This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.
In it, he covers the industry from the inside out, plus the fun side of being outdoors in our beautiful state.
Brooke Jostad always had running, even as a kid. But it was by herself, on a treadmill, as a way to burn off the energy that swirled in her like a thunderstorm.
Blind since birth, she played soccer in elementary school tethered to another player, until a mother told her parents she was too much of a hindrance. Now 32 and living in Fort Collins, engaged and working as a mental health therapist, she advocates for herself. But when she was a kid, she told herself she’d probably never be athletic because she couldn’t be on a team. The thunderstorm inside her had other ideas.
She asked her parents for a treadmill and ran on it nearly every day, sometimes for hours, like a hamster on a wheel. Jostad and running were off again and on again until more than a year ago, when a friend, Julia Beckley, asked her to be in a race. They had guides, Beckley said.
It was nice. There were no mothers telling her she was in the way.
It was also a little shocking. She’d run in races before, but they were Paralympic events specifically designed for adaptive runners. But this was just a regular race. Jostad hadn’t experienced anything like it, at least not when it came to sports. She felt welcome.
“It never occurred to me that I would be allowed in a group activity,” Jostad said, “except for para-related things.”
Jostad is exactly the kind of runner the Fort Collins Run Club wanted to reach by hosting its first adaptive running night in August. The club devoted one of its Monday night run-togethers to people who use chairs, are blind or deaf or have any other kind of challenge that may have prevented them from joining a social running club or signing up for a race.
Adaptive running isn’t even remotely new. One Monday night participant, Jacob Heilveil, 53, is a retired Paralympian who has raced in a chair since he was 11. There are also organizations devoted to endurance athletes with disabilities, such as Move United and Achilles International, which has a Denver chapter. Some races, such as the Bolder Boulder, have for decades had a place for wheel racers in the citizen’s race, starting them a few minutes before runners without disabilities.
But the adaptive night was still different. It’s only recently that the running community has actively recruited adaptive runners to clubs, races and other chances to trot with the nondisabled, and it’s happening on a grassroots level. The Fort Collins Run Club, for instance, has 1,000 members, a mighty but significantly smaller organization than, say, Achilles.
The Fort Collins Run Club didn’t have to work too hard for Jostad. She joined the club a year ago, hungry for more after that first welcoming race. She’s since done two half-marathons and a couple 10-milers.
There are still people who don’t understand she’s a runner. More than a few think being tethered to other runners means they are just dragging her along like a happy golden retriever. Instead, Jostad is the one in charge, she said, it’s the guide’s job to keep up with her.
Jostad doesn’t always love running. On some days, she said with a laugh, she has to persuade herself to do it. She hates track work. But she’s glad to have the support most runners need to get through the pain, including those without disabilities.
“It’s really nice to meet up with others,” Jostad said. “Running is really important to me now.”
All shapes, sizes and disability
Spreading awareness that runners with any ability are welcome is probably the biggest challenge of getting new runners to their club, whether disabled or not, said Chris McCullough, the president of the Fort Collins Run Club.
“You just have to break that wall down,” McCullough said.
That can be tougher to crack than the famed wall marathoners hit after mile 20. The nondisabled worry about getting left behind, or dropped, as runners call it. They worry about not being skinny enough, or fit enough, or, frankly, getting lost in a sea of white skin.
If they’re new to the sport, they worry marathoners will laugh at them for getting excited about running their first 5K. These worries are prevalent no matter how many times McCullough reassures runners who are thinking about joining.
“Everyone is scared to come out,” said McCullough, and he says this despite the fact that Fort Collins is an abnormally active community in an abnormally active state. “I always tell people that no one will get dropped during a run.”
All those nervous joggers made him realize that the club needed to ask people to come out, especially groups that haven’t been asked, well, ever: Just imagine Brooke’s fears about asking someone to guide her, or a chair user’s worries about being too slow (or too fast) or, in some cases, having others help them with their meds.
The club decided a year ago to make a concerted effort to reach out to groups that may not have felt welcome in the past, McCullough said, and set up a committee devoted to attracting runners from marginalized communities.
“We want to touch everyone and anyone,” McCullough said. “We want walkers, trail runners, road runners, track, transgender and nonbinary. Adaptive athletes are only just a part of that. But there’s a real need for the adaptive community.”
