I distinctly remember saying to myself that I would never do another sky race again. This was during Run the Rut 50k, while I was throwing myself down loose talus and steep off trail sections.
But that declaration didn’t seem to matter to me anymore, because only two days after the rut, I found myself signing up for Flagstaff Sky Race, the final Sky race in the US series.
My main motivation for doing this race was my typical hankering for adventures, road trips and a long day in the mountains on new trails. But there was an added curiosity. I was ranked 4th in the US sky series and I wanted to see if I could podium in the series by competing in Flagstaff.
I was nervous (as always) but more interested as to how my body would respond to racing only 2 weeks after Run the Rut. Kinda like a little science experiment with myself, gathering data on my limits.
My dad decided to do a road trip with me to Flagstaff where we camped at KOA campgrounds (normally not my style, but showers are really nice to have after long races). Once we arrived on Friday I made sure to get in my shake out run near the start of the race. Although I didn’t find the course markings, these runs help so much with my nerves.
Packet pick up, early dinner and race preparations rounded out my evening. It was going to be hot for race day! Although Flagstaff is at 7,500ft, it is dry, exposed and hot. 75 degrees on friday afternoon felt very warm. Despite this fact, I decided to go fast and light with a hand held and a feul belt filled with my trusty hammer gels (espresso and vanilla of course) and some Endurolytes Extreme salt pills.
Race day was chilly in the morning, but our 6am start had enough light to run without a head lamp! My plan for this race was to start conservative (I don’t like going in a hole early on) but to run more aggressively on the downhills early on and run everything that I possibly can. The gun went off and everyone took off. I wanted to start in front so I probably started too fast, but it was flat and I wanted to get warm.
The first climb was pretty mellow. I ran every step of it and felt very comfortable. Some guys were going pretty hard early on, I let them go. I reached the top of the first climb (Mt. Elden) leading the women’s race. Becca Much was close behind and as we began the first technical descent (and I made sure to take the correct right hand turn) she caught right up. I knew she was strong on the downhills so I wanted to prove I was too and kept a quick pace going on the rocky descent. I knew right then It was going to be a tricky foot work day . . . I kept scuffing my shoes on the rocky terrain.
The course was sparsely marked compared to the rut. There were a few sections on the first downhill where I didn’t see a marker for at least a half a mile (which was more mentally stressful than anything). But the wrong trails to take were clearly marked.
Now for the second climb up Mt. Elden. The sun was coming up now and it was getting hot already! I made sure to take my Endurolytes Extreme early and often and keep drinking/eating. My goal was every 20-25 min, but my stomach wasn’t having that for some reason. This climb was steep, so I transitioned into a power hike (not part of my race plan, but it was early still). I soon put a gap on Becca and that was the last I would see her, although I kept imagining her catching up to me throughout the race.
As we summitted Elden again, we ran through beautiful changing aspen groves, and the view of Flagstaff from the top was gorgeous. This was about mile 14, and I knew it was time to start pushing. Which meant, run hard on the downhills and run all the ups until I hit the off trail section (yea, the 4000ft climb that was waiting for me at mile 27-32).
Flagstaff trails are quite technical and rocky. Big boulders, roots and lava rock kept trying to trip me up. I was looking forward to mile 18 aid station where my dad was going to meet me, and I got excited because there was some good, runnable climbing in the section before then. I like those climbs.
As I came into mile 18 I was still in first place (which I was surprised by). But my dad wasn’t there! I told the aid station people to watch out for a loud, british man and tell him to meet me at the other aid station.
Now to begin the hardest part of the day for me. Hot, dry, 2-3 miles of climbing and then a rolling, rocky section. The climb was good. I ran it all, and I was really enjoying the fist downhill, really opening it up, until I reached the twisty, rocky single track at around mile 21. I was concerned with staying on course and in my distraction, I caught a toe and banged up my knee. It wasn’t too bad, since it wasn’t throbing while I was running, but there was a lot of blood. “Makes me look more hard core,” I thought, “or clumbsy?” . . . I went with hard core and kept running.
Around mile 23-24 there was an aid station where I tried to chug as much water as I could. I was starting to feel the effects of the heat, and my stomach wasn’t letting me eat as many calories as I should during a race. Thankfully they had ginger chews . . . I took one to settle my stomach (didn’t work).
Miles 24-27 felt like death for me. It was rolling and a slight uphill grade. I was in a mental low spot and I told myself if I get lost i’m dropping out. I was just being over dramatic due to fatigue and stomach aches. Plus the anticipation of the climb at mile 27 was killing me!
Finally I reached mile 27 and my dad was there cheering and asking me if I was ok (he saw my knee). He told me to go get it and he would see me at the finish. That was enough to lift my spirits and begin the climb. I think mentally I was ready to start climbing. I let my feet and legs propel me. My yellow Salomon Sense pros moving onwards and upwards, a yellow blurr mixed with the purple glow of my Swiftwick Aspire 4 socks.
At first the climb was pretty mellow, all runnable and I was determined to run every step until I couldn’t. We were running switchbacks that kept crossing underneath power lines, and I knew the off trail section took us straight under those. After about 1000ft in 2 miles, we began the off trail climb to 9,500ft. And after all that hard work we bombed down about 500ft before climbing back up again to the aid station (Mid way) at around mile 31. This was also the finish.
They announced my name as the first woman but I had no idea how far back second place was. I saw my dad there cheering again and I began the 5k of death (2000ft in 2 miles) to the top of the ski lift. I tried to power hike as fast as I could underneath the ski lift . . . looking at my altimeter and willing it to read 11,500ft.
After a few yells, I finally reached the top to greet Jamil, (I wanted to punch him so bad after that climb) and other familiar crew faces. I took some potato chips and a gummy worm and threw myself downhill while talking to Jamil and his go pro. I had 1.8 miles and 2000ft of descent. OUCH!
I kept on thinking I’d see the second place girl chasing after me, so that propelled me to run as fast as I could over the loose rock, uneven grass and jump over the dips in the ski slope. I was doing it, somehow I was going to win. I wouldn’t let myself smile or believe that thought until I saw the finish and heard people cheering (specifically my Dad’s distinct yell “goooo Hillary!”).
I finally started beaming and ran as hard as I could across the finish line! It was the greatest feeling to win the final race of my season and take home a big trophy and check! But the sweetest victory of all was winning the US Sky Running Ultra series. I never thought that would happen and I was so unbelievably happy to claim that achievement. I even got an interview with Robert Goyen at Ultra Sports Live.TV Check it out here: http://www.ultrasportslive.tv/hillary-allen-flagstaff-skyrace-2014-first-female-55k/
Now I get to plan a trip to Europe to compete in a World Series Sky Race. An awesome dream that is now a reality! It was so special to share this moment with my dad, who kept bragging to complete strangers about my accomplishment and insisted that I was one tough woman (even tougher than him). Now time for rest, reflection and relaxation after one of the best, adventurous and demanding seasons of my life.
photo credits to Derrick Lytle Media