Good News: My running had been going well enough that it seemed like a 10k race (the OC Trail Wings Spooky Raptor Run) over my favorite trails between Irvine and Santiago Oaks Regional Parks would be a good idea last weekend.
Bad News: “Seemed like a good idea” is the story of my running life.
Good News: The weather was perfect (high 60s-low 70s) with lovely morning cloud cover. Trail conditions: equally stellar . . . the So-Cal-pre-rainy-season sensuous mix of dust and rocks and dusty rocks that I enjoy moving through several times a week.
Bad News: Three days before the race I was checking out “the course” (on the network of trails I’ve been traversing, shod and un-shod, since 1997), and caught the ball of my left foot on one of those rock-icebergs that barely poke through the dust. The result: not too much dripping blood, but a blood blister later that evening that I performed needle surgery on. Then the bruising began. And throbbing. So I did my best to keep the blood flowing through the area to enhance healing, the old “wiggle-waggle-twist-and-twitch” method of keeping my toes moving whenever I was sitting or standing. A bit painful, but effective.
Good News: By Sunday, my foot was feeling 90% better.
Bad News: By Sunday, my right hip, which has been stiff and sore for months (ever since a particularly intense hilly run one fine summer day) felt . . . pretty stiff and sore, still.
Good News: I got there early and walked and trotted and did some mild hip/torso loosening movements . . . and then the race began and I happily headed down a familiar path across (dry) Santiago Creek and past my favorite grove of cottonwood, sycamore, and very old oaks. By having realistic expectations (let’s just have fun) and seeding myself at the back of the pack, I was able to relax and enjoy the moment/movement.
More Good News: For 8k–which included 1000 feet of elevation gain/loss in the form of two lovely hills–I had the run of my life. I was able to push my 55-year-old cardio-pulmonary engine close to capacity a few times, and even made some passes on the uphills. The downhills were long and luscious with more dust than rocks, and I pushed myself just as hard going down as I had going up. I’m sure to a race observer (but there weren’t any, except a few mountain bikers out for a Sunday ride) all my running and capacity and pushing must have appeared as slow motion . . . but to me: pure shoeless flying.
As I approached the last very steep 30-yard uphill to go up and around the Villa Park Dam, I saw a few people power-hiking up it. “I can catch them. I own this hill,” I said to myself, an uncharacteristic bit of positive self-talk.
And I kept running, even though my legs were starting to feel the effects of 7 kilometers of nothin’ but up-and-down the ridges and hills of Santiago Oaks Regional Park.
And I actually caught one of the stragglers, a sturdy gentleman I’d passed quite a bit earlier in the race, but due to some, uh, interesting course markings (or lack thereof), I found myself staring at his muscle-y calves again.
Very Bad News: Around the 8k mark, after the last short downhill that led us back below the dam and onto the final flat section of the course, my left knee felt a slight twinge that soon became a major stabbing-cramping-inside-the-knee agony. Having recently listened to an hour-long conversation between Michael Sandler and Dr. Tim Noakes–who both emphasized the mental aspect of physical injury, I tried to “out-think” the pain.
Positive self talk!
Hmmm . . . this was an odd experience. On the one hand, I was able to keep a very slow jog going and not succumb to my left knee’s pleas of “Just walk, and I’ll behave. I promise.” Every other time I’ve had this pain (and it first surfaced during the final 10-mile downhill of a 20-mile race back in 2004), walking would indeed make it go away. Oh, the years of frustration and the fistfuls of dollars I’ve thrown at physical therapy to make my left knee reliable. The NSAIDS. Taping. Icing. Quad-strengthening exercises. Active Release Technique (ART) sessions. Rolfing series. Acupuncture. Rooster comb injections. Ad infinitum, ad nauseum.
And here I was back to square one: knee pain that sucked the enjoyment out of my running.
Good news: My feeble attempt at mind-over-matter sort of worked . . . only once did I give an audible whimper (a Charlie-Brown-like cry of “Aarrggh”) and walked for about five steps. Yes, the pain diminished. But I hadn’t paid $35 to walk along trails I could travel for free any day of the week. This was a race, dang it, and I was here to push myself–if not against the other racers and against the clock, then against my own mysterious psyche.
