Thursday, April 18, 2013

Barefoot (mostly) American River 50-Mile Endurance Run

Ok, I know, I know. I've been kinda AWOL lately. I've spent some time with my family, coaching cross-country, and training. And it's finally paid off.  Enjoy this post...there are more stories to come!

April  6, 2013 – Sacramento, CA
The day had I had waited a year for had finally arrived - Redemption Day. It was the morning of the American River 50-Mile Endurance Run once again. Last year, I had trained numerous miles only to wind up injured at the start line resulting in my first DNF ever.

THIS year was going to be different. This was MY year. It was time to run to Auburn to get MY AR50 Finisher’s Jacket.

I kissed and hugged my wife and kids – my “crew” for the race. I stripped off my Sockwas, handed them to my wife, and joined the growing crowd of runners as they meandered toward the starting line. My family headed to watch the start from the Guy West Bridge. The runners would race west away from the bridge for a couple miles and circle back underneath the bridge now heading east toward the finish 50 miles away in the little town of Auburn. As the saying goes, “All Trails Lead to Auburn.”

There were a few announcements at the start, some jokes, lots of cheering, and finally, the air horn signaling the start of the race. IT WAS ON!

The sun had yet to rise, but every step brought a little more light. It was cool, but not cold. It was a perfect morning (or should I say day) for a race!

On the opening mile or so, no one seemed to notice that I was barefoot. Then the first joker made his presence known behind me – there’s always one…

“Hey, bro! What do you do when you step in shit?”
“I wash my feet.” Pause. Roll my eyes. “What do YOU do when YOU step in shit?”

I never turned back. I just kept on running. I didn’t even dignify his response to my question.

The group circled back toward the bridge. Now the sun was starting to rise. As I approached the bridge, I could see my wife and kids waving from above. It was such a great boost to my spirit to see them as I ran under the bridge.

Since this is about the point where my achilles started to ache last year, I was superstitiously nervous in these opening miles of the race.

Somewhere along the path on the way to William Pond (Mile 8), I ran into Don Freeman from Trail Runner Nation. I have to admit, I didn’t know who he was. Some of my running friends were fans of the podcast, but I had not gotten into the habit yet. (BTW – I’m now addicted to the podcast.) We talked a bit about the race and about my barefoot running. He said he was running to Beals Point (Mile 26) and hopping in a car to announce the race finish. About that time, the two of us came upon a guy running in Hokas. Don commented on the contrast in our choice of foot apparel (or lack thereof). He mentioned how great it would be to have a picture of the two of us – barefoot and Hokas.
Here ya go, Don… turns out my wife caught a picture of us coming through Sunrise Aid Station (Mile 14.61).

Hokas Mike & I at Sunrise Aid Station

Hokas Mike, as I will call him ended up running with me all the way through mile 18. Interesting guy. He ran in Hokas, but does some training barefoot. Mike told me he was planning to go to the Born To Run Ultras race. We chatted about kids, running, and races.

Between the time that Don had run with me and joining up with Mike, I noticed that I had upped my pace to under a 10-minute mile. Not a hard pace to keep, just not in my race strategy. So, around mile 10 or so, I felt like I was getting a hot spot on my left foot around the ball of my foot. When I stopped off for a quick peek, I noticed nothing out of the ordinary. I wrote it off as maybe having stepped on a pebble that may have given me a slight bruise.

When we hit Sunrise (Mile 14), while my wife was mixing up my Iskiate drink, I checked my foot again. No sign of a blister/hot spot. Hokas Mike and I took off down the bike trail running at about a 10-minute/mile pace. 

This pace was slightly faster than I had planned, but within my overall goal of between a 10 and 12 minute/mile pace. My race strategy was to get to Beals Point by 11:18 a.m., which is a 12 minute/mile pace. This strategy would give me an hour and 20-minute cushion from the cut-off at Beals as well as just over 6 hours to complete the last 23.5 miles.

About the time Mike and I hit mile 17/18 at the Hazel Street Bridge over Highway 50, I checked my foot again and to my horror had a quarter sized blister on the ball of my left foot. I bid farewell to Mike and told him I was going to back down a little on my pace to protect my blister (which had to be from pushing off). I needed to run my race and keep control of my form.

(edit 4/20/13 - I caught up with Hokas Mike on Facebook - Congrats on your finish!

I made the first real climb of the race up the overpass, and onto the ridge overlooking the highway. It wasn’t a difficult climb, but it was the first significant climb thus far – about 200 feet.

