Hillary Allen has a fierce and insatiable appetite for adventure. She glows with a palpable passion when she describes her latest explorations around the globe. Allen possesses a seemingly limitless energy for adventure, and a rabid desire to summit mountains, which, jointly, will likely bind her to a life of fluid movement through mountain landscapes. Since discovering her knack for mountain running, her capacity for adventure has only increased.
Third in the 2016 Skyrunner World Series Ultra division, Allen wrapped up her 2016 racing season in Spain at Ultra Pirineu this past weekend. In the following interview, ‘Hillygoat’ talks about her nomadic upbringing, her love for science, her desire for exploration, and her curiosity about the world and her place within it.
Listen to this audio preview, and then read on to learn more about this insightful mountain runner:
iRunFar: As we talk, it will all be recorded. Just so you know, everything is on the record.
Hillary Allen: [laughs] Oh boy! This is pressure.
iRunFar: It’s the afternoon right now. You just finished teaching and you’ll teach again later on, right?
Allen: Yeah, so I had a class in the morning and I’ll have another class in the evening. Usually my schedule is classes on Tuesday and Thursday. I basically work 15-hour days if you count my run in the morning until I get home at night. It’s just two days a week, so it’s perfect [laughs].
I teach at Front Range Community College. It’s here in Longmont, close to where I live in Boulder, [Colorado]. I’m teaching chemistry and physics at the college level. So, it’s pretty awesome. I have a degree in organic chemistry, so the chemistry is pretty easy. I’ve taken a bunch of physics classes. It’s fun. It’s science. I just love it [laughs].
iRunFar: You have a graduate degree then, too?
Allen: My undergraduate degree is in organic chemistry. Graduate school—well, technically my area of expertise was neuroscience, but I use biochemistry, organic chemistry, physics—all of that.
iRunFar: How long have you taught at the community college?
Allen: About a year, not that long. I just got my master’s degree last summer. I taught in graduate school. I’ve taught before. I really liked that aspect of it, trying to motivate the next generation of scientists. I obviously love research, but there’s a human aspect to it that’s missing. It’s really fun to interact with people and try to get them excited.
iRunFar: Where did you go to college?
Allen: A small liberal-arts school in Iowa called Coe College. It’s named after the guy that founded it. It’s in Cedar Rapids. I grew up in Fort Collins and was like, Screw you Colorado State University, I don’t want to go there! Because both my parents teach there. My dad is a professor in biochemistry and nutrition and my mom is a parasitologist.
iRunFar: You weren’t influenced at all growing up.
Allen: [laughs] No, actually they tried not to influence me. I loved science since I was like—I don’t know, since I first started speaking. Actually my first word—I used to really like bugs, I still do—but my first word was “miller moth.” Like what [laughs]? So I’m a pretty big nerd.
So yeah, I got an academic scholarship to go to this liberal-arts school. The reason that I went there was that I could do this undergraduate research in chemistry because I knew that I wanted to be a chemist. I also got a tennis scholarship to play tennis there, so it kind of worked out. Tennis was on the Division-II circuit, now I think they’ve downgraded to DIII. It was awesome. Well, except for the Iowa part [laughs].
iRunFar: You were good at tennis.
Allen: Yeah, I mean, I worked pretty hard at it. I was a late bloomer. I tried every single sport and then settled on tennis and just worked my butt off. Yeah, tennis was it for a while. It was intense. We were top 20 in the nation. I went to regionals and nationals.
iRunFar: Did you play competitively after college?
Allen: I did. I moved to Denver for graduate school after college, I tried to join some competitive leagues—some 5.0 tennis leagues—and tried to play in some competitive tournaments. I tried to play, but it just got harder and harder.
iRunFar: Were you ever ranked as a professional or anything like that?
Allen: No. I mean, I was ranked in the nation, in the United States, for junior players before I went to college and that kind of stuff. But I was never on the pro circuit for tennis.
iRunFar: Was that light years away from where you were? Or was it maybe five years of really hard work away?
Allen: [pause] You know that’s an interesting question. I have no idea. I don’t think that thought ever crossed my mind because I wasn’t—tennis was never it for me. I loved it, but it wasn’t like—I’m going to compare it to running. Running, when I started trail running, it was this feeling of full abandon. Tennis, I loved it, but there was still this feeling of, meeeeeh. I worked hard at it and I was definitely committed, but it was missing that ‘I really love tennis.’
