When professional runner Hillary Allen thought her running career was over, she found herself in a bike shop. Here’s her story of how she became a cyclist and reclaimed her running career.
By: Hillary Allen, professional endurance athlete.
I thought cycling was a consolation prize. Something I had to settle for, to compromise on. As a runner, I was caught up in one sport, one way of motion. I was blind to the benefits of cycling, not only from an athletic side of things, but I also didn’t realize how much freaking fun it was.
It wasn’t until I got severely injured and my running career was in jeopardy, that I rolled my eyes, took a deep breath, and walked into a bike shop to buy my first bike.
I’m a professional trail and mountain runner for The North Face. I race and compete in Ultra marathon races across mountain courses all over the world. I’ve been ranked on the world circuit, competed for team USA in mountain running championships; I’ve earned wins and course records. But two years ago, while competing in a technical mountain race, the Tromsø Skyrace in Tromsø, Norway, I fell 150 feet off of a ridge-line during the race. I nearly died. I was extremely lucky to be alive, however, I was told I would never be able to run at a high level again, that maybe I’d be able to jog, but not run, again. I was crushed, unable to comprehend my fate, or accept it.
Over the next few years, my return to sport and running took over my life. Running again remained a goal in the back of my mind guiding every decision. In fact, it was the first reason I got my first bike. My physical therapist, who was a cyclist, told me I should get on a bike. He said it would help me to maintain fitness which would translate to running.
So, I found myself in a bike store, checking out bikes. I had no idea what I was doing. I knew I didn’t want a road bike because I already had one and I didn’t want to be around cars. A mountain bike sounded appealing, but the potential for broken bones didn’t, so I settled on a gravel bike. Living in Boulder, Colorado, there are endless gravel roads with limited traffic. It seemed perfect for me if I had to get a bike.
I got a Specialized Diverge, two-toned green. I named him Kermit. Supposedly you aren’t supposed to name your bikes, but I didn’t care. I felt like he needed a name, and we needed to develop a positive relationship. At first Kermit and I didn’t spend too much time together. I would ride for a couple hours, but I always felt awkward, unsure of where to go, how to shift, proper technique, my helmet always seemed to be tilted to the side, and whenever I’d pass by other cyclist I could feel their eyes of sympathy, their looks saying “Oh, you poor girl, you have no idea what you’re doing.”
I felt like I was always biding my time until I could run. I felt like I was failing, like I had earned the consolation prize for runners. I was a cyclist now, and I wasn’t sure I even liked it.
But, last year, that all changed.
I had experienced another setback in my recovery as a runner. I was running and completing again, I had made the impossible comeback and return to racing at the elite level. One and a half years after falling off that cliff, I felt like I was finally back. I had committed to a race calendar in 2019 and I was ready to go. But, in February, I broke my ankle. I needed surgery and 6 weeks of non-weightbearing activity. I was starting over from scratch, from ground zero. Again. I was crushed. Defeated and unsure if I could endure another grueling recovery period.
That’s when the bike took on new meaning in my life, and I discovered – to my own surprise – that cycling can, in fact, be fantastically fun. My love affair with the bike started in the most unexpected places – in the gym. A place I once hated and dreaded. I didn’t feel comfortable in a gym, but I was forced to get comfortable with it during all of my recoveries. My PT, Matt, and friend Joe Lewis (who later became my cycling coach) encouraged me to get on the bike trainer as soon as I could start weight bearing activities. They swore to me it was a great way to stay in shape and it was fun to feel the burn on your own bike, even though it was indoors. Plus, there were all these cool apps and interfaces that you could input your Functional Threshold Power (FTP – I call it Freaking Thigh Power), which turned out, I really liked seeing how I could progress over the course of my injury.
I didn’t expect it, but as each day progressed, I found myself looking forward my time on the bike and on the trainer. I started to like cycling. It was challenging, in fact, it was really hard, and I wasn’t even able to do it outside yet. I began to respect the sport and I was counting down the days until I could ride outside safely when my ankle was strong enough.
I remember that first gravel bike ride and something had finally clicked. I started to love cycling and I began to dream up big rides and adventures. In fact, two weeks after I was cleared to ride outside, I got a call from my friend Allen Lim. Skratch Labs, my nutrition sponsor for running, was sponsoring this big gravel race in Kansas called the Dirty Kanza. He had an extra spot and was offering me an entry. I had no idea what I was in for, but I accepted and entered into my first bike race – the Dirty Kanza 200 in just seven short weeks.
I can tell you stories of that adventure another time, but suffice it to say, I loved every second of it and since then I even did another gravel bike race, a stage race in Oregon – the Oregon Trail Gravel Grinder – another epic adventure.
But the point being, once I actually gave cycling a chance, and realized how incredibly humbling it was to learn a new sport, how difficult it is and how fun cycling is, I can’t imagine my life without cycling in it. It’s changed my perspective on cross-training and training in general, and it’s opened up a whole new world of adventure. Not to mention combining adventures with bike-run-climb-run-bike or bike-ski-bike!
I was excited to get a second chance at running through cycling,
but I’m even more excited that I found a new sport that I love through the process.
Hillary Allen is an endurance athlete specializing in Ultra marathon distance trail running. She prefers steep and technical terrain earning her the nickname the "Hillygoat." Based in Colorado where she grew up, Hillary also is a coach, writer and teacher. She's earned course records and wins all over the world racing 50km all the way up to 145km, and although running is her specialty, Hillary has also picked up gravel bike racing.
Follow Hillary’s adventures @hillygoat_climbs.