AS PUBLISHED IN TRAIL RUN MAGAZINE AUS/NZ, AUGUST 2019 -GRAB YOUR COPY HERE TODAY!
Former world champion orienteer racer, elite trail runner, young businesswoman of the year, tour guide, podcaster and coach, Hanny Allston is one multi-talented, multi-layered, prolific and powerfully driven individual. So what fuels it all? We discuss her fearsome passion for playing wild in the outdoors. INTERVIEW: Chris Ord
It’s been a long journey from your junior world champion title (in orienteering, 2006) to where you are today: a trail coach, guide, writer, podcaster, small business owner. Looking back, what have been the pivotal moments in your life that you believe had led you to being who and where you are today?
Thank you, Chris. Yes, it really has been quite a journey and one that I never really expected to take. To be honest, the pivotal moments, which I personally call bifurcation points, have either come from a place of feeling thrown off balance or when I realised I wasn’t being true to myself. Bifurcation points can sneak up on you, or they can hit you really hard, but no matter how they arise they really have two options – you can lean into the challenge, or you can lean out. That is, you can choose to grow by harnessing the challenge as a new strength, or you can shy away and continue on the same pathway whilst hoping that it will somehow lead somewhere new. The first option puts you in the driver’s seat, the other is leaving your future up to chance or relying on someone else to do the growth for you. For me, I have always leant into challenges, even on the occasions when I have felt so outside of my comfort zone. I really learnt this art in life, especially at the age of nineteen when my life was thrown into chaos by injury and family illness. I then began to apply this lesson to literally every challenge hence forth, to my athletic development, studies, coaching and more recently, business.
The other driver that has led me to where I am now is this huge sense of urgency to ‘pass it forward’. In all areas of my life I have been blessed to meet extraordinary people who have gifted me their knowledge – from Max and Jacqui, two pivotal running coaches who have since sadly passed away, to business mentors, allied health professionals, race directors and friends. I have always known that the life of an elite athlete can be lopsided as you lean on people to help you strive for those ultimate performances. But personally, I didn’t like the feeling of this so I have always wanted to give back to the community as much as I possibly can. Combining this with the richness of experiences I have had, especially out on a wild trail, has empowered me to share even more. I want others to experience the sensation of being, playing & performing wilder too – the wind sweeping over you as you run alone along a wild ridgeline, your comfort zone stretching until you realise you have moved beyond it. That is an extraordinary feeling and one that everyone should be able to experience.
Just as you reached the top of your game in terms of orienteering and the accolades and public exposure that came with your success, your family life was crumbling with your dad suffering mental health crises and your parents separating – it must have been a tumultuous yet formative time given your youth at 20 years of age. What lessons did you take from that period where professionally all was roses but personally you faced heavy burdens?
I cannot deny how big an impact this series of events have had on me, even until recently. I was only 19 years of age when I faced wheat I now call ‘the perfect storm’ - a full ankle reconstruction, the attempted suicide of my father and medical examinations at university. When I had first visited my father in the hospital I was only three weeks into the recovery process of my ankle reconstruction. Leaning on my crutches and looking him in the eye, I felt like I was literally in the depths of a large whole. I swore then and there to lean into this adversity and rise beyond it. Only 6 months later I became the only non-European athlete to win a World Orienteering Title, and the only junior-aged athlete to win both the junior & senior Titles in the same year. I was very much running towards opportunities and athletic desires through this time. I was also studying hard, a dutiful daughter and a runner progressing up the distance-running ranks. However, after my World Title and the subsequent dissipation of my family unit & home, I did really begin to struggle. It was really only in the last few years that I have actually paused to reflect on these struggles and how I carried myself through. For sure, I made a lot of errors as I leaned into surmounting challenges, and it became so much harder when I lost not one, but two coaches in relatively short succession. But what I have learned more recently is just how these events shaped me, and that they are nothing to be ashamed of – for they are part of the human experience. I now use these experiences to connect to and assist others to help them to find their feet. The only thing that I would change if I could relive these experiences is to allow a little more time for ‘Hanny’, the human at the heart of her playfulness and athletic pursuits. In my haste to move towards my goals and the opportunities I was gifted, I sometimes forget to give her the compassion and self-acceptance that she needed to fully flourish. This is now at the heart of my coaching and my motto in life has become – be wilder, to play wilder, to perform wilder.
