That’s me in the early 1960s . . . as I mentioned in my previous post/tribute to my recently deceased dad, he introduced our family to California’s deserts soon after we moved to California. Behind me is the iconic Indian Head mountain in Anza Borrego Desert State Park. Next to me: a cholla cactus. For whatever reason, I’m looking a little prickly in this photo as well.
My siblings and I revived the annual trip to Anza Borrego a decade or so ago . . . so that’s where some of us were last weekend. Indian Head remains as the iconic backdrop:
The paved trail is to my left; fortunately, there was also a foot path next to it . . . a much nicer running experience. After we left the Visitor’s Center, I ran over to (and part way up) the Palm Canyon Trail as the sun was setting. Near the trailhead is a sign warning hikers to carry enough water and–”as always”–wear “sturdy walking shoes or boots.”
I’m pleased to report my bare feet are plenty sturdy; the trail is a nice mix of sand and rock, and at sunset it offers the contrast of last light and shadows creeping toward Font’s Point (behind the ocotillo silhouette).
In the morning: more sublime glow shows:
Later, our group of 13 made the pilgrimage up Palm Canyon. One by one my brother, nephews, great-niece-and-nephew, son, three granddaughters, and husband all shucked their shoes for various portions in the hike. Yes, this made my day.
I like to carry a GoLite hiking umbrella on desert treks. While I highly recommend it for taking some of the intensity out of sun-glare, I simply cannot endorse it for flying like Mary Poppins. But Granddaughter had to try it anyway.
With little rain over the winter, there were almost no annual wildflowers gracing the hills and washes. But . . . some of the amazingly hardy shrubs had blossoms:
The “borrego” in Anza Borrego has to do with the Spanish name for the desert bighorn sheep which thrive in this land of shattered rock cliffs. Their coloring makes it almost impossible to spot them when they are still among the boulders; the one in the photo below had moved and caught the attention of some other hikers, who patiently kept pointing across the valley until we figured out where to look.
The desert seems harsh and foreign to us; to the plants and animals that are so very well suited to live here . . . it’s just home.
After a long and tough decline in health, my 88-year-old dad passed away this week. Today, as I went for a run on my usual Irvine Park trails, I thought about why I enjoy being outdoors, soaking up sunshine, reveling in rain, delighted by dust and mud and rocks and plants and all God’s creatures.
It’s because our dad (and mom) went through a lot of trouble to regularly pack up our station wagon and drive us all over the West in the 1960s and early 70s. Here we are just outside of Bishop, CA.
So there I was waxing nostalgic on my trail run today, after spending the morning finalizing Dad’s obituary and working on other details for the services later this week. I hardly ever run in the middle of the day; here’s one reason why: the Eastern U.S. may be getting pounded by more winter storms, but here in Southern California it was almost 80 F, way too hot to go shoeless at noon, even if it is February.
About a half hour in, my feet began to feel semi-fried. An hour later, my soles were tenderized, much more sensitive than they’ve been for years, and I worried I might have blistered them.
I didn’t want to know if they were starting to bubble, so I waited until I got back to the car to check them. Whew. No blisters, but a bit sore.
Note to self: don’t run in the middle of the day when it’s 80F.
Here’s some photos from my 90-minute “lollipop” along Roadrunner, then up the Chutes trail to Barham Ridge, back down Cactus Canyon, up Coachwhip, and then down Barham Ridge/Chutes/Roadrunner to Irvine Park.
Same trails, a week ago, after a brief rain:
Barefoot trail running: always a good stress remedy. “He has made all things beautiful in his time.” Ecclesiastes 3:11.
It’s been four years since the “barefoot epiphany” that opened my eyes up to the possibility of being barefoot out on the trail.
Thousands of barefoot hiking and running (and even some barefoot backpacking) miles later, each chance I have to head down a dusty or muddy or rocky path still feels like a gift.