So I recollected all the inspiring ultra-running blog posts I’d ever read (including the most recent Grand-to-Grand Ultra race report by the amazing Sarah Lavender Smith), and just. Kept. Running.
As I motored slowly along, I tried to inventory how my hips, legs, feet, were feeling. Both my hips had felt oddly stiff as I careened downhill; now my left ankle seemed like it wasn’t flexing like the right one, so I attempted to let it flop a bit more loosely. Big mistake. A crampish pain immediately radiated from my knee up and down my left leg. Yikes. I locked my ankle back into its awkward, less agonizing place, and just. Kept . . . you know . . .
Good news: When I saw my newest friend Brent-the-photographer (he, my husband, and I had had a nice pre-race chat) pointing his camera at me during the final bit of trail-straightaway, I was able to limp a bit less and smile as I crossed the finish line in 1:17:42
Bad news: Dang. I could have shaved at least two minutes off that if I’d been able to keep my kick-butt race-pace (insert Nelson’s “ha ha” here) up the last mile.
Good news: Then I realized my time didn’t matter so much. I’d had a fabulous run on my favorite trails and had had the privilege of meeting some really nice fellow racers–folks who, both pre-and-post-race, had all kinds of interesting questions and comments and insights into running and their own searches for footwear that would keep them enjoying this most excellent activity.
Best news of the day: During the post-race chatting, a couple came up to me and said that when they had been lost on the course (did I mention the markings were a little sketchy?) they had looked for my barefoot footprints (barefootprints?) to help them find their way. That made my day, and my super kind and accomplished Feldenkrais coach will be happy to know she has continued job security as we keep working on sorting out how I move now, and how I can learn to move more effectively.
Here’s a few photos by my hubby, who scooted around the course on his BMX bike (his mid-life-crazy hobby):
I really enjoy following “Ahcuah” . . . the author does a great job sharing research (often from 20th century newspaper archives) showing how being barefoot has been portrayed in earlier times. This latest post from a 1916 column carries a timely message: how important it is for children (and, in this piece, specifically girls), to go barefoot.
On a recent evening run, I rounded an uphill curve and saw a coyote squatting next to the trail. When he saw me, he trotted off a safe distance down the ravine, and then turned to keep an eye on the two-legged creature who kept pointing a shiny object at the trail, and then toward him.
It’s tough to see what’s in my little camera’s viewfinder when I’m outside and without my reading glasses; I feel fortunate to have aimed in (somewhat) the right direction:
How beautifully he blends into the gray and brown landscape! Here’s a cropped version:
My barefoot trail running is going well enough that I’ve entered a 12k race in Limestone Canyon next month. Here’s hoping my feet, heels, calves, back, golgi apparatus, etc. hold together for this one . . . the previous two races I entered earlier this year turned into DNS (did not start, darned nude seahorses) due to aches and pains that seemed not worth dealing with in a stressful (these trail races sometimes have more than 50 entrants!) competitive setting.
I enter races so seldom . . . I want it to be fun, with no niggles (a great word I learned from the UK BF community) to distract me from the joy of pushing my limits in an awkward social arena (which races are to me, since I’m a loner runner, rarely know anyone, and few people seem to want to make eye contact and/or small talk with a barefoot crazy lady).
But me and Coyote, we share a bond:
(We know we shouldn’t squat too close to the trail, but sometimes we do it anyway . . . )
The big week has come and gone . . . and my fabulous five days of experiencing Havasu Canyon have now morphed into memories (and words, and photos).
My pack weighed 36 pounds (including five liters of water) the night before the 10-mile trek (down 2,000 feet) to the campground along Havasu Creek; after an illuminating pre-hike meeting with our (friendly, competent, knowledgeable, fabulous) Grand Canyon Field Institute guides, during which one pulled everything out of her pack, bit by bit, and explained why this and not that and do you really need more than one pair of pants all week, I returned to my (clean and comfortable) room at the Hualupai Lodge and divested myself of extra clothes and other superfluous gear.
I did not have a chance to weigh my backpack again until I returned home, but with all my food eaten, and only one liter of water left, it had diminished to 25.5 pounds . . . which felt feather-light on the hike up and out Friday.
