A Day In The Life Of Adaptive Athlete Zach Friedley

Zach Friedley wakes up with a mission each morning to find his purpose. Friedley, a professional trail runner for On Running, adaptive athlete, founder of the Born To Adapt trail race, and a featured athlete in Born To Run 2, lives far from what most call a normal life. When he’s not traveling the world to race, give clinics/talks for adaptive athletes, attend running-related conferences (I met Friedley at the 2021 US Trail Running Conference in Fayetteville, AR), Friedley is living and training in the quiet coastal town of Albion in the Mendocino Woods of Northern California. It’s tucked away in immense green forests, farmland, and jaw-dropping rugged coastlines. Can his home be any more picturesque? Actually, it can. His neighbors live on a llama farm.

Home is a quiet environment to relax with his wife and dog, and reset from a seemingly never-ending flow of travel. His travels have brought him on adventures such as to the summit of Cotopaxi in Ecuador (19,300 feet) sleeping at nondenominational ashrams in India, and racing at some of the largest trail races in the world including UTMB in France and the Tarawera Ultramarathons in New Zealand. In the past few weeks, Friedley has attended a weeklong running clinic for the paralympic team in Ghana, Africa through the Sports Equity Lab, then flown directly to Chicago to receive a new prosthetic leg that he will use for his summer racing season in Spain, Switzerland, and France at the Val D’Aran, Sierre Zinal, and UTMB races.

For the remainder of this article, I catch up with 38-year-old Zach Friedley on the rare occasion he’s home and not traveling. We share what goes on between these travels, how he finds meaning in his daily work, and explore a day in the life of Zach Friedley.

A Day In The Life Of Zach Friedley

Sunrise. Friedley wakes up with the sun. “When the sun’s up, Zach’s up. Sun’s down, Zach’s down,” Friedley says about himself. His solar-based circadian rhythm has led to interesting sleeping patterns during his travels, such as waking up to a 4:30 sunrise in the Philippines and feeling completely energized, ready to take on the day. During the time of this interview, the sun cycle and his sleep pattern at his home in Northern California are much more normalized, roughly 6:30 AM to 8 PM.

Coffee. Craft coffee is as essential as sunlight to Freidley’s morning routine. After a cup or two (Equator Coffee from the Bay Area is a personal favorite), and a few morning meditations and conversations with his wife, he is ready to enter a world of virtual work. He takes out his phone or laptop and answers emails and sends messages to his followers, partners, and seeks new meaningful connections with others around the world. Nearly every morning he finds fresh emails from his many worldwide contacts in different time zones who write when he’s sleeping. These messages give purpose and direction to his work, “It’s a good way to map out the day. However, sometimes it’s overwhelming and I’m not ready to wake up and look at a phone full of messages. I know when I touch my phone, I’m in. Some mornings I need to meditate or relax for a bit longer. I don’t pick up the phone until I’m ready to put my full awareness into responding and making connections.”

Run. After connecting with people and brands around the world, it’s time to run. But for an above-the-knee amputee such as Freidley, there’s an extra step. Before he leaves the bed, he has to put his leg on. Friedley describes the act of putting his leg on as a powerful morning ritual that signals to his brain that he’s ready to take on the world, “When I mount my leg onto my body, that means I’m moving. I won’t be sitting back down or laying in bed for the rest of the morning. That means the day is ready. It’s a switch that tells me I have to move now. It’s time for business and it’s a signal to me that I’m ready to go anywhere I need to go.”

At roughly 8 AM, Friedley runs out the door for his daily training. He is coached by famous running coach, Eric Orton, based in Jackson, WY, who was featured in the New York Times bestseller Born To Run. Daily training will vary based on where he is in his training cycle for his goal races. He averages 50 miles per week, a mix of trail, road and track running, completing workouts such as 200, 400, or 800 meter repeats, extended zone three heart rate tempo runs, hill repeats, cadence training, and multi-hour long runs on trails that test the limits of his prosthetic. Friedley explains that the fine-tuning of a prosthetic leg for trail running is continually the most challenging part of his running career, “Figuring out the prosthetics has been the toughest part; the actual running part is pretty easy. Sometimes a prosthetic will work just fine on flat roads, but I’ll take it onto the trails and it becomes unusable. To make sure it works the way I know it can work while pushing the limits of prosthetic technology is what I aim to do.”

