These New 2022 Trail Races Aim to Increase Inclusion for Adaptive Athletes

Trail races that cater to adaptive athletes can be hard to find, but there are a few people working to change that.

By on January 21, 2022 | Leave a reply

Even though Zachary Friedley has run for his entire life, finishing his first 10-mile trail race was life-changing. For Friedley, who was born missing his right leg above the knee and runs on a blade, the experience gave him a mission to bring more trail running and ultrarunning opportunities to adaptive athletes like himself.

“I went to the Born to Run Ultramarathon Extravaganza 10 Mile Race, and I didn’t even know I could run on a trail. I was just in the right place at the right time with the right people. And I ran this 10-mile run, having never run more than three miles before, and it was one of the greatest experiences of my life. I crossed the finish line, and I cried,” Friedley said.

Friedley founded Mendocino Movement, a nonprofit helping to make movement accessible for all, and has since run several ultras, hoping to someday complete a 100 miler. His focus now? Expanding opportunities for other adaptive athletes in the trail running community.

“The world just became more available to me, and I think it’s really important to get people like myself to have that experience,” he said.

Zachary Friedley - Adaptive Athlete running

Zachary Friedley running on the trail. Photo: Luis Escobar/All We Do Is Run

As the trail running and ultrarunning communities look for ways to improve diversity and increase inclusion in the sports, a few new races in 2022 are proactively courting adaptive athletes. Race organizers aim to include more adaptive runners by creating events that support them in everything from course design to race-day support.

“Why haven’t we thought of this before? What’s been holding us back?” asked Luis Escobar, race director for the Born to Run Ultramarathon Extravaganza. “I think the only thing that has been holding us back is simply awareness and education.”

Born to Adapt 3-Hour Challenge

The Born To Run Ultramarathon Extravaganza has historically hosted four-day, 100-mile, 60-mile, 30-mile, and 10-mile events. In April of 2022, it will also feature the Born to Adapt 3-Hour Challenge specifically for adaptive athletes and is directed by Friedley.

Escobar said that partnering with Friedley to put on the Born to Adapt 3-Hour Challenge in conjunction with the existing Born To Run event was a natural and logical fit.

“It only makes sense to give the stage to Zach and help him create this unique event,” said Escobar.

The Los Olivos, California, event invites adaptive athletes to race on Saturday, April 16. Runners in the adaptive race will complete a loop, likely five kilometers long, as many times as possible in three hours.

“Participants can run as much or as little as they want within this three-hour period. This gives everybody an opportunity to win a race or place in their age group,” said Escobar.

Zachary Friedley - Adaptive Athlete portrait

A portrait of Zachary Friedley. Photo: Luis Escobar/All We Do Is Run

The group also designs the course to help alleviate nerves for first-time participants. Friedley views the entry-level race as an opportunity for adaptive athletes to log a couple of miles on a trail — possibly for the first time in their lives.

“My vision is to create something that is for the beginner who has never run anything to kind of get them hooked to go do a 100-miler. That’s what happened to me,” he said.

Friedley will also offer a virtual Born to Adapt event for any runners looking for a way to support 3-Hour Challenge athletes. Runners who sign up for the virtual event can run any number of miles on April 16 in solidarity with the adaptive athletes out on course and will receive a custom T-shirt and be entered into a gift card drawing.

“We’re learning as we go, and my goal is not to be one and done, but to continue this and have these events happening all over the country so athletes can access this and get the same opportunity,” he said.

The Iron Will 100 Mile

In September of 2022, adaptive athletes looking to take part in an ultramarathon can sign up for the Iron Will 100 Mile, which features 100-mile, 36-hour, 50-mile, and 50k races. The event was created by ultrarunner Will Sprouse.

Sprouse regularly ran 100 milers before suffering a stroke in 2020. As he returned to running, he said he struggled to finish the 100-mile races he’d previously completed. “After my stroke, I found it hard to make the 30-hour cutoff even on a [smooth] trail,” he said.

Sprouse spoke with other runners, specifically Tom Green and Kent Bragg, who cope with similar challenges. When Sprouse found that very few ultras cater to adaptive athletes, he decided to create his own.

Will Sprouse - 2012 Hawk Hundred

Will Sprouse running the 2012 Hawk Hundred Mile in Lawrence, Kansas. Photo: Chris Wristen

“I started out with a stroller for balance. A lot of times, when our brain gets tired, it just won’t hold our body up anymore. Tom Green runs with the stroller every race. So this trail is designed to be stroller-friendly and also with a 36-hour cutoff,” said Sprouse.

The trail surface is flat and smooth so athletes can use a stroller for balance if needed. Sprouse also invites runners of all abilities to chase their PR on the flat, fast course. The various distances will complete multiple out-and-back runs along a flat river trail, and there will be crewed aid stations every five miles.

Sprouse hopes to hold the race every year, and said he would consider making a sister event with an assisted wheelchair division in order to invite more adaptive athletes to participate.

“I will … make whatever works so the others can enjoy ultrarunning again,” said Sprouse.

Taking Actions Toward Inclusivity

Escobar has been involved in ultrarunning as both a runner and a race organizer for nearly 30 years. He said that proactively inviting adaptive athletes to trail running and ultrarunning events should follow the diversity and inclusion discussions that have taken place in the sports in recent years.

“From a social standpoint, it only makes sense that everyone is included regardless of who they are, where they’re from, or what their story is. From a business standpoint, it makes no sense not to include everyone in the outdoor industry,” he said.

Friedley noted that one of the current barriers to entry for adaptive athletes is competitive structure. Adaptive athletes often don’t see the same opportunities for competitive divisions, podium spots, and sponsorships.

“The obvious answer is, let’s create an adaptive athlete division so there’s more visibility for these athletes, and they get the same opportunities as everyone else,” he said.

Friedley sees the potential for adaptive categories that already exist in other structures to transfer to ultrarunning. Athlete categories or classifications like those used by USA Track & Field, or the major world marathons, he says, could easily carry over.

Will Sprouse - Iron Will 100

“Iron Will” Sprouse with friends during a 100-mile race. Photo courtesy of Will Sprouse.

Another consideration is race formats. As both Friedley and Sprouse noted, traditional cutoff times can be difficult or unattainable for adaptive participants and put additional stress on the athlete on race day. Escobar said the solutions to include more adaptive athletes don’t have to be complex.

“From a race director’s perspective, there might be some special considerations in the format of the race. If we know adaptive athletes are going to be on course and perhaps they are going to be out there longer than what we’re used to, then we might need to make adjustments — maybe an early start, maybe a modified course,” he said.

Friedley said more education, awareness, and resources can all be key to helping more adaptive athletes experience what the trails have to offer. “This is something that is pretty simple in my opinion; you’ve just got to start to do it,” he said.

Escobar agreed. “The main goal is to get everyone onto the dirt.”

Call for Comments

  • Do you know of any other races made specifically for adaptive athletes? Let us know in the comments section!
  • Are you an adaptive athlete competing in trail running and ultrarunning? We’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments.
Zachary Friedley - Adaptive Athlete running-3

Zachary Friedley makes his way down a trail. Photo: Luis Escobar/All We Do Is Run

Kristen Arendt
is a freelance writer and editor specializing in the outdoors. Based in Niwot, Colorado, she ran competitively for over a decade on the track and roads before finding her love for trails.