My feet being always on my mind, I had lots of pre-trip trepidation about how to balance needing to stay up with a group of strangers (the other members of the GCFI expedition), and letting my soles do what they do best: feel their fabulous way along rocky and dusty trails.
Since I had successfully hiked for six days last year over a very challenging Grand Canyon route (Thunder River/Tapeats Creek/River Route/Deer Creek) with my Merrell Pipidae Wrap sandals (of course they have discontinued them), I brought those as a back-up. But–what I was eager to test: my new Sockwa X-8’s.
So, for the rocky and moderately steep first mile descent, followed by five more miles of meandering in/through/along a gravelly stream bed, I chugged along in the Sockwa’s. I doubt I could have made so many steps through the relentless swishy gravel without them, and the thin soles allowed for a fair amount of trail sensation, but that darn layer between me and the ground was moderately annoying. Without socks on, my feet felt sweaty, and after a couple of hours I realized I was getting a hot spot between my big toe and second toe on my left foot. Since it had been so long since I had experienced a burgeoning blister, I forgot that this sensation needed immediate attention when hiking. Long story short: I ended up with a small blister, which caused a bit more moderate annoyance the rest of the week.
Oh happy place where the trail meets the lovely creek, and the gravel is replaced by a silken dusty path that meanders along under cottonwood, willow, and other water-loving trees. The Sockwa’s came off immediately, to be worn for only a few minutes later in the week while descending the Mooney Falls ladder-and-cave trail.
That’s right: from Monday afternoon to Friday morning (when we hit the gravel wash again on our way up and out of the canyon,) I lived and loved the barefoot life. The last four miles of trail were no problem, even with the pack–and the daily excursions of 3-4 miles, up and down side canyons, in and out of Havasu Creek, were all the more enjoyable without shoes. It was amazing to watch all the work it took some of my hiking mates to change from ankle-high boots, to athletic shoes, to camp sandals, all week long. All I had to do was hike up my shorts and remember to take my camera out of my pocket when the creek crossings were above my knees.
I did suffer toe trauma one morning, though; I had strolled to the spring to fill up my water bottles for the day, and was greeted kindly by a couple who were camped near the path to the spring. They wanted to talk barefooting, so we did, but as I walked around their picnic table to leave, I stubbed my right big toe on one of the (many many many) limestone “icebergs” that lurked everywhere in the canyon dust.
After letting out a loud, “shizzle!”, I examined the damage–a flap torn off the tip of the toe. My new friends supplied me with wash water and a bandage, and I was on my way.
Having that “owie” on my toe did dictate a new choice of footwear for the hike back to the trailhead; I could not bear the thought of having the Sockwa pushing on the sore spot, so when first four miles of pleasant riparian path turned back to gravel stream bed, I plucked my Merrell sandals and Smartwool socks from my pack and spent the next five miles constantly flicking and flipping away the tiny rocks that these sandals somehow suck into the foot bed. I was so happy to reach the bottom of the canyon wall ascent; the trail was rocky, but not constant gravel, so there were plenty of spots to place my happy and free toes.
And the lightness! What a pleasure to step lively up the rock ledges with no weight on my feet . . . and with “only” 25 pounds on my back! I felt like I could have busted into a gallop, or at least a trot, like one of the pack horses that made their homes in the canyon, and seemed so at home, so smooth, as they paced off the rocky miles.
Besides being barefoot all week (well, except for lunch at the Supai village cafe on Thursday . . . I was a visitor, and not about to question their “Shoes and shirts required” sign in my quest for a fry-bread taco), the highlight of the trip was: water.
Spectacular waterfalls that churned white where they dropped into brilliant blue pools.
Whispering gray-blue streams a few feet from my tent where dipper birds swam and preened.
Lovely swimming holes created by curved travertine ledges, where the water was always refreshing, never cold.
The dark plunge pool way back in Carbonate Canyon where tadpoles and dragonfly larvae darted.
The curtain of drips that graced the opening of a small swim-up cave below Beaver Falls.
The delicious spring water miraculously flowing straight from the rock at the campground spring.
