Past the Limit

Ultra running is a niche sport, an extreme one at that. It can take many forms as far as terrain, but the definition is simple: covering a distance more than a marathon. Covering that distance in one piece however, is not so simple.


I first discovered ultra running in the form of mountain running. This quickly turned into a love for an even more extreme form of mountain running known as skyrunning. Here, courses take you from the sea to the sky, in the most direct path imaginable. This year I’ve been lucky enough to compete in La palama (Transvulcania 75km), Madeira (Madeira ultra sky 50km), the Dolomites (Cortina Trail 50km), and the Pyrenees (Buff Epic 110km). I find motivation and challenge in skyrunning, due to the demanding technicality and steep grades. However, my most recent race, the Buff Epic, at the skyrunning world championships in Valle de Boí, forced me to places I had never been before.


I’m not going into the details of a race report, but for background, this race was 110km with 8000m of positive gain (about 69 miles and 26,500ft). Extreme.


I knew this race would challenge me, maybe even break me, but never did I expect the day I had.


I started comfortable, anticipating all the climbs, letting the steepness dictate my pace. I felt comfortable, calm to be running. Within the first 20k I had already managed to go off course for a few minutes, to fall on some slippery rocks, but even that couldn’t get my spirits down. I knew I was going to be out there all day, mentally I was ready to be patient.

Then, all of a sudden it hit me. Nausea. I was being proactive about my nutrition, but suddenly, around the 25km mark, even the smell of food made my stomach turn. I would vomit when I tried to eat anything!

I thought things would turn around if I stuck to liquid calories and salt to get back in some electrolytes, but things just got progressively worse. Sipping coca cola soon lead to vomiting and by the 50km mark I was stuck to drinking a salt solution provided by the aid station, with very little caloric value. I was worried and I wanted to quit.

I had an amazing support crew who were meeting me around all sections of the course (which were really hard to get to), so perhaps that was a source of motivation. But, for me, running is so personal. I won’t simple do a race or a run because someone tells me to, I must be convicted to do it myself. So I kept going.


This time, every uphill, or slightly steep pitch I was dry heaving. Pushing my body past a certain pace caused me to double over with nausea. I was 67km in.

My mind was spiraling. I worried about my place. How I was competing – I wasn’t competing. I wondered what people would think about my performance, it was the world championships, I wondered if I was a horrible runner now. I thought about quitting simply because I wasn’t in a podium position like I imagined I would be. Right then, I stopped on the trail, and told myself out-loud: ‘That’s a horrible reason to quit Hill, and it’s not why you run.”


So I kept moving forward. Around 75km now.


I wanted to quit! Why wasn’t I quitting?? Should I quit? Am I causing myself damage? How am I able to walk up this mountain with no food in me??


I carried these questions with me into the last major aid station at 81.5km, convinced this was the time to call it quits. I had run 50 miles – that was good enough. Plus, I didn’t want to run in the dark. I was ready to quit, like I had told myself around the 30km mark.


My crew had everything prepared. My headlamp, water, more water – water was the only thing I could stomach now. I looked at their faces to confirm my defeat, but they told me they’d see me at the finish. I didn’t believe I’d make it. But I got up, making my way towards the door, hesitant. I wanted to quit, to end the suffering, but I was still moving toward the door. I left in a slow trudging jog.


Where was the hope, the perseverance, and this determination within me? Why were my feet still moving me forward? How? Why won’t my stomach stop hurting? How in the world am I still dry heaving? Why am I not quitting?? I still want to quit.


These words played like a broken record within my head. Repeating, circling, questioning, begging myself to quit. I really had no idea how I was still moving or if there was anything to be proud of with my performance. I was absolutely defeated. Yet, still moving. How were these two things possible?


The last few hours of my race were all a blur. The dull ache of my stomach and my circling questions made time irrelevant. I came to when I say the 1km mark on the side of the trail. I had made it to the finish, but not in a triumphant manner, or with any extra surge of energy. I was relieved and confused crossing the finish line. Why and how did I keep going? How did I make it hear.


