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Thursday, March 18, 2010

Barefoot Runners are Stupid...

Okay, maybe we're not stupid.  But sometimes we make bad decisions.  Sometimes we allow our inner-competitiveness and/or stubbornness to lead us into poor decisions.  This is my curse.

Sometimes us barefoot runners give an illusion of invincibility.  We often tout our resilience to common running injuries.  Truth is, we may avoid some injuries, but a new range of issues arise.  Abrasion injuries are one such curse.  My current demon- the chronically-injured big toe on my right foot.

On New Year's Eve, I ran a four mile race on wet asphalt in sub-freezing temperatures.  I'm a bit competitive in these shorter road races, so I pushed hard.  I was happy with my finish time, but developed a blister on both big toes that appeared to be quite deep.  I ran a six mile race the next day wearing Vibrams without incident.  Since there was little pain, I more or less forgot about the blisters.

Fast forward about a month.  On an especially warm late January day, I went for a winter trail run with some running friends.  The temperature was flirting with the freezing point, so I decided to go barefoot.  I also decided to run with Rick, the fastest of the group.  About half way through the run on icy, crusty snow, I noticed what could best be described as a dull pain emanating from both big toes.  Even though I was carrying my Vibrams in my hydration Pack, I decided to continue on.  At the six mile mark, Rick stopped to retrieve his coat from behind a bush.  We were stationary for perhaps 30 seconds.  When I took the next step, I was shocked to see a pool of blood about the size of a small pizza.

The dead skin that had covered the blisters had torn away leaving a very fragile, paper-thin layer of new skin.  The icy shards of ice had punctured several holes in the left toe.  The right wasn't as fortunate.  All that remained of the bottom of the right toe was what appeared to be the fat layer under the dermis.  Is that even possible?  At any rate, it hurt like Hell.

I still avoided the Vibrams based on the logic that the snow would help curb the bleeding.  The last two miles were spent gingerly running to avoid excessive pressure on my hamburger-like big toes.  When we arrived at our cars, I immediately applied a few Wendy's napkins affixed with discount duct tape.

The rest of the crew arrived; we exchanged small talk.  They commented that it looked as if a gun-shot victim had been running the trails.  I started feeling dizzy.  I'm sure it was the result of the pain, but I couldn't help but wonder how much blood I was losing.

I averaged about five miles per week over the next few weeks as the toes healed.  I have been able to slowly increase mileage in shoes.  Luckily I've been reviewing shoes, so I had a convenient excuse to indulge in their protectiveness.  At some point, I had to take the plunge and work on building barefoot miles on asphalt to prepare for Mind the Ducks, a 12 hour ultramarathon run on a 1/2 mile asphalt loop.

This last weekend, I managed six barefoot miles on asphalt without problem. Pace was about 9:30/mile.  I had some time to kill two days ago, so I decided to do a quick four mile run barefoot on asphalt.  The weather was wonderful... the road had a few hills... I couldn't resist the temptation to test myself.  I averaged slightly under a 7:20/mile pace.  The result- two hot spots and a few tiny cuts on my still-fragile right big toe.

I just don't learn.  I assumed the feet would be fine, so I went for an anticipated three mile barefoot run on a leaf-covered trail yesterday.  I made it about 1.5 miles before pain caused me to stop.  The cuts were significantly worse.  I taped the toe, wore my EVOs, and ran for another three.

Now my quandary... I am running the Irish Jig 5k in East Grand Rapids this Saturday.  If I go barefoot, I will have to go very slow.  If I wear Vibrams or EVOs, I may be able to come close to setting a 5k PR.  Running barefoot will be more enjoyable; running in shoes will satisfy my inner-competitiveness.  Running barefoot will help condition my feet for Mind the Ducks, but increase the change of further injuring the toe.  Wearing the shoes will do nothing to prep for MTD, but will eliminate the chance of injury.  Did I mention I hate running in shoes?

What would you do?


  1. Seriously, I'd stop running and let the toes heal. It is not the shoes/barefoot question that is the problem, trying to run through this injury just sound like you will have the injury for months. If you let it heal will you not be better able to run more, even if it means running less in the short term?

