Interview with Hillary Allen: Keeping life balanced

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Balancing Recovery, Running, Travel, Science and Life: An Interview with Hillary Allen

Boulder, Colorado, USA

Hi Hillary, how’s it going?


I’m great! Thanks for askingl

We were so sorry to hear about your accident in Norway last summer, it sounded like every runner’s worst nightmare and a very tough time. So it’s great to see you on the mend on your Instagram feed. How are you?

Well, it’s been quite a journey. To say I’m well, feels a bit over simplistic. But, that’s how I am. I’m well and happy! I’ve been working incredibly hard to get back to what I love -moving in the mountains- and after what happened in Norway I feel overwhelmed with joy and fortunate to be able to move in the mountains again. I’ve learned a lot through this journey, and it’s been THE most difficult time in my life, but I’m still grateful for the opportunity to learn and grow.

A few months ago you shared a personal and thought-provoking blog post (‘Who am I – without running?’). How has your experience in Norway (and subsequent recovery) changed your outlook on running/life?

Oh, absolutely it has! And at the same time, it hasn’t! I truly love running and it holds a special place in my heart and a priority in my life. It’s how I connect to the world, myself and others. So to have it be taken away from me -without warning- was traumatic. Of course, there is always the fear of losing sponsors or not being able to compete again, but that wasn’t my concern. I just missed running! I longed for it, I needed it. I think I was surprised by how much I felt was missing from my life when I couldn’t do it. So, that’s great – that I love running – but it’s also dangerous when I have so much tied up into it.

I can’t define myself simplistically, by one thing that I do. I’m so much more than that. The article was an opportunity to put those thoughts down and challenges others to do the same. I have a masters in neuroscience and I also teach chemistry, physiology, anatomy and biology at a small college. I’ve been a scientist longer than I’ve been a ‘runner’ and in many ways, being a scientist got me into running. I was curious. I’ve kept this job and science as a priority throughout my career as a runner, so I didn’t expect to fall into a deep depression and self-loathing state when I couldn’t run.

I thought I was balanced. So this experience gave me the opportunity to re-discover these other aspects of me and to nourish them. Of course, at my healthiest self, I will be able to do all of them, but this accident and recovery process has helped me to re-prioritize my many interests. It’s been a great lesson.

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Photo Credit: Ian Corless

Could you share any advice to other runners going through a long period of injury?

Know that it will end and know that injuries come back again. It’s an opportunity to learn about yourself. Patience is a virtue (although not one of mine . . . maybe with enough time it will be). Also to reach out to others that can relate to you and to talk about it! To not catastrophize or think that it will all be ok if you could only get through the injury and run again – it won’t! You have to figure out why you are so sad. To deal with the mental issues so that when you are injured or have to rest again, you are better equipped to do so.

We heard you’ll be in Squaw Valley for the Broken Arrow Skyrace this year (we’ll be there too – we’d love to meet up!). Will you be running or cheering?!

That’s so exciting!! This is a race I’ve been dying to come to, but I’ve always been in Europe!! So yes, I will be there and I will be competing. Well – maybe. I’ll be doing the VK and trying my best, so yes, racing. But then I’ll be doing the 50km as a fun event for me to see if I can handle the distance, to get my feet wet. I don’t want to put any pressure on racing since I want to enjoy the process and not have any pressure. Every day is a new achievement and my body is responding slowly but surely. Some days I’m in a lot more pain than others and if that happens in squaw, then I’ll still try my best and see how far I get. I love this community and want to be immersed in its warmth again.

Know that it will end and know that injuries come back again. It’s an opportunity to learn about yourself. Patience is a virtue…

Let’s go back to the beginning… when and why did you start running?

I got into running out of curiosity. I was in graduate school at the time, still playing competitive tennis, but longing for a less time-consuming and simple release. I found a running group of ‘old lady crushers’. One of whom was J’ne Day -Lucore, who held the record on the Pikes Peak Ascent and the mount Washington ascent in the 80s. The other ladies, who were in their mid-50s were still crushing it and super fast. I would run with them 3-5 days a week at 5am in the morning. I loved it. Then J’ne coached me to my first road marathon using trials as my Sunday recovery run . . . I could play on the trails and it was so much fun. No matter how tired I was I felt like I could play out there. This was 5 years ago. I never even knew ultra running was a ‘thing’ 5 years ago. So when I started running trials 4 years ago it was a whole new world of discovery, adventure, playfulness. That’s how It all began, and how I’d like for it to continue. Being curious, playful, adventurous. That’s why I started running and it’s why I continue to run.

hillary allen interview - trail and kale 02-min
Photo Credit: Ian Corless

Could you describe your ideal race (let us know if it’s real or fictional, and describe details including the location, climate, terrain and duration)

I like technical running, steep ups steep downs, some scrambling and some rolling terrain where I can open up too. I like route driven courses. It doesn’t matter the exact distance as long as it’s a cool route. I think adding on loops to make a race exactly 50km is rather silly. If It’s a cool route and it’s only 48km, then that’s it. I love to travel so incorporating that is ideal. Some really cool races I have run are on coastal mountains where you can just climb and climb and climb straight from the sea. Every race is different so ideally, I would like to explore as many as I can and I’ll give you my notes along the way

What is your approach to training? Do you follow a particular training plan?

