There is a saying that goes like this. ‘Never meet your heroes, because they’re sure to disappoint you’. Well, it just so happens that I live three miles away from one such hero, in the sport I have grown to love. Laura Farrell broke barriers in the sport of Ultra running. Her real legacy, however, began with a vision she had in the mid 1980’s. Nearly 40 years later, she has dramatically impacted thousands of lives.
Laura grew up in Lincoln, MA, a small town about 45 minutes west of Boston, and was the youngest of four children. Her mother was a published writer and her father had his own business as an appraiser. She developed a love for animals and the outdoors at a very early age. When she was five years old, she would often stand on the stonewall that housed her family’s sheep. “I would wait until a sheep went by and I would jump on it and hold on for dear life.” Determination was also part of her DNA. She dreamed of having her own pony, so she made it happen. “I saved all my money from my birthdays and Christmases, and I bought my first pony for $400 when I was ten years old.”
After graduating high school a year and a half early, she took a couple years off, apprenticing with a potter up in the Berkshires. Next she was off to college, in Maryland, where she spent her freshman year, before transferring up to Bar Harbor, ME. Her focus was marine biology and wildlife management. After school, she went to work for the Massachusetts Audubon Society, where she worked in the waterfowl department. She continued to follow her passion for animals and being outside. During that time, she was an occasional runner and was competing in horse endurance events. She was traveling to Vermont frequently for horse competitions, and when she was 27, she packed up her belongings, three mules and a donkey and moved to Vermont permanently.
A year later, Laura made the trip down to Virginia to compete in the Old Dominion 100 mile race on her mule, Tulip. At that time, runners and riders shared the trails on race day. “I said to myself, the next time I come back, I’m running.” She had zero experience in running races, and hadn’t even competed in a 5K before. Two years later, she was back at the starting line, and not only finished the run, but was the first female to cross. She remembers calling her mom after finishing, and her mom’s reaction, “Ok, good that’s it, you’re not going to do that anymore!”
Over the next several years, Laura’s passion for ultrarunning grew. “I remember saying to myself, my adventures and my travels are going to come through my competitions.” She laughed recalling the gear and supplies she would use in her racing and training. “Power bars back then were like sawdust.” The running joke was that your arms would be more tired than your legs, having to carry water bottles and Gatorades, before there were hydration vests. Running at night required carrying a flashlight, so her hands were always full.
By the mid-1980’s, Laura was staying busy with her running and riding competitions, as well as skiing. It was a day of skiing at Mt. Ascutney, where an idea was born. She was working as an instructor at the mountain, and was teamed up with a family of five from New Jersey, none of whom had ever skied before. They had three daughters, one of them being a nine-year old named Casey, who had Down’s syndrome. And so, she spent the day with this family, going up and down the mountain, teaching all of them, sharing her love of skiing. The experience had a profound effect on Laura, tapping into her deep-belief, that everyone should have the opportunity to participate in an activity they loved. From this belief and vision, she founded Vermont Adaptive just a few years later. “I start things from the seat of my pants, that’s how I do it. From the passion, the energy and the enthusiasm, and then I figure it out.”
Vermont Adaptive had a big immediate impact, as they had over 500 lessons that first year. At that time, there were no other adaptive programs in the northeast. It was also a family affair. Laura met her husband Jim, during the implementation of the program. She needed a ramp built for one of the buildings and he was a contractor. Their two sons, Bobby and Brad, were born in the early years of Vermont Adaptive. “My kids lived at the program. For me, it was awesome to raise my kids in that environment.” Her mother-in-law, Pinky, helped in the office and with the kids, even learning how to use a computer. Her vision was gaining momentum, and she turned her focus on looking for fundraisers for the program. She got inspiration from a friend in town, Steve Rojek, who approached her with an idea. Steve had started the Vermont 100 endurance horse race a few years earlier, and suggested that she start a 100 mile running race. They could partner up, and put the horses and runners together.
So, in the summer of 1989, 114 runners gathered at the starting line in South Woodstock, at Steve’s farm, along with horses, for the inaugural Vermont 100. They had 36 aid stations that first year, reflecting Laura’s goal, “that it would provide an environment that would encourage people to do something that they were passionate about that would otherwise not do it.” She realized that not everyone had crews or pacers, and didn’t want that to be a barrier to entry. Now, 30 years later, the VT 100 remains one of the top ultra events of the year. It is one of the five races that comprise the grand slam of ultramarathons, and is the only 100 mile race in the world where runners and horses share the trails on race day. This past year’s race raised over $159,000 for Vermont Adaptive, and the event has stayed true to its hometown, local feel. “It was the perfect fundraiser for Vermont Adaptive because it’s individuals doing something and challenging themselves through an athletic endeavor.”
Laura continues to burst with energy, working at the local elementary school in an after school program, where she encourages kids to find their passion. Last summer, she completed the Vermont 100 on horseback, becoming one of only six women who have both ridden and run the event. But, she has noticed a pleasant change. “I’m 67 years old, and I can honestly say, this is the first year that my competitiveness is not there as much. My enjoyment level has risen, it switched, this is new. Inside, I feel like I just want to have that love, passion and enjoyment, however that takes me.”
Anyone who is fortunate enough to know Laura, will tell you that she shies away from the spotlight. It’s been 30 years since she founded Vermont Adaptive, and the program is thriving with over 400 volunteers and seven locations around Vermont. Its mission statement has stayed constant. ‘Vermont Adaptive Ski & Sports is committed to empowering individuals with disabilities. We promote independence and further equality through access and instruction to sports and recreational activities’. “It’s not me, it’s all of the volunteers, they’re the ones that do it. They’re the ones that make it happen and have kept it going. Maybe I had the idea, but that’s minor compared to what everyone else has done.” She is one hero that does not disappoint.