You trained in health sciences, then as a teacher but neither medical research nor the classroom seemed to fulfil you – indeed it was this period of professional indecision that ended up seeding your current business name, Find Your Feet. What were the factors that led you to ‘find your own feet’?
Yes, that is correct. I started in medicine but in the aftermath of perfect storm I just wasn’t coping very well amongst the medical profession. All my support networks had dissolved and I just didn’t know how to keep all the balls in the air. I finished medical research and turned towards teaching in New Zealand but found myself at a crossroads here too. At this point I had been struggling with Anorexia, which had heightened after the loss of my beloved coach Max when I was living abroad. I had also reset my goals on qualifying for the Olympic Marathon and had got within 4-minutes of this, but I found turning up to road racing start-lines so vastly different from the orienteering scene I had grown accustomed to and the pressure of all that just so hard on my own. I started with a new coach shortly before coming back to Tasmania and this really began to feel so, so right. But she too attempted to take her life and was later successful. It was at this point that I relocated home to Tasmania and my friends would say, ‘Wow, you’re back! What are you doing now?’ In response, I kept finding my reply as, ‘I am just trying to find my feet’. I felt quite over the constant personal drive for performance and found myself wanting to give back, to help others and running was the language that I now spoke. So one day I just decided to pull adults together to play in the parks of Hobart, all the while teaching them some more skills in running. It really blossomed although I never saw it as a business nor something I would do long term. I just kept taking every opportunity to help people and well, look where it has landed me!
And in honesty, it is this single factor of wanting to help people that has helped me onto the pathway towards finding my feet and I can thank one of my earliest clients for this gift. He pulled me aside and looked me up and down. I know now that he could see how weary and underweight I was. “Hanny” he said, “It is no good trying to give us the beautiful gift of your compassion and energy if all we can see is someone who is not giving the gift back to herself”.It made me really sit up and realise that if I wanted to help others I also had to work on strengthening my own self – to really commit to finding my feet. I have been 100% committed ever since.
You once wrote “You empower others when you empower yourself.” Can you elaborate how this mantra has shaped your own journey and what you believe it can mean to others?
As I have just explained, this concept began when Find Your Feet began in 2009. However, as I have gone on this journey I have really grown in my understanding of what helps us to find our feet. And truly, I believe it begins with a super strong sense of self – I call this my ‘be wild’ state. It began by asking myself, who is Hanny? What does she need to thrive? What empowers her? What frightens her? What has she got to offer herself, her relationships and the world around her? I began to make small changes to the way I lived and I began to realise that I could live more consciously – to live a conscious life that made me feel more empowered, alive, and proud of who Hanny was becoming. This gave me more and more energy and purposefulness, like I was blooming out of a dormant bulb. Changes I made were to pursue the things that I loved the most, a more plant-based diet, electric transport, journaling, working on my relationships, reducing my use of plastics, buying organic & local, taking time for me when I needed it, and generally just trying to make conscious choices rather than responsive ones. Strangely, what I found was not only that I had more energy and excitement to share with others, but that individuals around me also become to change. As we did, we all became stronger in our endeavours and began to perform at higher and higher levels too. So subtle changes ultimately have made huge effects – be, play & perform wilder!
You have a brilliant podcast series that sees you interviewing not just runners but people from all walks of adventurous lives – what is the driving theme behind your choices of who to interview?