At the top of the hill, we turned onto a road and then into Main Bar Aid Station (19.2 miles). At this point, the trail/road becomes a gravel path. Generally, I am not afraid to run a of a couple miles barefoot on gravel. However, while nursing a growing half-dollar sized blister and 31 miles of trail ahead, I decided that my huarache sandals from Invisible Shoe were the right thing to throw on. So, after stuffing my face at Main Bar, I pulled the sandals out of my pack and slipped them over my feet.
This was the perfect solution. The sandals provided just enough coverage to take the edge off of the gravel and protect the swollen blister. After about a mile of gravel running, the path turned onto dirt single track. But just as I was hitting mile 20 and before I made the turn onto the dirt, I felt a strange “pop.” I looked down at my left foot and saw blood and watery liquid quickly coating my entire left huarache. 

For a moment I panicked.  I needed to rinse this off. My water bottle was full of Heed – probably not the best idea. My camelback! I grabbed the tube and squeezed on the bite nozzle. Nothing came out. Duh! You have to suck the water out.

I decided at that moment that it was fine and took off onto the single-track dirt path. I quickly realized that my left foot did not feel any pain. All the pressure of the blister had been immediately and effectively relieved with the pop. I took off down the trail feeling light as a feather.

Fortunately, Mike had seen my crew/family at two aid stations now and notified them of my blister situation. He told them that I “might need shoes.” 

I don’t need no stinkin’ shoes!

As I made my way into the aid station at Negro Bar (22.4 miles), my son was eagerly awaiting my arrival with my padded tape (something like moleskin) in hand. I grabbed it and asked where they set up. As he led me over to where my wife and daughter had my spread set up, I grabbed some food off the aid station table and headed for my gear.

I instructed my wife to break open the athletic tape as I tore strips of padded tape off the roll my son had given me. I quickly laid two strips of padded tape down the ball of my foot across the now deflated blister and dime-sized hole in my foot. Next I wrapped tape around the front and back of my foot – securing both ends of the padded tape. I made sure that the tape was secure on the skin, but not tightly wrapped. The last thing I needed was to “bind” my foot from moving freely.

Once I got the tape secured. I grabbed the bloody huarache and stuffed it over my foot. My wife asked if I wanted my shoes.

“Nope. I’m good with these!” I said, as I hopped up. “See ya at Beals Point!”

The next four miles went fairly uneventfully as I meandered along the gravel path with gorgeous views of the American River approaching Folsom Lake.

As we reached the western edge of the lake, a couple of us started running together. We were approaching the 26.2-mile mark. One lady commented that this was the loneliest mile. Here we were running along side the road in Folsom with cars and businesses all around us. Yet it felt like we were not really part of anything – no race, no trail, no spectators, just roads, cars and sidewalks.
Our stint in the “city” didn’t last very long (about 1/3 of a mile) as we turned back onto the American River Bike Trail. I think we were passing Hunkle Reservoir when we saw the two bunches of balloons and signs on each side of the path marking the marathon distance of 26.2 miles. The small group of us noted the lack of any real celebration that we had just run a marathon to this point. We checked our watches and noted our marathon time. Mine turned out to be about 5 hours and 5 minutes. Not my worst time, but not my best.

Just under a mile out, I could hear the music at Beals Point blasting across the lake. This was a huge relief. This was considered the “half-way” mark at 26.53 miles. It also has the first real “cut-off” time. As I came to the end of the dam, I could see the huge party spread out in the park and parking lot. There was a huge inflatable archway marking the entry into Beals Point. 

My son guiding me to our spot at Beals Point

My official entry time into Beals was 11:18 a.m. What I didn’t realize this until I started writing this story is that 11:18 is the exact time that I had written on my pace chart for a 12-minute pace at Beals Point.

My son met me just inside the archway and ran me to our area. I was so happy when I saw my family. If you ask my wife, she says I seemed a bit “out of it”. 

I spent some time replenishing my stash of pretzel sticks (which were keeping a slight bout of nausea at bay), switching out water bottles, tossing my Garmin into my bin (the battery had died about a mile or so back) and talking with my wife about how great I was feeling. She told me that I was doing great on time. There was something truly awesome about having my wife crew for me. Her words really lifted my spirits and kept me motivated.

My wife informed me that my parents were arguing about when to come out to see me on the course. I don’t think they had even left home at this point. More on my parents later.

I gave my wife a kiss and headed over to the aid station to fill my hydration pack and eat some boiled potatoes and chips. I think I even popped a couple of S-Caps. I had barely even touched my Shot Bloks – maybe finishing one pack thus far in the race. It actually ended up being the only pack I ate that day.