  2. I would save my toes for MTD :) Set that PR!

  3. I'm with Tom - just let those toes heel.

  4. I'd throw on the FF's and go for it. If you continue to wear on the toes they are not going to be ready for either race anyway. or, how about a layer of mole skin or tape and that way you get the rest of the feet in shape. That might be a way to get the best of both.

  5. Pain is your friend. Toss the vff's and quit being lazy with the shoes.

  6. BFJ, As you know, my only experience so far is with New England winter barefoot running and I've also been surprised to look down and discover blood...eeek, mine
    I'm curious, is this primarily a winter issue? I assumed that I didn't feel the blisters getting torn off because my feet were numb from the cold.

  7. I'm new. When I get an injury, I either stop until I'm not injured anymore, or I protect the injury with whatever I need to so that I can keep going.

    Big picture. I like to enjoy the run AND the rest of my life, and if I'm going to limp around and be miserable for three weeks after a day of injured running, I'll pass, or go for the dreaded shoe.

  8. As someone just recovering from my own foot injury, I have to recommend you go with the Vibram's for the 5k. I'm pretty sure your feet aren't going to lose any of their toughness due to the amount of barefoot running you've done in the past and it's better to let them heal completely so you just have to worry about your endurance at the Mind the Ducks...not sharp pain in your toes. Good luck either way though!

  9. don't be a stubborn ass. you need to protect those wounds while they heal completely. so either a) don't run or b) put something on. wear some flesh colored socks if you want to pretend.

  10. You kind of need your toes, you know.

  11. Ouch!

    I've been dealing with a foot thing (not quite sure what it is) that I was ignoring for too long, but I finally decided to listen to my foot and slow down.

    I recommend forgetting the PR. Run the race in whatever is going to be most comfortable, but also will help your toe recuperate.

    Could you run barefoot and tape your toe? I think most people would still consider that running barefoot.

  12. Why don't you just cut all the skin off of the bottom of your feet...that way you will not notice the pain in your toes? Just sayin.

  13. I have a hard time trying to understand why I'd take advice or buy a book from someone who would do this to their feet. As runners we're all stubborn and pig headed and have fought through injuries before but at some point learn the wisdom of when to run or not. Running barefoot when your toes are "hamburger" or missing all their skin is akin to removing a cast and riding a bike with a broken leg.

    It would be one thing if you injured yourself and decided to learn something from it. Instead you are still questioning whether you should continue to damage your feet.

    Good luck. I hope you make the right decision.

  14. Thanks for the advice/input everyone!

    Michael, That's what I'm working on!

    Jeff- I experience these things to learn so I can teach you to avoid the same mistakes. :-)

    There's a bit of hyperbole in the story... this isn't an injury that will permanently sideline me. I do have concerns about the mileage on asphalt at Mind the Ducks... 12 hours is considerably longer than my previous long run on asphalt. My original training plan called for a twelve week training cycle that was shortened by weather and flu. The toe will likely be an issue for Mind the Ducks, but it can be taped.

    This weekend's race is merely an analogy for the decisions we all make as runners. Do we play it safe? Do we push the evelope? What factors into these decisions? It's interesting to see the responses... they definitely err on the side of conservative. I would give the exact same advice.

    Thank you again for the input!

  15. I say throw on the shoes and shoot for that PR! There is room for both the competitiveness and the playing it safe.

    Be competitive, but play it safe by adding shoes until you can safely do it without them!

  16. Yes we are. The Wabash Trace trail in Iowa is a little soggy right now but still a little rocky, so it's in an ideal state for comfortable barefoot conditioning. On Wednesday I ran out for 2 1/2 miles at an easy 9min/mi pace. Since my numbed soles looked and felt pretty good, I decided to see how fast I could finish the return trip. Upon finishing I checked out my feet; the right looked great, but the left had what was left of a juicy blood blister right below the toes. I tore it open a bit during the run, but fortunately not enough to futher damage the sensitive skin underneath.

    This thoroughly discredits my earlier belief that trails can't give you blisters.

    I'm annoyed that I definitely lost some skill over the winter while running shod. However, I don't see any alternative for those of us who want to maintain fitness through a freezing winter and be able to run a good spring ultra.

  17. Forget about "competitions". What is best for your feet longer term (say next 1-2 months), cause that is what is best for you. I think you know the answer...
    - you just want someone else to tell you :-)

  18. You've injured the toes how many times by now?

    Take a break man. Races will still be there when you've healed.