Gee . . . I like gifts. Let’s unwrap one, I metaphorically said to myself last Saturday as I drove to Irvine Regional Park a bit before sunrise for what I hoped would be a “long” run.
“Long runs” are now something I aim for on weekends, what with a 30-mile trail race looming on my June horizon.
(Spoiler alert: if you think running barefoot always erases all injuries, do not read on.)
My current running reality (even though I’ve been shoeless since January 2010): after 60 or 90 minutes, my ten-year-old nemesis knee pain starts to stab. Grrr. This bugs me for a couple of reasons:
a. I have to stop running. This takes me out of my fantasy world where I fly–barefoot and breathless–through the sage-scented hills bearing messages from my tribe to our neighbors across the river.
b. I have to admit that running barefoot is not a magical cure. This takes me out of my fantasy world where running barefoot IS the answer to not only all running injuries, but to all of modern civilization’s problems.
So the healing genius who is my physical therapy doctor tried a new protocol last week. It was new to me (me, who has spent way too many hours and dollars on physical therapy the last ten years), but the philosophy behind it is ancient: the mind-body connection. Face down on the therapy table, I answered questions about the day of the race when my left knee pain began: the course, the weather, where we stayed the night before . . . to sort of relive the experience. With one exception. I was to picture the place and moment when my knee started hurting, and create a new image in my mind–an image of me finishing the race strong and healthy, running easily past the boulders and down the dirt road outside of Bishop, CA.
The brain/body connection: crazy stuff.
Which brings me back to the parking lot at Irvine Park, the sun about to rise over the Santa Ana Mountains, the air around 60 degrees (we’ve been having the most amazing winter heat wave for weeks).
My trail excursions always start with 10-20 minutes of walking (unless I hear mountain bikers approaching; then I bust into an immediate trot so they yell out “runner” instead of “hiker” to alert their buddies around the bend. Vanity, thy name is Thea.)
It being Saturday, there were swarms of bikers, which forced me to be on high alert on the twisty trails. Occasionally, though, it turned into an ego feast, as I devoured their comments: “Wow! How do you do that?” “That’s hard-core!” “So you’re the one making the footprints.” “Way to go!”
Etc. & etc.
I started to worry I would get bugs in my teeth from smiling so wide as I trotted and galloped up and down the hills of Barham Ranch (between Irvine and Santiago Oaks Regional Parks). My feet felt strong and sure among the rocky sections, and I was able to avoid the high-speed arch impalings that happen more frequently as I pick up my pace.
Ninety minutes into the run, I stood near Robber’s Peak and looked out over Orange County toward the Pacific Ocean to the west, and the 10,000-foot peaks of the San Gabriel mountains to the east. Los Angeles to the north. The still-wild Santa Ana Mountains rolling south.
I teetered there, at the ninety-minute tipping point, wondering if yesterday’s weird attempt to re-imagine my running past would work. Between me and my car: a couple more miles of delicious down-hill single-track that was relatively rock-free: voracious knobby tires have ground down these tilted sediments into some mighty fine trail textures.
How did it go?
My feet flew. (Disclaimer: please understand that my definition of “flying” down a trail has very little to do with actual “speed” . . . it’s my perception, rather than something measurable by a stop-watch).
My knees beamed. (Hey–they felt light and happy. And “beamed” sounds good with “knees.”)
When I arrived at my car–sweaty, breathless, grinning at the wild-haired creature reflected in the side window–I looked at my watch. Just over two hours. The same elapsed time as my unhappy 8.5 mile trail race a few weeks previous, when my knee went south after an hour-and-a-half and I had to walk the last couple of miles.
I’m not much for figuring distances, but I must have just run 9+ miles, pain free.
Thank you, God, for a body and brain that are beyond my comprehension. When they work together shoelessly out in the wild hills, it’s something to celebrate . . .
Now for a few pictures from last week’s hike exploring new-to-me South Coast Wilderness territory:
Is it just me, or have the trails gotten rockier lately? Throughout the dry months, all the bike tires grind the trails into a nice powder. But any winter rain or dry windstorm strips the soft away and leaves: a challenge. Still . . . there are sections where my footprints show what barefoot fun is all about.
