Saturday, August 20, 2011

My First Barefoot Ultramarathon: The Skyline 50K - Part II

So, I left off with me heading out from Skyline Gate realizing that I had not even bothered to grab my drop bag.   I was mildly concerned whether or not I would have enough shot bloks to last the remaining hours of the race.  Being only a half hour ahead of the cutoff, I chose to push on because it was likely that I had enough to get me through.
About a mile or two down the trail, I started to realize that my head was really getting down in the weeds.  I was starting to feel like crap and my focus was poor.  My fingers had begun to swell and were starting to look like red sausages.  I felt like I had mild tunnel vision.  I swung my pack around and pulled two Hammer Electrolyte pills out and downed them with water and Gu2O.  After about 10 minutes, my head cleared up and I felt incredible.  Even my fingers felt a little less swollen. 
I starting moving steadily down the single-track trail through the gorgeous redwood forest.  This was some of the best trail running I’ve done to date (not that I’ve done a lot).  The ground was soft with the dirt and needles from the trees and it was gorgeous.  I felt like the guy from the trail running video from, effortlessly gliding across the trail, over rocks, down shallow dips, surrounded by redwoods, ferns and creeks.  It was truly my favorite part of the course.
Pausing for a pic among the redwoods

For reference, Skyline Gate is roughly the furthest point out on a figure-8 course from the start/finish line.  The beautiful redwood section runs about 6 miles as it winds its way back towards Big Bear aid station through and across many intersecting trails.  The race officials had really taken care to mark the course well considering the many trails that seem to crisscross the parks in the area.  Yellow ribbons were present to reassure you that you were on course.  At every possible trail intersection there were white chalk arrows for the correct trail and a line with the word “NO” across the front of the wrong path.  They also had race officials seemingly in the middle of nowhere to point out the correct course at certain junctions.  

As the morning wore on, there were more and more hikers on the trail – many of them had dogs.  I can’t remember the last time I ran around so many dogs.  Fortunately the dogs were all well trained and did not seem to pay much attention to the runners.  There was one section of trail where I passed a few people running the trails with their dogs.  The dogs got ahead of them and started running along with me.  As they called back their dogs, the dogs looked back with a bit of confusion.  They joked that the dogs must have thought they were running with their barefoot pack leader.
Later on, a couple of runners caught up with me and said, “We’ve been following your foot prints, but I thought you were in Vibrams not actually barefoot!”
I came back out of the redwoods just before lunch – crossing the road and hitting the Big Bear aid station for the second time that morning.  I had run just over 20 miles at this point.  I was reaching my furthest distance ever run barefoot (20.41 miles).  I popped a couple S! Caps to keep my head clear.  After refueling at the aid station I headed back onto the trail.  The trail passed back through the parking lot at MacDonald gate staging area.  This parking lot is gravel and now my feet were beginning to feel a bit tender.  I navigated through the parking lot without too much trouble since it was maybe 30 yards across.
A long way down to the trail below

From here there is a 500-foot climb over about a mile before the long downhill to the finish.  I believe this was the point in which my quads went from a bit tired to completely trashed.  I pushed myself to keep a 15-minute pace on the climbs, but it was becoming increasingly difficult.  As I crested the ridge I thought I was out of the woods.  It actually became the point at which I started to realize that the last handful of miles (mostly downhill) might actually be more difficult than I had envisioned. 
I reached Bort Meadow at 23.3 miles and chatted with the volunteers there as they filled my pack with water.  After they filled it, I tried to take it back to close the cap.  My fingers were still slightly swollen and I had no real dexterity to put the lid back on.  Fortunately, one of the gentlemen there told the gal with my pack to take care of it so I could get some food and get out of there.  It reminded me of when I volunteered at Western States, taking care of bottles and packs for the runners.  The reason we were instructed to do this all made sense now because the simple things like twisting bottle lids becomes more difficult.
While I was eating a conversation broke out among the volunteers about my running barefoot.  They asked the usual questions about how long I had been running barefoot and if I had been barefoot the whole race. Then one lady made the funniest comment I had heard on the trail that day.
“I don’t know whether to be impressed or horrified,” she said.
I had a good laugh at that as I threw my pack back on and headed out across the parking lot.  The gravel and paved sections were pretty horrific but not too long.  I wanted to get back onto the dirt fire roads.  My feet were becoming increasingly tender which made the little rocks more painful and annoying than the larger ones.  I made sure to run through every mud puddle I could find.  This served a dual purpose – first, a nice cooling splash of water on my heated feet; second, and more importantly, it was FUN!
As I had mentioned before, I had realized that the last miles were going to be difficult going even though it was mostly downhill.  My trashed quads were becoming weaker as the miles wore on.  I was quickly becoming unable to run slow or fast downhill due to the fading strength in my quads. 
Despite the soreness that was building in my quads, I actually felt great.  I knew that I had about 5 miles to the finish.  I had basically run a marathon at that point.  I downed a couple more hammer caps and the last of my shot bloks.  Even though I had no doubts in my mind whether I’d be able to complete the 50K, this was the point at which I became excited at the reality that I was going to finish my first ultra and barefoot!
As I came out of the forest and up onto the ridge before Honker Bay, I got my first glimpse of Lake Chabot.  This was a real morale booster.  I knew that all I had left to do was to make it around the shoreline to reach the finish!  I was hiking slowly up a hill when I saw the Honker Bay aid station.  I broke into a steady run as the hill leveled off.  I remembered this intersection of trails from my day of mountain biking the trail.  This would be the last aid station before the finish.  It was also the top of  a 300-foot descent to the lake’s edge.  

