Barefoot Trail Running Race Report to Answer the Question: “Doesn’t It Hurt?”
I wrote the “race report” below the day after the Renegade Racing Summer Trail Series Race at Peters Canyon Regional Park in Orange, CA, on July 12, 2012. I didn’t bring my camera that day, so all I’ve got is a bunch of words to try to show how much fun it was to run, all out, five miles on the trails, barefoot.
A Barefoot Trail Race Report: “Doesn’t It Hurt?”
Barefoot and juggling umbrella, checkbook, and water bottle, I slippy-stepped my way to the late registration table.
An hour earlier, the weird-for-Orange-County July afternoon overcast had begun to drip, which decided matters for me: perfect trail running conditions.
So I found myself at 5 p.m. on July 12 at the Renegade Racing Summer Trail Run Series, no shoes on, signing up for the 5-mile evening trail race through Peters Canyon Regional Park—famous with local cross country teams who train on its steep ridge-line trails, famous with me for being the place I found a little bit of happiness on horse-back during my angsty teen years. Yeah, those 1970s.
While I might have sacrificed a few brain cells back then, listening to Led Zeppelin and the Doobie Brothers on loopy 8-track tapes, residual derangement wasn’t the reason I’d left my trail running treads at home for this race.
Of course I was going to tackle the course sans shoes. Nothin’ crazy about that in my barefoot running world . . .
Over a lifetime of running-induced aches and pains, I’ve been through all kinds of non-surgical shenanigans to get me back to my (perfectly legal) magic-running-happy-endorphin place. Not wearing shoes is the latest chapter in my long sad memoir, tentatively titled: I Just Wanna Run.
The worst and most “recent” : eight years ago my left patella went astray during a long downhill; since then I’ve endured all kind$ of therapy to try to coax it back home: traditional PT, scary anti-inflammatories, rooster-comb injections, acupuncture, and some non-traditional fascia release treatments.
Finally, slow success: the soft-tissue work (both Active Release Techniques and Rolfing: look ’em up), combined with a removal of all lug-soled obstacles between my toes and the sand-dirt-rocks of my local trails, has turned the endless limpy rehab into joyous scampering (that’s right: scampering) up and down the sage-scented hills on the outskirts of my hometown of Orange, CA.
But. There’s always a butt, or hamstring, or something sore. So as I got out of the car to head to the sign-up table that damp summer Thursday, I imagined a bit of stiffness in my left ankle, maybe a slight twinge in my left hammy, up high. The moist air grew thicker, turned to actual rain—something ridiculously rare in Orange County in the summer–and the blacktop parking lot became a warm slimy mess of who knows what kind of car-and-or-human-emitted substances. (This is why I only go barefoot on trails, and never around town. One word: loogies. Mud and dust seem a lot cleaner to me.)
Parking for the event was a bit of a hike, a couple hundred yards from race check-in, over the shiny asphalt and down a community horse-and-hiking trail—the beginning (and ending) of the lollipop race course. It wasn’t a bad surface—it might have been gritty decomposed granite (DG) at one point—but most of the pointy little rocks had been pulverized, leaving a pleasantly compacted trail with a few scattered pebbles and small branches snapped off the eucalyptus trees that arched over it.
Why was it, then, that my feet started sending false signals to my brain: “Whoa! This stuff is sharp. We’re getting sore already. How are we gonna last for five miles of this?”
Luckily my frontal lobe didn’t fall for this pre-race dithering (although it took a few minutes to realize what was going on and send a “shut the @^*&! up” message to my nervous feet).
At ten minutes to race time, my extremely-well-hydrated bladder also had something to tell me; after a short wait, I entered the port-a-pottie, and realized there was one reason I would want to have shoes with me at a trail race: the grossly grungy front-of-the-throne dribble area. A wide stance, however, kept my toes out of the goo (while also serving as a unintended-but-helpful pre-race groin stretch).
I exited the john, trying not to notice the downward-directed stares from runners still in line. So far no-one had said much about my shoeless state, except for the really nice lady who had parked next to me and who I wasn’t as nice to as I could have been because I think I had some competition-anticipation crankiness going on. She had told me she’d seen Barefoot Ken Bob at a race before (the bearded guru of barefoot running, author of Barefoot Running Step By Step, is also an Orange County resident), but she hadn’t wanted to “bother” him with questions.
And I wasn’t exactly bothered by her wanting to know, “Doesn’t it hurt?”
I guess I was just bothered by my feet trying to pre-convince me this race was going to send me to Torture Town, which I knew wasn’t true ’cause I haven’t worn shoes to run in for more than two years and the feel of the trail on the soles of my feet doesn’t register as pain any more, although weariness-at-being-wary can seem like pain when the trail turns into an endless three miles of rock shards like it had a couple of weeks ago when I was out barefoot-hiking Orange County’s tallest mountain (mighty mile-high Santiago Peak that takes eight miles to summit).
