“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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