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Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Best Worst Run of My Life: Know When to Hold Them...

August 14th, Fallsburg marathon, Lowell, Michigan.  I set a personal worst for the marathon distance.  I experienced things in this race I have never experienced before.  


Dead legs. 

Extreme nausea.

To top it off, I missed a turn and ran an alternate route for about a mile.  I have a seriously painful bruise on the arch of my left foot.  My body feels the cumulative effects of being beaten up repeatedly, and is not responding well.

Despite all this, Fallsburg proved to be one of the most fun races I've had the opportunity to participate in.  I got to watch Shelly finish her first marathon (read her race report here), which she totally rocked!  I was exposed to an entirely new set of trails I had never run before.  I got to catch up with several people and meet many more.

Shelly and Jen Jordan finishing

Before the race, I was able to chat with a bunch of people including fellow Hallucination 100 finisher Tim Adair, Barefoot Runners Society Michigan Chapter president Andy Grosvenor, Katie Swords from the Runners World Trail Running Forum, and Matt Plecher, a fellow barefoot/ minimalist shoe runner from Grand Rapids.  

Shelly before the race

During the race, I chatted with many of the great aid station volunteers.  Many were interested in barefoot running, which is always my go-to conversation starter. 

Me before the race

After the race, I milled about and talked to a few others, including Joel Pennington, Katie's husband, marathon winner Ben VanHoose, Andy again, Mark, a fellow minimalist runner who's last name I cannot remember, and a few other great people.

Andy finishing

The Race

So the race... while I could write a complete, detailed recap, I'll spare my readers the painful details.  Here's the quick synopsis:

The race started well.  The first 5 miles (fairly technical trails) went exceedingly well.  Around mile 7 or so, the course hit a gravel road.  It hurt.  A lot.  The wheels came off at that point as I hit a serious low.  The next 19 miles were a cascading cycle of negativity interspersed with occasional bouts of not-quite-as-bad negativity.  I've never run a race where the actual running part elicited so little intrinsic joy.  I did not want to be out on the course.  

Me during the race.  Note- I felt good at that point.

I reverted to "ultra survival mode" for the majority of the race.  I reduced my running gait to my slowest ultra shuffle and slogged through the mileage while conserving as much energy as I could. 

Around mile 24, I missed a turn.  After about three quarters of a mile, I realized I hadn't seen a course marker in some time.  I backtracked about a half mile, but still did not see any markers or other runners.  Not knowing where I was in relation to the actual course, I turned around and continued on.  I knew I was off course, and I knew how to get to the finish line.  At that moment, I was content with a DNF (did not finish).  

After about a mile, I came to the course.  I jumped on the trail and finished the last mile.  The rough day seemed almost comical as I trudged to the finish line to collect my DNF.  When I emerged from the woods to the cheering of a few onlookers, I felt a mix of relief (the run was almost over) and guilt (hey, I cut the course... I didn't deserve that adulation).

As I approached the finish line, that dichotomy of emotions grew.  I entered the chute and crossed the finish line.  A woman (I think it may have been RD Dan Droski's wife) congratulated me.  As Dan handed me my finisher's towel (awesome finisher's reward, by the way) and medal, I tried explaining that I had missed a turn and about a mile of trails.  He said it was okay since I hadn't placed in my division.  

I couldn't in good conscience take the finishers' medal.  I checked my Garmin.  With back-tracking, I had run 26.22 miles.  Still, my peers that stayed on the course ran an extra mile of trails instead of the asphalt and gravel roads I had.  I didn't accept the medal.  Dan wouldn't take me off the finisher list.
As I talked to people at the finish, I finally understood why.  About half of the people I talked to had wandered off the course at some point.  Early in the race, I saw Shelly running in the opposite direction as me.  A group of people she was running with took a wrong turn and ran a loop in the opposite direction as the rest of us.  To make up for that, the entire group had to run an extra quarter of a mile.  A handful of people ran a lot longer... some as much as 31 or 32 miles.  Others had cut several miles off their race.  

Apparently the problems stemmed from last-minute changes to the course.  One of the bridges we were supposed to run across was out and the local officials had assured Dan that it would be fixed. It wasn't.  This forced the organizers to completely reroute the first half of the course.  Even though it was very well marked, there was some confusion between volunteers on the course.  My mistake was my own stupidity... I was in a mental funk and ran past the trail marker. 

Despite that, I still have a hard time accepting this as an official finish.  For all those that finished after me, consider your place to be one position higher. 

Know When to Hold Them...
"You got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em,
Know when to walk away and know when to run." -Kenny
I ran this race barefoot.  It was not as barefoot-friendly as I remembered from last year.  The first section of gravel elicited an internal debate about barefoot running.  It was the exact same discussion I had during the especially harsh section of Burning River... why do I keep doing this? 

Just like Burning River, I feel I could have done much better in this race had I worn some type of shoe.  The gravel forced me to slow my pace considerably.  It took a toll on my feet, which translated into a less-than-enjoyable experience once I got to smoother trails.  

