In 2017, at Norway’s Tromsø Skyrace, ultrarunner Hillary Allen DNF’d in an unimaginable way: She fell off an exposed ridge, 150 feet down the mountain. That’s where her new book, Out and Back: A Runner’s Story of Survival Against All Odds, starts. Reading the synopsis of the book, you’d imagine that fateful moment to be the climax, but that scary saga takes place in the first chapter. The story, riveting in its twists and turns, setbacks and milestones, is her recovery. Her vulnerability and honesty carry the prose as she deals with pain and fear with remarkable poise and self-awareness.
These are five things we learned from reading Out and Back (and five reasons why you should read it, too).
1. Keep Looking Forward
Allen always hated the word “comeback.”
“To me, it represented a finality to my story. That once I had ‘come back’ and started to run again or do a race, my journey was over, and it was time to stop growing or striving to be better. I wasn’t the same, so there was nothing to come back to.” Injured or not, we are constantly evolving just through our daily experiences. You are not who you were 10 years ago, one year ago, or one month ago. There is no going back or ‘coming back,’ only forward.
2. Slowing Down Is a Gift
Allen’s Out and Back story ends before the pandemic begins, but we felt some current life realness in Allen’s words. Being forced to take a break, whether because of an injury or a quarantine, can feel frustrating and unfair, but we’re also pretty much programmed to find the silver-lining: “One of the best things about injury and recovery is the extra time it gives you,” writes Allen. “Time is the most valuable currency we have. We can’t get it back, and it seems that we always want more of it.”
3. Bushido, the Way of the Warrior
Drawing inspiration from an old pair of La Sportiva Bushidos sitting in her closet, she found a symbol that she would run again someday. Bushido was a code of conduct among samurai, and Allen interprets it as “the way of the warrior.” For her: “It’s palpable, a fierceness I possess, a beautiful stubbornness and unwillingness to give up,” she writes.
How can you welcome the fierceness of the warrior into your life?
4. Life Is Richer with a Depth of Passion
Throughout the book Allen describes her strong connection to science and her love for running and their separate origins in her life. When those two worlds intertwine, her spirit lifts off the page: “Running made sense. It made more sense than anything else. My affinity for the natural world led me to science, but running gave me permission to get outside and really explore. Science might have allowed me to study the physical world, but running allowed me to experience it — to examine it with every fiber of my being and every one of my five senses.”
Those worlds align again when she uses her position as a science professor to come to terms with what has happened to her, turning her body into a lesson plan. In her integrated science course, students applied Newton’s laws to calculate the force of her body hitting the ground. Her anatomy and physiology class practiced identifying all of her broken bones on the classroom skeleton. It is the first time the reader sees her coming to terms with her tragedy, trying to accept it and move forward.
5. Running May Be a Journey to Self-Discovery
What if running was the thing you did to better understand yourself? “I think honestly knowing oneself and exploring the depths of our human experience is the most difficult task, yet remains the most rewarding one,” writes Allen. For her: “Running is how I deal with the unexpected, celebrate the new, embrace the exciting; it’s how I grieve, contemplate, experiment, confront, rediscover, relax, and rise above. It’s the why behind everything I do, and without it I wouldn’t be the same me I’m constantly discovering.”
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