occurrence for The North Face-sponsored athlete: She 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 (2016) and took third at the Transvulcania 73K in Spain’s Canary Islands.

Then she fell.

Allen was competing last August in the Tromsø Skyrace Series, which is known as a race for runners with technical trail running experience and mountaineering skills. The 50K Hamperokken Skyrace route includes 15,748 feet of climbing with exposed scrambling, high ridgelines, loose rocks and snowfields at the summits. Allen, nicknamed “Hillygoat” for her mountain running prowess, was cruising along in her element near the halfway point of the race when disaster struck.

Although she doesn’t remember what happened, witnesses say she took an inadvertent stumble on a rock, knocking her off the edge of Hamperokken Ridge and sending her flailing 150 feet down the mountain before she came to a stop in a crumpled heap.

She broke two bones in her back (L4, L5), snapped two ribs and had lacerations “everywhere” sewn together by hundreds of stitches. She broke both her arms, severely sprained her left ankle and a popped ligament in her right foot.

She had two surgeries on her left arm, one on her right and two more procedures to fix a ligament in her foot. The connecting plates in her arms are permanent, though the screws in her foot have been removed. The right foot injury, called a lisfranc fracture, means two metatarsal bones were displaced from the tarsus.

That the 30-year-old Boulder, Colorado, resident not only survived the crash but managed to grind through a challenging eight-month rehab period to miraculously race again is a testament to her courage, tenacity and her optimistic, fun-loving spirit.

We caught up with her recently to talk about what happened, what she endured and what’s next:

Trail Runner Hillary Allen poses for a photo in the snow via The North Face

Looking back on your ordeal, 14 months after the accident, can you believe what you've been through?

I can’t even put it into words. That I’ve been able to come back the way I have still amazes me. I almost died, and a year ago right now I still couldn’t walk.

There are so many ways it could have been worse. It took me months before I could walk again and six months before I could run again. And yet, just this morning, I went for a trail run and saw a rainbow as the sun was rising, something I’ve never seen before. I’m just so grateful that it’s worked out the way it has because it could have been so different.

How do you explain your ability to recover so well?

It took a lot of hard work to get here. I am grateful for the support from family and friends and from all the people who believed in me.

This morning after my run, I went to a coffee shop and I saw the bus that transports handicapped and disabled people around Boulder. That was my reality for so long. To imagine that I have come this far, that I can actually run and compete again and am now dreaming of my next adventures, almost seems like a fairytale.

Has there been a silver lining to all of this?

I have always had a mantra that everything happens for a reason and at the right time. Timing is everything. The worst thing that could have happened is that I could have given up on my running career and given up on life in general. There were several times that I wanted to. But actively choosing not to, I think that’s almost harder, is what has made everything worth it.

I’m reminded of the reasons I love to run. It’s about the freedom of movement and the ability to push yourself physically, mentally and emotionally. If I’d lost that, it would have been devastating. Hopefully I can use that revelation to inspire more people, but also to take my running in a different direction too.

You entered your first races in June, about 11 months after the injury. What was that like?

The first race back was the Broken Arrow Vertical Kilometer race in Lake Tahoe. I was just happy that I was competing, and that it was a mostly uphill race. Being out there was a huge, amazing accomplishment, but finishing second in that race was an even bigger surprise.

Then I ran the 52K race the next day, and it was a rollercoaster of terrain with some real technical spots. But the biggest moment in that event was coming across photographer Martina Valmassoi, who had been on the scene in Norway just before my fall. She was at the Lake Tahoe race taking photos at the pinnacle point of the course. When I saw her, I just started crying. It was a pretty emotional moment that really put everything into perspective.

A photo collage of trail runner Hillary Allen created by The North Face

A week later, you won a mountain race in the Dolomite Mountains of Italy.

The Dolomites are a magical place, and just being there was a special moment for me. I really had no intention of trying to run hard. I just honestly wanted to go out and experience the Dolomites on foot.

At the starting line, I had no pre-race jitters. I have always been kind of relaxed about performances on race day because you’ve already put in the hard work, so the race is all about the fun. But that race was more about a celebration of being able to put on a bib again and being able to race.

Still, though, I was scared. I was wondering if I was still an elite runner. Finishing would be a joy, but what if I was a shadow of my former self? That’s really hard, and I still have that doubt. But that’s not going to keep me from trying.

Despite all of the progress you’ve made, you’re still not 100 percent, are you?

My ankles and my feet were my most serious injuries when it came to returning to running. I suffered a really serious foot-changing injury to my right foot, and I still have pain from that 14 months later, while my other ankle was super twisted and is still weak. So, there is still a limited range of motion, and I’m still not 100 percent.

Training for races has helped push me on my continued rehab, but there is still a bit of hesitancy there. It’s been a physical limitation, but there is a mental piece I have to work on, too. It’s such a hard thing to measure. I’m not the same at all. Mentally my outlook has changed, but physically my body is different too. I feel refreshed in some aspects and maybe I have a better outlook mentally. But physically, if you measure the physical strength of my ankles and my feet, no it’s not the same.

Will the scars on your legs and arms be a constant reminder of what you’ve been through?

Yes, they are a constant reminder. Honestly, I look at them every day—especially when I’m power hiking or running uphill—and they are forever a part of me. But sometimes I forget about them, too.

I know I definitely look different, and I know when someone is staring, so that’s another reminder that they’re always going to be there. But they can also be a reminder of how far I have come, too. The scars help me not take it for granted, knowing that it could have been much worse or much different. And every day I wake up I feel motivated to keep going.

How did your accident change your outlook on life?

Running, and physical movement in general, is a huge part of who I am. We’re mammals and meant to be connected with the physical world, and that connection is my spirituality and religion in a way. When I am separated from that, I feel like a part of me is missing.

I think a lot of people have that feeling, and they’re searching for something but they don’t necessarily know how to connect with it. Even when I was living in Denver and going to grad school, one of my favorite things was running early in the morning and watching the city wake up while watching the sun rise. It’s not the same as running on the trails, but even that can be magical.

Before the accident, I thought I was balanced, but one of the big things is that I’ve learned not to take that for granted. Hopefully I will be able to inspire, educate and encourage other people to find that connection. Having that synergy in life provides such a positive impact and makes everything so much more vibrant and colorful.

A photo collage of trail runner Hillary Allen created by The North Face

So what’s next for you?

One of the main reasons I love to run is about exploration. I love to travel and I love to run cool and challenging routes in the mountains. I have been dreaming about running the Sierra High Route and other adventure running routes like that.

Also, before my accident, I always thought a 100-mile trail race was impossible for me. That’s something I thought I would never, ever want to do. But now I’m actually thinking I think I could do well at something like that. The biggest thing is that I feel like anything is possible now. I know I need to be smart and be careful, but the accident and recovering from it have given me a new outlook on life.

Photos by Brandon Joseph Baker / The North Face

By Brian Metzler. Metzler has raced just about every distance from 50 meters to 100 miles, is a three-time Ironman finisher and has been involved in the quirky sport of pack burro racing for more than a decade. He is the founding editor of Trail Runner magazine, the former editor of Competitor and the co-author of "Run Like a Champion: An Olympian's Approach for Every Runner."