Over the next few days, I kept reliving my experience and I still can’t explain what transpired that day. I’ve always said I run for the challenge, and the strength it gives me as a person. That day I felt the weakest and most challenged in a race or run. Extraordinarily, I still had something more. Nothing tangible or explicable, but I had something deeper that kept me moving forward, something that wouldn’t let me give up or give in to the pain, the challenge and doubt.


I wouldn’t have discovered this silent strength, this powerful force within me, unless I was pushed past my limit. I would have never known I possessed this immeasurable strength if I had not kept going that day. This is my silver lining, and the true reason why I run. There is strength in the struggle and grace in the challenge. All I must do, is simply run.



Check out more articles at Trail Sisters


Thank you to The North FaceSky RunnerUltimate DirectionSkratch LabsSwiftwick Socks and Real Athlete Diets (RAD) for their continued support.


Run The Rut 50k

This year, I was really looking forward to Run the Rut 50k. What’s not to love? The race is in beautiful Big Sky, Montana, it’s a super technical course, has a ton of climbing, and attracts stout competition. I had run the race last year, so I knew what to expect (as far as difficulty and technicality), which mentally helps a great deal.


Coming off a win at Speedgoat, where I had broken the course record (previously held by Anna Frost), I now knew I could hang with the top ladies. I just had to race smart, something I’ve been learning to do all season. My technical running had improved throughout the summer, so I was confident in my abilities to run technical descents, and on courses with big elevation gains and losses.

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Despite all of these reinforcements, I couldn’t help feeling tired. Not only physically, but mentally. I had reached an unambitious point in my training, but mixing things up helped like cycling, rock climbing and peak bagging. I still did a few workouts prescribed by my coach (Mike Aish), however some were unsuccessful due to either lack of motivation or the feeling I might be getting sick. This had me worried to race, since I knew my competition would be fresh or such seasoned racers they could constantly compete at a high level.

I did what I always do; forget about the competition and focus on the event, the location. I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to travel to Montana to run around Lone Peak, or let outside pressures get in the way with my enjoyment of ultrarunning. I got to the race early enough to watch all the events. The Vertical Kilometer race on Friday was a blast. I did the course before the race started to wake up my legs and do my favorite climb along the ridge to Lone Peak. The 25k on Saturday was impressive; for the competition, the technicality and steepness of the course. My friend David Powder Steele ran the whole 25k course with an American Flag on his back!

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The 50k was sunday, and I was thrilled to discuss my race plans with Meghan Hicks during my first interview on iRunFar:

pre race

Race morning was chilly; 22 degrees, dark, still and clear. I focused on maintaining an even pace on the first climb, before heading downhill and then hitting some flat trails around a lake as the sun came up. Early on I became discouraged. Maybe it was my legs which felt heavy in the cold, or my stomach, upset, telling me I couldn’t eat too much that day, or my 5th position, I wanted to be higher. Regardless my head wasn’t in it. It took extra effort for me to focus my thoughts. I contemplated dropping (only 10 miles in). I scolded myself for getting caught up in negatively and urged myself to see the positive: the beauty of the course, running in Montana, going up Lone Peak.


Still, I was struggling. I was in 4th position going up headwaters and I could see 1 of the girls ahead of me. I kept pushing. I saw my friend Myke Hermsmeyer at the top of the climb. I burst in to tears. My stomach hurt worse now and I was still discouraged, defeated and tired. He urged me forward as I took on the first technical descent.

The Rut 2015 Photos for Competitor Web Gallery. Photos by Myke Hermsmeyer. / / @mykehphoto on Instagram and Twitter

Hillary Allen descending on Headwaters Ridge at The Rut 50k on her way to 2nd place. Photo Myke Hermsmeyer / / @mykehphoto

When I reached the aid station atop Swiftcurrent lift I still hadn’t snapped out of it. I even managed to go off course for 3-5 minutes, which frustrated me further. I saw my teammate, and race director, Mike Foote at the aid station, still in 4th position. I told him I needed new legs, that mine were feeling dead. He could tell I was discouraged and assured me I was running a great time. If I hiked steadily up to Lone Peak, he told me, my legs would come back. His words stuck with me as I urged myself forward, behind Anna Mae Flynn, trying to close in on Martina Valmassoi (who had overtaken me when I went off course).


