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About Adaptive Running With Zachary Movement

We had a chat with Zachary Friedley about his journey into running as an adaptive athlete and his commitment to raising awareness of his cause.

I first heard about Zachary Friedley during this year's UTMB live stream – don’t ask me at which point of that endless week of live streams. He started to talk about adaptive runners, and I could figure out what was all about. I had to google it. Adaptive runners are runners with disabilities. In Zach’s case, he is a trail runner missing one leg. The more I listened to his interview, the more I realized I didn’t know anything about this topic, despite following the trail running for almost one year now. I went on doing my research and learning more about the topic to discover that there wasn’t much to learn. Adaptive runners have not found their space in trail running yet. In the end, I decided to go straight to the source and reach out to Zach.

Zachary Movement MCC
Zachary at MCC

I heard you talking about your story in the UTMB live stream, is giving interviews and speeches what you do when you don’t run?

This is exactly what I do. I do a lot of speaking about it because I'm a privileged person being sponsored by a massive brand. This is not like the typical experience. I get my visibility through my brand. After that appearance on UTMB, I got probably 50 messages from people saying “Whoa, I didn't know that, you know, people with blades could be on trails or like, this is really cool.”

Last year you decided to be a pro runner. Pro runners like you did not exist at the time. Now here you are. I know it is not easy to pull together a couple of sponsorships that allow a runner to be fully dedicated to his sport, especially in a relatively low-professionalized sport like trail running. Can you tell me more about the process that led you to become a pro runner?

It wasn’t that hard, honestly. Before I decided, to do running professionally, I had been running extensively for 2 or 3 years, training and going to races. When I made that decision to quit my job and go full-time into running, I just felt I had a lot of opportunities that I couldn't take if I had a full-time job. So, like, right after that, right after I made that decision, it was very intentional. It was I'm going to do this. This is like and I had like a vision board. I write up my vision and I see it piece by piece. Those things in my vision board came to reality and I think I signed my contract with On like three months later. Now I have more, Buff for example. So, it came quickly. But I felt it in my heart, you know, I felt it before it happened. I just knew that there was something going to happen. I just felt it, dude.

In the interview you gave to Any Given Runway last April, you talked about visualization and how you use it in training. This seemed to be the case. I know your training changed a lot since you first started running and you attempted to qualify for the Paralympics. You had meaningful experiences in India and changed your approach to life too probably. Can you talk about this process?

When I was in my 20s training for the Paralympic team, it was to prove something. There was maybe a lot of anger and intense energy. I think I might have even had this ego. I didn't have a coach and I was trying to make a Paralympic team, which is insane. And I didn't think that was insane in my 20s. I was angry and wanted to be successful and I wanted to be this person, basically. I wanted to be the person that I am now. I just didn't know how to do it.

Then I gave up on running and later I went to India where I did some inner work with a Sharma to let go of all that stuff that was in my body. From the anger, I then started to come from a place of love and connection and ended up running again. It was the outdoors in Mendocino. I had this majestic beauty around me and I was finding my love of running again. And then magically, I ended up at Born to Run. Which is a phenomenal place for a guy that's going through this to end up. I ran this ten-mile trail race and then my life changed.

Right now, I am working with Eric Gordon, who’s also featured in Born to Run, and we are connected by our love of running. And I'm like a student of running. We visualize a lot of things. I did a lot of visualization, especially for MCC where I was in pain caves, and I was struggling. How am I going to react in those moments? It really helped me this time. I'm becoming the best athlete I've ever been because I am coming from a different place.

I'm not familiar with visualization, could you describe an example of how it helped you during MCC?

So…about my race. I ran in the worst weather of the week. It was the worst condition I've ever run in, in my life. Every step of the way there was some sort of precipitation, whether it was rain or snow. The mud was a foot thick in some spots. It was super intense. The course is hard. There were plenty of opportunities where I felt like, “Oh man, this is kind of messed up.” But I felt really prepared in those moments because I did a lot of visualizing of what it was going to be, shitty conditions included. When I felt it came up, I kept having the same message over and over again in my brain “Man, you're really prepared for this? Like, this is awesome. Like you are so prepared.” I did a lot of self-talk in the race and my self-talk is super nice and I'm never mean to myself: “Man, you're killing it. It’s better to have this instead of Oh, you suck. You're going too slow. You're pathetic”. I have a kind inner voice, which helps.

