This article originally appeared on Trail Runner
On October 25, the UTMB World Series announced an updated policy to encourage the participation of adaptive athletes in trail running. Effective today, the policy will apply across all UTMB World Series events.
UTMB's new policy attempts to address several barriers to entry and competition for adaptive athletes. One of the policy's cornerstones involves the qualification system for the UTMB World Series Finals in Chamonix, France. Now, athletes must meet the standard race requirements, have a UTMB index (meaning they must have completed at least one prior UTMB event), and have earned a minimum of one "stone" through completing a UTMB event.
New Policy Details
UTMB also aims to expand access to adaptive athletes at OCC, CCC, and UTMB races through a new registration system. Adaptive athletes who want to compete in World Series Finals races may bypass the traditional lottery by pre-registering through the UTMB website. If demand is high, a separate lottery will be conducted to distribute race slots for adaptive athletes. Adaptive athletes looking to pre-register for a World Series Finals race are required to fill out an "Adaptive Athlete Open Division" form and send it to race organizers for approval.
The policy also expands access to guides, which some adaptive athletes use to assist them in navigating the challenging terrain and aid stations. (Guides can use a tether that helps gently guide the athlete, but they cannot offer direct physical support.) Now, all adaptive athletes are given an additional bib, free of charge, for a guide for the duration of their race. Guides must also have a valid UTMB index for races and carry their required gear. If athletes need support identifying and securing a guide, they can contact race organizers. Guides won't receive stones or a UTMB index for their participation.
Adaptive Athletes Say Policy Is Lacking
While some athletes appreciated that UTMB created a policy, many feel that it is more lip service than a strategy aimed at truly promoting equity and inclusion.
Zachary Friedley is an adaptive athlete who has competed in the 40K MCC twice and directs his own race specifically for adaptive athletes, Born to Adapt. "In my experience, UTMB just put more mountains in front of me to climb," says Friedley. "This will all come down to execution, and I'm skeptical because they're putting a lot more work on the athlete. I do not personally feel that this policy update is about 'the human spirit.'"
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When directing his own event, Friedley tries to lower as many barriers to entry as possible. "I do all the legwork to track down athletes and talk to them about their needs and concerns, rather than forcing them to find me, and I spend a ton of time researching and figuring out what resources are available and what isn't," he says.
Friedley worries that the current UTMB policy will discourage participation because it puts the onus on adaptive athletes to do significant logistical work--on top of running 25 to 106 miles around the Mont Blanc massif.
According to Friedley, this puts added pressure on athletes to find guides who have run a UTMB event. The stress of finding a guide who's a good match for the athlete is already difficult enough. Additionally, guides either have to pay their own way or get help from their athlete or brand sponsor, which is additional pressure on adaptive athletes, many of whom don't have the financial backing of a brand to help them fly and house a crew in Chamonix.
Categories, Communication, and Cutoffs
Troy Sachs, an adaptive athlete who competed at OCC in 2022, says the categories listed in the policy aren't specific enough. For example, under the updated policy, Sachs, a below-knee amputee, would be in the same category as athletes with above-knee and even arm amputees. Adaptive athletes say the divisions are inappropriate given the breadth of experiences in the athlete community.
"These three divisions do not provide enough scope within the adaptive community to participate against like or similar disabilities," says Sachs. "It’s a policy that promotes inclusion but fails to provide it. The differences aren't just visual. There are significant anatomical movement differences between the three categories. The current policy does not provide the framework for the division to be inclusive and equal."
Adaptive athletes also pointed towards limited avenues of generative communication with the UTMB organization as a major pain point. Friedley and others believe that UTMB could have done more to consult with adaptive athletes. While he had provided input early on in the process, Friedley and others, like Onan and Sachs, don't see a lot of their feedback reflected in the updated policy.
Athletes identified cut-offs as another primary area for improvement. "Some adaptive athletes with lower limb disabilities are battling cutoff times because they may not be as efficient on the uphills or downhills," says Lucas Onan, a single-arm amputee who competed in OCC in 2022. "There also needs to be accommodations such as chairs to sit down at all aid stations so those with lower limb disabilities can manage their prosthetics if need be. There also needs to be funding put together to help adaptive athletes simply get to the races as people with disabilities face more financial challenges every day that most individuals do not."
Some adaptive athletes also want equitable media attention, podium recognition, and prize money, which they say is essential for drawing more adaptive athletes into the sport of trail and ultrarunning.
"I want to be able to compete against others at a high level who are like me, not against those with an unfair advantage over me. We need light shed on us as athletes, i.e., media coverage and cash prizes, just as the nondisabled racers get," says Onan. "This will grow the sport even more and create a more competitive field of adaptive athletes."
UTMB officials recognize their work towards equity and inclusion is not done. "This policy is a first step in ensuring better opportunities for inclusion and equal access for all athletes," said race organizers in a statement. "In addition to this policy, we are actively working to address the unique needs of our adaptive athletes during and around our events. We remain committed to reviewing and refining this policy over time, making necessary modifications or additions in consultation with the athlete community and our organization's stakeholders."
Despite their concerns, many adaptive athletes remain cautiously optimistic that UTMB will remain true to its word.
"I am glad UTMB is putting an adaptive statement out. However, it could be a lot better," says Onan. "I don't believe they truly listened to all of the adaptive athletes out there, but maybe the voice of one. They stated that they are willing to make modifications. We will see if that will be the case. It is a shame that we continue not to be fully heard, but it is a fight worth fighting. We are here and not going away. I want the opportunity not only to run but to compete at the world’s biggest stage, for adaptive mountain athletes to be seen as legitimate, not just to simply be grateful for being here, taking up space."
"If done correctly, this sort of policy could be awesome," says Friedley. "These races are growing, and there's going to be more and more all the time. So the optimist in me is like, if we've got a really great, comprehensive policy in place that was truly informed by athletes on the ground, that would transform the sport in such an incredible way. We have an incredible generation of adaptive athletes competing and beginning to be supported by brands and getting sponsorships. I want everyone to be able to kick ass."
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