If you ever read anything by Andre Agassi, that dude hated tennis but he was really good at it. For me, if that motivation is lacking in any way, to really commit my life to it, I wasn’t willing to do it. Science has always played a huge part. I knew that I wanted to go to grad school and I wasn’t willing to put all my eggs in one basket in that sort of sense. Who knows, maybe I could have done it. I don’t know though, I think I was just missing that full love for it.
iRunFar: Was it tennis you played as a kid then?
Allen: I played very sport, but it wasn’t until ninth grade that I committed to tennis. I was a little tomboy: I played basketball, softball, soccer, and flag football. I was one of those girls. It wasn’t until high school that I played tennis.
iRunFar: In playing all those sports as a kid, were there ever any indications that you’d be an endurance athlete?
Allen: Actually, yes. I had this incredible record in college. Every time it went to three sets—we played best two out of three sets—I never lost, ever. The whole time I played in college. Ever! For a third set. Obviously I lost tennis matches, but if it ever went to a third set, I never lost it. I always had more endurance than the other person.
iRunFar: Wow. It was probably a combination of endurance and mental fortitude.
Allen: I’m stubborn [laughs], oh yeah. I would run down every ball and it was this mental attitude—I was confident. I thought, Throw whatever you’ve got at me, I’m going to hit everything back and walk away with this [laughs]. But no, it never occurred to me that I was going to be a distance runner. In college, I had no idea that trail running was even a sport. Even in grad school, when I moved to Denver, I had no idea that ultrarunning and trail running were a thing. When I found out that someone could run 30 miles, I was like, You’re fucking crazy! Why are you doing that? Then it wasn’t long before I did my first 20-mile trail run and I was like, I bet I could go further!
iRunFar: Talk about some of your other interests outside of tennis and running.
Allen: Well I think they all go along with this curiosity theme. Science, I’ve been a scientist since the beginning of time. Entomology, the study of bugs—I still have an insect collection. This is so nerdy [laughs]. I still love to go and camp and look at bugs. Any place I travel, I’m always looking for the bugs there.
iRunFar: Why bugs?
Allen: ‘Cause they’re just so cool! They tell you so much about an ecosystem and the health of an environment, and they’ve been around since the beginning of time [laughs]. They’re just so cool, we could learn a lot from them.
Besides chemistry and physical science, neuroscience is another huge interest. That sparked my interest after my undergraduate degree. You know, how the brain works. I’m a very biophysical, hard-scientist kind of person. But there’s something about what makes us human—the more emotional, not rational—that thing that pushes us to do things, the stuff that’s kind of unexplainable. You know when you’re in an ultra race and you’re going through these highs and lows, it’s based on a physical state but it’s still this raw emotion where if someone says “hello” you start crying and you can’t explain it [laughs].
Other than that, I like to sing. I used to be in the chorus. I still sing. My friend writes songs and we’ll go up and sing harmony. That kind of social stuff. I like to camp. Fastpacking, I’ve gotten into that. I constantly like to discover and create new hobbies. Oh! Rock climbing, I just got into that. Skiing. Backcountry skiing. It’s all toward a bigger goal maybe, like building mountain skills, but it’s about letting myself have other interests and seeing where it takes me.
Traveling is a huge one. Oh my god, I love to travel. I’ve spent two months in Europe this summer and one of the months was in Spain. I was lucky enough to do study abroad so I can speak Spanish fluently. I don’t know if you call that a hobby…
iRunFar: It’s an interest, yeah. Anyone that I talk to—anyone who has interest in travel—has some sort of impetus from their past. What was it for you?
Allen: Yeah, even before I started traveling internationally, my family—we’re a pretty outdoor family—I grew up camping. I was camping before I could walk. I was in one of those BabyBjörns, weighing my mom down [laughs]. My mom and dad were working at university so they had the summers off. We’d go on these big trips around the United States in our little camper. We’d go everywhere. I’ve been to almost all of the 50 states just camping. That traveling—obviously we love Colorado, that’s why we lived in Fort Collins, the Rocky Mountains, there’s something special about them. But there’s also something special about seeing other places. I became interested in exploration through other cultures and the people that live there. We’d go to Mesa Verde, New Mexico, and this kind of stuff. I understood that these places were beautiful but they also had this cool culture associated with them. In high school, we would go to Costa Rica for spring break.
