Barefoot Trail Running: How I Handle Rough Terrain
“How do you handle rough terrain?”
Patricia from Australia recently asked me this in a comment thread conversation following her blog post “Monster feet: my journey in to barefoot running.”
It’s a logical question, a common one that I hear implied in the comments others make when we pass on the trail, comments like, “I could never do that” or “You’re brave.” These folks may be in hiking boots, on mountain bikes, or even in minimalist running shoes, but I get a sense that although we share the same trail, we are profoundly different in our what’s-possible mind-sets. It’s an election year, and I wonder which would be more difficult: for my fellow trail-lovers to picture themselves out here with nothing on their soft pink-bottomed feet, or for them to imagine switching presidential preferences. I know, crazy talk.
Last weekend I set a goal to travel 18 miles barefoot: out and back on a dirt road called the Harding Truck Trail to the ridgeline of our local mountain range, the Santa Ana Mountains. I had never been on this trail before (it’s off limits to cars), but I’m training to go rim to rim at the Grand Canyon this fall, and I’d heard the 3,000-mile elevation gain was a good challenge. I started out in the dark at 5:30 am; it was going to be another 90-degree-plus August day, and I wanted to get in as many cool miles as possible.
It was a rough trail all right, but I’d been out in the dark and barefoot before, and loved the paradox: I don’t often impale my insteps. I concentrate on stepping quick and light, and when I do feel a rock starting to spear my sole, my body quickly adjusts by taking the weight off and getting the other foot to land. I was walking Harding to warm up, which is how I usually start, and after it got light and I could see, I began to slowly run the sections of trail that were less rocky than others—because that 9 miles up was chock-a-block with fragments of the brittle bedrock that underlays most of the Santa Ana Mountains. (I’d been up the Holy Jim Canyon route to the ridge earlier this summer and encountered the same generous scattering of rock shards.)
So there I was in the lovely morning shadow of the mountain range, taking my time, alternating between looking down and scanning ahead while my feet found their own way through the stony jumble. Earlier in my barefoot running adventures, a couple of years ago, after a few yards of this my attention span would have maxed out, and my brain would have started sending gentle signals: “Red alert! This hurts! Stop running immediately!” —just a friendly reminder from my neo-cortex that I was a bleepin’ idiot to have forsaken the protection of my plank-solid, lugged-sole shoes.
But that was then. I’ve since learned about, and experienced the truth of, this fabulous comparison (I wish I could remember where I’d read it): If you’d been deaf all your life and suddenly could hear, your brain would need some time to figure out how to process all the new sounds. Until then, it might seem painful and confusing even to hear bird song or a Justin Beeber ballad. (Wait—that second one still is . . . )
Here’s the comparative leap: If your feet have been shielded from stimuli all your life, and now you bombard them with trail sensations, well, yeah, it’s gonna feel like pain. But if you’re patient, and ease into it, eventually you’ll get to the point where you can hike 9 miles up Harding Truck Trail before your brain says, “Red alert! This hurts! You’re a bleepin’ idiot!” At this point, I caved in and slipped on my Merrell Pipidae minimalist sandals for the 9-mile return to the car.
So I “only” made it 9 miles barefoot, instead of 18. Oh well. During those 9 miles, even in the roughest terrain, there was (almost) always a place where my forefoot could safely land for a fraction of a second, and without my having to consciously direct each footfall. Since I began trail barefooting, over the last two-and-a-half-years, my body and subconscious have found a way to connect without my rational brain needing to get involved with telling my feet where to land. How my toes know where to go is a barefoot mystery.
More amazing-but-true barefoot facts: I never have any trouble with ankle sprains. My (highly biased) opinion: the more shoe, the less attention. This means people in ankle-girdles (also known as hiking boots) are MORE likely to step on a loose or pointy rock and roll their ankle, since their brain has been fooled into thinking it doesn’t need to pay attention to the trail surface because of the massive tractor treads their body is dragging up and down the hills. Via lots of proprioceptive feedback, my bare feet allow some kind of unconscious rock-radar to guide them; thus I’ve not had any problems with ankle twists.