Prosthetics can also be unpredictable. Friedley raced the Tarawera Ultramarathon 21K (finishing in just 3 hours and 26 minutes), what he calls the best race of his life, and only a few weeks later the same prosthetic he raced on started giving him trouble. The constant adjustments, and hefty financial commitment, are added challenges other professional runners don’t have to worry about. He likens his problematic prosthetic plight to the sport of Formula 1, “Formula 1 cars are highly tuned machines with experts constantly working on their aerodynamics, and alignment before, during, and after the races. Everything that’s not properly tuned can make or break the race for the driver. I need the same level of tinkering for my prosthetic to be successful at races. Sometimes I get lucky and my leg feels great, sometimes I don’t.”

The prosthetic “pit crew” has been essential to Friedley’s athletic success and is also something that he hopes to inform more adaptive athletes about, including Ghana’s Paralympic team. Dedicated prosthetic fine-tuning by trained professionals helps adaptive athletes make the most of their performances.

Feast. Friedley typically prepares a meal for himself that will be “ready to eat” as soon as he returns from his morning run. He prefers running on an empty stomach and this also gives him something to look forward to upon his return. A typical breakfast of whole milk organic yogurt (Greek or European style) with berries, banana, and maple syrup awaits him upon his return.

Partners. Following his meal, Friedley continues his work planning and making connections around the world. Connections aren’t always easy to come by, but if ninety-nine rejections mean one good connection, then it’s all worth it says Friedley, “My messages to people and brands are always heartfelt and personalized. When I get rejections, it hurts. But other times I get unexpected emails that share how I’ve changed lives and given people hope to do things they never thought were possible. It’s these positive connections that remind me how powerful this work is.”

When it comes to brands, Freidley works primarily with On Running, REI, Go Sleeves, and Buff. He says all of his best brand connections have felt the easiest. “I’m always trying to collaborate and crisscross my needs with that of the brand. These connections are organic. For example, our Born To Adapt event this year had gear provided from REI, which helped us both: they had the gear we needed and I had the audience of disabled runners they wanted to reach. Other times, I get ghosted after thinking the call went great, or they tell me straight up they are not interested. When I first started reaching out to brands, I was rejected 99 times out of 100, but it only takes that one call to come through. Those are the ones that are meant to happen.”

Friedley also isn’t willing to sell himself short and fit his large dreams into brand agendas that don’t live up to his vision for the adaptive athlete community, “I want to put out to the world who I am, what my dreams are, and I know the right people will come. I don’t want to fit a mold that already exists. There’s still so much I want to see in the trail running world that doesn’t exist for adaptive athletes. I don’t want to compress my biggest dreams of growing this sport for my community. I’m grateful to have had brands such as On Running understand this mission completely and dream big with me. At this point, I know how great the right connection with a brand or partner can feel, and that’s what I’m chasing with everyone I work with.”

Recharge. When connections are finished, it’s time to take off his leg. Similar to putting on the leg for the day, taking off the leg means his work is done, “Before I take my leg off, I’ll ask my wife one last time if there’s anything else I need to do for the day. As soon as the leg comes off, my work is over and I’m in recharge mode.” He enjoys a simple dinner of local vegetables from their community garden and ground chicken or elk with his wife. As soon as the sun’s down, Zach’s down and ready for bed.

Llamas make great companions for any time of the day.

On April 15, 2023, Friedley hosted the second edition of his Born To Adapt event, hosted in conjunction with the Born To Run Ultra Running Extravaganza held on a ranch in Los Olivos, CA. This year’s event added 10 and 30-mile races to the original one-mile loop format. These races were held on the same trails as the Born To Run races, making the Born To Adapt race a legitimately challenging trail race on singletrack, as opposed to last year’s event which was double track (dirt roads). Friedley shares more about this year’s event, the ultimate expression of his work encouraging adaptive athletes to dream larger than they ever thought possible. “It was really special to see people push their limits and it was exactly what I envisioned. The event created space for adaptive athletes to be welcomed, seen, invited, and to push their boundaries. It’s not the norm to see people with cerebral palsy or prosthetic limbs out there on trails but they made that happen. Sean, our superstar from last year (watch the film to learn more about Sean’s journey), walked his first mile without a walker, and it was incredible to see his progress.” Friedley dreams large for adaptive athletes, creating a community of runners who dream right along with him. Friedley is pushing limits in our sport in ways no one has ever believed possible.

Learn more about Friedley and follow his adventures on his Instagram and support his non-profit for adaptive athletes, Mendocino Movement.

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