I made the circuit around the point and up onto the dam. Now I was into the part of the course I had seen before in training last year. I remembered the gravel fire roads and dirt trails that were coming up. This is what I had been longing for all day – the dirt! Unfortunately, it starts out with some more gravel-ish fire roads or wide trail. But I knew that the dirt was coming.

Thinking back now to the race, the trip from Beals to Granite Bay (Mile 31.67), while only about 5 miles, is kinda fuzzy in my mind. I think most of the 20s miles were. I don’t remember feeling particularly bad, but just clouded in the head.

I can’t remember exactly what it was like coming up on Granite Bay. But I do remember confirming with a volunteer at the aid station if it was all dirt trails from Granite Bay to Last Gasp (Mile 47.5). I was getting sick of my huaraches. I felt like I was stomping around harder than I would do straight barefoot. The protection of the sandals made it more bearable to do so. It’s not that I don’t like running in my sandals, but I was slacking on form as I was beginning to tire.

Ah, now I remember hitting Granite Bay. My wife had to describe the aid station to me (or maybe I’m just getting old). 

Entering Granite Bay Aid Station (Mile 31.67)

So, at the aid station, I was perusing the food choices. I snatched up some potato chips and a salted potato. I overheard a volunteer offer someone some chicken soup. Then a memory of pacing at Western States came back to me. When I paced Dave Boudreau at WS100, he told me that nothing tastes better than chicken soup at 1 a.m. Now it wasn’t 1 a.m. (yet), but it sounded damn good. I asked for a cup and guzzled down the warm broth and ate some of the noodles and chicken at the bottom. SO GOOD! I chased it down with a Dixie cup of Coke. Finally, I headed over to my family and stripped off my sandals and added a little more tape to my foot and bounded down the trail.
This was the best! I felt so light on my feet with the dirt between my toes. I had a new energy. Then about ten or fifteen minutes down the trail, my head was totally clear. The salty soup, potatoes, and maybe even the caffeine from the Coke lit my brain up. The fog around my head was gone. My legs felt renewed. It was hard to believe that I had just run a 50K and was still moving strong.

The next 3 miles seemed to fly by. I was feeling strong and clear headed. I was now running further than I had ever run – EVER – shod or barefoot.

The next aid station was Buzzard’s Cove (Mile 34.67). It was said to be a “water only” station. I came around the bend and up onto a hill overlooking the lake. 

I stripped off my pack to have it filled with water when someone asked, “Would you like some ice cream?”

ICE CREAM! I thought. 

“I’ve heard about you guys!” I told them.

“So word is getting out?” he laughed.

Actually, some friends of mine who had raced last year told me about the “ice cream station” and I was so happy it was true! I did have a very brief moment of – hmmm… I wonder if this will screw up my stomach? Then decided, the hell with it! I want some ice cream!

It was so surreal. Here we were on the side of a hill, no road in sight, just the lake, a single-track trail and ice chests full of ice cream. 

I must give a shout-out to the aid station crew at Buzzard’s Cove- THANK YOU!!! The ice cream was AWESOME! 

I devoured the ice cream and most of the cone, thanked the volunteers, and turned to leave. As I was turning, one of the volunteers noted that there was a growing pile of runners sprawled out on the hillside enjoying ice cream and not looking like they were going anywhere anytime soon. He jokingly shooed them with his hands. No one moved.

I laughed and headed out of the area.

Since my Garmin had died at mile 25ish, I had been relying on my Nike Plus Sportband for time. I hadn’t really gotten it calibrated correctly and the pace/distance information was skewed horribly. So, I used it like a watch keeping overall race time and actual time of day. I was trying to estimate distance by 15-20 minutes per mile. I figured if I did that, then everything would be either on target or I might get pleasantly surprised with an early arrival at an aid station if I was making better time.

(Edited section added on 4//19/13:
I was talking to a friend today and she reminded me of a part of the course that I had forgotten to write about:

Somewhere between Granite Bay and Horsehoe Bar, there was a second race happening - a trail marathon. I started noticing these little signs on stakes with red arrows. I came up on a fork in the trail. There was a guy standing there.

"Don't go this way," he said, pointing up the fork that had the signs. 

I had no idea what he was talking about.

"You're joking right?" I asked.

"No, there is another race going on. They have the signs with the red arrows. You need to follow the orange ribbons."

I looked at him in disbelief. I couldn't really think very well having run over 30+ miles at this point. 

