Real barefoot trail running.
Yes. Amazed? Yep, so am I. How? Read on.
So if you are at my blog you know I do barefoot running as my preferred running style. Mostly on road/pavement/concrete/beach/grass. I have even run a full road marathon totally barefoot.
Then you will also know I love trail running. BUT for trail running I do run with minimalist trail shoes. We run on a lot of limestone base trails, highly technical trails, pea gravel, gravel, and very stoney trails. We run in bush forest, over thorny surfaces, through long rough grass and short spikey grass. We run on fine sandy trails, on hot black sandy trails. We run where snakes are common. So yes, I run with trail shoes.
My principle race for this year is the Comrades Marathon. So my training program for the next five months is structured towards this event, and my selected “races” had a few key elements, the distance must fit my program at the time of each event, there must be hills (considering that the first 43km of the Comrades Up run is UP). Even though they are races, they must have an element of fun a.k.a. Trail running.
Every weekend I join a group in the Hills for a long slow trail run of 20 plus km, of which next month will be 30 plus km and so on. Then on Sunday mornings I do another 20plus km in closer slightly less hilly trails with my running buddy.
Additionally those following my blog will know of my ongoing saga to find some new trail shoes suitable for my style of running & my style of feet.
So I receive some new Altra’s Eve Minimalist in the mail, and they look lovely, feel very soft and flexible, I had ordered the right size and all the boxes were being ticked. Saturday morning arrives and I eagerly don my new shoes to set out for a long slow and very chatty 20km hills & trail run. After about a km in my feet were feeling decidely uncomfortable. I figured not to be a princess, the shoes have to wear in and carried on. My watch beeped at 2km and I came to a halt. I was in agony. Gingerly removing my shoes and see the problem. Not just blistered but actually cut right through the skin. One foot has a huge blister and the other blister and cut. There was no way I could put the shoes back on, let alone continue to run with them.
I assess the situation. It takes an hour to drive out here, I caught a lift, and that runner is in a different group headed off in a different direction with no phone.. What a waste of time. So I figure I will just carry on barefoot. Remember I do still run barefoot during the week on my shorter runs, but on paved/road/concrete & beach surfaces. I have done about 2km’ s at a time of pea gravel barefoot running and it was not a problem. I opted to continue the trail run. Barefoot. All remaining 18 (eighteen) kilometres of it.
To be honest most of the run was absolutely fine. My feet really are tough. I think I am a bit more Neanderthal than even I realised. However there were short sections of blue Rock, Broken red Rock, and much bigger gravel. This required slowing right down and picking my way around.
- Technique One. Scan ahead to see the smoothest part of the trail, or the area that has the most traffic. With looking ahead by about 100m at a time, you can see a feint lighter,smoother path, a bit like the smooth tracks of the car tyres on tar roads. This is the ‘barefoot line’.
- Technique Two. Really step lightly with as little foot surface as possible.
- Technique three – make sure you flick your heels back sharply when stepping as it helps knock off the loose gravel from your feet.
And then we get to running through the rocky bits. No matter how careful I was, short of walking, I simply had to run through it. I felt a few dings on my soles, and my arches. Ironically when you bump bruise yourself you rub it right? So I think even when I was bashing my feet a bit, the next step soothed it. It took a few kilometres to nail the technique and I was then flying, keeping up with the shod front runners. And then we came across a concrete rafter beam bridge, meaning it should be timber rafters, but they were made with grooved concrete. It was covered in dappled shadow so I did not see the rough grooving until to late. I hit the bridge at speed and smashed my feet. My soles felt like they were being hammered with a claw hammer. It took a couple of strides to come to a stop without falling. Oweeee. I stepped very gingerly crying ouch ouch ouch with every step till I got to the end. That bridge was probably no more than 50m, but it felt like 250m to me. I seriously bruised my feet. And there we were 12km into the trail and only my feet to get me back. I took a deep,breath so that the others would not know how much pain I was really in. Such a short strip of concrete bridging and I had met my match. The group filled up with water, did the head count and was ready to charge off again. I had barely moved. So now. I had to pace out. 10m and we went around a corner and were on bitumen/tar/asphalt. Phew, was I glad to see this. Running on tar I can do. So we had some uphill of this route. And then we went downhill.
The downhill road had a much rougher grade of tar on it, and we were running down at about a 4:45mins pace. Now my soles have a thick skin pad, but it is soft and flexible, so down hill running at speed does have a tearing /shredding affect. Not to bad, but just enough to let you know you are still running barefoot. I call it my daily exfoliation, chafing off any rough skin and that is how I keep my soft pink soles. By now we have covered about 16km of the course, and I felt I was holding up pretty well. Huh. We went from tar back to pea gravel. And then I felt it.