Then comes another rock party to pick my way through, slowly. I remind myself to lighten and lift my toes, and there (almost) always seems to be a way through without getting jolted by a stone stab.
It does happen, though; in fact, during some runs my soles seem to be poke-magnets. Yesterday was one of those days.
The ouchiest: whatever bruisy spots develop seem to attract more pebble meet-ups. It takes all my concentration to keep softly stepping, to stretch out my toes instead of letting them curl up in tense anguish. Very few runs are like this . . . but these days are also part of the barefoot trail adventure, and it’s still better than city sidewalks.
At least the weather has not been part of the pain, with temperatures in the dry high 70s: no bundling up for winter here.
On a recent weekday run, I saw the local school had the kids outside, taking advantage of the sunshine to get them running. But wait: what’s wrong with this picture?
Someone had chalked a white rectangle onto the playing field, and the kids were jogging in a tiny circle with music blaring from under the blue shade tarp (where I imagined teachers sitting and sipping on diet sodas). Meanwhile, just steps away, lies a fabulous network of trails through the amazing natural beauty of Orange County, CA. Here’s some images of what they were missing (all taken this past couple of weeks).
So much wild beauty in their neighborhood, and they were running in circles on a lawn.
Lately, when I get home after a run, I’ve been fighting my way through zero feet of snow and unbelievable temperatures to the orange trees in my back yard, where I go into survival mode and start tearing my way into the giant naval oranges that are ripening there. I never “do” hashtags, but I couldn’t resist here:
I am too old and slow for this nonsense. Why did I click through the Race360 web site a couple of months ago and commit to: a $40 entry fee, pre-dawn wake-up, one hour drive, $5 for parking, hours/days of pre-race fretting about how to handle the chilly morning air and ground, and a 24-hours-before-the-race moratorium on chocolate (while an unfinished box of Sees Christmas chocolates lurked in the cupboard)?
On the phone an hour ago to my 30-something daughter . . .
Me: I think I broke my toe.
Daughter: The middle one on the right foot?
M: How did you know?
D: When you said the words “ ‘I think I broke my toe,’ I felt a pain in the middle toe of my right foot.”
Two shirts or one? Long or short sleeves? Running tights or shorts? Carry water or not? Bring mid-race snack? Spend the night at the (100 yards from start/finish line) campground the night before? Drag husband along?
Barefoot or ?
I am eating a (homemade, retrieved from the freezer) chocolate chip cookie as I tap these words out. An hour ago I finished the box of Sees chocolates.
Dinner smells good cooking in the oven: sweet potato fries and fish sticks to make into fish tacos, complete with cilantro, tomato, onion, and cabbage just collected from his organic garden by my Long-Suffering Husband.
My right foot toes are cozied in an ice bag.
Last night (pre-race!) when I got home from work, I was not pleased that Long-Suffering Husband had made spaghetti for dinner using organic wheat noodles. I wanted organic brown rice noodles. Floating in my work-strained brain were vague shreds of bloggian ideas about how runners should avoid wheat.
I may have raised my voice.
When a race is imminent, I am not a nice person.
I have not worn shoes to trail run for four years; I avoid the too hot/too cold ground issue by running early morning or early evening in the summer, and any time after the day has warmed up in the winter. This is Southern California, land of magical trail running weather. Why would I sign up for a race at the beginning of January with an 8:30 am start time, at 3300 feet elevation?
When I was little, I had to compete for Jello. One box did not make quite enough for seven kids. I was the youngest. Now I’m 54. Some of my siblings are on Social Security. Jello is not organic.
Today’s race was advertised as 12K, but with ups and downs (1300 feet elevation gain) and twists and turns, the web site said it would be more like 8 miles. I like running this distance. I like hills. I like the heavenly scented chaparral country where the race is scheduled: white sage, black sage, and California sagebrush provide aroma therapy.
