When facing a season or career-shaping challenge, some athletes find new avenues to explore their potential and find fulfillment in sport. Six years ago, Hillary Allen faced a cascade of issues that began with a fall, leading to ankle issues eventually requiring surgery. However, rather than succumbing to the setback, she embraced the opportunity to shift her perspective.
From local races to the elite field of Unbound and conquering an ultra-distance bike race along Ireland's coast, Hillary dove headfirst into the world of cycling to see what she could find. We caught up with her to unpack her dual-sport journey and the impact it had on her recovery and overall fitness.
Hillary: I had a big fall about six years ago and that led to the growth of some bone spurs. It was pinching my ankle [and reducing] mobility. So, it came to the point where I was breaking bones in my foot due to poor range of motion and I had to get surgery end of April. It's been a bit of a slower recovery just because there's a bunch of weaknesses. While I've always used cycling to kind of supplement my training, racing on a bike is entirely different than just riding your bike. So this year I was like, “Alright, I want to try to figure out this racing thing.”
It started with trying to race [locally]. Then, I was in the elite field for Unbound, which [felt] like a first time because this is the fourth year I've done it, but I'd never really tried to be in the elite field. Also, I did a long bike race in Ireland (TransAtlantic Way), it was an ultra-distance bike race across the whole coast, from Northern Ireland all the way down to the southeastern tip. It was 1,500 miles and I did it in around seven and a half days.
It was technically like a bike-packing race [and] I ended up winning that, it was kind of the perfect marriage of ultra sports and cycling. Then [I raced] Ned Gravel paired with my first mountain bike race – a crazy “double” thing where I won the Ultra and didn't place horribly in the mountain bike race.
Q: Can you provide some insight on the shift in focus to cycling during your recovery from foot surgery? How has this adaptation as a dual-sport endurance athlete been?
Honestly, racing long-distance cycling is different than ultrarunning because in ultrarunning you have one gear and I'll run for literally a day at a time. For these races, you can't surge as much as you do in cycling. For instance, in Unbound it was like a 13-hour day, but you are going pretty much max effort the first 90 minutes to keep up with like the front pack. It's more about surging and recovery – completely different than running.
I feel like it helps me to become a more well-rounded athlete. Mountain biking is the same way because it's also very surging. If there's a really technical spot, you have to put in a lot of power to get through something or get around a person. [Additionally] you have to learn how to kind of actively recover.
Now, most people wouldn’t expect Hilly to “take it easy” as she worked back into longer distances…but PR’ing a 14er?
As she started to run again, Hillary did the longest run since her surgery one weekend. Of course, in Hilly fashion, she went up a 14er via a 15-mile out and back (Mount Albert, the tallest mountain in Colorado) and actually PR’d her ascent time.
Hillary: I think cycling fitness has helped so much, especially because it's not as much pounding on my body. It helps [from a muscular standpoint], especially with mountain biking when you're working on power. Yet, I'm giving my body time to rest from the pounding [of running] while still maintaining a lot of fitness.
Q: What are you learning tactically between running and cycling?
I'm getting more comfortable with riding in groups and the bike-handling stuff. I've been going with a few people around here and it's funny because I have an insanely high fitness base, but it's the technical things that I'm learning, which is kind of frustrating because I can go all day, but then there's a freaking rock garden…
It's so similar to running, you kind of get in your own groove. Everyone has a skillset, whether if it's more technical running or riding or the ascent versus the descent. It's a more similar vibe to trail running. It's just that I’m not technically savvy at it. It reminds me of trail running and it teaches you to look ahead. With riding, there are so many other different things you have to work on... especially in gravel racing, and that's been fun.
Q: What is your fueling strategy typically for a race like this and did you deviate compared to your ultra strategy?
On a bike versus running, I can fuel so much differently. I can just eat more. If it's a race or a hard ride, I will bring a little bit more because I can get away with it. I think for cycling, your blood glucose levels in your bloodstream matter a little bit more – I think if you can keep it higher it’s better. In running, I can't get away with it as much because of the jostling. If it's an easy ride or just an endurance ride, it's kind of the same (fueling) as running. If it's racing, I tend to fuel a little bit more, [especially] because you can carry more.