It's part of your training. Visualizing the race is as important as the workouts. It is the other side of the spectrum and part of why you are successful.

The mental piece is huge. There's no way I would have been able to be successful, especially this year without that preparation. Essentially, the physical training and the nutrition is the easy part. It is mapped out for you, and you follow it. But you can get off track with your mind. I didn't acquire this skill. It was like a lot of practice and a lot of failing at being mentally strong.

Coming back to your appearances during the UTMB live stream, there is one question that came to my mind. Trails in Europe are generally more difficult to manage compared to Americans. On top of this, you are running with an expensive blade that costs thousands of dollars. Do you ever feel scared when you run on the trail?

This is a good question, and I have a good answer for you.

So, you see that mountain behind you right there? [He points to his Zoom background] That's Cotopaxi, which is a 6,000-meter peak in Ecuador. I climbed it last year and I had a moment on that mountain where I broke down and I tried to quit because I'm terrified of heights. At that moment, we've been climbing for hours and hours. We started late at night, and I was about 100 to 200 meters away from the summit. Then the sun came out and I looked around and I thought “Oh my God, Like, how did I get here?” I broke down and got on one knee. I was terrified. “I can't do this. I quit. I quit. I quit.” Carl Egloff, a famous mountaineer, was our guide and came up. He told me “Man, trust yourself. You know, trust your strength, trust your teammates around you. Get up and do this. You got it, man. If you don't do this, I'm going to carry you to the top.” So, I got up with tears in my eyes and made it to the top of this massive mountain.

I realized that I could honor the fear and move carefully around it, but not let it control my body.

When I came back home, I worked with my shaman Fred on this fear that came up. We did a lot of deep stuff inside. I realized that I could honor the fear and move carefully around it, but not let it control my body. When I felt that same fear come up it would have maybe disrupted me or made me panicky. “Oh, here it is. This is that feeling. Just move slowly with intention and you're going to be all right.”

These things I do in my life really helped me this past training season at this past race, because the trails there are insane. The first week there, I went up from Argentière where I was staying and when I came back, I told my coach Eric Orton that this race might be out of my league. He told me to relax and get myself comfortable with the environment. I arrived there early for that reason. Indeed, at the end of my time there, I was looking down and felt normal.

From your experience at UTMB, it seems they are making some steps to have more people like you on the trails. Can you confirm it based on your experience there?

It is an interesting subject. There is a ton of work that needs to be done. I've had conversations about this topic extensively with UTMB and they presented me with a lot of things that they wanted to change. One of them was allowing me to have a guide runner in my race. But we also talked about extending cut-off times or eliminating cut-off times and just sticking to the overall maximum time. Educate officials and people on the course to know what to do when they come across someone like me. Because, you can imagine, people freak out when they see me approaching the aid station. Everything pointed in the right direction ahead of the event.

Then communications dropped, and I still had a lot of questions about my race the guide runner, his bib, aid stations, and more. the guide runner. When I went to pick up my bib, I was told that I couldn’t have a guide runner otherwise I would be disqualified. I had to pull out my email thread with the organizer where they confirmed I could have him. The person was still not sure but when we found the guide runner’s bib in the pack, he apologized by saying he hadn't heard anything about it from the organizers. my bib pack I found my guide runner bib as well.

On race day, we got through the first checkpoint, got to the second checkpoint, and then the sweepers came behind me telling me I had 2.5 hours to get to Argentière and I was not going to make it so I should retire. It was demoralizing hearing someone telling me that during the race. I have a lot of humor, so I laughed. My pacer was shocked about what was happening too. While I ran down in the rain, they started to take down the markers from the route and I had to navigate it myself. They even tried to cut off my bib. Despite this, I finished my race, even though it was an unofficial finish.

I am a pioneer in this field, and I am ready to take some punches as long as we can continue to make changes and strides forward.

After the race, UTMB contacted me about my story and how they wanted to celebrate me. I thought they were joking. I told them the full story and they couldn’t believe it. They changed my result and now I officially finished MCC. This experience tells me that there is still a lot of work to be done but we are starting to move on the right path. I am a pioneer in this field, and I am ready to take some punches as long as we can continue to make changes and strides forward. All I do is for the next generation of trail runners to have a place to come and be successful without having to be chased off a mountain in a rainstorm.