I need aroma therapy today after I get distracted by the view over the ridges all the way to the layer of fog that was creating a new horizon over the hidden Pacific Ocean . . . get distracted and catch the middle toe of my right foot on one of the many rocks that ice-berg up from a steep single-track tunnel through the oaks.
Half-way to the race, my dashboard flashes and dings. Now what?! Oh—nothing wrong with the car; it’s just letting me know the outside temp has dipped below 40 (F). No ice on this road. It’s been dry and in the high 70s all week. Later today it will be that deliciously warm, but right now it’s darn cold.
What to put on my feet to run?
I wear a custom pair of Tar-Sox, made a few days ago by dipping an old pair of wool socks in a black tar-like substance called PlastiDip. It (smells super-toxic and eventually) dries, and provides just enough insulation that the cold ground does not turn my toes to Toe-sicles. (I made up Tar-Sox, but stole Toe-sicles from a Facebook post by a fellow barefoot runner with chill issues.)
For the first half hour (I guess about two miles . . . how slow is that) the Tar-Sox do their job, keeping my feet warm and sort of protecting them from the many many rocks. But then my feel start to feel sweaty, and I worry about my skin breaking down from the moisture (which turned out to be non-existent, but it just felt weird to have something on my feet while I ran), so I pause—not the first time, since I’d been stopping to snap photos—and quickly peel off the socks.
Ahhh . . . the blessed feel of trail beneath my bare feet.
I carry the Tar-Sox for a couple of miles, but when I stop again to unzip a snack from my Nathan hydration vest, I stuff the socks in with the half-filled water bladder.
In my Nathan: water bladder. Packet of Trader Joes Omega Fruit/Nut mix. Organic sucker, strawberry flavor. Canon pocket camera. Merrell Pipidae Wrap sandals (these are strapped to the back as Plan B in case the Tar-Sox fail). Emergency whistle. Duct tape. Pocket knife. Band-aids. Paper and pencil (in case I feel a poem coming on). Trail trash: one blue balloon ribbon, one plastic water bottle cap.
Comments by hikers out on the trail: “Yay bare feet!” “Zola Budd!”
Comment by two lady racers who saw me cross the finish line: “You did that barefoot?”
Comment by old-guy-my-age runner who stopped by my car as I was getting ready to leave: “How long did it take you to get your feet conditioned to do that? You looked very smooth out there.”
I start almost in the back of the pack. Maybe five people behind me. One of them catches me on the first uphill. I greet her pleasantly, but inside I am pissed.
I catch her on an uphill a few miles before the end. I greet her pleasantly, but inside I am doing a rude goal-line touchdown dance.
Most of the time I run with no one else in sight, passing no one, being passed by no one. Just me and the many many rocks, and a few miles of smooth and sinuous single-track down down past ceanothus, chamise, scrub oak, manzanita. In the sunny sunny exposed places, it is warm enough to make me push up my long long sleeves. Lovely lovely.
I stop to take a picture of my bloody toe. It does not hurt enough to interfere with my lovely lovely pursuit of no-one.
I wear a watch. . .
30 minutes: crunch away at the organic sucker
45 minutes: stub toe
60 minutes: eat the dried fruit/nut mix
75 minutes: find an old man with bloody elbow, hiking poles, and leg brace inching up a steep uphill. “Good job,” I say, but inside I feel bad for passing him.
90 minutes: feel the first twinges in my left knee
Rest of race: power-walk due to left knee pain (Note: this pain will celebrate its 10-year anniversary in May of 2014.)
120-124 minutes: try to run and smile the last quarter mile of pavement, because the fast/finished runners are walking back to their cars to change, but every step. Stabs. My. Knee.
123 minutes: hear some scary heavy breathing behind me and turn to see a man intent on passing me before the finish line. Usually I would increase my pace and enjoy a bit of finish line drama. Today I keep trotting slowly along, focusing on not limping. (It is bad publicity for barefoot runners to appear injured in public; we nurse our TOFP privately, in special FB groups reserved for this purpose.)
