Did you catch episode 36 of Trail Society? I sat down with my co-host and fellow Freetrailer, Hillary Allen to talk all about her run in the inaugural 100-mile race at Ultra Trail Cape Town. If you haven’t yet – give it a listen – what follows are photos from the event from the UTCT stills team: Sam Clark, Roy Potterill, Fahwaaz Cornelius, and Zac Zinn.
Most race results don’t paint a complete picture of what happened out on the trail – they sometimes reflect our fitness, or our capabilities on that day, but more often than not there are stories that go untold as we skim the surface of who was on the podium. Hillary Allen’s UTMB was a whole lot of that. At one point I had actually been told Hillary, “Yeah I think Hillary is going to drop, there’s nothing completely wrong but it’s not going right either.” I think that’s something most of us have experienced deep in an ultra. The cards just aren’t stacking up, at least not in our favor, for no real reason. But Hilly didn’t drop at UTMB, she fought again and again, she finished the loop completing her debut 100-mile race. Was it the race we hoped for? No – but I have a feeling it’s an experience that is going to matter down the road. After recovering from going to the well emotionally, Hillary and her coach decided there was room for one more race in 2022 – and an opportunity to practice the 100-mile challenge.
Nighttime starts are hard – eight, ten, twelve hours of running through the darkness. You have to be comfortable being alone, confident in the your light system, confident in yourself. Practice. How the heck does one sleep, rest, or eat the day of the race? Practice. Hillary and her coach Adam St. Pierre had gone back to the drawing board, evaluated mistakes, possible weaknesses, and leaned into them. They added in evening runs that would have her practicing her fueling late in the day and finishing in the dark without compromising sleep. Practice. While practice might not make perfect, it does create permanent change.
Pushing solo in the heat when things get hard. Practice. Trading running on snow for 10-kilometer of beach running. Practice. The 100-mile distance makes you vulnerable. For Hillary that might have meant telling anyone on course who would listen that she hates rocks and sand – being exposed takes practice.
I like to think that showing up every day to training is the easiest way for ultra runners to build toughness – but what you have to do is be ready to be psychologically flexible when things get tough. To keep leaning in to being uncomfortable in that moment of the race when it’s easier to not. As I watched Hillary walk briskly through the final aid station at the University of Cape Town I knew she was leaning into it. She didn’t really need to push at that point, she could have exhaled, relaxed… but this was practice, and this moment just like her drawn out fight with UTMB will be something she can draw on down the road.
It’s easy to forget how hard these races truly are in the after glow of finishing something that feels impossibly hard. Despite a celebrated win on the rugby club’s green I know Hillary will be pulling out bits and pieces of her nearly 25-hour journey to bring back to the drawing board with her again. Practice. Not to make permanent – but to be ready for the next grand adventure.