What I do have problems with, when my focus wavers and my radar fails, is stubbing the ball of my foot on half-submerged rocks or roots. This can happen once or twice in an hour’s outing, or not at all for weeks. When it happens, sometimes my skin comes unflapped. Blood might be involved. Oh well. My super-feet have also developed some kind of super-circulation, and since I’ve started barefoot hiking and running I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how quickly these injuries heal.
Truth in barefooting disclaimer: these injuries also include semi-frequent stubbing of the top of my second toes, and sometimes slamming my pinkie toes into rocks/roots. If I’m carrying a water bottle, I squeeze it a few times to channel some of the cussin’ energy away from my mouth and out my fingers. Fer shizzle! That hurt!
Then I remind myself to step lighter, and relax, and get back to the flow.
There IS, however, something that stops me in my tracks: when my soles or toes pick up a poky thing. Oak leaves are culprits here, as is the occasional star thistle. Pine needles are the worst; these nasty little hypodermics break off and make me glad I carry a knife to dig them out. The other stuff—meh. I can usually brush it off on the opposite calf, or reach down and pick it out quickly.
Once, though, I was chugging downhill in too much of a trail trance, and slammed my foot against something solid-but-hidden in the dust. Yow. That hurt. I looked down and saw no blood, so I kept going. It ached in a deep sort of way all the way back to the trailhead, but still, no blood, so I tried to ignore the throb. After I’d been home a couple of hours, and it was still bugging me, I got out my magnifying glass. Hmmm. . . some kind of splinter, maybe, stuck between the base of my second and third toes on my left foot.
I got out the rest of my splinter kit: needle, tweezers, flashlight—and started probing and pulling. YOW! When I exposed the end of the splinter and pulled, I felt something tug all the way up the inside of my groin and into my liver. This was no ordinary splinter.
The doctor agreed, and one tetanus shot, two injections of lidocaine, and an incision later, she showed my what had punched its way into my foot: a quarter-inch of wood with a tiny fist at the far end, a fist that would have continued to defy my feeble tweezers attempts. So thank God for Sunday afternoon urgent care.
How do I handle rough terrain?
I’ve discovered it won’t last. A trail, like life, always changes. What seems rough and overwhelming right now always, always, always changes eventually—a bend in the trail, a dip, a rise, even a boulder, brings respite, however brief.
Dips often contain sand . . . mmm . . . a deliciously soft caress. Boulders are smooth and strong and transfer some of their steadfastness to my feet each time I land on one. Around the bend: anything is possible. Poof-dust (my absolute favorite), luscious mud, maybe even a cool stream.
And, when the rock shards are angular and unrelenting, I can always stop and take a photo, and then walk for a while, and then maybe put on my sandals if today is a long-miles day and I’ve strapped them to my hydration vest.
But the sandals bring their own problems, even though they give my attention-brain a chance to dial back the awareness. Sure, the sandals keep sharp things from poking my insteps, but the straps make for raw spots eventually, and when I run in them for too long it feels like my soles are heating up, are going to blister from the friction.
Speaking of heat: sandals are my only solution if it’s too hot on the trail to run comfortably at mid-day, so I run early in the morning or in the late afternoon—both of which happen to be ideal times to spot other crepuscular creatures like deer. A low golden light blesses these times of day as well.
In the winter, I run after the chill leaves the trail. The only thing worse than burning and blistering my feet are numb, stubbed toes. Ahh—winter. Here in Southern California it brings too-rare rain, refreshing rain that makes for smushy mud and wonderful puddles to frolic through—without worrying about getting my shoes muddy.
The seasons change, the trails change, but one thing stays the same: the joy of running skin-to-skin with the earth, in all its rough, sensational beauty.
“Don’t think of mastery as the capacity to endure, or as an act of perseverance. See it, instead, as the willingness to be at peace and give yourself time to develop as an athlete without placing limits on how long it will take to reach mastery. Mastery is a mind-set that goes beyond the connotations of suffering. This is not about pain in any way. Remember that all things occur not when we think they should, but when the time is right. There is a natural flow, like a river, with the path of mastery; chaos results when you try to hasten this natural process.” From page 173 of Running Within by Jerry Lynch and Warren Scott.