August 14, 2010 - It was a cool, misty, wet morning in the hills above Oakland, California. Costal Trail Runs was putting on a 10K, half marathon, marathon and 50K ultra. The drive to Joaquin Miller Park had been without traffic (a rarity for the San Francisco Bay Area) and I arrived earlier than expected. I walked down to the registration area in my VFFs, got my number, hit the restrooms and then wandered back to my truck to get out of the chill morning air. The temperature was about 56 degrees. Not terribly cold, but enough to chill someone in running shorts.
Being an Eagle Scout, I consider myself fairly well versed on hiking trails, but this Saturday, I dared to try something new - a trail run. Not only that, I decided to run it barefoot.
So, there I sat in my truck trying to keep warm. After about 15 minutes, I decided I was bored enough and headed back toward the starting area to look for fellow BRS member, Barefoot John. By the time I made it down the hill, John was there waiting. There was about 15 minutes until the start. We chatted a bit then headed to the growing line for the restrooms. A couple of the runners in line noticed my VFFs and asked if I was running in them today.
“Nope. I just don’t want to walk in the bathroom barefoot,” I said. “We’re both running barefoot today.”
John and I talked about our experiences running barefoot - how long we’d been running bare and what distances we were running. Afterwards, we walked back to the start area. By now, the clock had ticked down. I stripped off my VFFs and strapped them to my water belt. John had his Terra Planas tied to the back of his. We wandered into the crowd of runners milling about the start/finish area. A few last words from the director and we were off and running...well sort of.
The race began in a wonderfully soft, field filled with grass and clover. As the runners raced toward the edge of the field, the run quickly became a walk and then a stand. I guess 255 people moving in a field 50 yards across to a trail that is no more than 6 feet wide causes a bit of a bottleneck.
For the first mile or so, John and I managed to stay together, walking, standing, and running up the hillside. The ground felt great. There was a mist drifting through the tall oaks and redwoods. The dripping trees left the ground wet that morning. There were lots of cool, squishy, mud puddles to splash through. John and I thought that it was quite humorous to watch all of the shod runners frantically running to the edges of the trail to avoid the mud, while we enthusiastically plowed through the middle of every one in our path.
After the first mile, John and I became separated by several runners. I spent a little time trying to catch up. However, I recalled my first marathon when I expended lots of energy to catch a friend after stopping to use the restroom. Not wanting to sap myself of energy at the start of my first trail run, I decided to just go with the flow.
The initial adrenaline from the start had settled a bit allowing me to slip into a rhythm and focus on the ground in front of me. A physical therapist, curious about barefoot running, struck up a conversation with me. We chatted and ran together for about the next mile. He was curious, but not convinced enough to try barefoot running himself, let alone recommend it to his patients.
A bit after the 2-mile mark, there was a bit of confusion as to whether we were to take what looked like a fire road off to the right or the trail to the left. I had been so focused on the ground in front of me I hadn’t noticed the turn marker leading up to the intersection. A group of about 15 had gathered at the intersection offering their opinions, until someone noticed a marker about 50 feet down the trail to the left. The small crowd was off and running again. By now, I was feeling great and the trail was relatively smooth and soft.
I reached the aid station at just under the 3-mile mark. I paused for a moment, trying to decide if I would partake of the refreshments. I decided against drinking the CLIF beverages since I had never trained with it. The last thing I wanted to be doing was copping a squat in the forest somewhere off the trail. I took a drink from my water bottle and headed down the fire road as some of the 10k leaders were coming off the loop and heading for the finish.
Unlike the first half of the course, this section of the trail was quite exposed to the sky. The ground was dry and rocky. Gone were the cool mud puddles. The beginning of the loop was a long steady drop. As I approached about 3.5 miles, I heard a small group of runners approaching from behind. Since I was pussyfooting my way down the rocky downhill, I figured I’d step to the side and let them pass. Just as they were passing, I felt a small, but fiery pain in the crook of my right elbow. For a moment, I thought I had stupidly let my arm catch a thorn-ridden vine. I looked down at my elbow and noticed a bee or wasp of some sort stuck in the fabric of my shirt. More fiery pain. I flicked the bugger away and thought, “Oh, crap. What am I gonna do about this?”
Though I am not allergic, I have been known to have various body parts swell up from mosquito bites over the years. I figured that maybe if I got the blood flowing again the pain might subside. So, I took off down the trail at a good clip for about a half-mile. By now, the pain had subsided to the point of a dull ache on the front and back of my elbow.
As I approached mile 4, there was a long steady climb ahead. I recalled looking at the elevation map of the course, it was going to be ugly. It turned out to be about a half-mile straight up with a gain of about 400 feet. There was another runner on the hill with me training for the Tahoe marathon. We both decided that the hill was really too steep to run and decided to walk up this one.
One of the most common questions I most encounter is, “What if you step on a rock?” My usual response is, “I don’t step on the rocks.” Ironically, while barefoot “running” this course, I did fine. However, while “walking” my way up this hillside, I stepped on a baseball-sized rock at the exact center of my arch. I winced but did not let on to my hill climbing companion of the moment that I had made such a stupid mistake. This mistake later turned into a quarter sized blue patch on the bottom of my foot the next day.
I made it to the top of the hill and back to the aid station. At this point, I decided that a cup of CLIF drink couldn’t hurt me now with only about a mile and a half to go on the course. I downed a cup and headed back out on the trail. For the next half-mile or so it was nice, soft dirt and the occasional mud puddle, with little rock to trouble my feet. I quickly reached the turn off for the final loop down to the finish.
About the 5-mile mark proved to be one of the most challenging sections of the trail. It was dry, completely littered with rocks, and very steep. There was no way of running this section. I began carefully picking my way down the trail as fast as I could. A couple I had passed at the turn was now gaining on me.
The man shouted ahead to me, “Hey, did you read Born to Run?”
“Yep!” I replied.
As he shot past me down the rocky trail, he said, “Are you still glad you read Born to Run?”
“Yeah, but this section isn’t fun.” I joked.
Just before reaching the bottom of this torturous hill, I heard a noise and turned to see about 10 mountain bikers bouncing down the trail. Several of us stood to the side to let them pass.
I wanted to say, “You know, we’re kinda on a clock here. Could ya speed it up?”
I made it down the final 50 or so feet to the bottom of the hill where it intersected the final path to the finish. I recognized this section from scouting the area with my family a few days earlier. I guessed I was about a half-mile to the finish. (My Garmin had lost satellite reception a while back.) I kicked up the pace, since the trail was wide, flat and full of soft dirt. I entered the big grassy field and saw the FINISH tent and made a dash for it.
Finish time for my first barefoot 10k trail run 1:35:01. Barefoot John had made it just ahead of me with a time of 1:28:28.
Several times along the trail I had contemplated throwing on my VFFs, but I really wanted to experience my first trail run fully barefoot. With the exception of the bee sting and the bruised arch, I was thrilled to have completed my goal of running a trail barefoot!
This past week I read Jason Robillard’s blog about his recent barefoot marathon. In his blog Jason mentions the idea of using “the most minimal shoe for the job.” Having completed my first barefoot trail run, I completely understand where Jason is coming from. Having thoroughly enjoyed my barefoot trail run, I definitely see more trail running in my future. Should the trail be barefoot friendly, I will be barefoot. However, having the choice of “minimalist” options given the terrain is something I will surely consider. As a person who prefers to run barefoot, I see no reason to risk injuring myself on a trail or other surface just to be able to say, “I ran it barefoot.” But you know what? I did a 10K trail run and yeah, I did it BAREFOOT!
My post-race feet
My Muddy Toes