124 minutes and change: I trot across the finish line in just over two hours. I am not out of breath and feel somewhat bummed I was not able to push myself at all in the last couple of miles.
125-155 minutes: hang around the finish area, wishing I were not an awkward introvert. There is a cardboard box-lid half full of bright-orange-dusted tortilla chips. I sigh and take another drink from my hydration bladder. “Do you know when the raffle is starting?” “He’s getting ready to do it now.” I decide against walking back to my car to grab my organic quinoa/home-grown-avocado-lime mixture. I decide to feel superior to those eating the orange tortilla chips. No one eats any.
I decide I have too much pride to ask the scoring table ladies what my overall position was. Just now I tried to look it up on the web site. Not posted. I decide not to care. There were very few people who finished behind me. I decide to stifle a life-time of over-competitiveness that usually has me heavy breathing at the finish line, trying desperately to beat one more person so I can regain the feeling of winning the school spelling bee back in 1973.
Race awards time.
I find out I did not :
a. win the race overall
b. win my gender/age division
c. win the barefoot division (But I would have if there were one. Just like I would have in the five other races I have entered in the last four years. Jello!)
Instead of drawing names or race numbers, Baz-the-hilarious-race-director has prepared a trivia quiz:
“Who was the most famous Pony Express rider between 1860 and 1861?”
“What billionaire wrote an autobiography titled Losing my Virginity?”
“What fruit gives off so much ethylene gas that it makes other fruit . . . “
I won a hat.
SOME PHOTOS from today:
I have never been much of a racer. The oxymoronic (emphasis on moronic) reason is that I am way too competitive . . . maybe a result of being the youngest of seven kids. I don’t need an “official” race to make me want to beat someone; just give me a long uphill and an out-of-shape mountain biker fifty yards ahead and I have all the motivation I need.
So, although I’ve been running for 40 years (that was shocking to write), I’ve probably competed fewer than 20 times. (Unspoken reason: races make it obvious how slow I am.)
Over the years I’ve discovered that signing up for a race turns my fancy-free running life into an un-fun regimen, weeks or months of trying to ignore the aches and pains that that might derail my race train as it chugs toward whatever date my way-too-expensive entry fee has pinned me to.
The worst example of this happened in 2004; I signed up for a 20-mile trail race outside of beautiful Bishop, CA, which immediately triggered a bout of plantar fasciitis.
Five hundred dollars worth of orthotics later, I was back to training. But not wearing the orthotics, because by the time I got them it was too late to get used to them for the race, so I ran without them in my stiff trail running shoes, and not too long after the 10-mile turnaround, loping all out downhill toward the finish line, I got a pain in my left knee that reduced me to a walk and that I’m still trying to completely understand and eliminate.
Where was I?
Oh yes—I ended 2013 by signing up for not one, but two trail races in 2014: 7 miles on Jan. 4; 30 miles five months later.
The ghosts of Christmases past did not visit me the last couple of weeks; it’s been the ghosts of calf strains, ankle pain, and toe numbness instead.
The worst has been worrying about what to do in case it’s cold on race day. In case? It’s January—even in sunny So Cal, January mornings are too chilly for my delicate running tastes. Usually, that’s not a problem. So what if it’s 40 degrees (F) in the morning? It will always warm to at least 60 by mid-afternoon. Heck, we’ve had such a heat wave this last month, that most days (including today) have hit almost 80. And I’ve loved every minute of my mid-winter, mid-afternoon runs.
Problem: the (@(!&*) race I signed up for is at 8:30 in the morning, at 3400 feet elevation. If it’s been in the 40s down here in the flatlands, it could be even colder up in the Santa Ana Mountains.
