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Come As You Are: How To Host Inclusive Trail Races With Happy Trails Racing

Trail running might not seem like the most accessible sport. According to a March 2019 article in Canadian Trail Running Magazine titled “Do trail and ultrarunning have an inclusivity problem?” it is “dominated in participation by highly educated and high socio-economic status individuals.”

Participants need transportation to get out to remote areas where events are held. Race fees can be expensive—and the time allowance participation requires can be too. The varied and often difficult terrain the trails may not be for ideal for any athletes with mobility issues.

Heather Borsellino knows this first-hand. She’s the Race Co-ordinator for Happy Trails Racing, an organization that hosts a growing number of trail races in Ontario every year. She runs HTR with her husband, Race Director Jeff Rowthorn. They’re both ultramarathoners who have been on the scene for a long time—long enough to watch it transform.

“It’s definitely becoming more inclusive,” Borsellino said. “We’re seeing a lot more changes that we’re trying to be as sensitive to as we can—to make sure we’re adapting them and that we’re doing it correctly.”

The trail running scene is changing and Heather and Jeff are doing their best to keep pace.

I spoke to Heather about what they have done so far at HTR to make their events space inclusive and accessible for all—and what their next move will be. Below are some of the amazing key takeaways.

Heather Borsellino and Jeff Rowthorn, source:  Instagram

Heather Borsellino and Jeff Rowthorn, source: Instagram

1. Talk to your athletes about their needs

It might seem simple, but the best way to find out what people in your community need is to talk to them—and stay genuinely open for critique.

“I think we are by no means are experts, and we’re open to as much feedback as possible,” Borsellino said. She cited the example of learning from wheelchair athletes—Happy Trails Racing hosts the Foxtail Hundred, a rail trail race they are working on tailoring for accessibility in the future.

“We have them telling us that there’s a certain turning radius they need in their chair. It can’t be a hairpin turn. They need a certain amount to get around. We rely heavily heavily on the feedback of those athletes.” HTR also make accommodations for athletes with vision issues and hosts “Cool Beans” runs at many of their regular race events—1KM non-technical courses for people of all ages and abilities.


2. Keep runners of all abilities in mind

Some races are built with the fast and well-seasoned runner in mind. Many don’t cater to the back-of-the-pack runner or the nervous rookie who is looking to delve into trail running for the first time.

To address this, Happy Trails Racing tries to offer as many distances per race as they can, starting with a 5k and working up to as many as 100 miles. That way each event can accommodate people running their first trail race or their 10th ultramarathon.

They also try to be generous when it comes to cutoff times.

“The longest distance that we have has a fairly generous cut off, and all of the other distances have the same cutoff,” she said. “Really, I think it’s less daunting. The tightest cut offs will be with our longest races. But again there’s usually built-in options, so if people need accommodations for that extra time, we can make time for that.”

3. Use a more personal touch

Borsellino and the Happy Trails Team work hard to accommodate each athlete’s needs on a case-by-case basis. She detailed a time when they made arrangements for a walker to get an early start for a 50K event.

“We do have lots of opportunities for people with any mobility concerns, or anything that might make them a little slower, to start early. We do our best to support them along the way.”

Another time, the team mapped out a special detour for a participant who couldn’t tackle a particularly technical section of the trail due to a stroke.

 “We do have an event in the fall that has a really technical part that’s rooted and heavily rocky. He had an alternative path that he was guided to, to avoid this one area so that he could still participate in the event and still do the distance.”  

3. Take time to build your community

One of the unique features of HTR races is iron-on patches they award after each race—the wolf patch and the bear patch.

“We really try to celebrate anyone who’s on the trail,” Borsellino said. “The wolf patch celebrates somebody who has a pack mentality, who exhibits camaraderie, who’s kind to the volunteers and the people around them. The bear patch celebrates somebody who is just really gritty—who ran a really brave or courageous race.”

Creating a community in which people feel seen and recognized for their efforts can keep people coming back for more—and help them feel like they have a place. If someone nominates you, you’re getting the patch.

“We’ve had some great feedback—some of it’s been quite emotional. Someone overcame a huge amount of addiction and took to trail running as their way out … and they ended up receiving one of these bear patches. It meant so much more to them that we had ever anticipated. It was something that was quite moving. It makes it all worth it.”  