Then my aunt and uncle, they don’t have children, so they took my sister and I to Alaska or Aruba, and I just really loved it. So I made the effort to travel and I studied abroad in college in Spain. That’s nearly impossible to do with a chemistry degree but I made it happen. Especially since I was playing tennis. I double majored in organic chemistry and Spanish. When I was in Spain, I traveled every single weekend and in around Spain itself. After that I made an effort every year to go back as a vacation. I would just take myself to Europe or some other place. I still continue to travel around the United States because there’s a lot to explore here.
iRunFar: I can see how trail running fits into your life, given your background and your interests and just who you are.
Allen: Yeah [laughs]. Definitely. I always describe scientists as being really curious. I’m really curious about how the world works. Maybe the second word out of my mouth besides “miller moth” was “why.” “Why does the world work like this?” Asking these questions. That brought me to science but it also brought me to trail running. I was curious—I, first of all, loved it—but I was curious about distance and how my body could handle that. And then I was curious, Oh, over there in this mountain, and, What are the Grand Tetons like?
That’s where travel comes in, right? I consider traveling—my favorite place is down the road here, Rocky Mountain National Park. You know, that’s exploration, that’s traveling. Then I’m super friendly; I could talk to anyone [laughs]. So the people you meet along the way, being open to those experiences. That relates back to that emotional piece of what makes us humans, and these things that I want to do to make me happy, but it also helps me to be a more productive person, to be outside and running. I can explain that from a neuroscience perspective, but there’s also this intangible, emotional piece to it too. I know everyone feels it when they go for a run. But we can’t really [laughs]—it’s not tangible. But everyone in the community, I think, resonates with that, that’s kind of why they run, right?
iRunFar: Right. You can say objective things about a run but when you do it, there’s a dimension to it that you can’t describe in those objective terms.
Allen: Yeah I know, right? People ask me, “What do you think about when you run?” I’m like, “Uuuuh, I don’t really know, but it was great. I thought about a lot, not exactly one thing, but I feel good [laughs]!” That’s what I like about being outside, and specifically trail running, because I can use my objective and emotional sides and be a whole person.
iRunFar: Did you start running to stay in shape for tennis?
Allen: I did a little bit. We did mostly sprint work. When I first started running it was no more than three or maybe five miles. I ran but that isn’t distance running. It’s actually quite funny. I tell people that I started in graduate school. Tennis has so many moving parts to it and running is just simple. But actually, when I moved to Denver, I didn’t have anyone to run with. I found this group online and they seemed like a bunch of really nice ladies. I met with them three days a week. Turns out, these ladies—I was what? 22 [years old] or something? These ladies were all mid-50s and I was running with them three times per week. There was a track workout, a tempo workout, and then a long run. These ladies were Olympic Trials marathoners in the 1980s, and they were still killing it, right. One of the runs was on the track, which was great because you can go your own speed. But they were really good at encouraging me. This one lady, Janie Day, she had the records on Pikes Peak Ascent and Mount Washington in the ‘80s. She’s the one that encouraged me to go on the trails. We’d run hill workouts in the city and she could see that I had a knack for running uphill. She kind of took me and put me out on a trail and was like, “Go run, Hillary!” And after that it was literally game over. I was like, “This is amazing! You can run on trails?”
Then she wrote me a training plan for Moab Red Hot 55k. After that I was living in Denver and still going to grad school and I was driving out to the foothills, leaving at four-thirty in the morning to go run before I had to go back to Aurora for work—I was going to University of Colorado-Denver for grad school but the medical campus is in Aurora. Every weekend I was on the trails and then finally I moved to the foothills and that was it.
iRunFar: So how did you do at that first trail race?
Allen: Oh I did horrible [laughs]! Not horrible but I think it was six hours. I walked a bunch—I hadn’t gained my nickname ‘Hillygoat’ quite yet, so I was still afraid of uphills. I just wanted to see if I could finish. I didn’t do another trail race—because grad school was super busy—until the next year. Then I ran Moab again and I think finished in 4:52—over an hour better—and got third or something. That was my first season, and that was when I really started trail running. Still living in Denver, I was road running and not running too much, but in 2014, that was when it started. I did my first 50-mile [race].
iRunFar: Which race was that?
Allen: That was Bighorn.
iRunFar: I’m trying to figure out how this happened exactly. You start running trails and then your first two races are ultras?
