Here are two important lists related to this first ever marathon that I ran, and ran 90% barefoot, on Sunday, October 12, 2014. These lists are a summary of the challenges and advantages I had going into the City of Trees Marathon in Boise, Idaho. Challenges:
- It was my first official marathon.
- I had not been able to run the course ahead of time to determine barefoot level.
- I knew I was quite likely to be facing about 5 hours of running.
- I had strained my right lower leg 6 weeks prior to the race, then my left quad about 3 weeks before.
- My mom had been diagnosed with aggressive brain cancer about 2 months before the race and I was devoted to spending a lot of time caring for her and helping my dad.
- My mom, whom I was very close to, died exactly 1 week before the race.
- My husband is a very supportive and wise coach.
- The rest of my family was also very encouraging and helpful about scheduling what training I could while my mom was sick.
- I have 4 years of barefoot running experience. (read here to begin to learn about barefoot running)
- I have been implementing a maximum aerobic function (MAF) approach to my training for a year, and this has made my running efforts much more comfortable.
- I have a spinning bike in my basement and a swimming pool with a current generator in my backyard for alternative training.
- I have previously run some races barefoot, including the Shamrock Shuffle 10K (here is my pre-race evaluation of that course) and the Great Potato 2014 half marathon this spring.
- I have run 2 complete half marathons, one half in minimalist running moccasins (my Moc3’s), and the half marathon I mentioned above.
- I had run several long runs completely barefoot, including one 26.2 miler before my leg difficulties.
- I have run in extreme weather conditions of both hot and cold.
- Hills were part of my training runs now and then throughout my training, although never something I worked “hard” on.
- I had lots of good advice and support from my Barefoot Runners Society (BRS) friends when I asked for specifics relating to my situation.
- The weather was perfect on race day.
I was so very grateful for the cool, sunny, dry weather on race day. It meant that most of my pre-race warming clothing could be left behind. The pre-dawn temperatures were around 48°F, and were supposed to make it to 50°F early in the run. I knew I could comfortably run barefoot, with shorts and a long sleeve t-shirt in that weather. My husband/coach, Wild Greg, advised, however, that I sit down for the half hour I had before the race, which turned out to be a good idea, as I could alternate between putting my bare feet up on my daughter’s or his lap. It was pointed out to me that they were not offering to snuggle my feet under their shirts, next to their bare bellies, but I appreciated what they were willing to do.
Still, stepping outside the door to run in those temperatures is a little different than sitting around barefoot in those temperatures. I knew I wasn’t risking any extremes, but I wanted to see how my feet would hold up if they got a little chilled before the race, so I didn’t bring any warming minimal footwear. I had my Luna sandals in a grocery bag, tied to my water-bottle belt, for back up while running. They would have given me some insulation from the cold ground, too, but you have to admit that warm laps were better. (click on any photo to enlarge)
I had plans to sew a pouch for my Lunas, but the last 2 months being what they were, I never got to it. It is still on my agenda. I have run with my sandals tied to me in a grocery bag many times without any trouble. They have stayed put and quickly become unnoticeable as I run, but this time they worked themselves loose, so that I ended up carrying them in my hands most of the way.
Although my feet were slightly numb from the cold for the first 3 miles, it was not enough to inspire donning of footwear. I was enjoying being barefooted and I could feel the ground. It is true that before the race, I had vacillated greatly about whether or not to just wear the Lunas. I was mentally stressed out about what kinds of surfaces I would be facing at a distance that was going to be a true test for me. Somehow, just knowing the decision was totally up to me, that there was no shame in doing whatever worked for me, helped me relax. Then, I was able to recognize that I would really be the most comfortable the more I was able to run barefoot. So, I started barefoot, but ready to do what I needed to along the way.
The first half of the race I barely glanced at my Garmin, just to notice that I had almost gone 3 miles, 5 miles, 8 miles. I didn’t look at my pace. I noticed my feet were warming up nicely, but that the blinding rising sun was making it harder to see what was on the ground in front of me. I had been practicing landing more on my whole forefoot, so as to spread any landing force on gravel across my whole foot. This was suggested in another BRS forum thread I had read and when I tried it on training runs, it helped. I was not feeling any discomfort on the bottoms of my feet as I ran through some of the roadside gravel that seems to spread thinly across the road.
About the 5 mile mark was the first time my husband/coach showed up alongside me for a couple hundred yards. He was driving his car from spot to spot, taking photos and jogging alongside me encouragingly, even chatting with the other runners. He pointed out to me that his calculator brain (my description, not his) had determined I was running about a 10:15 minute mile pace. This surprised and concerned me. That was a good 1 to 1.5 minute faster per mile than I had been doing on my training runs since my leg problems. Since I didn’t feel at all like I was exerting myself, I decided to just enjoy myself and run “how I felt.” I was pretty sure I would slow down later, so why not take advantage of my floating fleetness for the time being. I wasn’t breathing hard, like many of the runners around me, and my legs felt great.
