How can we adapt when all we think we are changes? The human body is at once amazingly resilient and terribly fragile. A single blow that might only bruise one person can kill another. Someone walks away, unhurt, from a horrific accident that would kill 99.9% of the population. The psyche is no less amazing–and fragile. Meet Hillary Allen:
The voice in Hillary Allen’s head announcing her imminent death was eerily calm.
Okay, Hillary, you’re about to die. Brace yourself. This is it.
There was no panic, nor pain, as she floated above the scene of her ragdoll body tumbling down the side of a mountain. The only sensation was pressure—a swift kick to the chest every time her body slammed against a granite boulder.
‘It was a fall then a bounce, then another fall and then a bounce, over and over,’ Allen says. ‘I was grabbing at things, trying to stop the momentum, but I just kept falling. I could feel my bones breaking.’ Her battered body finally came to a stop 150 feet below the spot where the trail had inexplicably given way.
People in terrible accidents tend to either experience time dilation–it’s like watching oneself in slow motion–and remember everything, or black out and awake hours, or days, later in the hospital. There doesn’t seem to be much in between.
Moments before, the 29-year-old elite ultrarunner had just reached the halfway mark of the Hamperokken Skyrace 50K, part of Norway’s Tromsø Skyrace series. She’d moved into third place and was feeling strong and completely in her element on the steep terrain (Allen’s nickname is ‘Hillygoat’). The mountain scenery was stunning atop Hamperokken Ridge, the most jagged, narrow and technical part of the course, and she scrambled across the craggy rocks with a huge smile on her face, in a state of bliss.
‘Then before I knew it, I was tumbling upside down in slow motion,’ Allen says.
It wasn’t until her body came to rest that the pain arrived in ‘extreme pulses’ that led her in and out of consciousness. ‘I remember screaming and kicking, and people trying to prevent me from moving,’ Allen says. ‘We were on the edge of a cliff, and one guy was bracing me so I wouldn’t fall more.’
It took two and a half hours for the rescue helicopter to get her off the mountain and to the nearest hospital, where she learned the extent of her injuries. She’d broken 12 bones, including both wrists, a couple ribs and two vertebrae in her back. She had a concussion and deep lacerations all over her body that needed to be surgically cleaned and closed. She popped a ligament in one foot and severely twisted her other ankle.
Obviously, she survived, but the real battle was only just beginning:
It took me a couple of days to come to terms with what had happened,’ Allen says. She defined herself by how strong she felt as an athlete and couldn’t process the fact that the girl lying in the hospital bed—utterly broken in body and spirit—was her. The whole scene seemed foreign, surreal, confusing. The North Face, her major sponsor, flew Allen’s mom to her bedside for her initial surgeries, then chartered a private jet to bring them home to Colorado.
Back in Boulder, Allen’s doctor tried to prepare her for a grim new reality: She would probably never run again, let alone take to the trails. It was as if she’d been told she’d have to learn how to live without oxygen.”
You should, gentle readers, take the link and read the entire story. Hillary Allen is a remarkable person. A truly elite athlete in a sport little-known by the general public.
‘That same year, she also raced on the U.S. Skyrunning circuit, which takes mountain trail running to the extreme. In a 50K Skyrunning race, the course gains a minimum of 11,000 feet in elevation, and the trails are notoriously technical. Proving she was made for this type of tough, gutsy racing, Allen was the 2014 U.S. Skyrunning series champion.
She began to race internationally, on the world’s toughest courses, until her accident:
Allen couldn’t walk for two months, and with both wrists broken, she could barely lift a soda can. The immobility was unbearable. ‘Movement is such a huge part of my life, and running makes me feel whole,’ she says. ‘All of that was taken away from me. I literally could not stand on my own two feet. I couldn’t shower by myself. I had to figure out what strength looked like from a different perspective.’
Allen graduated to a wheelchair, then a walker. She hired a car service to drive her to and from school and taught from the seat of her scooter. Her body slowly began rebuilding itself with the help of physical therapy.
Her doctor thought she might never walk again, and certainly would never run. She proved him wrong, and relatively quickly:
By January of this year (2018), Allen was strong enough to hike. Out on the trail later that winter, she felt the impulse to run. ‘I was really scared and remember thinking, Don’t fall, don’t fall.’ It was a turning point in her recovery. ‘I was so grateful to think that I could potentially race again, for no other reason than it just makes me happy,’ Allen says. ‘I want to be realistic and not push myself too much, though.’
Allen estimates that she’s ‘about 50 percent back’ to her pre-accident run form. The ligaments and tendons in her feet are still healing, and she struggles running downhill.
