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Coming for the Alps

Coming for the Alps onairshoessa

Coming for the Alps


On a sunny but chilly morning in August, Zachary Friedley soaks up the atmosphere in Chamonix. Mere hours separate him from competing in the legendary UTMB Mont Blanc trail race. He’s aware of the challenge ahead. 


The 40 km race with 2,300 meters of elevation gain is an incredible challenge on its own. But Zach will compete using a prosthetic leg and blade on his right side. It will also be his first race outside of the US and his debut as a sponsored On athlete. If the pressure is getting to him, he does a good job of looking calm on the outside. 



Born without his right leg, sports didn’t come easy to Zach at first. Eventually, he discovered a passion for wrestling – a sport where he was able to compete without his prosthetic leg. And even though he had to wait for success on the mat, he stuck with it. For a while. After watching trail runners with blades, Zach gave it a try himself. Soon, he developed a fiery passion for trail running and he never looked back. Zach was hooked on the sport.



Striving for change


After years of training and preparation, Zach has cleared the major hurdles for adaptive athletes in trail running: having the adequate equipment and finding races. Two things that keep countless adaptive athletes from their first race. 


After completing his first 10-mile trail race, Zach knew it was possible for adaptive athletes like him to cross the finish line at these type of events. But it was clear to him just how hard it is for adaptive athletes to find suitable races. Strict cut-off times, harsh terrain, no race categories for athletes with disabilities – just some of the obstacles for potential competitors. 



Another key consideration is equipment. Zach’s blade is a marvel of modern engineering, allowing him to put pressure on it and push off with the necessary force to run up and down mountain trails. But it’s expensive. Very expensive. And it requires constant maintenance and upgrading. 


“Without [my blade], I wouldn't be successful. Prosthetics are often barriers for people to be successful. A lot of people don't have access to the stuff that I do.”



As trail running happens on natural surfaces like gravel, mud, rock, or grass, the blade also needs a special tread – an outsole, so to speak – to ensure traction. These do exist, but only for road surfaces like tarmac. They, too, are quite costly. And trail running leads to increased wear and tear. It’s truly an uphill climb before adaptive athletes even get to the mountain.


These are some of the key obstacles that Zach is actively trying to remove. How? By creating a blueprint for accessible trail races with his own race series “Born to Adapt”.



And, going a step further, he’s also collaborating with On to create a trail-ready tread for prosthetics like his blade. Before his trip to Chamonix in the French Alps, Zach visited our engineers in the On Lab – where On’s innovative technology is born – to discuss and test early prototypes, helping improve the concept. 


“I do want to innovate and we do innovate, but at the same time, one of my big nonprofit dreams is to be able to support people with limited financial resources to get the prosthetics that they need to be successful,” he adds. His non-profit organization Mendocino Movement aims to do just that: provide funding to those who can’t afford the necessary prosthetics to make movement a big part of their lives.



What’s next for Zachary


Zach’s UTMB dream might have been cut short. But the ambitious runner and non-profit race director is determined to return next year. And to keep fighting for progress. 


“I want to use my story to make the experience of others a little bit better. I see a day when UTMB has an adaptive athletes division and when we’ll be able to provide education around adaptive athletes,” he says. 


“50 years ago, women weren’t allowed to run in a marathon. People said ‘women don’t run’. Well, there was no opportunity for them to run.” 


“I think we’re in a good position to give opportunities to those folks who had never imagined themselves on top of a mountain. This is the beginning.”