During the first few miles, I met a massage therapist running her second marathon. She works in a local hospital and gives massages to mom’s right after child birth. This has included a lot of refugees, so she has seen a lot of feet that have gone bare for many years. She commented to me how leathery they all are, and I could tell her that mine were getting pretty leathery, too. She was both intrigued and somewhat knowledgeable about my barefoot running, too, having looked up some things herself. Now, perhaps, she will be inspired to give it a try.
The wandering husband/coach showed up around mile 8 with … jelly beans. He had apparently gone shopping while I had been running. He wanted to make sure I had enough energy (not being convinced that my 4 cups of lemonade were enough) and offered me my choice of marshmallow or tangerine jelly beans. I said I would try a few of the tangerine flavored ones. (Marshmallow sounded horrible and I blocked the thought of them from my mind immediately.) We passed sandals and plastic bags of jelly beans back and forth so that I could take what I wanted from the bag. I threw about 4 in my mouth, like a good girl. I found I could breath through my mouth without choking while chewing jelly beans, and thanked him for taking care of me. Then, he disappeared again while I headed for a pleasant, shaded, riverside greenbelt section of the course.
Meeting a woman who was running her 93rd marathon was another highlight of this section of the run. There were so many fun details she was willing to share, while still asking me in a friendly way about my life and running. Her husband was an Olympic marathoner in the 1980’s. She has run a marathon in all 50 states. She began running marathons in the 1990’s, but took a long break and started up again in 2005. The closest in time she has ever run 2 marathons is on a Thursday, then a Sunday. And, yes, she has run the New York and Boston marathons, however doesn’t really recommend them. She likes the smaller races. After she completes 100 marathons, she plans on tackling a 50 K. And she is a few years older than me! She said the last few miles are still always hard for her, but I didn’t really get an idea of her training or how frequently she usually runs them. Overall, very fun and encouraging conversation, and memory of it helped me during the last few miles.
The marathon course was the same as the half marathon course for the first 12 and the last 1.2 miles. I mention this particularly because that first half of the course was very easy to run barefoot, especially for someone who has run mostly barefoot for a couple of years. I did utilize some sidewalks, but most of the pavement was smooth to moderate. I was easily able to keep a running pace limited by my aerobic training rather than accommodating rough running surfaces. Thus, if someone is looking for a “barefoot friendly” half marathon, I would recommend this race.
All was still comfortable running until we came to some neighborhood streets in the north end of Boise, near Camel’s Back Park. Here, about mile 15, there were NOT sidewalks and the asphalt was chip seal. I slipped on my Lunas, as I could not tell how long it would go on and I didn’t want the frustration at that point in the race. When sidewalks did show up again, they were uneven and strewn with nuts and leaves, but I knew I wanted to take my sandals off. I was right. Being barefoot felt better. I could cross the rough streets easily enough, as long as I didn’t have to run on them constantly. Maybe some day I will be up to that.
During this barefoot time, a tall, fit enough looking man came up puffing beside me. To tell me that when he began to feel sorry for himself about his legs hurting so much, he just thought about me, running along holding my flip-flops in my hand. The first thing I told him, while I held them up for exhibit, was that they were running sandals! Then, I am afraid I may have discouraged him when I said, “My feet are happy being bare!”, shortly thereafter pulling away from him with no effort.
Then I came to another portion of the course in down town Boise that was rough and around a lot of traffic. It was the only part of the course that had cones on both sides of us while we pretty much ran down the middle of busy streets with cars all around us. There were very conscientious volunteers helping to guard our crossings at intersections, but I still felt on high alert, kind of like a scared rabbit. Thus, I was thankful to have my Lunas for that part. We ran past a politically active enclave of homeless people under a bridge, that I was less than receptive to, as they wanted “free housing not free handouts.” I was thinking if they put as much effort into job hunting as they were their picketing, they could probably afford housing. Whatever my economic convictions, I was glad there was a manly looking volunteer there, because the homeless folks were looking confrontational and I was feeling vulnerable after 17 miles of running.
I was beginning to get tired now. I took off my sandals again because I had a sense it would make me feel more alive in my running. I was right. Minimalist footwear is better than those toe confining, inflexible footboxes that most people call shoes, but nothing is as good as barefoot in most normal situations.
I still wasn’t breathing hard, except for barely at the top of a couple of significant hills. My MAF training was really helping with that. In fact, on that hill, I unintentionally “lost” a few people who had been generally close to me throughout much of the race. One of them was a race walker, who I was trying not to let drive me crazy. It wasn’t that she was obnoxious, but her slowing to a walk, then pulling ahead running was not a rhythm that I could adjust to. I was happy that the hill finally separated us.