Allen: I had run a road marathon before. This is really funny [laughs]. I ran the California International Marathon. It was like 3:15. So I thought, Okay, cool, I can do longer trail races. Obviously I was living in Denver and I didn’t know—I wanted to see if I could run a sub-three hour marathon. This was after Moab 55k when I wasn’t running trails very much. I did loops around Washington Park—it’s a park in Denver. It’s like 2.5 miles around. I took the inside loop on the road and did a supported run. I think it was 2:50:30 or something.
iRunFar: So you ran a marathon around a 2.5-mile loop?
Allen: Yeah! This was before I was really training for trail running. I think it’s hard to run a lot of vertical with flatter and faster stuff. So I was doing low volume with a couple tempo workouts. I really wanted to see if I could break three hours. Then after that I was like, Okay, I’m done. I quit running roads and I’m going to the foothills. It was terrible. Actually I’m surprised I’m still running. If it wasn’t for Janie and them taking me to the trails—this happened after that road-running stuff. Road running, I didn’t really like it at all. It wasn’t fun. I would like it when I was done. But I never got that feeling of full abandon. I guess that’s more of the thing. I tried my first trail race in, was it 2013? I’d have to look. But I was still living in Denver and I was still running on the roads with those ladies, and I liked the trails, but Moab trails are kind of different—there are roads and stuff so it wasn’t exactly a trail race. After that road marathon I was burnt out, and that’s when Janie took me to the trails and told me to try it. That’s when I started trail running more. After the winter I was like, Screw this road stuff. I’m going to move to the foothills and I’m going to start trail running. That was the transition.
iRunFar: Did you move to Golden or where did you go?
Allen: I was in Lakewood at first; I had a boyfriend. Then we broke up and it was Golden and now I’m in Boulder.
iRunFar: I’m still trying to figure out this transition from road running to trail running to ultrarunning. It sounds like once you got onto the trails you started running ultras.
Allen: Yeah, that’s not exactly my personality; I’m a very logical person. I’m conservative. I don’t want to race too much; I don’t want to do too much. I still haven’t done a 100 miler—I don’t just want to jump into that distance, if ever, who knows.
But I was thinking about it, and the first place that really inspired me to trail run was Tuolumne Meadows in California. I was visiting a friend and we were camping. There was a 30k trail race outside Yosemite. I was like, Well I’ve run 30k before, I can do this. I did that run and that was my first trail run. In my mind, if I could do that, I could walk another 10 miles—because I heard that in ultras you could walk [laughs]. So that was more my logical progression. And, like I said, I had done a marathon on the road before, so those two things got me thinking that I could do an ultra on the trails.
iRunFar: What was it about Tuolumne Meadows that drew you to the trails?
Allen: I remember there being a tangible shift. After this, I moved home and was like, Fuck living in a city. I remember waking up and having this quiet morning watching the sunrise, and I felt this pull toward something. Looking out onto the trail, it was all to myself, and I had this urge to run. It was this feeling that I had never had, that I never got while road running. There’s something about it: the John Muir Trail, and his motto about nature and wilderness and your connection to it. There’s something that connects us to the world as human beings, we’re drawn to the outside world. And I felt that, all in this one moment: Yep, trail running, that’s what it is [laughs]. I still didn’t know that ultras were a thing—it was just running on the trails.
It’s interesting. In tennis, I told you, I had this crazy record in college with third-set matches. I knew I had this endurance. I thought it was just because I was stubborn. When I got interested in trails, I ran into ultrarunners. I learned about ultrarunning. I got interested in knowing how far my feet could take me. I was curious how far I could go. I never was really attracted to 100 miles because that didn’t seem like a logical jump. But, you know, could I run up a fourteener? If I saw a cool peak, could I get there? I kept pushing boundaries like that. Even growing up in Fort Collins, I had never done any big mountains. But once I got into running trails, all these things were open to me—my two feet could take me there. I was just so curious and excited about it. I was never concerned about the time and I was never in a hurry. I just wanted to get there. I enjoyed the grind of uphill. It astounded me that I could camp in a valley and look at the top of these mountains and then go run up them in a few hours. It opened up a whole new world physically, but also just as a person: it challenged me and taught me, and showed me these strengths I didn’t know I had. It helped me in many different ways. And then, obviously, this is maybe the logical progression, but I did a 50k, and then figured I could do 50 miles so I signed up for one…
iRunFar: And here we are.
Allen: [laughs] Here we are. I finally did 100k this year. But I think I’ll stick around that distance for a while, I’m not in a hurry.
iRunFar: When did you realize you were good at this?