My feet felt honored all week to experience so many glorious washings in Havasu Creek on the Havasupai Reservation; I thank the Havasupai for allowing visitors like me to come here and be refreshed.
Note: I paid for these shoes with my own $$; my barefoot life is a completely non-monetized operation :)
With a five-day Grand Canyon backpacking trip looming, I’ve been trying to figure out what my foot-wear strategy will be.
Back story: A bit over a year ago, I did a six-day trip (arranged by the same wonderful folks at the Grand Canyon Field Institute), and had immediate shoe issues.
Hiking Grand Canyon is a bit different than hiking in the mountains; in the canyon, you first go down-down-down, and then come back up-up-up later. The initial descent can ruin your toes/toenails if your shoes don’t fit properly, with the constant bumping against the end of the toe-box resulting in blood-filled black toenails that eventually fall off. No fun.
The whole thing becomes especially problematic if you never wear shoes that cover your toes in day-to-day life . . . that would be me.
During last year’s Grand Canyon adventure, I showed up at the trailhead in my Merrell Pace Trail Gloves (the original model from their “barefoot” line). One of the reasons I wore them (besides hoping they would function well as backpacking footwear), was to not freak out the other backpackers on the trip, none of whom I had ever met . . . all of whom were wearing traditional hiking boots, and who would have probably not allowed me to join the fun without footwear that made me look like I knew what I was doing, since the trails we were about to travel for the next week were majorly steep and rough and rocky.
Well, I do steep and rough and rocky all the time at home, but not with 30 pounds on my back, so like a good scout I did try to wear shoes the first couple of jagged miles. Ouch. I knew my toenails were headed into oblivion, so I replaced the Merrell shoes with Merrell sandals: the (sadly discontinued) Pipidae Wrap Minimalist models. I had backpacked short distances (5-7 miles a day) in these, and they were very comfortable; their only drawback was the annoying quantity of pebbles they allowed to sneak between my foot and the shoe-bed.
Long story short on the Merrell sandals: (wasn’t this going to be a Sockwa review?) they are lightweight and comfortable and allowed me to keep up with my heavily booted companions down the Bill Hall Trail to Thunder River, along Tapeats Creek to the Colorado River, rock-scrambling along the Colorado River trail to Deer Creek, and then up the Deer Creek trail back to the Bill Hall and our cars (30-ish miles).
I now own two pairs of these sandals . . . one I wear to work every day (slipping them off as often as possible), and the other has remained my go-to backpacking shoe. Until now.
The constant attention to flipping tiny trapped rocks out from under my sole while traversing treacherous terrain gave me a hankering for another solution.
Enter the Sockwa: bought online from the company itself last Friday night ($59 + tax, free shipping), grabbed off my doorstep five days later and slipped on my feet immediately, and, finally, trail-tested this morning during an hour of steep up and down on the Chutes Trail outside of Irvine Park, near my hometown of Orange, CA.
Thus begins the review:
Sizing: I had measured my feet, as the web site suggested, and came up exactly between their (unisex) sizes. Drat. One size fits 9-10” feet; the next size up fits 10-11” feet. My feet are exactly 10 inches from heel to long second toe. I went with the larger size, since I don’t like things strangling my tootsies. There was room for my toes to wiggle this way, which I liked.
Initial feel: OK to pretty good. Did I mention that I really really dislike wearing anything that covers my feet? These are not too annoying to wear, however, with thin and stretchy uppers that wrapped my toes and continued up to grab my ankles in a snug-but-not suffocating fashion. I had read other bloggers mention being able to feel the stitching inside, but my feet got used to that quickly. There is a molded-in arch which is moderately annoying to feel pressing up against my foot (remember: my baseline is zero . . . nothing on my feet . . . so everything is noticeable), but my brain was soon able to tune that sensation out as well.
Weight: Nice and light, under 3oz. each.
Ground feel: With 4.5 mm of sole and mid-sole that the manufacturer claims compress to 2mm when you step on them, the ground feel is pretty darn good . . . comparable to my old SoftStar Grippy Roo Moccasins, which I wear to work when I want to feel like it’s winter in So Cal.