Why? Well, running on the tar and had literally exfoliated my soles. So they were very tender and smooth again once we hit the pea gravel. I went rather quiet as I focused on just placing my feet as efficiently as possible, and hung at the back of the group so that they could not spot my discomfort. Only I ran into a problem, I was right at the back, but close up. I realised my biggest mistake. Technique one. Scan ahead at all times. Pick up the ‘barefoot line’. At the rear of the pack I could not scan. So my eye could not pick up the line of least resistance and smoothest areas. With every one so close they were kicking up a storm dust too, so I really could not even see immediately where I was placing my feet. 2km of dust eating pain and frustration. And then I just said blow being polite, and surged ahead to the very front. What a difference, being able to see the ‘barefoot line’ gave me so much more confidence and I really picked up the pace, with some sections running at 4min pace for the remaining 2km. Finally back.
Well clearly this was my first longish hall at barefoot running on trail.
Would I recommend it? No.
Why, I just did it so why should I not recommend it? Okay, you have to have seriously tough feet, and be one very tough cookie. In the moment you are driven by devil may care, by the rush of the run, by the sheer stubborness of it. By the feet being thick, dirty and pounded beyond feeling. When it is all over rover, time has passed and you clean up the mess you find your feet have been shredded underneath and you have a dozen tiny bruises. AND I HAD BLISTERS? Since when do I get blisters? On my toes!? Were they from those Altra Eve shoes?
So what next? How do I go from here? Well on the day I was pretty mad. Throughly mad, as the next day Sunday I had a trail race. And guess what? I could not get my feet into any pair of running shoes I own. It was just too painful. So what were my options? Cancel my trail race? NO way! Run Barefoot? Well, I have just done 18km on Saturday, why not do another 18 on Sunday? Well I happen to know this course, and although is it 90% sand, there is about 10% of the course that is really very rocky, owie sharpy rocky. Also that is fine black sand. It gets very hot. Very very hot.
Suddenly it dawns on me to consider the hurachi or xero style running sandles. Now at lunch time on Saturday afternoon I really do not have time to order and get a pair of these on line, and it is extremely unlikely I would find them at my local shops. However what I did find at the local shops was a pair of beach slops/thongs. A little time with Mr Google and Mr Youtube, a pair of scissors, and some laces and whallah..
Well that was cheap. $3 slops. Laces from my gym shoes. All made up in less time that to drink my coffee.
I was well please. And unlike vibram 5 fingers, the “neandersandals or manyatellas” look quite pretty! I knew I needed to give them a good test run befor the race, so despite it being 37 degrees and a hot afternoon I set out to test these.
I hope you see the video – it was really weird running and ‘filming’ at the same time!
The shoes worked perfectly. I am really and truely amazed. I am not a fan of slops and things between my toes (hence the aversion to Five fingers shoes). I thought the shoe laces may be an issue, but I did not even feel it. I got a little carried away and ran all over the show testing the neandersandals on tar, gravel, beach sand, bushland, forest floor etc. Next thing I realised I had gone far to far when Iam supposed to be having a race the next day. Slam on brakes and walk the last 2km back home. My little test run was an unplanned 9km….
TRAIL RACE DAY
Well Sunday arrived, nice and hot, I donned my gear including my neandersandals & arrived at the bib pick up. A few looks, but I think most people thought I was donning my shoes at the last moment. Race tag slipped on the laces no problem. The siren went and we were off, the first 5km being quite tight single file trail I figured I needed to get ahead of the pack as I did not want people stepping on my a) my sore feet and b) the back of my neandersandals as you do in town. I was with a running buddy who really hit a mental wall with the very sandy course. At 6km I pulled into Aid 1 to wait for her as I had not realised how far back she had dropped. Eventually my running buddy comes through and we set off. I have to say that running with this set up was the closest experience to barefoot running, dirt and all. I was very comfortable and it felt as if I had no shoes on at all. No trapped stones, or sand clogging. I did not slip or loose my grip on anything – did not stack it in this race at all. In fact my legs just wanted to fly. However I pulled back to support my running buddy who was having a tough time of it all. Although this was a trail race it was not important for me to place, just to get some good racing in for my training program. However the next one I will make my running buddy push it! 18km later and we were across the line. Awesome.. feet were great. And I noted that the beach slop was a thicker and denser level of padding than I have in any of my shoes!
Very dirty feet. But very happy feet.
I do believe I will run all my trail runs like this!
So it took a few hours of soaking to try and get my feet clean and then to asses the damage from Saturdays run. After a couple of hours rest I stood up to walk around. Yowzers..I could feel the bruising. My feet are feeling like they have been grated. Very delicate. Very bruised. Very stained! Normally I get my feet back to pretty in pink, but not this weekend.
Today is Monday and back to work..Cannot wear my safety shoes. Cannot wear my office shoes. Feet are lightly bandaged and I am wearing my schoolies. Walking only when necessary, as my feet really are quire bruised and ginger.