Allen: [laughs] I think at my first 50-mile race, Bighorn. I ended up setting a course record. I never envisioned that I would have this opportunities to travel around, but I always envisioned running as a way of exploring. To be a part of The North Face team, that was never my goal! Ever. But after that race I thought, Maybe I’m kind of good at this. I guess I’ll sign up for more races. Once I figured out racing, it was so cool because I can go to this new place, there’s food on the course, awesome [laughs], and I don’t have to worry about navigation. I could just explore it. I did Speedgoat in 2014 and people said I was good at the uphills—I have this nickname ‘Hillygoat.’ I was looking for new challenges and I found Skyrunning. Shortly after Speedgoat, my friends in Montana told me to run The Rut. I fell in love with that style of running and completed the whole series in 2014. I won the U.S. Skyrunning series that year.
I still feel like I’m just figuring it out. I feel like a girl who loves the mountains. I don’t think of it as a job. I think of it as an opportunity. I know I’m not the best, but that’s okay because there’s always room for improvement. I’m going to try my best. But the point is to challenge myself.
iRunFar: You’ve mentioned this sense of abandonment on the trails.
Allen: I think people have this common story that trail running saved them. I resonate with that as well. I was pretty depressed, grad school is really taxing, and I definitely wasn’t the healthiest person in terms of taking care of myself. Running was a way that I could just be free. I could focus on the smells, the wind on my skin, the sun on my face, and just play. I could play, relieve the stress, mull it over in my mind while I was running. So it was that full feeling of abandon during the run and then afterward it just carried over, its effects, and helped me prioritize my life in terms of being productive in a work sense, but also taking care of myself and getting enough sleep, eating well—just continuing this forward process. I think it helped me to establish equilibrium. Like paying more attention to myself as a whole person, not just as a runner or as a scientist.
iRunFar: It sounds like you needed a feeling of abandonment to establish order.
Allen: Yeah! That’s exactly what it was, and is.
iRunFar: Presumably you won’t run forever. Let’s hope you do, but if you don’t, and that’s not there—is that something you think about?
Allen: Absolutely. That’s most definitely something I’ve thought about. Especially with endurance sports, injuries are quite prevalent. I’ve been injured before; last year I had a bad injury and I couldn’t run. You know, injuries teach me so much about myself. Like I said, balance. When I was injured, I was so depressed because I couldn’t run. I had to get myself out of my comfort zone and I started rock climbing and cycling and skiing more.
The common denominator in that is being outside. I have this love for connection with the wilderness—I think that’s part of that sense of abandonment feeling with running. Running is my favorite expression of that, however injuries force me to have personal growth, or just rest, or connect with—find new ways of self-expression, and there’s growth within that. It’s really hard, but it’s giving myself permission to find other interests. I really like skiing, and rock climbing has been kind of fun, and fastpacking, and stuff like that. We’re always on the cusp of something, right? So I’m always going to be outside in some capacity. I hope it’s running for a long time, but, yeah… for me it’s taught me to love being outside. I can still get the runner’s high riding my bike, or definitely skiing, or going on a walk.
iRunFar: You had a crazy summer. You spent several months between Portugal, Italy, and Spain and you were racing a bunch over in Europe. You even finished second at the Ultra SkyMarathon Madeira 55k. Was this the first trip of that kind for you?
Allen: Yeah it was, especially being an athlete and running—the reason I was there was to train. It was to train and to recover. Obviously, there’s a cultural aspect to it. However, how I experience that culture is through running and the people I meet there and the outdoor culture. It’s definitely the first trip of that nature and there are some things I would do differently next time. I hope to do it again next year. It was the best way for me to do it. It didn’t make sense for me to fly back and forth for every race in Europe during the summer—it would leave me too tired.
iRunFar: What would you do differently next time?
Allen: I would make sure to have a home base the whole time. I had a home base while staying in Italy but not while I was in Spain. I think that left me extra tired. That’s really what I like to do: I love to travel, I love to see as many places as I possibly can, but I also like to get to know a place intimately. I think the best way to do that is to stay in one place for a bit. You know, talk with the locals, and get routes from them. The locals have lived there their whole lives and they know these routes and mountains and ridgelines. Then I would get to races in Europe from the home base and return back to there.
iRunFar: I’m sure after finishing on the podium in the Ultra division of the Skyrunner World Series, you’ll have that opportunity again.
Allen: [laughs] We’ll see!