For years, I've run barefoot in conditions that were not barefoot-friendly.  That includes gnarly gravel.  It includes sub-freezing temperatures.  It includes hot asphalt.  It includes chip-and-seal asphalt.  It even includes broken glass.  You name it, I've probably tried running on it barefoot. 

Why did I do it?  I wanted to push my own limits.  I wanted to find out what I could tolerate.  Also, I wanted to hone my technique.  Nothing builds skills like rugged, pain-inducing terrain.  

There was also part of me that wanted to prove that you can run barefoot pretty much anywhere.  You don't need shoes... they're just a useful tool to be utilized in some situations.

After doing this for a number of years, I've learned my limits.  I'm now faced with the dilemma of wanting to test my limits of speed and endurance, but I'm being held back by my insistence on foregoing shoes.  

I still love running barefoot... when conditions are favorable.  The issue arises when conditions are not favorable.  I think I am going to start using my stable of minimalist shoes for more than just workshop props.  I think I am going to start using them for racing when being barefoot is a known liability.  In almost all cases, huaraches will be my preferred shoe.  I may break out my EVOs or KSOs, and I may even pick up a pair of Treks.  I may even consider one of the new shoes the bigger manufacturers are producing.  The rule- use the most minimal shoe for the job.

I will still test my limits... I'm stubborn like that.  I will reserve my "testing my limits" runs to training.  This realization is both personally disappointing yet liberating.  I'm sure I will have to say on this matter in the future.  

For now, I must make a decision.  I will be running the North Country trail 50 miler in two weeks.  Fallsburg was humbling.  My body was not ready for a marathon two weeks after a 100.  NCT will be tough.  Even with two full weeks of rest and recovery, I doubt I will be at a physical peak.  I was planning on running barefoot.  I know the course... it is much more barefoot-friendly than both Burning River and Fallsburg.  Still, huaraches may improve my finishing time.  What to do, what to do...


  1. "Use the most minimal shoe for the job" YES Jason I TOTALLY agree! My little group is named the Malvern Hills MINIMALIST / barefoot Runners for that reason. The trails I run on are ex-quarry tracks and absolute murder BF for a lot of it. We bang on about "listening to our bodies" but yet when our feet scream in pain we call it "good pain" and that is when BF becomes a cult... I go BF when I can and when it hurts I put my surf socks on - simple! I put on a coat when its cold - using the same logic.

  2. So true, you run for joy and pleasure, not for torture. I run bf most of the time, but 100k trail is hard on the feet when bf, so a nice pair of kso's or treks make it pleasurable again :)

  3. You don't have to prove anything to anybody, wear shoes when you want to wear shoes. How are those new Luna Huaraches anyway?

  4. Hey, Tarahumara don't run barefoot either. :)

  5. Another reason we run barefoot as much as possible: it's how we've learned to keep our form. With shoes on, it's like, "Crap! What am I missing?"

    For my first barefoot marathon, I missed a short out and back, so I only ran 25.5 miles. If you give me permission to keep my medal (I didn't place, and don't count the time as a PR), I give you permission to keep yours.

  6. A very thought-provoking entry. I appreciate you sharing your dilemma. I'm a new barefoot runner and I wanted to do my first barefoot triathlon this summer. I aimed for on specifically because I remembered it to be barefoot friendly. To my dismay, when I went to check out the course the day before, I found a gravel road. I was not ready for that & there wasn't a good grassy spot beside the road for running. I ended up doing the race in shoes and was extremely disappointed. I almost kicked them off after the gravel road because they felt so heavy after months of barefoot/minimalist running. Now I'm recovering from a stress fracture and won't be able to do a barefoot race this season. Barefoot running feels great and I believe in the principals of it. It's hard when races are not barefoot friendly.

  7. Dude do whatever you want. Nobody is judging you for running 100+ miles with shoes on. The bragging rights aren't worth a failure of goals. Keep up the good work. You are still my favorite barefoot runner either way.

  8. Don't let the idea of having to be barefoot hold you back. You are a strong runner and if some foot protection makes you even better than go with that.
    I think you should run the 50 with shoes and try and place.

  9. i was going to say this to you at memorial parkway AS when you said that you were rethinking the barefoot 100 miler, but it wasn't the right time. i'll say it now:
    you are a runner. being barefoot should no more define you than being "ultra"... take the descriptors away. you are a competitive runner. people have been barefoot for centuries, but people have also been wearing shoes for centuries. there is NOTHING WRONG with shoes. there is something grossly wrong with the way some of them are made, but there are happily shoes available to us now that are very useful and not in the least harmful. all you are proving by refusing to wear them when it is appropriate is that you are stubborn and way over committed to being/ being known as the "barefoot runner". at the core, you are a competitive runner, who wants to do his best. no one thinks less of you for wearing a minimal shoe to race in, neither should you.

  10. running b/f is great but not always realistic. These things happen, you as you said you still had fun.

  11. it's a realization everyone comes to eventually. no shame in it. it's easy to get caught up in the hype and urgency of it all. no one likes a zealot whether it's for traditional shoes or running barefoot