Our positive running story this time features Zachary Friedley, an adaptive athlete who currently lives in Mendocino, California. I had the great pleasure to meet Zach for the first time at the 2021 US Trail Running Conference, and was just blown away by Zach’s clarity and passionate support for encouraging race directors to welcome a more diverse audience of runners at trail races. Talking with him about his blade, and the realization of how much difference having this technology that helps him trail run was so humbling, and a reminder of how much we all have to be grateful for. (Zach is pictured in full flight on the run by Luis Escobar in the image above). I recently had the chance to catch up with Zach, and here is the result of our interview:
You are an adaptive athlete, running with a blade on your right leg. Can you share what led to you being an adaptive athlete and what the term means to you?
I was born missing my right leg from above the knee, along with several fingers on my right hand. I have been an athlete since I was a kid – I started off in wrestling and later moved into competitive paralympic running in my twenties, right around the time I received my first running blade. This was my first introduction to adaptive sports and it was a super awesome experience. It was around that time that the term “adaptive athlete” became sort of mainstream, at least to me. “Adaptive athlete” can mean many different things, because there are so many different people having different experiences out there, but for me it means that I am an athlete who uses a custom piece of equipment (my prosthetic leg and blade) to get out on the trails.
When did you start running, and what drew you to the trails?
I always ran in sports as a kid, at things like football and wrestling practice. However I didn’t really become a runner until I got my first blade back in 2007. I was in my early twenties and had a lot to prove to the world, and myself. With a chip on my shoulder, around 2007, I set out on a journey to make a Paralympic track team but crashed and burned pretty hard: I really never even came close to making a team and got smoked by athletes who went on to compete at the Paralympic games. By the end of 2014, I thought running was behind me.
I moved to Northern California in 2015 and my life started to drastically change, my relationship with myself went deeper, and I started to embody myself differently. When I landed in Mendocino, I started working with a somatic shaman, a mahatma (basically a monk who lived in an ashram in India), and many other mentors who offered so much experience and wisdom. Slowly, I began to move my body differently on the local beaches and through the mountains around my home on the coast. In 2019, I randomly ran a local 5K, then a few weeks later found myself at Born to Run Ultra Marathon in Los Olivos, CA. I ran my first ever trail race at Born to Run – it was a 10 mile race and I was hooked. I think the draw for the trails for me is being one with nature and exploring the world in a way I only dreamed of as a kid. There is something pure and raw about it. I instantly fell in love with the experience and have been running ever since.
What are the top three things you enjoy about running, and why?
I enjoy the physical challenge of trail running, it puts me in a position to be present, and really be in my body. My relationship with gravity becomes very intimate during this. It is almost like flowing through a mystical experience and giving/receiving energy through nature. The freedom of running has also been a liberating experience – this is not something I ever thought I would have access to as a kid. But everyone has this opportunity to move through nature with the bodies we have, no matter what our bodies look like, fast or slow, adapted or not, none of that really matters.
I also really enjoy the community of trail running which I have found welcoming and curious about me. We all have our own unique life experience but we share a love for moving our bodies through the most amazing landscapes the planet has to offer.
What has been your favorite race experience to date, and what made it special for you?
I would have to say Greenhorn Ranch 25k in 2021. It’s a All We Do Is Run event, hosted by Luis Escobar and his wife Beverly. It was the race where Luis and I really connected. From that moment on my life has been so different. Luis has opened up all the doors he has access to – he is such a great example of a person who is using their platform to elevate others, especially others from marginalized communities such as the disabled community. If I were to write a book, Luis would absolutely be a main character in it. That weekend is one I’ll never forget. He’s changed my life. I love that guy!
You have been a passionate and active ambassador for increasing diversity in trail running. Can you share a few of your many wins to date, and what is your vision for the future of trail running for adaptive athletes?
This is one of my favorite topics. So far a couple of wins are being able to share my experience on several different stages, such as the US Trail Running Conference. I believe that building space for people from marginalized communities – like the disabled community – to tell their stories, we can really create opportunities for all people. Everyone belongs on trails no matter what their backgrounds or abilities are. Another big win is happening soon. I’ll be hosting, with Luis Escobar, the Born to Adapt event in Los Olivos in April 2022. This is a trail race event designed for adaptive athletes – so people who may have limb differences, those who use prosthetics or equipment to move, for example – and more specifically adaptive athletes that maybe have never been on a trail in their life. I want to give people access to trails in a way that’s welcoming and safe, and hopefully planting the seed for them to continue running on trails.
My vision for the future is having an adaptive division for all major trail races. I want to see adaptive athletes competing for a UTMB crown or a Western States title, just like you see multiple adaptive athletes winning a 100m title at the Paralympics. There will be plenty of sponsorship opportunities for these adaptive athletes as well. This is the future we are creating as we speak!!
You attended the 2021 US Trail Running Conference after your friend and supporter Luis Escobar introduced us. You talked about how good it felt that you had a seat at the table during the Conference. What difference has being there and sharing your story made to your dreams and goals?
That was a super important event in my journey. This is really when I stepped into my power on a public forum. One of my life goals is to be a voice for others who do not have the privilege or ability to have a voice. I was able to be an advocate for my community. That event opened up other opportunities for me. This is a can’t miss function and I look forward to going back and sharing more experiences. My dreams and goals are public now, when you google Zachary Friedley, I want it to not show my accomplishments with running but rather this person is creating the space for all athletes of all abilities. I got your back!
What wisdom would you share with a younger version of yourself about being an adaptive athlete?
I would tell younger Zach to relax, drop your jaw, take in a deep breath and exhale: you have nothing to prove. You can use your energy for other people. I would tell him to rely on his heart and that it’s ok to share love, it’s abundant. Your people will find you! And most importantly never stop smiling!
If we could share a message on your behalf to the World, what would it say?
I would tell everyone to be a little kinder, to yourself especially. Let’s all help each other out, no matter what our backgrounds are. We are stronger together! Kindness goes a long way.
Could you share one thing that is unique about Zach that no one would know by looking at you?
The average age of my best friends is 77 years old. I think having the friends I have gives me a lot of wisdom and life experience to use in my own life. I love listening to them talk about their lives – it gives me such a broad perspective.
What are your running and life goals for 2022?
My life goals for the coming year are to scale my nonprofit, the Mendocino Movement Project, and really be able to help physically challenged people move their bodies, no matter what their goals are from running a full marathon or being able to play with their kids, it’s all equally important. And I want to do this by also making myself as visible as possible as an adaptive runner, which means running big races around the world and speaking on behalf of DEI in running on all sorts of different platforms. The long term goal of all of this is to build this adaptive athlete division for major races so we can start to see new faces on top of podiums in races like UTMB or WSER. I get to wake up everyday and work towards these things, and for that I am a very grateful human!
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