HTR Wolf Badge Certificates

HTR Wolf Badge Certificates

HappyTrailsWolfBadge2
HappyTrailsWolfBadge3

4. Address other racing barriers

Happy Trails Racing also has systems in place to help those who might face challenges beyond the physical when it comes to racing. If racing is cost prohibitive, participants can volunteer once and receive 50% off of their race fee. If you volunteer twice, you receive 100% off.

Additionally, every race Happy Trails hosts raises money for a different cause close to the heart of their organization. If racers can fundraise a certain amount, their sign up fee will be refunded to them. (This June they also sold special Pride-themed shirts, with proceeds going to LGBT Youthline.)

They also have a donation program for new or gently-used gear to help at-risk and homeless youth in a running program at Covenant House.

“We’ve been gathering gear for them and they can also race with us for free … And that’s really giving them an opportunity they might not have to participate in something like that,” Borsellino said.  

They also offer guided community runs in Southern Ontario, free of charge. Anyone can join.

5. Keep future improvements in mind

Even with all of these supports implemented, Borsellino is the first to admit there are always improvements to be made.

“We have a lot to learn! It’s something I’m incredibly passionate about. I want people to feel welcome,” she said. One such improvement will eventually be adjusting their race registration form to include a wider array of gender identities.

 “It’s something I’d like to investigate—find a race that handles it well, where we feel like, ‘Yes!” You’ve hit it on the mark! You’re making sure that everybody feels like they have a place.’” Borsellino said. “That’s where we’re headed.”

Some races, like the Toronto Pride and Remembrance Run offers men’s, women’s, trans and non-binary options and medals for each category. Still, many other races only offer the male/female categories upon registration. (Even Boston has some eyebrow-raising transgender policies, including trans women needing certain testosterone levels.)

 
Happy Trails Racing’s 2019 Pride Month shirt, designed by Heather

Happy Trails Racing’s 2019 Pride Month shirt, designed by Heather

 

The Happy Trails Racing team are an excellent model for fostering inclusion in athletics. Their thought-process and tactics could (and should) be applied to other races and even other sports events.

It works so well because it comes from a genuine place. In speaking to Heather, it’s very clear that the community vibe trail running has become famous for is a driving force in her decision-making and efforts. It’s not a community built on exclusivity and keeping people out—it’s about bringing all kinds of people in.

“The nature of trail running in particular for me is very connected. It’s very collaborative. It just seems to transcend some areas where there are barriers,” she finished.

“You’re welcomed with open arms. It’s ‘come as you are, we’re happy to have you.’”

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Opinion: We Need to Ditch the Idea of Arts Vs. Athletics

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Athletes are artists.

The thought re-occurred to me watching Adidas’ latest “Here to Create” ad during March Madness. (Shoutouts Villanova!)

If you haven’t seen it, the ad features an array of athletes looking into the camera, and telling the audience: “see my creativity.” It’s a quick 30-second watch, check it out:

The whole thing got my gears turning about something I’ve been wrestling with for more than a decade. Athletes are creatives—even if society likes to play up those who play sports athletics and those who create art as opposites. 

Sure, there's crossover between the two worlds when it comes to activities like dance, or even yoga… But chiefly, the image of athletes being pure sweat and grit is often a foil against the sensitive and soulful artist. 

For a long time, I believed I had to choose. 

In high school, I thought of myself as artsy and misunderstood. Sweating was for JOCKS. I probably unfairly wrote off some of my athletic classmates as shallow… But then, it wasn’t like I had constructed this notion from nowhere—the media was there to back me up.

Movies and television reinforce the identity story of athleticism vs. pretty much every other interest—think: The Breakfast Club, think Mean Girls. You can’t be a great poet and kill it at lacrosse. You can’t have a photographic eye and a killer right hook.

Every once in awhile, Zac Efron wins the big basketball game AND nails the singing audition—but on the whole, the media keeps resubscribing us to the idea of these two things are enemies (#fakenews). The problem is we believe it, and now the next generation is growing up believing it. Finally though, our stories have begun to change. Finally, we're catching up. 

Now that I’m older, I'm a writer and a runner. I know that the call to an athletic vocation can pull at the soul as much as any artistic endeavour. Just like an artist has to discover where their talent and passion lies, so does an athlete—painting or poetry? Sprinting or ski jumping?

There are stories in my sweat.