My legs now began getting more leaden with each step. Definitely a case of “so close, yet so far away.” I hit some comparatively rough pavement, but surprised myself by realizing that being barefoot now was more of a boost to my energy than rough pavement was an impediment. My pace was already down to what it normally is on rougher pavement, so it was oddly comfortable. I passed about 3 other dogged racers even.
Soon, I hit a down hill that tested my legs in a whole new way. The downhills earlier in the race had been fun, as I glided carefully down them. This time, my legs hurt intensely with every step. I tried not to tense up, so as to cause myself damage. When I got to the bottom, I could not remember the last time I had seen a painted arrow on the road. There hadn’t been any volunteers for a couple of miles and I couldn’t see any racers in front of me. Fortunately, it had occurred to me to study the race course the day before, and generally being familiar with downtown Boise, it was not hard to bring to mind that I should be at least in the right vicinity. I figured I should run a bit more and was relieved to finally see another arrow pointing to a turn into Ann Morrison Park. I guess that is one drawback of small races. You can end up by yourself at some point.
Come to find out, my husband/coach had been looking for me around there. Seeing how deserted the area was, and knowing my lack of directional ability, he was not sure how or where to look for me. At the same time, he was able to help 2-3 other runners who had accidentally passed the arrows that I had seen. He is so good at keeping track of things, he knew who was ahead and behind me the whole time, so he figured out that he should just go to the finish since he couldn’t see me up or down the road and the rest of the course was again on the greenbelt.
Through the circuitous section in Ann Morrison Park, I mostly ran on the pass-through roads. There was one part where I risked running on the grass, whatever hidden objects there might be, because the road was rough, but I knew where the end of it was. I could feel the turf absorbing my bounce, though, and was ironically glad for the paved greenbelt. There were volunteers sitting at that spot, which I was glad of, because I was feeling my mental powers fading and I really wanted some assurance about where to go. I don’t think they got nearly as many smiles as the volunteers in the first two-thirds of the course…
One of my biggest concerns about the last few miles was that they would seem sooo long. I am still puzzling over how they seemed to slip by in spite of the slow pace and aching legs. Partly, I think it helped that I didn’t spend a lot of time focusing on exactly how far I had to go, but rather mostly thought about putting one foot in front of the other and just making it to the end. That said, I have complete compassion on anyone who gets to that point in the race and feels they cannot make it another step, even with only a mile to go. It hurt. I reminded myself that I had gone through 7 labors without pain relieving drugs, so this was nothing. Okay, not nothing, but doable. Hopefully.
As you may have suspected, I did make it. I even slightly picked up the pace for the last quarter mile. I had to do my best not to be passed so close to the finish line, although I had no clue how close anyone was. Nothing heroic or that could lead to a pulled muscle, not that I was capable of that. I was so pleased to see several of my kids and all my grandkids at the finish area, cheering me on! Then, my 2 year old grandson, unbeknownst to me, started trying to sprint down the chute behind me as fast as his little legs could carry him. I wish I had noticed and could have taken him across with me.
When I was done, I was, um, wobbly. I needed to sit down, but my kids were afraid I wouldn’t make it up again. My legs felt they might seize up if I required anything more of them. I made it to a sunny patch of grass with some help. One of them ran to get orange slices for me.
After the race, my 93rd marathoner friend came up to congratulate me. She had finished some seconds behind me. Later, as I made my way past the finish, to our car, another gentleman who was just finishing made it a point to yell over to me that I had run well. I got the impression he was truly astonished that I had done as well as I had with bare feet. A spectator, a woman who was approximately my age and was cheering people in along the finish chute, came over to hug me and tell me what an inspiration I was!
It wasn’t that my results were spectacular. All I had wanted to do was finish and have fun.
- It took me 4 hours 50 minutes and 41 seconds to do that, not counting the measly 18 seconds it took to get up to the starting line.
- My pace was an 11:06 average, being closer to a 10 minute mile pace in the first half and closer to a 12 minute mile pace in the second half. It looks like I actually beat my fastest half marathon pace for that distance and that part felt easy!
- I placed 105th overall out of 147 marathoners. (winner’s time was 2:32:08)
- 4th in my age group of 8 women 50-59 (the fastest in my age group was 4:09:48)
- 36th out of 66 women total (fastest woman clocked 3:10:40 at age 26)
But it’s not about my results. Not for you. It is about where you are starting from for your own goals and accomplishments. I completed a marathon, and strange as it may sound, I am already thinking about preparing for another. It was fun training, the race was exciting, and I am thrilled with my barefooting progress. However, I didn’t start with a marathon. I started with getting ready for a 5K. After years of struggling to fit in 20 minutes of exercise only 3 times a week while (happily) raising multiple children, after injuries and surgeries and slow recoveries. After beginning to feel old, then deciding that didn’t mean I needed to act old. And I still think I can go faster. Catch me if you can!