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I have a coach. Adam St. Pierre. He is a good friend and super knowledgeable coach. I don’t have a problem with motivation, so I’ll always be out, what I need from a coach is for him to tell me when to rest and when to do a workout. I don’t have a long history of workouts or running, so he gives me the structure I need and the freedom to play. It’s a subtle balance since I need to have both to be at my best.

We value balance in life, and it can be difficult to get enough training in alongside work and other commitments. How do you fit training around work?

Balance is so important. It can be really hard to balance work, training, eating, sleeping, recovery and a social life. I have a hard time with it sometimes. I end up just training, recovering, sleeping and having a limited social life. I’m a lone wolf at heart, but I try to incorporate a social life with the running community and with the students I teach. I also joke that I’m an old lady, so I have a different friend group than most 29-year-olds.

I love to get up at 5 and get out the door first thing. So I tend to have older friends who like to do that with me. My coach is one of those too since he has a family as well. Once I’m up I keep going all day. I teach night classes, so that means I have the whole day to cross train, do strength AND prepare for my teaching job. Classes generally go from 5pm to 9pm (since they include laboratories. . . . they are science classes after all). So I’m doing things at a pretty strenuous level from 5/6am until 10/11pm at night.

So the main sacrifice for me is sleep and social life. But I think balance is relative. If you are happy and feel fulfilled then you are doing things right.

hillary allen interview - trail and kale 06-min
Photo Credit: Mike Thurk

I wouldn’t be happy just running, I’m so glad I have my students and my classes. It’s something I look forward to every day, even when I’m super tired, I always find the energy. Science is cool in that way.

What adventures do you have lined up for the rest of the year?

I’ll be at Broken Arrow Sky race then head straight over to Italy. The north face has a huge event at Lavaredo in Cortina, Italy and I’ll be over there to do a speaker series and to crew for the team of athletes we have running the race. We’ll see if I hop in something. I’m there for 2 weeks to explore the Dolomites (they are my favourite) and then I’m off to Alaska. I’ll be spectating and eyeing up the course at Mount Marathon. I want to do it someday.

Then back to the lower 48 to pace my coach Adam at Hardrock 100! I also want to do Softrock (do the course in 3-4 days or so). Then to Big Sky for a run the rut training camp and maybe to California to do some camping/running out there in the Sierras. I don’t have plans to race yet, but who knows how I’ll feel in the fall!

RELATED: Lavaredo Ultra Trail: A Running Adventure in the Dolomites, Italy

What is your feast of choice to fuel your mountain adventures?

Carrots!! Haha, these are my favorite food! Lots of fresh fruit (I love to bring these along on the trails). But after a long run, I love to cook with fresh vegetables, spices, rice and to kick my feet up and relax. I also love trying new foods where I travel. Just as long as there are carrots!!

RELATED: The Best Real Food for Trail Running

What advice would you give to a new trail runner?

To go out there and explore. To have fun and enjoy it. Be curious as to where your two feet can take you and just go!

hillary allen interview - trail and kale 04-min
Photo Credit: Greg Mionske

For other trail runners looking to spend a weekend in/around Boulder and exploring the trails around your town, where would you recommend they go? [this is a very self-interested question 🙂 ]

I can’t tell you my favorite spots!! Haha just kidding. Boulder offers a bit of everything. Since I love steep, Shadow Canyon to South Boulder Peak (the tallest peak right outside of Boulder) is my favorite. But other favorites of mine are Walker Ranch especially if you run into it from Eldorado Canyon. Some of my other favorite open spaces around Boulder are the Indian Peaks, White Ranch outside of Golden, and the Lost Creek Wilderness.

What is your must-have bit of trail running gear?

The North Face Flight series jacket. Especially when I’m going up high, I never leave my house without one.

hillary allen interview - trail and kale 07-min

Could you recommend a great running/adventure book?

I love to read, and not just about running. But my favorite running book is by Bernd Heinrich called Why We Run. That and Deep Survival by Lawrence Gonzales.

[Speaking of books, check out the Trail & Kale curated list of The Best Running Books for Adventure Lovers]

Finally, could you tell us a great running-related scientific fact?!

Ha! Oh, I love this!! So, there are a bunch, but one that really resonates with me is the mental and physical strength that each of us possesses. That even when our bodies are telling us to quit or that we can’t do it, or those initial feelings of being tired – we really are only at about 40-50% of our ability. Meaning we have a lot of capacity left to keep going!!

So, we can train our bodies, but it’s even better if we can train our brains to acknowledge these thoughts and bypass them. Who knows how far we can go.

Social media links:

Thank you!

Thank you, Hillary, for taking the time to answer our questions. Wishing you all the best in your recovery journey back to 100%! We’ll be running the Broken Arrow Skyrace 26km race, so will keep an eye out for you in Squaw Valley! 🙂

Happy Trails!

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