I am a strong hiker and as I closed the gap on the girls ahead of me, I started to formulate a strategy to finish the race. I was confident descending off of Lone Peak and I overtook Anna Mae here, pushing forward to catch Martina, who I could see just ahead of me. I knew Emelie was in the lead (which was impressive, since she had competed in the VK and the 25K the two days prior to the 50K).

The remaining part of the course was mostly downhill, so I pushed myself as hard as I could on the uphills to get to them. I passed Martina on the ascent to the final aid station to learn I was only 8 minutes back from Emelie. I was ready to get this thing done, and to not anyone pass me!

On the final uphill of the course (about 1 mile from the finish) I glanced at my watch:6:22. I realized I was running a fast time, and could actually finish under the course record from last year (set by Emelie Forsberg)! I had held my 2nd position, and when I finally crossed the finish line I had goosebumps and couldn’t stop smiling. Not because I finished in 6:30 (under last year’s course record), or that I had qualified for the World Mountain Running Championships next year in Slovenia; I was so pleased I fought through to the very end, I didn’t give up, and pushed through when I wanted to quit.


My Mom even came to cheer me on, and my friend John Fitzgerald. It was great to see them along the course and celebrate at the finish. I even had a little dance party at the finish (a warm up for the ‘Cowby-up’ party later that night).


2015 The Rut photos for CBS consideration. Photos: Myke Hermsmeyer / / / @mykehphoto

Check out my post-race interview with iRunFar and USL.TV (and a little round table action with USL.TV):

Thanks to Myke Hermsmeyer Photography for all of his amazing photos: Myke Hermsmeyer / / / @mykehphoto! To The North Face for their support, Hammer Nutrition, Swiftwick Socks and team Run Steep Get High. Huge thank you to Mike Foote (@mikefootemt) and Mike Wolfe (@wolfepaw) for putting on such a spectacular event.

Quest for the Crest 50k: One Hell of a Sky Race

Quest for the Crest 50k, advertised as the toughest 50k in the world, had crept up on me. After battling with an injury earlier in the season, I was nervous my fitness wouldn’t be up to par for this race. I managed to get in a solid month of training (focusing on more technical ascents and descents) before I hopped on a plane to Asheville, North Carolina.

I had never been out east for a race I was excited but also scared . . . for a couple reasons. One, the humidity could destroy me and two, they boast some of the most technical trails in the U.S.. Sure, I’ve run technical terrain in Run the Rut 50k and Speedgoat 50k back in 2014, but from the pictures I had seen, the stories I had heard, and the constant warnings posted by Sean (Run Bum)’s race website, I was beginning to get a little scared.


Plus, the race required me to carry my whistle, an emergency blanket and a jacket. Why on earth would I need all these? I thought it was a bit much to have these requirements . . . it wasn’t until Friday, on my shake out run, that I realized why I would need them. These mountains (the Black Mountains of North Carolina) are remote. Unlike in colorado where there are many roads that can intersect trails, there are very few points of access to these trails, a fact made explicitly clear by having only 2 fully stocked aid stations on the entire 50k course. On my shake out run, I made it over to Mount Mitchell trail (the final descent of the race) to test out the trails. Rooty, rocky, gnarly. This race was going to be fun!

mt mitchell

I planned to carry all of my own fuel (200 cal per hour, so 14 hammer gels, and a couple Hammer bars for good measure). I also filled up a bladder to carry along with two Ultimate Direction soft flasks. My pack was so flipping heavy, the heaviest pack I have ever raced with, but I didn’t want to chance not having water or food. I was definitely nervous about racing. I wanted to do well, I wanted to win. But, above all, I wanted to have fun. I was psyched on exploring these gnarly trails and the technical ridges and rooty descents. This was why I came to North Carolina, to play in the Black Mountains and explore new trails.