Thank you for saying that Chris. Look, I am no natural or talent when it comes to podcasting and there was so much fear when I started The Find Your Feet Podcast (…and in some ways still carry! It is scary to hear your own voice and with now hundreds of thousands of people listening!). However, launching the podcast again came back to wanting to share the words of wisdom I continually felt gifted to receive. Whether it was from the lessons of my past mentors or from new acquaintances I was meeting through my work, there were all these extraordinary voices and stories that I felt needed to be heard in my community. I think because I was now trying to broaden my thinking, I was beginning to realise that there were so, so many important things we all need to be hearing – from climate change and its impact on our natural environments, to nutrition, personal endeavour, the plight of bees, the Tasmanian Thylacine, self-acceptance or running for mental health… so many people with so much wisdom to share! Therefore, I really try to be open when it comes to selecting my guests. When I hear about someone or have an individual recommended to me I just try to ask myself, ‘What have we all got to gain here?’
Of all your interviewees, who has had the most impact on you and why?
In some ways, my very first guest in Paulo de Souza, a NASA & CSIRO scientist who has had a very lasting impact on me. Not only was his story amazing, (and even since I recorded it he has continued to grow as both a remarkable human being, scientist and ultra-runner!) but his drive to help save our food security and resolve the terrible plight of global bee populations is so empowering. Paulo was saying to me that within 10 years the price of apples could be as high as $100 per kilogram because bee populations are declining at such a rapid level. Preventing this has become his mission in life – to leave a healthy, sustainable, secure planet for his children, and their children. It just made me realise that had I not interviewed him I never would have understood the depths of this issue, and it made me feel so driven to deliver the podcast even if I didn’t have the schmickness and skills of other podcasters out there!
You were one of the world’s leading orienteering racers before you stepped across to make a significant mark at an elite level in trail running – what prompted the move across to trail and what were the challenges you encountered in the transition?
For me it was just a very natural, subconscious move into the scene of trail running. Growing up on a farm and later roaming Mt Wellington whilst I trained for my orienteering has meant that I have always loved the trails. Then, when I met my now husband, Graham, we shared this love and I wanted to spend more time out in wilder places with him. I continued orienteering for some time, once again reaching the podium in 2016, but I was doing more and more trail running as a way of exploring the world and our relationship. What I have also loved about orienteering is the sensation of running through landscapes. The navigation is something that I can do but it is not the element of the sport that drives me. So leaving this behind and beginning to run the trails felt like an effortless step. I have no regrets about this move.
You announced at Ultra Trail Australia in 2017 that you were done racing as an elite – what were the motivations behind your decisions?
This was a really hard decision and I don’t think it sat well with me afterwards. It came at a time when I was beginning to feel like I was juggling a lot of balls, perhaps too many. We were trying to get our feet on the ground at Find Your Feet, we were living in a friend’s converted garage with a lot of hefty bills, travelling a lot with the business and our tours, and I was just beginning to feel like it was super hard to maintain the love of racing with all this going on. Further to this, I honestly believed that at some point I needed to ‘not be an athlete’ and ‘be… well… an adult’? I really thought that we cannot be athletes forever! However, as I have come to realise more recently through working with a new mentor, I will always be an athlete. This will always be a partof my identity but it is also wrapped up with other identities too, such as a learner, explorer, woman and teacher. Knowing what I know now, I wouldn’t have said the word ‘retirement’ at UTA 2017. No, I will never ‘retire’ as an athlete. Instead I should have just said that I wanted to see where my athletic journey continued to evolve to. However, all that said, at the time of UTA 2017 I definitely wanted to spend more time supporting Graham and our Find Your Feet Team, as well as using my trail running to explore wilder landscapes. I have definitely done this and it has been rewarding. But I now feel like I can take a bigger step back towards my athleticism and I am ready to let that part of my identity shine a little more again.
Your messaging throughout your channels – social media, promoting tours, coaching and retail business – seems to have a refreshingly heartfelt and personal bent. What is your approach when it comes to the story you want to tell?
Look, to be honest Chris, I just want to be real, authentic, honest, brave, vulnerable. I want to share my story, and others too, and what I learn along the way so that others can navigate the human experiences with greater ease, thus spending more time out doing what they love and with those that they love. For life is a giddy thing, and I am certainly not perfect in any sense of the word. I make mistakes, just as others do. Finding your feet can be damn right confusing! But if I can willingly lean into these challenges, all the while asking, ‘what have I got to gain here?’then perhaps I can help others in even a small way. Then I will be satisfied.