You are fighting for adaptive runners’ rights while there is still a lot to do in terms of gender equality. The pregnancy policy and the UTMB index by gender were implemented only this year. The category you represent has the smallest voice compared to all the others. What you did is amazing and means a lot to other runners, so everyone should celebrate it.

I felt celebrated by my sponsors and my teammates from On. Without them, this experience might have been one of the worst experiences of my life. It is already hard enough running in the mountains, missing my leg above the knee. I don’t want people telling me to quit while I am out there running. On is very special and they are helping me to be this change maker. It takes an entire team of people, not just me. I am privileged that I get to experience this. I hope you're right one day we can iron this out and have an awesome experience for adaptive athletes at UTMB.

This relates to what you do with Born to Adapt and the Mendocino Movement Project. Becoming disabled can happen to anyone, which is why we welcome everyone. This claim made me think about how fragile our conditions are and how much we should care about others. This is what you do with your foundation and events. What is the most frequent feedback you get from disabled people who run their first mile or experience the outdoors for the first time?

There are so many to choose from. But one of my favorite moments is this one. There's a kid who's in sixth grade now and his name is Shaun. He's a wheelchair user and he has cerebral palsy. He came with an offroad wheelchair, and we made this loop. People pulled during the loop. It was amazing. It was a game-changer in his life. Well, the next year, which was this past year, Shaun came back for Born to Adapt Two. This time he was in a walker. He'd been practicing moving his legs and walking in this walker for 12 months. He did his first-mile loop. He did it in front of all these people and everybody's cheering. There are the moments that keep me going. This is exactly what I envisioned when I started this a couple of years ago. We are just scratching the surface of what's possible. Shaun has now signed up for another event outside of Born to Adapt. Our event has given his family the confidence that they can go somewhere and be okay. I set it up to be like an entryway into the trail world where you can choose your own adventure.

How do you envision the event to grow in the future?

We're working on Born to Adapt New Zealand right now. The event will be next February at Rotorua Redwoods with a clinic with my running coach. We are also going to share some knowledge about my prosthesis and the phenomenal work behind mine. My goal is to do three events next year. It would be a great achievement for me.

I know you ran Tarawera earlier this year, but where did this connection with New Zealand come from?

I got to New Zealand a week before Tarawera and I connected with this prosthetics company there. They put me in contact with other people with missing limbs. I then ended up talking about my story on their news channel. People are very inclusive there. They want to be the best kind of humans that they can be. So, my brain started to move around after this, and I thought we got to do an event there and really like slam dunk it so we can take this model and go to other places.

Right after Tarawera, I started Zoom meetings with the people that I met there, and our reach started growing and growing and growing to where we're about to announce the event in about a month.

Born to Adapt is a place where people come to build community, connections, and friendships outdoors.

This is not a real question, but more a comment on something you said and that I really liked. You said that even if you are disabled, you don't have to do something crazy and extraordinary, like trying to be in the Paralympics. You don't have to be like an extraordinary story, but disabled people appear in media only when they are extraordinary. In the end, You're just a human.

The media puts these like hero things on people who have disabilities. And there's a lot of expectation. “Oh, you're a wheelchair user. You should go. You should go do a marathon or hey, you're missing your leg, you should get a blade and go run a marathon”. That's a lot of pressure to handle. You know, there are the UTMB stories and then the Born to Adapt stories. They are equally important. Born to Adapt is a place where people come to build community, connections, and friendships outdoors. Maybe one person out of there will go run. But it's not like I built this thing so we can have a champion.

What does your 2024 race calendar look like?

I'm going to double down on UTMB. I'll be in Europe probably a lot sooner than I was this year. This year I ran Val D’Aran and I signed up for Sierre Zienal but my body told me no. One day I would love to do some of the races in the Golden Trail Series. Anyway, next year I want to run in the Dolomites, probably Lavaredo. Italy is one of my favorite countries I want to spend more time there. I will also check out Girona and see what’s up there.

How did you find the European trail-running community compared to the American one?

In Europe, there is a lot of competition. You show up at the start line and everyone is so tuned in. During the race, nobody laughs, and everyone is fighting for their position. Who cares if you finish 1000th or 1001st? You should have seen the faces of the people when I pass them. They are livid. So, I want to participate in smaller grassroots events this year and feel a true sense of community in Europe too.

This interview has been edited.


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