Trail Runner’s Book Review: Hillary Allen’s Out and Back

Out and Back: A Runner’s Story of Survival Against All Odds, by Hillary Allen. Blue-Star Press, 2021. Reviewed by trail runner Laura Clark. Laura is an avid mountain, trail and snowshoe runner who lives in Saratoga Springs, NY, where she is a children’s librarian. Photo above: Richard Bolt.

Hillary Allen’s dramatic rescue from what should have been a life-ending cliff plunge at the 2017 Tromso Skyrace in Norway would have made a riveting adventure flick. Except that it was real. Miraculously, she survived. But what happened afterward? Granted, we have all been injured at some point, have experienced the denial/acceptance roller coaster and the abrupt cut off from our running community. But Hillary’s disaster was so much more than a six-week layoff and it would have been all too easy for her to surrender to feelings of uselessness and depression. Instead, she gives us an intimate, no-holds-barred view of her recovery process, one which leads inward to the innermost workings of her mind and soul.

After reading her narrative, I have a new-found respect for Hillary as a writer. This is not a “with the assistance of…” book but a masterfully planned and perfectly flowing account. Truly inside Hillary’s mind and emotions, I felt as connected with her as I have with my favorite fictional characters. Except the realness adds validity.

Hillary’s journey includes a complete medical team, a host of inspirational readings, a gritty resolve to get back to teaching a mere three weeks after her accident, and a determined group of workout partners. Her “Just Keep Showing Up,” is a cornerstone of her comeback success. In fact, each chapter begins with a mantra that defines her mindset: “Patience Takes Practice,” You Can Achieve It, Not Attain It, “Honor Your Process.” Looking back, her journey seems well-planned, but Hillary’s willingness to share her day-to-day doubts proves it is anything but. Sometimes it is even a one step forward, two steps backwards affair as when during her return to serious training, she broke her ankle and had to start from scratch.

Basically, it all comes down to active acceptance, as Hillary illustrates in her examination of the thought-provoking book, Deep Survival, by Laurence Gonzales. She reflects that the deciding factor in whether someone ultimately lives and dies in a survival situation depends on the ability to relax and accept the circumstances you find yourself in at the moment. A good bit of advice for us all.

Twinned with Cory Reese’s memoir Stronger Than the Dark, Allen’s account provides yet another view of struggle and depression – one that was precipitated by injury and not ongoing medical and mental challenges. And while Cory could continue to run in an albeit less satisfying manner, Allen at first could not even walk. Both acknowledge the necessity of accepting their vulnerability, but Corey’s is an ongoing battle while Hillary’s limitations ultimately resolve themselves. In the end, each acknowledged they were better for the experience, although it wasn’t anything they would have willingly chosen. Ultimately, running is far more than finish times; it is the courage to engage in the ongoing process, whatever that may be for you at the moment.

This is a book you will want to purchase and reread whenever overwhelming circumstances threaten your equilibrium and cause you to doubt yourself.

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