Allen is a remarkable person. By all means, take the links and know her better. But recovering from injuries is nothing like the movies. Even fully healed injuries don’t immediately–if ever–restore full function:
As the slow healing process began, Allen measured her life through different metrics. Instead of choosing a peak to tackle, she’d pick the coffee shop farthest from her house and ‘scoot’ there as best she could. The days felt longer than they used to.
‘It’s a huge change to go from being in the middle of my season exploring new terrain to suddenly be so limited in mobility where even lifting a coffee cup is a big deal,’ she says.
The injury left Allen feeling like she’d lost a substantial part of her identity. Who was she if not a runner? ‘Having that taken away from me was so raw,’ she says. ‘It just left me feeling disconnected from the world. Running is one of my favorite ways to move in the mountains. When I couldn’t do that, I was separated not only from my friends, but I felt like I had lost myself.”
Allen was surprised by the intensity of these feelings. She’d always considered herself a balanced person: Running challenged her body, while science challenged her mind. ‘The whole reason I got into running was because I was curious about the world and curious about my body,’ she says. Even after she signed with The North Face and collected other sponsorships, Allen chose to keep her teaching job, because she loves it. (Allen is still sponsored by The North Face. She says the company has been very supportive throughout her recovery: ‘They see my value as an athlete separate from competition.’)
The accident has shown Allen the importance of the other parts of her identity: the avid reader, the cook, the nerd, the traveler, the insect lover. ‘I can see a more complete and complex person beneath the brightly colored running shorts and shoes,’ she wrote on her blog in February.
During my last police job, I was in extraordinary shape. Not top of the heap elite, sponsored athlete shape, but extraordinary shape. Like Allen, I loved running, and with a friend, invented the “Triple Peaks” run. To be a member, one had to run up–and down–the three highest peaks in the Black Hills of South Dakota within a single summer. They’re nothing, compared to the courses Allen ran, but then again, only a small portion of the population could match that accomplishment. I understand Allen’s love for that kind of running.
It all came to an end the night I answered a domestic violence call at the lawyer’s home, and ended up attacked by most of the family. Everybody eventually went to jail, but as I was writing my report hours later, my right arm was going numb. Damaged discs in the neck.
I used to have a bit of careless scorn for people with neck and back injuries. I was foolish enough to think they just weren’t tough enough. I don’t think that way any more. The recovery was long and frustrating. One day I was able to run ten miles at the drop of a hat at a 6 minute pace over obscenely hilly terrain, and the next, had trouble walking for any distance. Running was all but impossible; things just didn’t work right, and the pain and recovery time were daunting.
In a way, the injury was fortunate. I didn’t know it, but all that mountain running was doing a number on my knees. Had I continued, I probably would have had them replaced years ago.
I decided to try riding. I’d always done a bit of it, but was no fanatic. I quickly learned my upright Cannondale wasn’t going to work. There was no way I could get down on the drops, and riding at all was agony in the neck and back.
I wasn’t going to be running anytime soon, and have never recovered to the level I once reached. Like Allen, I dealt with frustration and doubt. I hadto rebuild my conditioning. Time to adapt.
The solution was a recumbent, a Lightning P-38. It was a revelation. It allowed me to ride again without damage to the neck and back, but more importantly, it allowed me to rebuild my strength and endurance, the strength weights couldn’t rebuild.
These days, I ride a Terra Trike Sportster, a trike, something I could have never imagined I’d own. But Mrs. Manor, who is seven years older than I, was feeling the very beginning of a balance issue with her recumbent, and the Sportster was a logical choice. I’m much faster than she is, and with a two wheel recumbent, I was lugging too much on our training rides, so I went with a Sportster. It’s much easier to ride with her, and actually requires more work to maintain high speed on solo training rides, which is a good thing too.
It’s like the running joke from my Kendo days. At the end of a session, someone would grunt in cheesy samurai fashion: “much blood on floor; good training!”
Am I comparing myself with Hillary Allen? Only in that we both have had to deal with adaptation. Mine is mostly complete (it never ends); hers is ongoing. I suspect it may be more difficult for her. She was an elite athlete, one of the very best in the world. While I was once in extraordinary shape–compared with most of the population–I made other choices in life. I never felt the urge to rise to the top in any sport, and in reality, probably couldn’t have done it–too much upper body musculature for running or riding.
But at least I have some sense of what Allen is going through. I was able to adapt, and life is good. The articles I’ve found do not say, but suggest, she’ll never again attain her place in that unusual and dangerous sport. If so, it will be time to reinvent, to refocus her life while still retaining her love for pushing herself. Perhaps a Sportster?
I wish her good luck and fast rides.
And one last thing: life is all about adaptation, particularly once one realizes the people winning those races are always 20, and you’re getting older every year, injuries or not.