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Starting 2014 wrong: Why did I think a race the first weekend of the year was a good idea?

January 2, 2014

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.)

Ahem.

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:

Assembling the materials:

Assembled the materials: PlastiDip, old wool socks, plastic wrap, putty knife.

Wrapped my feet to protect them.

Wrapped my feet to protect them.

Coated the socks with goo.

Coated the socks with goo.

Wore them

Wore them for an hour with my feet in the air, then hung them out till they were completely dry.

While they were drying, I enjoyed the first wildflower blooms of the season in my backyard native plant garden.

While they were drying, I enjoyed the first wildflower blooms of the season in my backyard native plant garden.

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.

Early morning shadow fun.

Early morning shadow fun.

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.

The sock-things seemed fine going up and down steep and rocky trails

The sock-things seemed fine going up and down steep and rocky trails.

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.

Frosty leaves this morning

Frosty leaves this morning

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