Maybe I don’t ask enough questions sometimes. I did know was that we were going to go for a trail run to Stack Rock, a trail that can be accessed from Bogus Basin Road about 13 miles up from where the road leaves the last main street light intersection in Boise. I had heard that the trail was about 4.5 miles one way, if one goes all the way to the noteworthy Stack Rock. I also knew that it would probably be a chilly morning, especially because we would be driving up to about 6000 feet above sea level. I even knew that there were “some” sections of icy snow on the path, because someone had scouted it a couple days before. I should have asked more about how much snow and details about the ice. But, then, we can’t always know all the details of things ahead of time, and sometimes we have to go with the flow and take hold of opportunities to test new things.
It was sunny on this particular Sunday morning, even though the outside temperature at roadside was 37°F (2.8°C). Once we reached the trail head, I chose to remove one layer of wool pants and my wool toe socks. The predicted temperature had been 28°F (-2.2°C), and I knew that the combination of a longer run with shade on the trail could have meant I would need those. I kept my Luna sandals on because I had been letting a bruise on the ball of one foot heal, plus my experience with Idaho trails has been that they are covered with large, sharp gravel. I still wore 3 layers on my torso and a pair of flock lined running pants on my legs.
The trailhead is very nondescript. There is just a narrow parking lot on the road. Once on foot, you can see there are hints of a trail leading down the relatively steep hillside. Since my husband and I were planning to run 12 miles, while the rest of our group were hiking only about 8 miles round trip, I wanted to get started right away. I took their word for it that there was a path, and felt like I rolled over the edge of the parking lot and into the woods, like following a path that would only open up dream-like if I believed and stepped out onto it.
Within a few feet there was a zig-zagging path angling down into the woods. Any running was kept slow due to the intense slope and the patches of thickly ice encrusted snow and gooey mud. Still, I tried to feel my inner deer and attempt a light-footed prance of sorts. This actually helped a lot with handling the steepness, although I was reduced to basically walking on the ice or mud after almost wiping out a couple times. In about 3/4 mile, this trail dumped out onto a wide dirt road. To the right, we discovered it was blocked by a locked gate. There was a pseudo path of sorts that took a severe left. The path we wanted was middle left.
With some concern that the walkers, who had encouragingly sent us off ahead with fanfare, would over take me due to my so far slow progress, I tried to adopt a moderate pace that I felt I could sustain. I have run trails enough times and at that elevation to be able to evaluate this. I know it is always slower due to the varying trail surface and the inevitable hills. However, I became discouraged when we hit another huge section of icy snow. Several times I felt like I was going to wrench my back as I slipped unexpectedly with a step. It looked like this was going to be an ongoing problem.
I did another quick evaluation of my footing options:
- I realized that it was likely I could keep my balance better in bare feet.
- I had only run directly on ice a couple of times, but at much lower temperatures.
- Since then, I had been continuing to acclimate to slightly colder barefoot running temperatures.
- My feet were already quite comfortably warm.
- The rest of my body was warm.
- My feet were/are conditioned in sole and circulation from a good 4 years of barefoot running.
- The aforementioned bruise had not been bothering me during this run.
- There seemed to be only patches of ice, even if some of them were fairly large, with dirt between where my feet might warm some.
- The day seemed to be warming. I judged it to be nearing 45°F (7.2°C) in the sunny parts of the path.
I decided to give barefoot on ice a try. I was correct that I had better balance. I still had to slow down and did slip occasionally, but not as often or as severely. The ice felt cold, but as long as I kept moving, I never developed any of the telltale pin-prick tingling that can hurt. The bottoms of my feet got a bit chilled on the longer patches of ice, or when I tried to run in the untrodden snow adjacent the well-worn ice path. But they never got numb. They also stayed a nice, ruddy pink, showing that they were getting lots of circulation. And I had plenty of times to let them warm thoroughly on the non-icy parts.
Not all of the firmly packed ice was the same to my bare feet, though. Some of it had been packed more uniformly, making it smooth. This made it feel soft, in a sense, but also made it more treacherous. Some of the sections of ice had refrozen with hard ridges, that were like climbing on uneven rocks. Still other places, the snow had been punched down, but managed to retain some crystal structure, making me think it was like walking on gravel that had been glued into place. I wondered if this last kind of ice was roughing up my soles any, but it seemed that it was minor, and thus the sort of thing that would help condition my soles even more.
