When my passion nearly killed me
Trail Runner|Summer 2021
In August of 2017, ranked number one in the world Skyrunning circuit, I signed up for one of the hardest ultrarunning races in the world: the Tromsø Skyrace in Norway.
Hillary Allen

Tromsø was one of my last races of the season and a dream opportunity. I had never been to that part of the world, and the competition gave me the chance to test my running in a way I never had before. It was also a way to explore a new place, by foot—my favorite method.

When race day came, I was motivated, inspired, and physically in top form. The odds were in my favor not only to complete the race, but to win. The weather that day was perfect. I felt great, and for the first three hours, I performed great. But as I climbed the most technical ridge on the course (pictured above), a rock gave way. With one step, I felt the ground give way beneath my feet—and the horizon turned upside down.

I was airborne.

I was falling off the edge of a cliff.

I felt the first impact, then the second, then the third.

I hit the ground again and again and again. With each impact, I felt bones breaking, skin ripping. I grasped for something, anything, to stop my momentum, but I didn’t know which way was up, and as soon as I hit the ground I was spinning and airborne once again. I heard my own voice, floating somewhere above my head, declaring to me, calmly, “Hillary, this is it. You’re dying.”

This was my death.

Relax.

You’ve got to relax.

Breathe.

It will all be over soon.

Somewhere between the six points of impact and the 150 feet I had fallen, I lost consciousness. I remember the vivid pain when I came to. The world was throbbing, pulsing in and out. I couldn’t see straight . . . only blurred shapes amid the blackout pain. I screamed out when the pain came, hoping that yelling would somehow release the intensity of the agony rushing over me. I felt like I was being suffocated. Unable to breathe or relax, I kicked my legs out of reflex and frustration. Then I thought to myself, You’re moving your legs; that’s a good sign. You’re not paralyzed. But then the pain would rush back. I shut my eyes tight, and flashes of red and yellow danced across my eyelids.

Somehow, I realized, I was only in my socks. My shoes must have flown off my feet somewhere along the way down the mountainside, as I tomahawked through the air. I couldn’t move my arms or hands. When I looked down, all I saw was a bundle of bones that didn’t look like arms, and my wrists were turned the wrong way.

Suddenly there was a voice, and the face of another runner I vaguely recalled seeing earlier in the race. I had passed him as we ascended the steep part of the ridgeline, and we had exchanged some words of encouragement. Why was he here now? Had he fallen too?

His arms were wrapped around me. His face was close to mine. Had he been here the whole time? He covered me with an emergency blanket and his jacket. Manu was his name, as I learned later. He had seen the rockfall, and me with it. Trained in first aid and as a wilderness responder, Manu scrambled down the ridgeline after me.

Others had seen me fall too. My good friend Ian Corless, a professional photographer who worked for the Skyrunner World Series, was perched on the summit of the ridgeline waiting for my arrival, but as I came around the corner, what he saw through his lens wasn’t what he expected. Another good friend, Martina Valmassoi, was with Ian. Martina, a professional ski mountaineer, runner and photographer, was terrified when she saw me fall off the cliff. They both thought they had just witnessed my death. Panicked, they quickly called the race director, Kilian Jornet, who called the mountain-rescue team. Martina, Ian, and Kilian scrambled their way down to me.

As I lay there, seeing the fear in their eyes, their features expressed what I was already thinking: I’m dying.

Martina put her puffy jacket over me, mostly to cover the blood but also to keep me warm. My body convulsed. I focused on Martina’s voice as she stroked my head and told me it would all be OK. As I continued to cry out in pain, she looked to Ian and Kilian, their worried eyes full of urgency, desperation and despair.

Where was the rescue team?

After an agonizing 30 minutes, I heard the bellowing sound of the helicopter. As it approached, the vibrations of its blades and the wind created in its wake pulsed over me. A doctor lowered onto the ridgeline and scrambled down to me to assess the damage. “Inhale,” he told me as he sprayed something up my nose, some sort of painkiller. It dulled the pain, but not my confusion. My eyes took in the shapes of their faces . . . they were still full of fear.

From that point on things moved quickly. There was a lot of movement. There was a lot of pain. Ian, Kilian, Manu, Martina and the doctor tried to stabilize me. They shuffled rocks around, trying to make room to hoist me up onto the rescue cot. Any slight movement sent pain shooting throughout my body. With every movement, I yelled out in anguish, my cries eventually dissipating into a whisper. I didn’t know where the pain was exactly. I couldn’t pinpoint it or figure out where it originated from—I felt it all over. As I was secured to the cot, the doctor fastened himself by my side and signaled to the helicopter pilot, who flew up and away from the side of Hamperokken ridge. The feeling of falling swept over me again, and I closed my eyes tight.

Breathe. It will all be over soon.

Once inside the helicopter, I heard myself whimpering. The vibrations of the chopper sent pain signals pulsing throughout my body. I looked to the doctor and asked, tears streaming down my face, “Am I going to be OK?”

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