On race day we were all shuttled to the start: a junction of two country roads out in the middle of nowhere. Once everyone arrived Run Bum started us off running up the road to a trail on the right. The first mile of trail was runnable, but then it got steep, fast. We were starting the 50k with a vertical kilometer, climbing about 3500ft, in about 5km, not an easy thing to do. I was impressed. Properly steep trails through lush, green, dense forest. I couldn’t see where we were going, just up up up.

At this point in the race I was ahead, but Becca Much and Sarah Woerner were pretty close behind. I wasn’t trying to push things too hard on the VK,  mostly because I couldn’t. My calves were screaming at me! So much so, that I had a nauseous feeling in my stomach. OH well I thought, hopefully I feel better on the second uphill. I tried to focus on the beauty of the terrain and to drink water, since I was basically already drenched in my own sweat.

The course was simple: 3 climbs, and 3 descents in about 31 miles. I was almost done with the first climb, looking forward to stretching my calves out on the downhill. But first, I had to stumble my way through some overgrown grass and rocks before I could really open up. We had 4.5 miles of downhill only to turn around and run straight back up. It definitely was a runnable climb. I tagged the table at the aid station, grabbed a salted potato and some M&Ms and was off. I was with Becca ad Sarah at this point, but as soon as we started the climb I found myself alone again.


My race strategy was to fuel, DRINK, and run as much as I could. My calves felt a lot better and it was fun to see all the other racers coming down the hill as I ran/hiked up. I was really enjoying the trail.

Running on the ridge was breathtaking, sweeping views of the green forested hills in every direction. The trail threw me around a bit, but I was feeling pretty good, confident that I had two climbs over and only one more to go! But first, I had to tackle the technical descent from Colberts Ridge (6100′ down to 2700′ in only 4 miles). My quads were gonna be toast! I focused on quick feet as I danced and jumped down the rocks and roots. By this point I was needing the mile 18 aid station, my bladder of water was empty and I was soaked in sweat.


I couldn’t drink enough water.  I was quick at the aid station. I re-filled my soft flasks and was off. I had managed to catch a few guys and made the goal of breaking into the top 10 overall. I needed to catch a few more guys to do this (and keep my lead). I had no idea where the other ladies were, but I figured they were close behind.

We had a 7 mile climb until the next aid through “switchback hell”. This climb was a tough one. It was all runnable grade, but on tried legs it’s hard to run all of it. I made the goal of run/hiking. This is a really good strategy for me late in a race to keep a good pace moving forward during the hardest miles of the course. I usually hit a wall close to the marathon point, so I play games to break up the trail into run sections and hike sections. It really helped.


On this climb I ran into some new friends I’d met the night before. I passed Tim Sykes early on, he seemed to be having quad cramping issues (humid conditions were brutal), then Michael Owen. I was pleased to see Michael on the climb, it was great to have some company. We definitely helped each other work our way up this climb, doing our run/hike routine, and chatting to keep our minds off the never ending switchbacks.

We were both out of water at the top, and we had to run along a never ending ridge-line before reaching a spring. I got a bit frustrated on this ridge-line because it was hard to move fast despite it being fairly flat. The trail was so overgrown I had to be very careful I didn’t twist my ankle. We finally reached the spring and could only get a bit of water before heading up a steep riverbed to reach the highest point on the course. I wanted this to be over quickly so I really turned on my power hike. Sometimes I just have to get angry at the hill. It definitely hurt.

After stamping my bib at the top of the climb I let out a yell and then a big smile and started to run down. I didn’t see anyone heading up while I was descending the riverbed . . . Yay! I just needed to run strong on this downhill and I had the win. The ridge-line was tricky though. Super uneven footing and overgrown trail with hidden rocks and branches to trip and slip on. I passed Michael Barlow on this section with cramping issues, this course was brutal . . . I think the GU roctane gels saved me from cramping.