First view of Lake Chabot on the return

When I reached the aid station, I pulled out my water bottle.  I had downed the last of my sports drink about a half-mile back and was seriously wanting more.   I passed it to a volunteer who dutifully filled it and passed it back to me.  I distinctly remember eating quite a bit at this aid station.  I had 4 chunks of banana, the equivalent of a snickers bar that had been cut up into cubes, and a handful of M&Ms. The volunteers informed me that I only had 3 miles to the finish.
The time was a little after 1:30 and the fog had rolled back and the sun was warming the ground.  I headed down the wide dirt fire road.  This last downhill proved to be extremely difficult.  I ended up walking most of the half-mile downhill.  My quads were thoroughly trashed and my feet felt every tiny pebble as if they were needles.  Once I made it to the bottom, I took off at a steady run.  I was able to get down to between a 10 and 11 minute pace.  I was quite amazed that I had the ability to gain that pace.  I really needed it though, since I had fallen back during the second half of the race.
While running along the lake a lady in Vibrams caught up with me.  I think her name was Joan.  We chatted and ended up running most of the final 2 miles together.  I told her about the BRS.  She told me about her transition to Vibrams.
Source:  Skyline 50K Website
When we reached this bridge just under 2 miles from the finish, I was worried.  On my biking trip, I had scouted this bridge.  The metal steps on the far side have oval holes with vicious looking teeth.  The bridge, or more precisely the staircase, was the main reason I was carrying my huaraches.  I told Joan I didn’t want to lose time getting my sandals out when we were so close to the finish.  So, I braced my arms on the handrails and stepped down lightly and evenly on the step.  It worked!  I maneuvered my way step by step, putting most of my weight on my arms while balancing myself with my feet.  I gained the top of the stairs with lots of stares from the numerous hikers and bikers at the top.
I had done it!  I had reached the final stretch.  Joan and I continued to run reaching the paved path that would take us to the finish.  There were a few steep switchbacks, which we walked and then resumed running as soon as we reached the top.   With less than a half mile to go, Joan’s knee started bothering her.  She told me to go on ahead.
As I rounded a small peninsula on the lake I could see the marina.  The excitement really started to build inside me.
“Keep running.” I told myself. “Less than a quarter mile to go!” 
As I approached the picnic areas, I saw orange fencing material.
“That’s the chute!“  I thought to myself.
I sped up.  When I reached the fencing, I realized it was only there to keep people off the bank of the lake. 
Upon passing the misleading fencing material I saw two signs pointing to the right.  I looked and saw the final bridge crossing.  I heard a cowbell ringing!  They were calling me in!!!
As I crossed the bridge I saw my family standing at the finish line.  My wife and my mom had their cell phone cameras up snapping pictures.  Amazingly, I started sprinting for the finish.  Thirty-one plus miles and here I was sprinting. 
I crossed the finish line and walked about ten feet past it.  I bent down and put my hands on my knees and exhaled a deep breath and stood back up.  
Approaching the finish line
I had just run 31.65 miles!  I couldn’t believe it.  I had completed my first ultramarathon and I’d done it barefoot!
Official time:  7:23:55
Post-race update: 

My feet post race (next morning)

I hobbled around my house for about 2 days.  Unfortunately for me my house has stairs.  It was quite a feat to maneuver up and down the stairs the first day or two.  My feet did remain somewhat swollen and tender for about 4 days.  I had pictures of the wasp stings, but they did not come out too clear.  However, nearly 2 weeks have passed since the race and I still have itchy traces of the bites.

I have to say that I really appreciated all of the runners and volunteers at the Skyline 50K.  They were all very positive and supportive of me running barefoot.  I did not get one ill comment the entire day.  Most people were excited to see me and cheered me on.  It really made the day all the more memorable.
I’m truly amazed that I finished a 50K ultramarathon.  Five years ago I would have never guessed that I would be at this point.  In fact, if you had asked me if I’d run an ultra, I’d have told you that you were crazy. 
Next stop 50 miles!


  1. WOW I mean WOW!!!! Absolutely amazing! I'm in awe!

  2. Awesome! You are truly amazing:)

  3. Hi Terry! I LOVED reading your race recap - you are AMAZING!! I wish to be half as awesome as you one day! :) I'm your newest follower, and I'm really looking forward to see what you do next - I know you will ROCK your next ultra, and have even more fun!

    I am just new to barefoot running and I'm amazed at all the little bones and tendons I'm starting to feel since transitioning - it's crazy what shoes have done to out feet!

  4. Well done!! Great recap as well :)
    Cheers, angiebee

  5. Well done, Terry! The recap with pictures made me feel a part of the action. Thanks for blogging this.