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Celebrating four barefoot years on the trail

January 29, 2014

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 . . .

(Picture time:)

A morning view of Mt. San Antonio from Barham Ridge.

A morning view of Mt. San Antonio (elevation 10,068)  from Barham Ridge.

Cloud cover and 60 degrees (F): perfect barefoot running weather.

Cloud cover and 60 degrees (F): perfect barefoot running weather.

The less-traveled Deer Trail: cracked clay, smooth running.

The less-traveled Deer Trail: cracked clay, smooth running.

Two hours  and 9+ miles later: my soles felt fabulous and ready for more.

Two hours and 9+ miles later: my soles felt fabulous and ready for more.

Now for a few pictures from last week’s hike exploring new-to-me South Coast Wilderness territory:

Cool critter sighting of the week: this little scarab beetle, looking for dung in all the right places along the trail.

Cool critter sighting of the week: this little scarab beetle, looking for dung in all the right places along the trail.

Not too much in bloom, due to the extremely dry winter we've had, but a recent hike turned up a field of Dichelostema capitatum (aka Blue Dicks).  Local poet-hiking-buddy Chuck took me for a South Coast Wilderness excursion last week.

Not too much in bloom, due to the extremely dry winter we’ve had, but a recent hike turned up a field of Dichelostema capitatum (aka Blue Dicks). Local poet-hiking-buddy Chuck took me for a South Coast Wilderness excursion last week.

Faithful lupine in bloom near Laguna Canyon Road.

Faithful lupine in bloom near Laguna Canyon Road.

Old Saddleback looms over Orange County, no matter where you are.

Old Saddleback looms over Orange County, no matter where you are.

Urban run-off provides habitat for egrets.

Urban run-off provides habitat for egrets.

Raptors in the 'hood.

Raptors in the ‘hood.

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