Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Journey to a Barefoot 50-mile Endurance Run: Race Report - What Went Wrong

Well, the American River 50-mile Endurance Run was on Saturday.

First of all - congratulations to Vajin Armstrong from Australia for his 5:53:14 win of the 2012 AR50.  Congratulations to the women's winner, Ellie Greenwood of Canada, at 6:18:29 (5th overall).  Also, congratulations to the local Rich Hanna of Sacramento, CA for his 2nd place overall finish and 1st place Masters win.  Congratulations to the runners from Lodi and Stockton, including Tony Vice and his employees, David and Omar, at Fleet Feet Stockton.  A complete list of the finishers can be found at

As it turns out, this is not going to be the race report that I had envisioned writing.  At the AR50, I had my first-ever DNF.  Here's the low-down on what happened. . .

I awoke Saturday morning at 3 a.m. and began my pre-race rituals - showering, shaving, and applying ample amounts of body-glide in every imaginable location.  Next, I ate a breakfast of oatmeal and chia seeds, drank a little iskiate, and began to pack the car with my gear and food for my crew chief, Rob (a.k.a. Running Romeo).  My wife dropped me off at Rob's house and headed back home.  Her plan was to return later in the afternoon with our kids to watch me cross the finish line.

Rob and I made the final leg of the journey in record time to the starting line at Sacramento State University (Apparently traffic at 4 a.m. on a Saturday morning tends to be light).  I hit the porta-potties for my...ahem... pre-race business.  Then we took a walk up to the bike path to check out the condition of the asphalt - nice and smooth (more on that later).

Since we were still an hour away from the start, we headed back to the car where I wrapped my legs in a couple of blankets Rob had thrown in the car.  After hanging out til about 5:40, we headed back up to the starting line.  Rob snapped a couple of photos of me pre-race and heading out.  The first shot I'm in my Sockwas, which I handed over to Rob along with my coat before heading out.

The asphalt at the actual starting line was a bit more chip-seal than the smooth asphalt near the bridge.  Fortunately it was only for about the first quarter-mile with a couple patches here and there in the first mile or two.

I don't recall actually hearing anyone or anything calling out the official "start," but everyone started moving in that general direction and loud music started blaring out of the speakers.  So, I assumed the race had begun!

Blue shirt, black hat with red sunglasses hanging of the back.

Heading out. . .
Just to the right of the guy in yellow you can see my bare feet and my blue shirt.

It was still dark as you can see and I was a little concerned that I might step on something stupid right off the bat and be sidelined.  Well, I managed to survive stepping on anything horrible in the dark.  Sunrise came about 20 minutes after the start.

I was running about an 11:30 mile, fluctuating between a 11 and 12.  I was trying to stay as close to the 12 minute mile mark as possible (especially with all the adrenaline coursing through my veins at the start of the race.  I was fully in the moment.  The river was very full and flowing.  The sunrise was coming up over the Sierras right in front of us.  It was a beautiful, cool spring morning.  A perfect day for a run (albeit a very long run).

I could hear various conversations about Born to Run behind me and an occasional, "that guy's barefoot."  One of the first people to chat with me was a woman who asked me if I had heard about Micah True.  We talked about how sad it was, but how beautiful it was that he passed doing something he loved.  She had been to the Born to Run event last year in So Cal and asked if I had been there.  After we had been talking for a few minutes, I realized my pace had picked up a bit, so I let our conversation die off and wished her luck.

One of the funniest things that I noticed was that people repeatedly asked me, "You're putting on shoes once we get to the trail section, right?"

My reply was always given with a big smile and a slight chuckle, "I'm looking forward to being barefoot on the trail section!"

Only one woman said, "I bet you can't wait for the trail section."

Things were moving along fantastically.  I was enjoying the scenery and the temperatures were perfect.  My pace was comfortable. 

Until mile 3. . .

What??? Mile 3???  Surely that was a typo, right?  You think I mean mile 30, right?  Nope.  Not a typo.  Mile 3.

My right achilles started to ache slightly on the outside.  I thought, no, no, no.

I tried to relax.  Shortened up my stride a bit and upped my cadence.  A little better.

Mile 4 - The pain increasing now.  I played with my form a little as I was telling myself, "This can't be happening."

Mile 5 - I stopped off to ... ummm . . .take care of a little business that happens when you're fully hydrated.  As I rounded the bushes, my feet felt something prickly.   I looked down and realized I had parked myself right on top of a nice thistle bush.  "Oh, shit." I thought.  Just do your business and back away slowly, I thought.

As I got back on the path, my achilles had tightened up a bit.  It took about 20 or so painful steps to get back into a running motion.  I was still able to hold a 12 minute pace, so I was happy.  Well, at least I was happy about something.

By mile 8, the pain was becoming almost unbearable and had spread to the entire back of the heel.  The first aid station was coming up.  I stopped off, grabbed a few shot bloks and a couple salt stick pills.  In my mind, I was still going to go 50 miles.  I needed fuel and to stay sharp.