Fulfillment over funds
Lisa Arnold was a lifelong runner along with her husband, and when the two lived in North Carolina, he ran the triathlon club. She began mentoring people into Ironman-distance races, that crazy event where running a whole marathon is only a third of the challenge, and she began charging people for her coaching. She found it vaguely satisfying. She loved using her biomedical engineering degree, but not for the ones who paid full price.
“I got tired of mentoring people who could afford coaching and didn’t appreciate what you were doing for them,” Arnold said.
Those people were typically white and privileged, the ones who could not only afford all the equipment but were athletic their whole lives. Even if Arnold could relate to those people, she found herself drawn to the underdogs — at the time, they were mostly depressed 40-year-old women coming off children and possibly a divorce who didn’t think they had a 5K in them.
“They appreciated it,” Arnold said. “I would cut my fee for them. A thank you meant more than money.”
She moved to Fort Collins and, after learning about adaptive runners, asked about guiding blind people. She was introduced to Brooke and guided her for her first half-marathon. The two became close enough that Arnold plans to attend Brooke’s wedding. Arnold didn’t need the appreciation of Brooke and other blind athletes she guided in races, but she couldn’t help but find it affirming, even addictive. Now many think of her as the leader of adaptive running in Northern Colorado. She helps lead the effort for the Fort Collins Run Club.
“Seeing the world through their eyes,” Arnold said, “is the most rewarding thing for me.”
The run club has some resources for wheelchair athletes, even the money to cover races.
“We’re trying to build a community,” Arnold said.
That’s what Lisa Sinclair has tried to build since she founded Green Events, a race company known for the Human Race and for the Equinox races, 11 years ago. She began thinking about adaptive runners after Denny Gordon showed up to race a few years ago. Gordon, now 73, had parts of three limbs blown off by a landmine in Vietnam. Gordon, of Longmont, enjoyed the disabled skiing program in Winter Park and had raced in his chair since 1990. When Julia Beckley showed up in a chair and asked to race, Sinclair took less than a second to consider it.
“Well, yeah, of course you can,” Sinclair answered. “More participants is the best thing a race director can have. We want people out there.”
Sinclair didn’t see much difference between Beckley and the nondisabled runners. They all had fears about fitting in, and Sinclair was already used to soothing fears about running a half-marathon.
“I’m constantly trying to tell people you can walk in a half-marathon,” Sinclair said. “When they say they’d finish last if they did, I say, ‘Probably not.’”
Sinclair admits that her willingness to host adaptive racers stemmed from hosting mid-sized races in mid-sized communities, which don’t demand the same kind of adjustments that a large city’s marathon might.
She started races early for chair racers and tried to remain flexible. When a wheelchair team showed up in their rugby chairs for this summer’s Human Race, she and her staff put pool noodles over the trolley tracks in Fort Collins so their wheels wouldn’t get caught up in them.
“What’s been cool is they’ve helped me make my races better,” Sinclair said.
Sinclair’s willingness to be open-minded helped spur Beckley to do her first 5K in 2019. Since then, Beckley has pushed her way across races as long as ultramarathons. She’s also been one of the few willing to push back after being told no by a couple races.
Pushing for access
Unlike most others who use a push-rim chair to race, Beckley can walk and, in theory, could run, although the thought makes her wince.
She calls her body messed up.
In 2011, she was diagnosed with hypophosphatasia, a rare genetic bone disorder. She doesn’t know how many bones she’s broken in her life: She stopped counting at 38. She also has mast cell activation disorder, which can be triggered by fatigue, low blood sugar and exposure to heat and sunlight, aka three of the most common side effects of running.
She has a central line for quick shots of Benadryl, which helps calm her activation disorder, and a tracheostomy to help her breathe when, well, she can’t.
Now 29 and living in Longmont, in 2022 she became the first wheelchair athlete in more than a decade to compete in the Colfax Marathon. Four years ago, Beckley would probably have accepted the marathon’s first response to her request to run it: A hard no. But by 2022, Beckley had fallen in love with what running did for her spirit, even if it sent her to the hospital many times.