“Protection”: I put this category in quotes, because it is not a priority for me. I would not hike and trail run barefoot 100% of the time if I were concerned about this. For the purposes of backpacking, though, I guess this is why I bought the shoes . . . to help me keep up with my companions no matter how cold or hot or gravelly the surface (these are the three conditions I avoid during my solo wilderness travel . . . heat and cold, by planning the time of day of my outings; the gravel I have no control over, but it doesn’t really bother me without a pack on my back.)
Traction: I made a point to travel a trail with eroding sandstone ledges . . . that thin layer of grit can take you by surprise and cause a slidey-slip if you’re not careful. The Sockwa’s shallow, hexagonal tread worked fine as I stepped up and down and over rounded rocks and ledges, and I only lost traction and slipped once, about the same as when I am barefoot.
Toe-stubbing: The reduced proprioception that comes from covering all those fabulous nerve endings on your soles comes with a price: your subconscious is less vigilant, and you start catching your toes on rocks (i.e. tripping). (This is why people in big ol’ hiking boots trip all the time . . . their nervous system is asleep.)
I can go for months without this happening, or I can have an odd day and stub my toes two or more times in just a couple of hours. During my Sockwa test, I counted just one toe-stub, and since that toe was covered (the sole wraps up and around), I did not end up with skin torn off. (Which does not bother me much, since my feet have super-circulation and heal very quickly from these minor owies . . . yet another benefit of regular barefooting.)
I walked a lot and ran a bit, both up- and down-hill, for about an hour.
And . . . after that hour was over . . . I could not wait to strip those things off my feet and get back to honest contact with the friendly dust and rocks again.
Cons: a few minutes into my test, I bent down to take photos, and noticed a thread dangling loose over the toe box of the right shoe. I pulled it. The stitching began to unravel. WTH? (What-the-heck?) I got out my knife and cut the thread to keep more unraveling from occurring, but I’m a bit concerned, and may return these for an un-raveling pair after the trip.
Questions: Heat is an unknown factor . . . it was in the mid-60s during my test this morning, and my feet did not sweat or feel overheated. What will happen in warm weather? I know Barefoot Ken-Bob cited this as a major drawback for him (but he’s even more of a shoe-hatin’ rambler than I am).
Bottom line: I feel good about bringing these lightweight and stretchy shoes backpacking next week. While they do not look “normal” at all, they should inspire more confidence in my new hiking-friends-to-be than if I showed up stark raving barefoot. I will also bring my Merrell Pipidae sandals as a backup, though, since I know I can hike very rough terrain in them. And, as soon as the trail allows, I will be shoe-less, for sure.
Enough: At $59, this wisp-of-a-shoe is comfortable enough, has good enough traction and ground feel, and looks shoe-ish enough to keep folks from freaking out about traveling with a barefoot weirdo.
Grand Canyon, here I come.
Thanks to Rick Kempa’s editorial dedication and expertise, the new (and first!) anthology of essays dedicated to the Grand Canyon hiking experienced has just been published by Vishnu Temple Press. (“Vishnu Temple” is an iconic rock formation in Grand Canyon.)
I am grateful that Rick saw potential in my essay “Rim to Rim, Barefoot,” and after acting on his wise words of revision advice, I was able to deepen it a bit (not as deep as the Canyon, but just a bit more in terms of layers of meaning . . . ha . . . it’s hard to write about Grand Canyon without drifting into geological punning) . . . and now it’s joined a fine collection of all kinds of stories about this place that fascinates so many of us.
The publisher is offering free shipping through the end of September . . . and . . . we’re having a publication party and author reading on Oct. 4 in Flagstaff, AZ (see the Vishnu Temple Press web site for details.)
Happy (Grand Canyon) Trails!
The Owens Valley in early September . . . pre-trip, I wondered if Big Pine (went there last weekend for some California Native Plant Society activities) and surrounding environs would be too hot for shoe-less fun.
While I would not have wanted to stroll down Highway 395 in the middle of the day, by getting up early and/or going to higher elevations I was able to get in some wonderful hikes (no running . . . but that was fine . . . hiking has its own slow charm barefoot).
Here’s some images of my toes on the move:
And now for some images from this week’s local wanderings: