How Ultrarunner Hillary Allen Found Hope After a Near-Fatal Fall

March 7, 2018

Photo: "Scars", Mike Thurk

What is it that keeps us going? When we have lofty goals, a high standard, and a desire for perfection, how do we keep moving? As an endurance athlete, I ponder this question frequently. I know the sacrifice, focus, and drive involved in pursuing something at full capacity. So what happens on the days where motivation is lacking or injury ensues? How do we find a way to keep pushing?

I was forced to learn the essence of my motivation. I was faced with the idea of never running again. A career – a way of life – over. I had a nearly fatal fall competing in a race in a previous season, an accident which left me severely injured. Luckily, I wasn’t paralyzed, however, my injuries were extensive. I broke a total of 12 bones (including my back), and I literally had to learn to walk again.

Ten days later, on the same commute, this time four miles in, a car pulled out in front of me at the end of the descent. I was going 25 mph, and I swerved hard to prevent a head-on collision. My rear wheel hit the berm of the road, and I flipped over the handlebars, landing on my head, my thigh taking the next hit on the berm. Another broken helmet, severe contusions on my leg, and a bent derailleur. I was fine, physically, but there was one noticeable change this time around—I was afraid.

The casual reader would likely take this as a sign to stop cycling, but any athlete reading this knows the next step isn’t giving up the bike—it’s figuring out how to get back on. When it comes to bikes, crashing is part of the job. But part of crashing is becoming aware of how fragile you are. Bikes are like horses, they can feel it when you’re afraid. It is inherently riskier to go into a corner shaky and afraid than it is to take it smooth and fast. But how, after being intimately acquainted with the pavement and the ER, do you shake the post-crash jitters? How, exactly, do you get your mojo back?

Couch bound for two days after the second accident, I knew I had to begin tackling my anxiety about riding before it cemented in my mind. A few years prior to this, I’d been tackling a different kind of anxiety: Panic Disorder. PTSD from being sexually assaulted by a stranger had led me to being afraid of basically everything. Exercise, therapy, and diet all played their part in my road to recovery, but the main ingredient that changed my relationship with my thoughts and allowed me to regain my calm and focus? That was meditation.

I approached meditation skeptically. It sounded hokey and riddled with the false promises of self-help. But after years of agonizing panic attacks, I was willing to try anything. After all, nearly 70% of studies investigating in-person meditation practices have shown it to alleviate symptoms of anxiety. Maybe it would work for me.

When panicking or feeling fear, there is no perceivable time between the thought and the physical reaction. So, when you think, “I’m going to crash in that corner,” your body automatically raises your heart rate and sends you into fight-or-flight. The thought becomes a physical reality to react to. And I was reacting a lot. But what meditation allowed me to do was expand the moment between a thought and its reaction. It made that sliver of time stickier, squishier, a place where I could exist and consider the thought before reacting to it. 

I had to start over, completely. I went from top, race-ready, run 50 miles through the mountains one day, to 100 % dependency (not being able to go to the bathroom for 7 days), the next day. But even in my state, I couldn’t help but think - when will I run again? How will I get there? How do I start over and rebuild?

Even without a catastrophic event or injury, growth and change are difficult to achieve. Every day since the accident, I have had some struggle with motivation, self-doubt, or incapability. Throughout the process of my recovery and return to running, I have developed a series of mantras. I keep them close at hand, to draw on in times of reservation or hopelessness, and I’ll continue to draw on them when I return to training at full capacity.

Just show up.
I used this mantra at the very beginning when I couldn’t walk or drive or perform daily tasks without help. I told myself to keep showing up, that If I kept showing up, I would become a little stronger than if I didn’t try at all. On days when I didn’t feel like getting out of bed or facing the world and its unrelenting challenges, this mantra helped me to at least give myself a chance to be better.

Do everything you can to take care of YOU today.
Once showing up became a bit easier (and sometimes it never does), I started each day with an exercise as a way to prioritize self-care. It didn’t need to be elaborate. Sometimes it meant getting fresh air, wearing my favorite shirt, or getting an extra hour of sleep. Most days involved focusing on physical therapy, good nutrition, and making sure I didn’t fall down in the shower (I still couldn’t walk at this point, and I had two broken arms). Nevertheless, self-care can easily be overlooked and simple additions to my daily routine shifted the energy of my whole day by simply asking to take care of myself.

Did I honor my process today?
This is not a rhetorical question. This mantra has been influential in shifting my approach to recovery and training. It has allowed me permission to accept where I am. Whether it was a challenging day emotionally, a tough workout, or if I was lacking physical energy, asking myself “Did I honor my process today?” allowed me to step back and give myself compassion. Every day is not an exam, it is not a measure of my worth. It can, however, be a mark, a single brick laid in the groundwork of a new house. Every brick is not perfect, nor the same, yet each one contributes to the structure and integrity of the final creation.

Control what you can.
I’m a planner. I love to-do lists, goals, and looking to the future. But what happens when I can’t have a plan, when I can’t push my body physically, when I don’t know when I’ll race again or plan my year accordingly? The ambiguity required a shift in perspective. I had to be completely focused on the present: to focus on what was immediately in front of my feet, to tackle that in small chunks and digest reality in real-time consciousness. Now, I constantly ask myself: what can I control and what can’t I control? If I worry about the things I can’t control, doubts arise, comparison ensues and I’m stuck in a reality where I’m not as good as I was, nor can I find the way to get to where I want to be. Instead, I direct my focus to the present moment and, once I tackle that moment, I move on to the next. I must focus my attention to the details of each step and trust that those individual moments constitute the greater goal.

This is powerful. This is belief in myself, my strength and willingness to try, and that these qualities can transcend hardship. Deep down I believe, if I keep showing up and continue to try, it will make me better - not just a better athlete, but better on a profound, complete level. Belief is what keeps me showing up, taking care of myself, honoring my process and not judging it. Belief is what allows me to stay in the moment and – when I’m ready – it will take me to the top once again.

What is Hillary Up to Now?
Hillary is back to all her adventures: ultrarunning, skiing, biking, and sharing big smiles! She placed 2nd for women in the 145km Sur les Traces des Ducs de Savoie (TDS) at the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB). She was the 17th woman at the 200 miles crusher Dirty Kanza - a gravel cycling event, and Hillary’s first cycling event in her athletic career.

Hillary Allen is a mountain ultra runner for The North Face and Skratch Labs based out of Boulder, CO. She has her masters degree in Neuroscience and structural biology and teaches at a local college in Boulder. Follow her on Instagram @hillygoat_climbs.

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