"Seriously?" I asked again.

"Yes. You go to the right."

I trotted on, still wondering and looking back to make sure he wasn't joking with me. Thankfully, he was correct and I didn't get lost. And as it turns out, just down the trail was another volunteer from that race directing runner traffic turned out to be a former teaching colleague of mine - Thanks, Kathy, for easing my fear that I wasn't going the wrong way!

(End edited section)

The next stop was another non-crew aid station at Horseshoe Bar (Mile 38.14) – roughly 3.5 miles ahead. I had run what I thought had been at least 2 miles or more. I asked someone if they had an idea how far it was to the next aid station. 

“About 2 miles.”

What?! I thought. Something was going wrong. I kept running.

A little while later I saw a trail sign for Rattlesnake Bar stating 3 miles. Well, It was 2.8 miles from Horseshoe to Rattlesnake. That should’ve meant an aid station at any moment. No such luck. I kept running. 

I was beginning to think that they had cut an aid station from the course when I recognized a wide dirt hill that I had seen over a year ago on the training run. FINALLY! Horseshoe Bar! I made a quick pit stop and then made my way up the hill. I was starting to feel a little beat down. I think a volunteer took a picture of my feet and I chatted it up a little with the others. Again, I was getting a little fuzzy in the head. I ate some food, filled up my hydration pack and bottle and headed out. 

The trail from Horseshoe Bar to Rattlesnake Bar had some pretty nasty rocky sections. I had to slow down a lot to maneuver my way down hills. This was frustrating because my strategy was run the downs and flats as fast as I could so I could walk the hills. However, I didn’t give up. I just kept moving the best I could. Whenever there was decent trail, I ran as fast as I could (which wasn’t terribly fast at this point). 

After another hour, I finally arrived at Rattlesnake Bar (Mile 40.94). I was falling back on my pace. I had planned to be at Rattlesnake about 2:15 p.m., but I think it was more like 3:30.

My parents had finally made it up to the course and were waiting as I started to eat up the food at the aid station. Here is the funny thing about my parents. My wife had mentioned that whenever I’m racing and am expected to show up somewhere at a certain time and my parents come, I always end up about an hour later than expected. It happened at my first 50K ultra too. Funny, huh?

Leaving Rattlesnake Bar (Mile 40.94)

The next 3 miles to Manhattan Bar were fairly uneventful. I was getting tired, but my spirits were still strong. I was still going to Auburn to get MY jacket. I knew I was getting close on time. I kept telling myself to run whenever possible. I did have to stop once to add tape to my foot.

At one point, when I had stepped to the side of the trail to let some runners pass, someone said, “You’re not going to get any shoe contracts doing it like that.” We both laughed and I fell into running behind them.

When I arrived at Manhattan Bar, I was getting pretty foggy in the head again. I popped some more S-caps, drank some soda, and tried to eat some food. It was the last aid station with food. The problem was, I wasn’t very hungry any more. I knew this was not good, but couldn’t really get around it.

While standing around nibbling, a runner asked me if this was the last aid before Last Gasp. I told her there was one more station then Last Gasp.

“No,” said one of the volunteers. “This is the last aid before Last Gasp. You only have 6 more miles to go.”

I pulled out my water bottle and checked my chart. She was right! In my tired state, I had misread my chart and thought I had 2 more stations before the finish. I held up my hands in victory and said, “That is fantastic news!” She smiled and laughed.

I trotted away with a little bit of a lift in my spirit. While I was thrilled that I had only 6 more miles to go and one more aid station, I knew that the dreaded 3-mile climb was coming up. I trudged on. Time was running short. It was now close to 5 pm. The cut-off at Last Gasp (Mile 47.56) was 6:20 and the 13-hour end at 7:00.

I pushed and pushed. I ran (or shuffled really) as much as I could stand. I needed to close the gap in time. I kept looking down the river toward the end of the canyon. I knew that the climb was there somewhere. However, every time I thought I was getting closer, the trail would wind away from the river following the curves of the canyon wall. No matter, just keep running I told myself.

Finally, the trail came to an end. The trail turned to gravel and headed to the left and up, up, up out of the canyon. I got my Invisible Shoes out of my pack and strapped them on. Another runner had joined me as we started the climb up the hill. It was approaching 6 p.m. 

Gotta keep pushing. I told myself. 

I knew that I would not be able to run any of the hill. It was just too steep and my legs were spent. 

Just keep walking…Fast.

The gravel turned to road, but it was still steep. Keep walking.