So I’ve been trying to get my bare feet used to the cold (with lots of inspiration from brave Facebook compadres like Trissa King who run in 30-degrees and snow in foreign higher latitude places like Ohio) by running at 6:30 am. By 6:40 my toes are toast. And not in a buttery-warm way: in their stubby numbness they feel dangerously absent from the rest of my feet, and if there’s anything I’ve learned from reading barefoot blogs, it’s “numb feet are dumb feet.”
Exactly three years ago I tried to “solve” the running-barefoot-in-winter puzzle by crafting a pair of running sandals (with directions off the internet). While they definitely protected me from numb-toes, I got carried away by the exuberant feeling of conquering the cold. Yep. I sprinted. Something went south with my form, and I spent the next sixth months chasing a cure for the shin pain that resulted.
Back to 2014. (Again, I am sidetracked . . . which is what I enjoy about my “usual” running routine: its flexibility and lack of goal orientation. Run up this hill? Through those trees? Stop and take some photos? Walk for a while? A race, or an essay, demand much more of a focus.)
To prepare for the race that will be here in two days, I once more tried my hand at a home-made solution, this time a cheapskate’s version of Sockwas.
Using directions by Frank Regnier of the Run Naturally Facebook group, I ransacked my husband’s sock drawer and then did the following:
So today, instead of listening to reason and waiting until it warmed up to 80 degrees this afternoon (I hate to say it, but all this sunshine is getting monotonous) I drove to Irvine Park just before the sun peeked over Old Saddleback (our iconic twin peaks) and gave my new footwear a trail test.
The thermometer in my yard had read 42 (F) when I left the house; my car said it was 50 degrees when I parked. All I know is that it was so nippy it hurt to breath through my nose, and my fingers were cold enough to make me tuck them up inside the end of my sleeve.
But the sock-things worked.
I walked and ran and stopped and took lots of photos of the morning light at play, and my feet never felt chilly.
All the rock-friends that poke my feet when I run barefoot were still there, making me pay attention as usual. So I guess I’d rate these things “good” on ground feel.
But my feet felt a bit suffocated and almost sweaty. It just wasn’t the same as bare, so after 30 minutes I peeled the sock-things off and wiggled my tootsies in the familiar pale red dust. But not for long. Only a couple of minutes of running resulted in that scary numbness, so I slipped the sock-things back on and trotted back to the car.
Wondering all the while why I . . .
a. signed up for an early morning race in mid-winter
b. signed up for a 30-mile race in June. I have never run anything close to that distance, shod or bare.
My many running decades have always had the same unhappy pattern: run till I’m injured, try to come back from injury. Before barefooting, a “long run” was anything over an hour. (Then the pain pain pain in my knee would sharply announce itself.)
The longest I’ve ever run barefoot is 2.5 hours a few months ago . . . then the left knee twinge returned, and I was back at the physical therapist’s. To quote Charlie Brown: “Arrgghh.”
For years I’ve read about and dreamed about ultra running. For years I’ve wondered why it feels necessary and important to me to run 30 miles, barefoot. It just does.
Just like it felt necessary and important to cross the Grand Canyon barefoot last year (23 miles over two days; I spent the night at Phantom Ranch, and crossed that also off my bucket list).
At age 54, I want running to be something I enjoy the rest of my life (even as I watch my almost-90-year-old parents struggle to totter around the house as they clutch their aluminum walking aids).
Their fragility. My mortality. Running barefoot as a way to feel young and free?
Those darned cold early morning trails.
The busy folks over at the Barefoot Beginner web site recently solicited runner testimonials about “My First Barefoot Steps.” As a writing teacher, I’m particularly fond of “prompts” to get the writing wheels rolling, so I had fun revisiting my own “First Barefoot Steps.” Thanks for posting my essay, Chris!
We’ve had quite a range of weather the last couple of weeks: from daytime highs in the low 80s (F) down to the upper 30s (F) at night, and from brilliant blue skies to lovely gloomy rainclouds. Here’s a few shots from recent trail runs in and around Irvine, Santiago Oaks, and Peters Canyon Regional Parks . . . on the outskirts of my hometown: Orange, CA.