I was moving well, but my mind was starting to wander, I was definitely ready to be done. I knew I had to focus for the last descent, since it was equally as technical. However, I was a bit discouraged that my watch ready over 29 miles at the last aid station with about 4.5 miles to go. Time to focus and dig deep. So I took a gel, concentrated on my breathing and quick feet as I descended  through the rocks and roots. I was so impressed with how consistently technical the course was. There was no letting up, EVER.


The last few miles of the descent were familiar from my shake out run a few days earlier. I was getting closer. Progress. I tired to keep a positive mind and focus on my feet, moving well. It wasn’t until I rounded the corner to enter the campground that I smiled knowing that I had won the women’s race. I finished right around 7 hours  (7:02:39) and took 8th place overall.

It was a great feeling to finish such a technical and difficult 50k even though I didn’t’ feel so great during it. The beauty of the course was worth it. So remote, technical and steep! I can’t wait to come run again in the Black Mountains and explore other areas out east. Run Bum did not disappoint on this race.


March Madness and an Antsy Allen

March did not go according to plan for me – and I love plans. After competing in the Way Too Cool 50k I was excited to get back to training in Colorado again. I felt like I was getting fit and I wanted to keep pushing.

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BUT, my body told me otherwise. I kept on having issues with my right calf. It was infuriating! When I would land on my right foot or push off, it would feel as if my leg might collapse . . . this sensation of pressure and weakness radiating down my right lower leg. There was no pain at all, just a nagging sensation that something wasn’t right.

I tried to push through it, ignore the fact that I was starting my runs limping  – until things loosened up. I was stretching, resting, but things weren’t getting better. I was getting increasingly more frustrated. I was scared to run, to feel that sensation of weakness and that I didn’t have control over my body. It was overwhelming. I felt helpless. Since there was no pain I wanted to keep running through it, but my fear and anticipation of that feeling would lead to tears, negative talk and stress. I decided to do something about it. I needed answers.


I went to see several PTs (i’m a skeptic, so I needed multiple opinions). This is where I discovered dry needling and an imbalance in my hips. These people really knew their stuff! The imbalance was causing me to put extra strain on my right calf (and let’s be real – my calves work hard enough running uphill as it is, so this added stress was making them very unhappy).

I had developed really deep knots and my calf was so tight that It was pressing on the peroneal nerve (causing that weakness and pressure). I was relieved to find the root of the issue and to start a treatment plan: dry needling, massage and hip strengthening. I do well with plans. The part that was the hardest was the rest part. Remember that 4-letter word? Yes, rest. I hated it.


But, as much as I hated rest, I needed it. I’ll admit, I became a slight head case, ranging in severity from day to day . . . imagining all the fitness I was loosing, saying my race season was screwed, becoming antsy, impatient, sad – I realized (after talking and crying to some wise friends) that all of this panic would do nothing to help me get through this set back. A positive outlook changes everything and I definitely needed to adjust mine.

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I took the time off from running to go crazy in the mountains a different way. Spring time skiing is the best, so I decided to ski some 14ers. Something I never thought I’d be capable of doing. I ended up skiing 3 of them – Quandary Peak, and then Grays and Torreys Peak in one, epic link up! Although, boot packing is a son of a bitch.

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I also got on my road bike. The biking in Golden and Boulder is spectacular, plus it’s always so fun to explore the foothills in a different way . . . say going 45mph down some hills 🙂

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My coach, Mike Aish, even taught me the ways of aqua jogging . . . although sometimes I still feel like i’m trying to kick something underwater. Goats don’t swim.

I focused on rock climbing too, and of course resting. I realized that I needed to find a way to be happy with my training and do it because I love it, not because I should or needed too. Movement is the best way for me to relieve the stress I feel from graduate school, work through problems, mediate and relax. But, I can experience movement in many ways, not just through running. Although running is where I feel the most free, I discovered it’s not the only way I feel free – an important lesson to learn.

