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.
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.”
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.)
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.’”