Darn pre-race jittery mind-games.
“No,” I told the nice lady, trying (but probably not succeeding) to sound like I’d never heard this question before. “It’s like, if you were deaf all your life, and then one day could hear. Your brain wouldn’t know how to process all the sounds, and it might sound like a painful mess. That’s kind of like what goes on with your feet: all the new barefoot sensations seem like pain until the brain gets it all sorted out.”
That is why, when the air horn blared and the runners took off, 318 of them were oblivious to the trail’s muffled music. One (me) wasn’t.
Joining the shufflers in the back of the pack, at what felt to be a 12-minutes-per-mile pace, I concentrated on stepping light and lively, lifting my feet instead of pushing off, trying to approximate 180 steps a minute. That’s three steps per second (hey, my brain can still do the math), an ooh-ooh-yeah pace that totally goes with Led Zeppelin: “It’s been a long time since I rock and rolled.”
Twelve minutes into the race, when the opening medley of DG, concrete, and blacktop paths changed tunes to blessed dirty singletrack, the first hill invited us all up for a switchback rhapsody.
I’ve always had an unnatural love for hills; even when my knee was injured all those years, I could usually depend on some low-impact steep stepping to get my heart rate up and make me feel, if not a runner’s high, at least something better than a limper’s low.
Downhills = not good. That’s how The Knee Injury had occurred back in 2004, on a ten-mile descent that was the second half of a 20-mile trail race in the Eastern Sierra Nevada. Downhills. Meh. I’ve even walked them backward when my knee said “ouch” loud enough. But it was always worth it, ’cause it meant I’d been able to climb something, somehow.
During this summer-monsoony-fabulous race: yeah, I might have passed a dozen or two trudgers on the precipitous rollers of the East Ridge Trail. And I tried not to seem too smug about it, but it was raining! In a place where we normally gets nothin’ from the sky between April to November! I scampered, smiled, and tried not to make audible giggling noises as my weightless feet found such lovely traction on the steep ramps of damp dirt and soft sand.
Hey now, raise your hands, give me a hallelujah: after all the healing my 53-year-old body has managed–with the help of God and some amazing bodywork practitioners—my knee no longer hurts, and downhills are fun again.
Back in my horsey youth, this place, Peters Canyon, had a eucalyptus grove trail that was nothing but a dropoff of loose soil. We called it “The Floater.” With lots of slack in the reins, you could lean back and enjoy the smooth glide of a big ol’ horse doing a (mostly) controlled plunge straight down through the pungent sage: guaranteed to make you forget about boy problems, with or without inhaling any of Mother Nature’s other odoriferous plants.
While “The Floater” appears on no current Peters Canyon trail map, the last downhill of the race course reminded me of it, both in terms of steep soft sand as well as the joy of plunging headlong. No longer a self-absorbed teen, though, I think my pendulum has swung a little too far the other way: hey, do I have advice for you! Sorry, Mr. Neoprene Knee Sleeve. I didn’t mean to sound so . . . helpful?
“I used to have knee problems too,” I chirped, as I slowed down for a chat.
“Yeah, they’re a real pain,” Mr. Neoprene Knee Sleeve replied.
“If you keep your weight on your toes, and relax and sort of collapse at the knees, it’s easier on your knees to go downhill.” Why did I think I needed to educate grown people about how they run?
“That sounds like a good way to fall.”
I wanted to point out to him that I was now passing him by executing this technique, but I figured I had said enough.
Besides, we’d come to the last sandy drop, which was calling me to relax and collapse down it. So I did. Floater!
A sharp left onto Peters Canyon Trail, and the crazy ridgeline up-and-downs were only a memory; a gentle, fabulous decline constituted the remaining couple of miles.
I alternated breathing every three steps with two-step inhale/exhales when the gravity of the situation compelled me to let loose and speed up. To relax my arms, I held them up to feel the sprinkles. And smiled the rain onto my face.
The weeks before the race, I’d had more than one “best-run-I-can-remember.” Sure, my memory wasn’t as sharp as it used to be (Where are my keys? Can I blame that on the 70’s too?), but finally, at age 53, after decades of nagging-to-downright-rude knee and other injuries—I. Can. Run.
With lung-burning shoeless abandon.
So I loped along the dirt road, my negative splits the only negative of the day—and the final fifty yards I ignored the hint of tightness in my hamstring and channeled barefoot Zola Budd—the damp hard-packed trail was my tarmac, and Mary Decker floated just ahead. Could I catch the little-bit-less-gray-haired lady in front of me? We powered under the banner side-by-side: five triumphant trail-miles in just over 52 minutes.
Our finish line high-five was slippery, epic; I kept moving, my naked soles buzzing, my throat all of a sudden too tight to breathe.