Adrianne Haslet crossed the finish line of the Boston Marathon this year alongside her coach, Shalane Flanagan, on what she called “the best day of my life.” It was the culmination of a vow she had made just five days after the 2013 Boston Marathon. She wasn’t a runner then; she was at the marathon as a spectator when a terrorist detonated a homemade bomb near the finish line. Adrianne lost her left leg in the explosion, but declared less than a week later that she would return to run the marathon.
Since that day, she has run Boston three times, has been instrumental in bringing a Para Division to the iconic race, and become a global keynote speaker whose debut TED talk has been viewed over 6.7 million times.
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Adrianne was a professional competitive ballroom dancer at the time of the Boston Marathon bombing. When Anderson Cooper interviewed her just days afterwards and asked if she thought she would dance again, she replied, “Yeah, I think I can,” and added, “I think one day I’ll also run the Boston Marathon.” Nothing in Adrianne’s life up to that point had ever suggested that she would run 26.2 miles. She refused to run the obligatory annual mile in high school. “I would hide in the bathroom, under the bleachers, write a note,” she recalls. “Like, I did not care if I got caught; I served many detentions.”
Knowing that she wasn’t a runner, Anderson asked her if she really thought that she could become one. “There was one time in my life where I wasn’t a ballroom dancer and I learned how to do that,” she told him, “so I’m sure I could.” The “Boston Strong” movement had already begun and Adrianne says, “I think I wanted to become a runner because I felt the love from Boston. But I also wanted to become a runner because I knew I needed a new goal.”
Adrienne has since returned to dancing, but at the time, she knew that she needed to do something else. “We all know comparison is the thief of joy, right?” she says. “I was very familiar with what dancing used to feel like and I knew it would be different, but taking on a new muscle memory sport, I would have no comparison.”
It was two years before she could pursue her goal of becoming a runner, as her injuries healed and she adapted to wearing a prosthetic leg. She started to learn to run in 2015 and entered the 2016 Boston Marathon. At the starting line, she remembers, “I had a complete panic attack when I heard people talking about fuel and sleep and training runs, and I didn’t know anything of what I was supposed to be doing.” A friend she was running with reassured her, “Adrianne, what will get you to the finish line is nothing compared to what got you to the start.”
She realized that he was right and thought, “Whatever this 26.2 miles is going to do, I can face it.” She finished in 10 hours and 44 minutes. “It was so long and so hard, but I did it and Obama tweeted me right after and said, ‘We carry on; we finish the race. Congratulations.’ And that was life changing and amazing.”
With her competitive nature, Adrianne decided that she wanted to race and have a reasonable expectation of winning. She quickly discovered that although there were opportunities for amputees to race in wheelchairs or using hand cycles, there wasn’t a division for athletes who used running blades, as she did. She had extensive experience of being excluded and “othered” in other aspects of her life, and “combined with the othering that was happening in racing, I knew I needed to do something.”
She had already become an advocate for amputee rights, working with the Amputee Coalition to overturn New York’s “one limb per lifetime” rule. She set her sights on getting the B.A.A. to become more inclusive, and in 2019 they told her, “You know, every time we think about planning 2020, we think of you.” She replied, “That’s nice to say, but I know that’s not true.” It was. They told her, “No, no no, listen. We’re having a Para Division and we want you to win it.”
The 2020 marathon, of course, was not to be, and Adrianne sprained her ankle just weeks before the 2021 race. She was there to see the Para Division runners, though, which was “amazing.” Except… there was no finishing tape, no camera coverage. Feeling it wasn’t her place, Adrianne didn’t say anything to the B.A.A. The same situation happened this year, and with the winner’s blessing, she spoke up. “If we don’t have sponsors, no one’s gonna notice para athletes, right? If we don’t, then we can’t afford to run. If we don’t have cameras on us, then no other amputees are going to continue to train to be there, and then they’re gonna cancel the division because we’re not gonna have enough people.”
Thanks to Adrianne, the Para Division did receive media attention this year. She crushed Shalane’s expectation that she would finish in 6 hours by coming in at 5:18:41, was interviewed by the Washington Post, and made the cover. “I felt so much love and support and I felt like I was finally saying that big ‘thank you’ to Boston that I had wanted to do since 2013,” she says.
Thank you to Legacy of Speed, Paceline, and Allbirds for sponsoring this episode.
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“Thank you” to Adrianne. We look forward to hearing your thoughts on the show.