There was the first of 3 signs – 3 miles to go!

Keep walking!

After what seemed like forever, the crazy guys at Last Gasp who run your bottles to the aid station came into view. I told them mine were good, thanked them, and kept walking.

Time: 6:07 p.m.

Keep powering up that hill! I told myself. It’s not over yet. 2.44 miles to go! GET THAT JACKET!
I started to feel nauseous. I hadn’t eaten in a while. I didn’t really want to drink anything and the thought of another pretzel stick made me sick. Again, I knew it wasn’t a good thing, but I didn’t care. 

Just keep walking.

I passed a runner and his pacer. This guy was in bad shape. He wanted to vomit. He was burping loudly. I kept pushing my way ahead. I didn’t want to be in earshot if he lost it or I might too.

The signs for 2 miles and finally 1 mile came into view. I could hear the announcer booming over the speakers at the top of the hill somewhere in the trees. Just keep walking.

A short turn in the road and I could see the top! My wife and kids were there screaming wildly!!!

Time 6:45 p.m.

“Come on, Dad! Hurry!!!!” They screamed.

“I’m coming.” I shouted back.

I climbed the final hill and walked to the road. I stripped off my sandals, tucked them in my water belt and started running. Only a few hundred feet to go. My kids ran along side me - one on each side. We rounded the corner and the chute and finish line came into view. I was smiling ear to ear. 

My kids guide me into the chute.

I crossed a timing mat. Then Don Freeman, the announcer, started shouting wildly about the “barefoot runner” he had met earlier that morning now coming into the finish line. 

I crossed the finish line with my arms raised in victory and a huge smile on my face. 


I had done it – a barefoot (mostly) 50-mile run!

Official time 12:49:22.

I put my hands on my knees. My son laid the medal over my neck and someone handed me MY finisher’s jacket! I stood up and pointed to Don who was still shouting wildly – I think he told my kids to tell me to get some shoes on. 

When it was all said and done my family and I took pictures (while I tried not to throw up). Thanks to Jesse Jimenez and his wife Jenni from NorCal Trailheads for taking some great finish line shots.

The Family
My Kiddos and I

It was truly an amazing experience running AR50. I am still, two weeks later, processing all that has transpired. 

A special thank you to Julie Fingar and the staff and volunteers at NorCal Ultras for putting on a fantastic race. I could not have asked for a better first 50-mile race!

UPDATE: I forgot to add post-race pictures of my foot. Here ya go.

Right heel - blood blister wraps under the heel.
Left foot - still bandaged - wet from grass not blood ;)
Bottom of left foot (blister on ball)

Top of left foot -blister from tape behind big toe.


  1. Inspiring! Congrats!


  2. Hi Terry. I agree with Thea, Inspiring. I have shared your post with my blog readers. I pick my 5 favourite barefoot posts every week and yours is one of them. I'll run anywhere for ice-cream!

  3. Thea and Chris,
    Thank you for your kind words!

    Yes, ice cream is awesome! It is even better after you have run 30+ miles. It's kinda like when I paced at WS100 last year...nothing tastes better than jello at 1 a.m. after you've been running a couple of hours. Hmmm...I think I'm sounding like a sugar junkie. :)

    Chris - I greatly appreciate you sharing my blog. I truly appreciate you choosing my blog post as one of your favorite. By the way, your website looks great! I think I'm going to add it to my "follow" list as well.

    Keep up the running!

  4. Wow! That's an impressive feat, Terry. I'm curious: how did you attach the timing chip? I see there's a band round one of your ankles.

  5. Hi Tenderfoot,
    Thank you! The strap on my leg is a Zoot Timing Chip Strap. Normally put the D-Chip or other timing chips on the strap - similar to putting it through shoelaces.

    The timing chip for this race was actually a B-Timing Chip embedded on the bib. Normally I fold the bib up into a small rectangle with the number showing. We had to keep the bib flat and open so the timing chip would not be damaged.

    For this race I wore two watches - my Garmin Forerunner 205 and my Nike+ Sportband. The pod for the sportband was strapped inside the Zoot Strap in a folded ziplock bag. My Sportband is not calibrated correctly, but I knew my Garmin battery was going to die. I love my Garmin, but I think the battery is getting old - 6+ years. I was hoping that I could keep pace/distance on the Sportband. It was pretty far off by the end of the race (I think it said I ran over 60 miles, hahaha. I ended up using it just for the elapsed time and the actual time of day.

    I put a link to the Zoot Strap in my Amazon favorites at the top of my blog.