When they find what speaks to them, both put in the hours to hone their craft. There is deep digging. There is soul searching. There are failures, improvements, and masterpieces. (Think game-winning slapshots in OT or Best Original Screenplay.) There are experiments—new paints, new shoes. There are competitive meets and opening nights. There is struggle—and there is always art in struggle. 

Studies have shown that athletes can make better students. Without the stranglehold notion of arts and sports as war enemies, I'd bet they can make great artists too—and vice versa.

In my personal experience, practicing my sport amplifies my creativity. There are stories in my sweat. I’ve been been struck by the opening line of a poem mid-run, and spent the last miles writing it in my head. I connect with music the most deeply when I’m moving to it. When I got a tattoo after my half marathon last year, I felt both like art and artist. Watching people cry on the Olympic podium or celebrate at marathon finish line move me as much as any Oscar-winning performance. 

Sports shake off the sleep of everyday existence. We are awake, so we create. 

In the future, athletics could be the place where the pumping heart meets the artistic soul—we just have to start talking about it. Stop making people—especially young people—choose. Spread the word: you can have it all. You can do both. You're not the only one out there smashing the standard—in fact, you're in pretty good company.

Serena Williams paints. Terry Crews is an amazing artist and actor. Britney Spears was a point guard in high school (and honey if you think busting moves and singing on stage at the same time isn’t athletic as hell, get on board). 

So what’s your sport? What’s your art? How do they work together? It's time to be proud of your intersections. It’s time to smash the myth and create a whole new generation of Zac Efrons. (...Err...)

Maybe it starts with a TV ad. Maybe it starts with us.

Personally, I’ll be brainstorming the next time I put on my running shoes.

How to Feel Like a "Real" Runner in One Easy Move

Question: what's a "real" runner? 

For some, it's simple. You run? You're the real deal. Still, people use excuses to call themselves anything BUT, or worse, find ways to bar other people from the title. How far you run, where you do it, what you wear, if you listen to music or not—too many qualifiers have been part of the debate over time. Lucky for us, times are a changin'. 
 

"I Run, but I'm Not a Runner."

In the "before" we had one idea of what a runner looked like: the gazelle-human hybrids with calves of steel, shredding any distance like so much iceberg lettuce, leaving the world huffing their dust. Now, the definition has opened up as Instagram tags, podcasts, and even advertising campaigns show us that real runners come in every size, at every speed.

If you're someone who is struggling to accept your title—aren't I just a JOGGER?—I've got one easy move to turn those tables. Ready? Of course you are.
 

The Move

1. Run outside. See other runner approaching from opposite direction.

2. As you come within eyesight of that runner, just as you're passing, elevate and then drop your chin in a nodding motion. Alternatively, give them a small wave. Soldier on.

That's it.

It's called the Nod, or the Wave. (Creative, I know.) If you've ever received one, you know how awesome it feels. During my first half marathon training last year, one windy, rainy Sunday I had to tackle 14 kms, a distance I'd never taken on before. It was early. I left behind my sleeping friends and crept outside to brave the elements, feeling unsteady about the distance literally stretching ahead of me.

Then a fellow runner braving the elements gave me the Nod. It was like I had been accepted into a secret club. I was running solo, but I wasn't alone. I ran 16 km. 
 

Community Building 101

This simple, powerful gesture turns random people into a community, and transforms joggers into runners. The Nod tells us we're all in this together. It says, "I see you." It says, "you're one of us!"

There is a small caveat that some runners may not return the gesture—don't take it personally. As Marc Parent wrote in his Runner's World piece "You Know You're A Runner When..."

"...when I see runners, I not only trust them, I wonder who they are. I think they could be my friends. I think we would feel the same about everything. We would like the same bands. The runners who frown when I smile and wave just don't understand that yet."

By giving someone ELSE the Nod, you recognize that you're doing the same thing they're doing. They run. You run. They're a runner? You're a runner. Boom. Welcome home. 

Maybe this sounds ridiculous, but it's important that title of "runner" be shared by as MANY people as possible. We are not VIP. We are the literal human race. The more people who call themselves runners, the more we expand the scope of our sport. Outsiders might see themselves in our movement, and get courage to change their lives. More victories. More friends.

The running community, and the fitness community as a whole, improves as it grows and changes. And really, the more people who feel included, the stronger and more vibrant our movement becomes. We need to expand and welcome—nod if you agree.