The environment is more than just a fun place to run for you – what is your connection to the land and environment, and what are the key issues you are moved to speak out about?
Absolutely. Nature has become my cathedral, my quiet place where I can celebrate, find gratitude, self-acceptance and deep honesty. It lifts me when I feel flat, and calms me when I am too excitable. It provides places to challenge and extend myself, and also places to rest and restore. When I see it being challenge and in trouble I feel unsettled and empowered to stand up for her. For she doesn’t have a voice – we do! I am so grateful to continue to be given opportunities to help protect our greatest asset, such as my role on the National Parks & Wildlife Advisory Council, a statutory body there to help protect our Wilderness World Heritage Area and National Parks of Tasmania.
You have a particular place in your heart for the trails and landscapes of Tasmania – why do you think the southern isle of Australia holds such a power of attraction for trail runners?
It is just so damn wild! And ‘wildness’, and at its rawest level, ‘wilderness’ is such a rare commodity these days. The guests who join us on our Find Your Feet Tours are always blown away by how rough and exposed to the elements Tasmania is. And yet they too are moved by her beauty and ancient magesticness. I have been to a lot of places on the planet, thirty-six in total, but when I stand isolated on a remote peak in the depths of the South-West Wilderness, there is no feeling quite like it, no place quite like it, no home that will ever be quite like it.
The Takayna campaign - a huge battle to fight for the protection of the Takayna / Tarkine region in western Tasmania - has been getting huge exposure. In that campaign, trail running and trail runners have come to the fore as key agents of change in shaping the issue. What is your take on our role as trail runners, stakeholders and potential champions for environmental issues?
Every human being, whether we run trails or not, really needs to begin to lead a conscious life and make changes that shift us faster towards where we need to be. Climate change is rea. Threats such as forestry and mining are real. A need for resources is real. The boom in tourism is real. As individuals who need trails and wilder spaces to be, play & perform, we all need to ask ourselves, ‘what choices do I have here?’Sometimes we can think that we don’t have a voice but really, we do. We can choose to not take that paper coffee cup, that plastic bag, to pick up that scrap of waste we find on the trail. We can choose to eat more plants, to support campaigns like Takayna, to start a ‘friends of the local trails’ community group. Every time you make one small, conscious change, you are helping us steer ourselves to where we need to be.
How do you personally get involved in shaping the arguments and issues surrounding conservation of our natural landscapes?
Through our business Find Your Feet we try to support absolutely everything that we can although within the limits of our limited resources. This included the recently Takayna Ultra. I am also frequently speaking at events and to schools, a member of the National Parks & Wildlife Advisory Council, and I am braver to speak up to things that don’t sit with me such as writing to local council requesting more signage on our trails or bike lanes for those commuting on the roads. I try to interview podcast guests who can help share their knowledge and tips on how we can live consciously. And then I just try to lead by example, to empower myself to empower others.
You have published a trail running guidebook – what was the seed of inspiration for that and how can might it help regular trail runners like me?
I am doing more and more consulting and performance coaching. Not only was I beginning to see patterns in our experiences and individual’s knowledge, but I kept saying to myself, ‘more people could benefit if they heard this.’I wasn’t thinking about elite athletes as I said this, but people like yourself, myself, my mother even… anyone who wanted to thrive on the trails, no matter how fast or experienced they were. I began writing the book as a small manual to supplement my resources, but as I began writing I just couldn’t stop until it was all out of my head. It became a book of its own accord! At its core, I wanted the everyday trail runners to be able to adopt and benefit from the methods that many elite athletes use, and to train & perform in a way that gives them lasting health, vitality and success. I have been overwhelmed with how the community has supported it, with over 3000 copies now out there in the hands of our trail running community.
As a coach, what are the most common mistakes you see being made by clients and runners –in a physical or training regime sense, but also in a psychological sense? How can we all approach our training and running better mentally?
