Thursday, January 27, 2011

Stockton Half Marathon - A Newbie's First Barefoot Half Marathon

November 14, 2010 - While tossing and turning through the night wasn’t anything new to me the night before a race, this time the race was the Inaugural Stockton Half Marathon.  What was so different about this race?  Well, for starters, it was my first barefoot half marathon.  Additional stress was coming from the fact that this race was the first half marathon being held in my hometown, which meant that I would likely see friends both runners and spectators – some of whom I had trained with as a shod runner.  Lastly, I was racing alongside my brother-in-law, his girlfriend, and my mother.  Yep, my mother was racing too!  It was to be the first half marathon for all three of them.  
My biggest fear - A DNF, as a barefoot runner, in front of a hometown crowd.
My alarm clock blared at 5 a.m. not that I was asleep.  I got up, got dressed, and ate a breakfast of oatmeal and chia seeds.  Then I downed a glass of iskiate for good measure.  Surprisingly, the food helped to ease my nervous stomach.  You see, before all of my other big races, I never could stomach anything more than a little toast with peanut butter.  Double-checking that I had all my gear, I headed out.  I drove over to my mom’s house to pick her up and we headed over to the hotel near the starting line. 
As I exited my car, I immediately saw two of my former marathon training buddies.  They quickly noted my Vibrams to which I responded that I was only wearing them until the race start – pointing over to the line of port-a-potties.  They caught my drift.
My mom and I wandered over to the hotel and went inside where it was nice and warm.  Outside it was a chilly 40 degrees.  I had opted not to wear my running pants and instead was wearing shorts.  After about 15 minutes or so, my mom and I headed over to the area she was supposed to meet her training group for a photo op.   Her group never really materialized, so I posed with my mom for a quick pic for the local Fleet Feet owner. 
We wandered over to the starting line where we finally ran into my brother-in-law, Chris, and his girlfriend, Dez.  Dez was sporting a nice pair of Vibrams for the race.  By this point I had shed my own VFF KSOs and had them strapped to my water belt.  My mom had begun pointing out to the runners milling about at the start that I was barefoot and crazy.  Gee thanks for the support, Mom!
Now, I’ve run barefoot in cold weather – I had started last January.  However, I had never really stood around long on cold asphalt.  The ball of my left foot had started to feel a little numb and had the feeling as if I was standing on a small, smooth rock.  Fortunately the wait didn’t last too long.  The announcer came over the speakers for a few last minute announcements.  The start horn blew and we were off!
We all raced down the first street and I noted that I still had that lump-like feeling in my left foot.  I started to worry.  I had never felt this before.  I kept wondering if it would go away or if it would get worse as the race progressed.  As the herd approached the mile mark, I passed some more extended family members - more concern about a DNF in my hometown. 
As I rounded a turn close to mile 2, the odd knot in my foot seemed to disappear.  The group approached the University of the Pacific and the levee running path.  I crossed the footbridge into U.O.P. and saw others crossing back from the loop through the campus. I was starting to get in a groove. 
One of my fears about running through the campus was if the course might take us across cobblestone.  That fear turned out to be unfounded as we ran on the concrete sidewalks through the quad area.  However, upon my return to the footbridge it turned out there was not a second paved ramp up onto the bridge.  Instead there was a 20-foot uphill section of dirt and gravel.  I wasn’t greatly concerned since I had run a 10K trail run bare.  But I was worried that there could be a sharp rock or broken beer bottle (it was a college campus after all) that could put a quick end to my race.  I crossed without incident and made my way across the bridge and onto the levee road. 
Now I was in my element.  I had run this levee many, many times in training for shod races.  The levee road was rougher than the streets that I normally run, but still comfortable to run on. 
Along the way, an older gentleman asked me about the Surf City Marathon shirt I was wearing.  We started chatting about various races we had done.  He was on a mission to run a half marathon in every state.  He had done the Pike’s Peak half marathon (a future goal race of mine). 
As we ran along, a girl ran up alongside and asked, “Why are you running like that?” 
I laughed and explained briefly how barefoot running teaches you to run more efficiently and quickly added that it was fun too!  She dropped back to her running companions.
Not long later, the course dropped off the levee road and into town.  I was approaching mile 6.  Along the side of the course was a guardhouse for one of the gated communities in Stockton.  In front of the guardhouse a small crowd had gathered to cheer us runners on. 
As I passed the guardhouse, a man shouted, “Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!  Where are your shoes!!!” 