She contacted Mark Lucas, the executive director for the U.S. Association of Blind Athletes, who along with Tim Willis, an attorney, sent letters threatening action if Colfax didn’t allow her to participate. Willis had a special reason for his involvement: In 1990, he was the first blind cross-country runner in NCAA Division I history. He later collected five Paralympic medals.
Once Colfax allowed Beckley to run, Beckley said race CEO Andrea Dowdy was professional and accommodating. Dowdy, in an interview with NoCO Optimist, called the initial communication a “mix-up.”
Beckley was the only chair racer in 2022, but this year, Colfax allowed push-rim athletes. Dowdy admitted last year that she was probably overthinking it a bit: She worried about Colfax’s hills and busy intersections and curves. “We finally realized that was challenging for all participants.”
That was the last time Beckley has had problems with any race. These past couple of years have been wonderful, she said. She has a few audacious goals, including the World Marathon Challenge and running 100 miles.
“I’m getting others (like Arnold, she said) who are taking the lead,” Beckley said, “and I’m feeling welcome now. It’s open arms. I can have conversations with race directors about what I need.”
Beckley, like other runners who face challenges, needs people to run with her to administer Benadryl through her line in case she goes into shock. But she loves running with others mostly for the camaraderie. Beckley, like many other runners, relates to runners the most.
They know what it’s like to struggle.
Self-esteem and ski buddies
Heilveil, of Frederick, started wheelchair racing when he was 11. He wants others to start young. He’s made it his life goal now, after a career as a Paralympian. The glory from racing on the top U.S. team was nice, but just the act itself, even without the glory, gave him the self-esteem he desperately needed from spending his life in a chair.
“It got me through a lot of things,” Heilveil said.
He’s happy to see clubs such as Fort Collins start to think about active recruitment, as that’s what he’s trying to do himself. He admits he needs help, even after trying to host kids camps.
“I have a vision, and I want to pass the excitement along,” he said. “It’s hard. But the more you talk to people and spread the word, I can see it grow.”
Recruiting is important, and not just so they know the opportunity to run exists. Wheelchair users are human like the rest of us: Just because they are given the opportunity doesn’t mean they want to jump right into marathons. A gentle push, in other words, is a good thing. Martin Dawson, for instance, uses a chair for his partial paralysis and loved skiing, but he was slow to get into running.
“I thought a racing chair was more like a bike,” said Dawson, 51, of Fort Collins. “But you have to push. I wasn’t a huge fan of that.”
He’s now ski buddies with Gordon, the veteran of Vietnam and racing events. Dawson admits Gordon pushed him into racing. He now tends to approach racing events like his days on the slope. He recounted a race last year, one of Arnold’s Green Events, a popular race called the Equinox that travels down the Poudre Canyon.
“I can go 40 mph down the Equinox,” Dawson said.
This makes Gordon chuckle like an old man who did some things back in his day and now knows better.
“Even on a bike, that’s nuts,” Gordon said of Dawson.
Ready, set, go
Now the hard part begins, and it’s the tough part of staying active: just doing it. The Fort Collins club is determined to keep the adaptive nights going. Arnold wants to invite them to every Monday. She knows the winter months will be a challenge, as they are for all runners, so maybe asking them to participate early on, in the spring, will be the key for next year.
She’s also happy to see Sinclair continue to offer races — her Human Race had nine adaptive runners, a record for the event — and there’s interest from RunWindsor.
“Race directors want to make their courses friendly now,” Arnold said.
Sinclair believes race directors must lead the way to motivate adaptive athletes into fighting the good fight.
“Running in general is a space where everyone can belong,” Sinclair said, “regardless of gender, ability level and body type, and races are a celebration of that. Everyone should be able to feel that.”
Jostad’s not sure she will ever want to run a marathon. But she does relish those opportunities, even if running isn’t always fun.
She advocated for the Fort Collins Run Club to put a link into the newsletter so adaptive athletes can ask for accommodations on group runs. She also texts ahead of time to ensure a guide will be there when she shows up for a run: She doesn’t want to be presumptuous. Even so, she finds most people are willing to help. They enjoy running with her, and she enjoys it, too. Her hamster wheel is getting lonely.
“I still have to train on the treadmill,” she said, “but even that’s becoming less and less. I run track with the club and a friend and Lisa on Saturdays.”
Jostad always had running. Now she has a community.