Firstly, I would love to say what I see being done well, and that is seeing people just having a go! It is so inspiring to see so many new faces coming into the sport of trail running and willing to embrace the plethora of experiences that it can offer. The other thing I see being done well is the camaraderie. It is such a unique sport in that sense. However, I wish I saw even more people believing that they too are entitled to the methods of the elitist athletes – such as training for sustained health and success, mastering the art of recovery, and simple & effective nutrition strategies during trail runs. This requires adopting the mindset of an athlete, no matter where you are at on your journey, how fast you are, or what goals you may have. If you want to lean into the trails, you are an athlete. So, believe this and allow yourself the skills and lifestyle that assists you to flourish.
Secondly, I want to encourage people to look beyond racing. Whilst I love that it has an important place in our sport, it is not the only option. For some individuals, racing feels unnatural and they feel more at home when on a quite trail to somewhere they have personally aspired to. For now, this is me. This is where I find my best self and to be honest, some of my best performances. So, I encourage everyone to at least consider this when they are next asking the ‘what next?’question.
You once volunteered as the coach of the Australian Junior Orienteering team and at another stage crossed paths with Formula One ace Mark Webber who asked you to ‘pass it down the line’ when he helped you out. What role do you feel volunteering and doing things for others without expectation of reward plays in in growing adventure pursuits like trail running and, indeed, more broadly in terms of personal development?
I have maybe covered this above?
Personal development is a key theme throughout all your work. What are you main tenants for personal development?
Personal development begins with ‘being wilder’. What empowers you? Who are you when you take away all the things you ‘do’? What are your strengths? What would you love to work on? Are you completely accepting of yourself?
Then it requires you to ‘play wilder’ – What do you love? Do you unapologetically love what you love? Do you give yourself the time to allow your loves to flourish? Are you willing to lean in and pursue these loves?
Then it requires you to ‘perform wilder’ and to learn the art of mastering what you love – What knowledge do you need to perform? What skills can you acquire? Who can you learn this from? How can you learn this?
I believe we are at our best when we know who we are, play unapologetically, lean in and then strive to master this.
You once passed up a prestigious scholarship to study at the International Olympic Committee in Switzerland, in favour of staying in Tasmania – tough call?
Yes, but in my heart it wasn’t me. I looked at the pictures of people in suits and corporate attire, thought about how it would likely lead to jobs overseas in larger institutions, thought about all my Find Your Feet’ers whom I was loving assisting, my home in Tasmania, the wild landscapes I loved here… and in the end the decision was simple. It was merely a bifurcation point – to lean in or lean out. I chose to lean out and it was definitely the right decision.
You balance what is obviously a hectic work schedule, with marriage to husband Graham Hammond, who is not only your life partner but also your business partner and run partner – what lessons have you drawn from making that relationship work in terms of mixing business with pleasure and personal life?
We said right from the very beginning that we needed to build the business in a way that always allowed us time out to play. Playfulness is a part of our love language, as was recharging outdoors where we are at our best. It came back to recharging our own batteries before we could recharge others. Not wearing ourselves down and turning something that we love into a chore has been a conscious choice and practice. Then, we both consciously do this every day for ourselves. No matter how busy we are, we take the time to carve out the time that we individually need so that we can be there to support each other. For me this is being outside in my cathedral, journaling and solace. We also make sure that we turn off in the evening – we have the Hanny & Graham who at work are business partners and directors, then we have the Hanny & Graham who at home are wife and husband. We try not to mix the two together. Finally, I have really found value in having a mentor who can help me navigate through my own challenges, assist me with my own growth. Finally, I write and journal… a lot. I find it helpful to clarify my thinking and not bring ‘all my dirty laundry’ to our personal and professional relationship. So yes, in summary, the relationship is not something that just happens, you both have to consciously work on it and bring as much honesty & acceptance to it as you can. To be honest, I am so proud of how we have navigated what would be a challenging space.