There was also a significant amount of mud. Often my feet sank an inch or two into it, and it would gush up around my toes. This was a sensation I did not originally appreciate, when I first began to go barefoot. I would hear other barefoot runners revel in it, but it wasn’t my thing at all. However, I have grown accustomed to it, and while I do not seek it out, I can see the humor in it now. For this run, I was also concerned that the mud might make my feet more susceptible to the cold, but it was never a problem.
The rest of the path was the best barefoot running trail I have experienced near the Boise area. It was predominantly soft dirt covered with pine needles. The sharp or difficult rocks were few and far between. The pine needles mostly felt like a crunch carpet, although when I did hit the point of one, it was kind of sharp. The pine cones surprised me by not being much of a problem either. The pine needles and pine cones in my yard are a very stiff sharp. I surmise that the more damp and shaded environment under the trees kept the ones in the woods softer. There were sometime little shards of pine cones that tried to attach themselves to my foot once in a while. They were easy to flick off. I did have one incident where I kicked a pine cone right between a big toe and the one next to it. I said “the pine cone bit me,” and it bled some, but soon it stopped and I couldn’t feel any soreness at all. I did wonder if I had been leaving a blood scent for wolves or cougars…
We had to find our way over or around about 10 fallen trees. I always went slowly there. I know that there are usually very sharp broken branches in such places. Sometimes, I climbed over. Sometimes, I hunched under. I frequently stepped up on the bristly bark, and found I liked the sensation on my feet.
Unrelated to that, I did kick a big stick once, before I had even taken my Luna’s off. It also bled some, but I can’t even remember which toe it was now. One other issue was once accidentally kicking a ridge of hardened snow. And as if to prove that, yes, my feet were getting lots of blood circulation, it bled some, too!
I didn’t bleed when I hit the the softer instep on the underside of one foot on a pokey rock, but it did create a tiny flap of skin. However, I ask you, which of you puts on gloves when you knick your hands in the kitchen or in the shop when you know the full use of and feeling in your fingers in far superior for the task at hand. This is how it is with running. Running barefoot feels better for similar reasons.
Yet, I did reach a point, at about mile 8.7, where I decided to put my Luna sandals back on. Mostly, this was because I was becoming quite fatigued and I knew that I no longer had the same spring in my step and ability to respond to issues on the ground. I was also concerned that I had reached the current limit of my soles’ ability in this terrain. They were beginning to feel sensitized. Ideally, I would have been able to just stop running then, but I had to get back to the car, even though I had already been on my feet for 3 hours. Okay, I did get about a 20 minute break when we met up with the other hikers and my sister fed me half a tuna sandwich and some Fritos. But I had been running or hiking vigorously for just over 3 hours; and we still had 4 miles to go. The hill work and the balancing in the snow had taken their toll on all of my leg muscles. I would be moving more slowly now, and hopefully would not have as much trouble slipping. I will mention that my feet still got about as damp in the Luna’s.
On the way back, I slipped on the ice encrusted snow packs a few times, but in spite of near exhaustion managed to semi-gracefully sink to my knees, avoiding a full out crash. The mud caught me off my guard once, but I was more careful (again) after that. I tried to run up a few more hills, albeit slowly, but discovered that my legs were feeling much the same as they did around mile 20 of last fall’s marathon. Under threat of complete muscle mutiny, and wanting to make it to my promised hamburger at the end, I scrunched forward and walked caveman style up the rest of the hills. Total mileage: 12.2 miles. Husband says that I will get “extra benefit” from having exhausted my legs so completely without having stressed them with long or pounding mileage.
My feet got very dirty from this run/hike, but when I mentioned it to my husband, he showed me how similarly filthy his feet had gotten inside of his traditional running shoes. I washed my feet when I got home and put a bandaid on that one small flap of skin. There are no signs of cold damage from the ice walking. I have complete feeling and use of all toes. The soles do feel slightly “energized,” so I think I did the right thing in giving them some relief when I did, but I will always prefer being barefoot and will keep working toward increasing my adaptation to more challenging conditions. This was an unexpected chance to do this and ended up being within the limits of what I could try now.
(video/photo slideshow pending)
Edit 3/18/2015: Video finally done!