Staying in a healthy and balanced routine during the space between big events, especially alongside her recovery work, is quite the trick. With the focus on being back in the long runs, she shared some key aspects to maintaining that balance.
Hillary: It’s that exactly, balance. I try to maintain my balance of having a run day and then a cycling day and trying to kind of alternate them. As I'm building up running volume, I was very diligent about how many back-to-back days I have.
And of course, I work with a coach. We've done the “return to run” several times since my big fall, so we know what to do. As I'm getting up in mileage and putting some running races on the calendar, it's tempting to do more and do it too soon. That's why I just love the bike as a tool because I can still train intensity exclusively on the bike while I'm not doing intervals running, yet. It’s that balance and mentality of getting to look forward to certain days.
It is also the balance of appropriate goal-setting. I have some running races that I'm going to target in September and then kind of see how it goes. It's about not having all my eggs in one basket and finding other things that make me excited to strive for.
Leveraging the recovery time to get on the bike and test herself in a different direction, Hillary took this shift in focus with stride. After a summer full of cycling training and “return to run” protocols, she was able to target her first race back in September.
We caught up with her in the late fall for some insight on this return to ultras and how it has changed her perspective.
Hillary: This kind of “return to run” took longer than I thought. It was cool to be able to lean into the bike during this time, though, and be more purposeful with racing there. But of course, running is my first love and so I finally was able to do a 50K –my first race back– and I ended up winning it. (She's talking about the EcoTrail, more on that soon.)
I think I've fully embraced the “multi-sport athlete” and I couldn't be happier. It's awesome to be able to do and [in that] I even view gravel biking and mountain biking as two completely different disciplines. So, it even feels like I'm switching things up when I get to choose between those weekly.
Q: What is the EcoTrail series?
It's a series of trail races that are happening all over the world. EcoTrail is trying to be as environmentally friendly as possible. So it's like a zero waste. The race bibs are made from all recycled material, etc., and that's kind of the ethos of it. It also showcases locations that are kind of urban but have a unique trail system really close.
My EcoTrail race was in Dublin, Ireland. There are these incredible mountains that are just right outside, literally 30 minutes outside of the city. It had a mix of everything from technical to steep to really “runnable”. And of course, for the race day, it was typical Irish weather. It was just rainy the whole time.
Q: What did fueling look like for that EcoTrail race?
I think they had the bare minimum [at this race]. They just had water and products like Naak – they’re trying to really focus on brands that are working with sustainable products. I carried all my race nutrition. It does make a huge difference. If you've ever been to a road marathon or even a trail marathon, you always see cups or packages on the ground after the race. There was a focus similar to Leave No Trace.
Zooming out a little bit to her season as a whole, we were curious if she had any major fueling strategy shifts. Of course, a physical shift from running to the multisport style, but did that have any effect on how she fueled?
Hillary: Honestly, it's been an eye-opener. I think fueling for these bike races has helped me fuel better running. I realized that running, even for these long sustainable efforts, maybe I wasn't actually fueling enough. While on a bike, you can eat more – at least I can eat more real food. I don't have to worry about the jostling in my stomach. I can literally eat a full meal on a bike and be fine (well, within reason).
On a bike, I have to stay on top of my nutrition or else I feel like my power drops off. That's helped translate to the amount and focus on the grams of carbs I'm consuming per hour. The part that I love about working with The Feed is that because I get to choose from the variety of products that you have, I can constantly try new things to see what works.
It's been cool to be able to be specific at certain times during the year with the multisport approach. More than anything, to break up the year and have an endurance race season, while not being so tedious from a mental standpoint. It's a lot to continue to have to train for races – it takes a lot of time and mental energy.
Q: Do you think you'll continue that trend next year?
Absolutely. I think I need to have a few mountain bike lessons first, but I still want to do some mountain bike races. I'm thinking of more like 24 hours of Pueblo and [some] solo adventures.
We look forward to catching up with Hilly in the new year…where she’s sure to have accrued more unbelievable achievements and adventures.