Catching Up With Hillary Allen

“You don’t know what génépi is?” Hillary Allen bursts, nearly coming through the computer screen with excitement. I really don’t, and she explains that it’s a liqueur often brewed at home from dried wormwood flowers. And even better, she was joined on the high alpine search for the plant by an 80-year-old French man, and her French language passed muster. He’s now fermenting the home brew and in three months they’ll divide the alcohol.

Allen’s an American Skyrunning ace, and was second at the 2019 TDS race and third at the 2017 Transvulcania Ultramarathon. She suffered a devastating fall at the 2017 Tromsø Skyrace too, but more on that later. Right now she’s living in France, and if I didn’t already know this, the old-world stone craftsmanship of her home in the background of our video chat would surely give it away.

Hillary Allen in France. All photos: Bastien Perez

Since November of 2019, Allen’s been largely settled in France, and presently in Annecy. After years of being based in the U.S. and traveling to Europe for races, she flipped the script with the help of a French passeport talent. It’s essentially a four-year visa for athletes, commonly used by Tour de France riders. “I’ve been coming to Europe every single summer I think since 2015, first for Skyrunning races. I’d teach science at a community college in the U.S. and when the school year would end in May, I’d come and do Transvulcania and then spend the whole summer in Europe. I’d extend it through UTMB, TDS, and skip one [school] semester, stay until September,” Allen related.

Allen seems really at home in France. She spoke Spanish beforehand and then immersed herself in a three-week French language program. “I didn’t speak French when I came here, but I do now,” she said with limited confidence. “I’ve made some phone calls, I had a doctor’s appointment, I got a bank card.” She joined a local cross-country team in part just for the chance to practice her French too.

Doing some French cooking.

Being in Annecy, she’s been able to assist The North Face footwear team on development of their just-revealed trail shoe with a carbon-fiber plate. And she’s dating a French athlete too, Bastien Perez. Allen’s a The North Face-sponsored athlete and her boyfriend works at a separate shoe company. She has a Colorado friend there too with yet another shoe company. I gasp at the amount of footwear tech in town, and Allen agrees. “I’ve never lived in a place this–there’s every single shoe company here–Hoka One One, Merrell, Scott, Salomon,” she rattles off.

Mushroom collecting.

The dating couple managed the strict French COVID-19 quarantine-confinement–she calls it, with a French twist on the “i”–at his parent’s rural cabin in Barcelonette. It’s just what it sounds like, Little Barcelona, though it’s not particularly close to its big brother. Barcelonette is surrounded by mountains in the southern French Alps though. “It started March 18,” Allen remembers, “and started strictly.” The couple’s out-of-the-way spot was 15 kilometers from town, and nine kilometers to the closest grocery. “It changed every week,” Allen said of the limitations, “but at first you had to sign a paper declaring your address and couldn’t leave except for mandatory work, or to go to the doctor or grocery. You could only have one hour of activity outside and not go more than one kilometer from your house and up not more than 100 meters. [The police] were checking too and neighbors all over the country were watching and turning people in.” Allen was able to run empty frontage roads and go uphill within the country’s distance and elevation restrictions. She made due with a bike trainer too.

Allen’s become an avid cyclist, especially on gravel. Gravel cycling is to road cycling in somewhat the same way that trail running contrasts to road running. Biking works with the lifestyle too and Allen has been able to go car-free since moving. It’s her preferred way to travel to a trailhead, locking her bike and switching into running shoes when at the trail, and she’s racing to get a long ride to Nice, France in before the snow flies.

Using the bike trainer to keep fit during COVID-19 restrictions.

She’ll be back in the U.S. in October, her first trip home in nearly a year. The first stop on that travel will be to record the audiobook portion of her upcoming biography, Out and Back. “I can’t have any coffee in the morning,” she says of the recording instructions, and what’s expected to be three full days of speaking. The book’s launch was pushed back from earlier this year to April of 2021. A big part of the story is Allen’s earlier mentioned fall at the 2017 Tromsø Skyrace and her recovery from it. Asked if she feels fully recovered from that accident, physically and mentally, Allen shoots back an immediate answer. “No, for sure not mentally. Some days it just doesn’t feel right. I’m scared sometimes on ridgelines, and especially exposed ridgelines. I was messed up pretty good, my ankle still doesn’t feel 100%. I’m doing what I can now, at a pretty high level, but my ankle’s just not the same, and [because of that] my motivation to run fast on techy downhills is not there.” It was the recovery from that accident that led her to cycling, as a way to more safely be outside, but she’s right about her high-level performances too. Allen won the technical L’Echappée Belle 87-kilometer race in France in late August.

The trip home will be a chance to visit family too, after a two-week self-quarantine. “I’m missing my family the most,” she admits, and then more lightheartedly, “and coffee-shop culture too. I have this place in Boulder, they know me.” Allen’s really likable, and the coffee shops in Annecy should get to know her too.

Call for Comments 

Calling all Hillary Allen stories! Leave them in the comments section.

Hillary checking out the local wildlife.

Justin Mock

is a family man, finance man, and former competitive runner. He gave his 20s to running, and ran as fast as 2:29 for the marathon and finished as high as fourth at the Pikes Peak Marathon. His running is now most happy with his two dogs on the trails and peaks near his home west of Denver.

There are 6 comments

  1. Will

    Any idea who the winners were this weekend at IMTUF? I don’t see anything on social media, but lots of fast names were signed up.
    It looks like there were some big races in Europe this weekend as well.

        1. Meghan Hicks

          Chris and Frederic,

          We hadn’t seen the results either, save for seeing via social media that Emily Hawgood and Jason Schlarb had won, until Frederic posted them. Thank you, Frederic.

          Chris,

          There is some loose methodology behind our FKT coverage: we’re covering the FKTs that the Fastest Known Time website is calling the premier FKTs for 2020 as they are the ones being more heavily tested than others. That list is for U.S. only, and so we’re taking international FKT efforts individually, asking our international team members and friends to help us cipher those which are the most competitive and historical performances.

          As for our non-coverage of races, iRunFar is an international platform, and the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting the world differently from geography to geography. We certainly entrust various regional public-health and land administrators to decide what is right for different areas in terms of what races are permitted to be held and what aren’t. However, our audience is global, and so it’s hard for us to envision sharing race stories with our whole audience right now, as many members of it continue to live where community outbreak is occurring and where racing isn’t permitted. Perhaps you can see it’s a difficult balance to strike and I’d suggest that there’s possibly no perfect answer as to how and when to cover the small, careful, appropriate races which are occurring in some geographies for an audience that includes many who are living a different existence.

    1. John

      I know Jason Schlarb won but don’t know any other results. (also I know it’s a Monday morning and we’re all jonesing for race results, but let’s not take away from this lovely interview!)

  2. Mike H

    Glad to hear she’s doing well and to see her smiling face!
    I used to see that smile occasionally in Colorado, her energy was always a boost. Either in Boulder or in the middle of races like Quad Rock or Hardrock — I remember her pacing her runner down Handies under a calm, starry night 2 years ago. Less gloriously, seeing her in Aurora, CO on campus: a professor mentioned this fellow student “Hillary” that was into ultra/trail stuff as well. One I figured that out, and another runner (Jonathan) that was also on the same floor (6) of the same building (RC2), it was comically Colorado-humbling to know that I was (at best) the 3rd-fastest on my floor at school!
    She was also probably the smartest, having pursued great mountain opportunities to her full potential around the world. Cheers, Hillygoat!

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