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I never want to get caught up in “shoulding’ myself to run. I want to do if for the enjoyment, because I love it . . . I want to push myself, and I also need to listen to my body. It needed a break and my mind needed to be reminded that running wasn’t the only way to experience the mountains. Plus – I just needed to chill out. Several of my friends helped me to realize that one.

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Now i’m back to running and it feels so rewarding! Although it didn’t happen as fast as I would have wanted, and i’m keeping it in check, i’m happy I can address a problem that would have eventually come to haunt me. I have to think of these set backs as character builders, or else I drive myself into an antsy frenzy. I found the silver lining, and sometimes I have to keep looking, but I’m letting go of expectation so I can enjoy the journey.


Gains in the off season and plans for 2015

For the past several months I have taken a break from running. I told myself after my last race in 2014 that I would take a real off season: 2-3 months of low mileage and no long runs. I’ve never done this before and it’s been a struggle at times. I feel at home in the hills and my free time is spent exploring new trails (or planning new explorations). So I had to find a way to channel that energy.

I started by setting several goals for the off season: physical rest, mental rest, and strength training. I wanted a way to build strength and get outside so I focused on skiing. I got my first back country (alpine touring) set up and I’ve never had so much fun skiing. I went all over the front range: Cameron Pass, Berthod Pass, Butler Gulch, Loveland Pass, Vail Pass. I even got to ski a ton in Aspen (which was incredible).

backcountry aspen

Back country skiing is amazing! Not only does it feed my desire for exploration, but I can spend long days in the mountains with low impact activity. I’m still learning about snow conditions (took an avalanche 1 class) and got my essentials: probe, beacon and shovel, but despite the danger it’s so fun to explore new lines (especially through the trees, where I usually scream because I’m having so much fun).

ski aspen ski fun

I can’t wait to explore more backcountry areas and improve my skiing skills (uphill and downhill) It really does translate to running and help with confidence, especially in downhill running. And it’s great for building strength.

aspen ski

In addition to all the skiing, I started rock climbing! I’ve done it a little bit in the past, but was never very good. I’m super excited to build strength in new areas (very humbling) so I have yet another excuse to get outside and explore the mountains in different ways!


Another highlight of my off season came in December, when I accepted an offer to be a part of the National Team for The North Face in 2015. I’m beyond excited to be working with this incredible company and to have the support of such inspiring athletes. In addition to The North Face, Hammer Nutrition and Swiftwick will support me for 2015.

TF_3 TNF-2

Photo credit Myke Hermsmeyer:

Although I wasn’t completely resting (I don’t think I could do that for more than a week at a time anyways), the new sports and exploration gave my body a break. It also gave my mind the chance to rest and plan out 2015. I gained something invaluable: motivation. Not only am I excited to train again, but i’m inspired and rested (this is what an off season is rumored to do!) I feel ready to take on new challenges, in races and in training. I’m super excited to work with Mike Aish, at Aish Interactions Coaching ( a super speedy 5k and 10k Olympian, who now races ultras. He has me putting in the work to get strong, which I really do enjoy.

fun run TNF

Photo Credit: Myke Hermsmeyer

I’m looking forward to some awesome races this year, including the Mont Blanc 80k which is the race I chose to compete in after winning the US Sky Running Ultra series in 2014. Here’s my tentative race schedule for 2015, with a lot of new challenges to surmount.

Way Too Cool 50k: March 7th

Quest for the Crest 50k: May 30th

Mont Blanc 80k: June 27th

Audi Power of 4 50k: July 19th

Run the Rut 50k:  September 5th

Flagstaff Sky Race 55k: October 3rd

TNF 50 mile championships: December

I’m planning some exploration and route finding on the Nolan’s 14 route this summer, as well as some early spring adventures in the Dark Canyon in Utah, and Flagstaff area (perhaps the Grand Canyon). I’m excited for what 2015 has in store, and I’m beyond thrilled to represent The North Face, Hammer Nutrition, Swiftwick and Aish Interactions Coaching in my adventures around the US and abroad.