It took a good 20 to 50 yards before I could get moving at a decent 12 minute pace again.  I pulled off to the side of the trail and pulled out my cell phone.  I called Rob and told him to get to the store and buy some Advil.  We had planned to meet at the Sunrise aid station at 14.6 miles anyway, but the idea was for me to dump my hat and gloves.

I started running again.  I kept checking my watch to keep an eye on my pace.  I was still clearly under the cut-offs.  Good.  I noticed when I looked at my shadow that I had started to hunch my back due to the pain.  I relaxed again, stood up tall, picked up my cadence and shortened my stride.  Ok, back in the game, but not really.  My left quad had begun to ache now.  I was seriously compensating for the lack of my right foot to bear my weight.  It was now starting to spread.

After I stopped off to do more business at mile 11, I could no longer get running again.  Each time I tried, my right leg would buckle under the pain.  It was as if someone was ramming a knife through my heel.  I thought, this is what Achilles must have felt as the arrow pierced his heel.  Just great!

I started walking, trying to maintain some kind of pace.  In the back of my mind, I knew it was the end. 

All morning, groups of women from a local running group had been running up and down the course with bunny ears on (it was the day before Easter).  Several of these groups paused to ask if I was ok and to offer me their socks.

The first couple of times, I laughed and said, "No thanks.  It's not my feet, it's my achilles."

By the fourth time, I managed to stay polite, but said, "My feet are ready to go 50 miles, but my achilles is shot."

The last woman to offer assistance asked if I needed a band-aid.  I know she was sincere, but it was kinda humorous.

Yeah, that's me the dumb barefoot runner.  I decided to run a 50-mile race barefoot and was sidelined because I cut my foot and forgot a band-aid. 

I declined the band-aid, told her it was my achilles.

She quickly responded with, "I have tape."

Wow!  This woman had a well prepared running vest!  I asked if she knew how to tape an achilles.  She didn't so I politely declined again with a big smile.

At about mile 12, I was beginning to accept that I was probably not going to make it past the Sunrise Aid Station at 14.67 miles.  I called Rob and asked him what the cut-off time was for that station.


It was 8:55 a.m.  No chance.  If I was healthy, no problem.  Injured - damn near impossible.

Finally about 13 miles in, the race official sweeping the back of the course caught up to me.  The race official, Rajeev, was quite the colorful character.  I think he was as pissed as I was that my achilles had given out.  He offered me some great words of encouragement and some information about strengthening my achilles.  We walked the final 1.5 miles to the Sunrise aid station together.  Rajeev told me about some of the ultras he had run.

As we approached Sunrise, he handed me off to some of the officials in the parking lot.  One official took my D-tag (a new experience for me).  It was almost painful for me to hand it over.  They told me to have a seat on a post since Rob was driving over and I would not need to walk any more.

Rob pulled up and hopped out of his car.  I shrugged my shoulders and said something like, "Well, that's it."  And as quickly as the race had begun, it had ended for me. 

Just then his phone rang and it was my wife, Cheryl.  He handed me the phone.  She was surprised when I answered.  She had been worried because NorCal ultras had not posted any times for me at the aid stations.  (As it turns out, they only posted Beals and the Finish).  I told her that my achilles had given out and I was dropping at Sunrise.

Sad to say, but my Journey to a Barefoot 50-mile Endurance Run ended in my first-ever DNF. 

I went to my doctor on Monday afternoon.  My x-ray was clear - no tears, no real damage done.  I just have swelling, stiffness and soreness.  It is Wednesday now and I am able to bear weight most of the time without the assistance of crutches.  I still get twinges of pain if I step down wrong.  Even that has reduced some since Saturday.

After visiting the doctor, I stopped by the Stockton Fleet Feet to congratulate their finishers of the AR50.  David told me how "sweet" the finisher's jacket was.  As much as I wanted to see it, I really couldn't bear to see it.

Inside I know I gave it my all.  I tried to push through it, but was unable.  I did not quit.  Injury took precedence.  I know I had to drop from the race or risk serious or permanent damage.

As Rajeev put it, "Racing is for the day.  Running is for life."

Thank you, Rajeev.

Thank you to everyone who supported me, cheered me on, and encouraged me on this path.  This journey has ended for now, but I'll be back very soon.  I am already planning my comeback for next year.  The 50K will be my new "regular" race over the next 12 months.  The American River 50 will not defeat me.  I will be back next year.


  1. Sorry to hear that, man. So if the X-ray was clear, did the Dr. give any indication why the pain/swelling/stiffness?

  2. Inflamation? I mentioned in one of my posts just before the race that I had a twinge while wearing Merrells (and not allowing my heel to touch). Plus running tense on the last training run due to stress about the upcoming race.

    Rajeev said that my wearing the minimalist shoes just prior to the race may have shortened up my achilles and caused some trauma. I think it may have been all of these factors - new shoes, stress, and poor form all at the right/wrong time.

    My new mantra used to be "don't do anything new on race day." Now it will be "Don't try anything new just before race day."

  3. I'll see you at the starting lines buddy! Way to hold it together at the toughest moments.

  4. Thanks for your honest and moving account--I think it's just as important for folks to hear about "DNF's as it is about glorious victories . . . since life is full of both! Happy Trails!