I looked at him, looked down at my feet, looked back at him and shouted, “Damn it, I knew I forgot something this morning!”
I continued down the road toward the intersection for the upcoming loop where my dad, my wife and kids were supposed to be watching the race.  As I crossed the intersection, I glanced through the small crowd – no sign of them.  Feeling a bit disappointed, I continued on down the road.  By now I was approaching mile 7 and really getting into a comfortable groove. 
As I was coming around the backside of the loop, a guy casually asked, “So, how does that feel?” 
I replied, “I’m feeling pretty good.”
Then I received the best compliment I’ve ever received about my running.
“You look like you could run all day like that!”
I was thrilled to hear that!  I really did feel like I could run all day like that.
My stride was smooth.  My arms were pumping smoothly.  My feet seemed to glide across the asphalt.  I felt as though I was extremely energy efficient.  It was like perfection. 
We continued to run and chat through the rest of the loop.   As we approached mile 9 and the intersection again, there was a long stretch of shattered glass that spanned about 25 yards.  I kept a measured stride and put my full concentration on clearing this obstacle course of glass. 
As we entered the intersection, I saw my kids playing around on camp chairs on the corner.  They were both fully distracted by things other than runners.  I shouted my kid’s names as I ran by, even lagging a bit trying to prolong the moment that I passed them.  They looked up as I passed and we waved to each other and I was off and running again. 
After passing through the intersection, we turned down the street that would lead us back toward the river levee.  This was the first of two major surface obstacles that I would face on this course.  This street was in the middle of a repaving.  The center of the street was beautiful, smooth, freshly paved asphalt.  The edges were scraped with long streaks of uneven, rough asphalt.  The cones marking the run vs. drive portions of the road were right along the dividing line of the new and old asphalt.  I tried running in the designated area for a few feet and decided that was definitely not a good idea.  So, for the stretch of road under construction I tried to straddle the “cone line” on the smooth asphalt watching for cars as I went.  When I had to, I would run on the rough stuff. 
I reached the levee frontage road, which was the end of the road construction.  In my mind, I was approaching the home stretch.  I was about at mile 10.  My feet felt great.  However, my legs were starting to feel a bit sluggish – my pace had dropped down to about 10:30/mile.  I redoubled my efforts and focused on my form.  This picked my pace back up to about a 9-minute mile.  The next two miles went pretty smooth. 
Nearing the 12-mile mark, I was back to the main street that took us out at the beginning.  However, something had changed.  We were not running on the main road on the way back in.  Instead we were on the winding walking path next to the roadway.  No big deal I thought.  Then it happened.  I crossed an intersection just beyond the 12-mile mark.  The pathway changed texture.  Instead of nice paved asphalt, the path was now horrifically paved chip seal.
Now, I’ve run on chip seal before.  It’s not always terrible.  It just is a bit more challenging and there is a bit more “sensation” coming through the feet. This chip seal was not that kind of chip seal.  The small rocks embedded in the asphalt were sharp and widely spaced.  This did not provide a decent surface in which to run barefoot.  So, I did what I had to do.   I ran on the grass alongside the path.  Doesn’t sound so bad?  Well, again, not ideal.  The grass was a good 6 to 7 inches high with very soft soil underneath.  It felt like running through dry sand at the beach -definitely not what you want to be running through on the last mile of a half marathon.  I slogged along until I reached the roadway at the end of the path.  By now my feet were caked with wet loose grass.  When I hit the roadway, I paused for a moment.  I had been carrying a water bottle that I had not used yet.  I popped the top and doused my feet shedding my “grass shoes”. 
Less than a half-mile to go!  I picked up the pace.  The two-hour mark was approaching fast.  Not going to be a PR, I thought.  Oh well, first barefoot half marathon - it’s a new kind of PR! 
I crossed the finish line, arms up in triumph and a smile.  I had done it.  A half marathon – barefoot!  Official results – 2:06:17, 20 out of 27 in my division, 285/638 overall. 
My mother, Chris, and Dez had somehow bumped into each other toward the end of the race.  They all finished their first half marathon at 3:13 with my son and daughter escorting them across the finish. 
Next stop, a barefoot marathon.


  1. Very nice. Don't you just love those chip seal roads? They are sensation overload. I'm going to increase my training on these surfaces so that I'll be better able to handle these kind of surprises when running in unfamiliar places or races. Nice job.

  2. Some are worse than others. This stuff is pretty bad. I think I'd rather run on straight up gravel than this stuff. I had to do it again this year. I'm a little behind on my writing, but the Stockton Half was cancelled and re-established as the St. Joseph's Half... stay tuned for the race report.