As a once-was-racer, you seem to have turned your attention to more exploratory trail running – FKTs and missions to run in all sorts of wild areas. Tell us about what excites you about trail running these days and how your focus shifted through to less competitive, but ultimately perhaps more challenging runs?
Yes, for me, trail running has very much become about exploring wilder spaces and my own growth potential. I am not saying that I will never race again, but right now I absolutely love that sensation of running along a wild beach or mountain ridgeline, knowing I carried myself here and that only I can get myself home again. A small pack on my back, mud in places I shouldn’t have mud, scratched raw, but raw in spirit! By far and away the highlights of my athletic career was running Federation Peak in Tasmania’s South-West wilderness. We had the most epic weather out there and I honestly don’t know what happened, but I shifted into this gear I have never found before. I just felt so at home in the mud, the cold, the torrential rain and the sketchy upper sections. It was so hard and yet so easy. Thanks to all the knowledge I have gathered over all of the years I have been an athlete, I was able to play out there and to thrive. Once again, knowing this and feeling overwhelming gratitude for this is what continues to motivate me to assist others.
You’ve achieved a lot in a short space of time, and despite many challenges – what does the next ten years for Hanny hold?
To be honest, I don’t know Chris and I think I am actually at a place where I am completely okay with this. I used to think that I needed to have ‘life all sorted out’, whereas now I am content with having me, Hanny, more figured out and then allowing life to unfold as it will. I am currently upskilling my coaching in a large way and this involves NLP, hypnosis and relationship coaching. So I really hope that I can continue to help people on a personal, professional and aspirational athletic levels. I have also just completed writing my memoir so I hope to have this published sometime soon and no doubt this will add a new twist in my onwards journey. I also know that I need to continue exploring my own trail running potential. Whether this heads back towards racing or wilder and wackier adventures, I do not know. But I know it needs be strongly in the mix! Finally, I want to continue playing my part for the planet – to keep living a conscious life and finding greater ways to minimise my own personal footprint.
You once wrote a letter to your younger self. What is the abridged version of what you would tell your younger self?
Spend the time getting to know yourself and what you love the most. Do not feel pressured to pursue something because you ‘should’ or you have a fear of missing out. Our greatest gifts will come when we feel empowered, are unapologetically pursuing what we love the most, and continue to dedicate ourselves to mastering this journey… be, play & perform wilder…
And looking the other way – what do you want to say to your 80 year-old self?
‘I just lead a life that has made me jealous… I played my part, did my best and I have no regrets!’
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Hanny Allston CV
2009 Founding director of Find Your Feet, outdoor retailer
2015 Awarded the Tasmanian Telstra Young Businesswoman of the Year
2018 Telstra Small & Succeeding Business of the Year.
Council Member, National Parks & Wildlife Advisory Council
Tasmanian Councillor, Australian Institute of Company Directors
Tour Guide, Find Your Feet Running Tours
Podcaster, Find Your Feet Podcast
Author,Trail Running Guidebook
Coach & Performance Consultant
2006 Only non-European to win a World Orienteering Championships
2006 – 2015 represented Australia at various World Orienteering events
2006 Australian Mountain Running Champion
2007 Melbourne Marathon Champion
2008 Winner New Zealand Marathon & Half Marathon Championships
2009 World Games Orienteering Champion, Taiwan
2009 Australian Mountain Running Champion
2009 Winner Point to Pinnacle
2010 Winner Triple Tops, record holder
2013 Overland Track 82km, record holder (8 hours 10 mins)
2014 Winner Six Foot Track
2015 Winner Six Foot Track (record time 3hr 34min)
2015 Oceania Skyrunning Champion
2016 Winner Ultra Trail Australia 50km
2017 2ndUltra Trail Australia
2017 completed female FKT, South-Coast Track, Tasmania (12hr 15min)
2018 completed return summit and FKT of Federation Peak, Tasmania (11hr 20min)
2018 completed FKT, Frenchman's Cap, Tasmania (6hrs 20min)
2018 completed FKT, Hazards Traverse, Freycinet, Tasmania(2hr 25min)
Find Your Feet
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.