Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Pinkney Trail Marathon 2010: Race Report

It’s a cool foggy morning at Pinkney Recreation area. I’m tired from once again having to get up early for the marathon. Why can we not have marathons in the afternoon?

This is a small race: 2,000 folks, divided up between marathoners, half-marathoners, and some powerwalkers. Once again, great to see a crown of fit folks together. Rare in Michigan. The route is a 13.1 mile loop, which we marathoners will run twice. We start at 7:30, the half-ers at 8:30, and my main fear is that I’m going to get lapped by all of them.

Classic rock blares out of a PA system, and a bunch of picnic tables are clustered up under a veranda, for the morning registerers. Definitely an amateur operation, but that’s alright, nice even, to not have the hordes of a bigger race. It’s been sold out for a while. The sponsor, Running Fit, uses the slogan “Not for wimps,” and there does seem to be a different crowd. Hard to explain how or why, but trailrunners just seem tougher, less high maintenance, though that may be my own personal bias.

Everyone is clustered up by the main building, where the bathrooms are I guess, and out of the way of the wind coming off the lake. I, on the other hand, am drawn to the lake, a wonderful place to stand for a little bit and build some energy. Why isn’t anyone else down here? This seems to be the story of my life somehow. Not that I want to go stand by the bathrooms, I just wish I could talk some folks into joining me down here. Especially the female folks.

I’m dressed about right, temperature-wise, with running pants, two wicking shirts, and a thin wool running ‘shirt’. Also some fingerless wool gloves. Other folks have on shorts and a only a shirt and they look cold, but we’ll all be warming up soon. It rained all night, and the sky is still cloudy grey, so I wanted to have a warm layer in case I get rained on half-way through. I’ve been getting some minor odd looks on the way through the parking lot to the start area, because I’m barefoot.

I’ve been running barefoot for a year now, and last Fall ran the Detroit Marathon, with success, if not speed. Most of my running in the last year has been pavement, because I live in downtown Ann Arbor, but this Spring I’ve been experimenting with trail running again, something I used to love, shod. In fact, the trail system we’re running in today is part of my old stomping grounds in the DNR Waterloo-Pinkney Area between Ann Arbor and Jackson, so while I haven’t run this route, the territory is familiar. Michigan, being surrounded by the Great Lakes, is basically all low-lying swamp. The trails are nice soft dirt and sand.

The event coordinator, who I believe is the owner of Running Fit, gets on the mic at ten minutes to, say that yes, the race will go on, even without rain. Like I said, no wimps.
We line up. I’m horrible at judging crowd size, looks like we’re a out seventy-five runners, but later I’ll find out there was more like two-hundred of us. I hang out at the back. I’m not expecting to go very fast, and down want to get in anybody’s way on the trails. I’m fairly confident my feet are going to fine, but more worried about just being able to finish. It’s April, and I’ve been running, barefoot, all winter, but on more shorter rubs, and I haven’t run more than thirteen miles since last fall. Still, mentally, I feel good.

A guy who’s apparently running his 120th marathon plays a jazzy version of “The Star Spangled Banner” on his trumpet, and now I’m starting to get odd looks, though, and this is just my impression, they are less out of disapproval, like at the Detroit Marathon where I seemed to send people into horrified shock, than just accepting surprise. Maybe trail runners are a little more open-minded than the normal breed. One guy smiles and tells me I’m awesome, which is nice, though I do hear one guy behind me say to his friend that what I’m doing is “idiocy.” I am tempted to turn around and tell him that talking about someone when they can hear you is “asshole-iocy” but I let it pass. New goal though: Instead of just finishing, I want to beat him.

The digital clock hits 00:00 and the Running Fit dude just yells, “Go!” No horn or nothing. Like I said, pretty amateur. But, we’re off! There’s not a huge crowd, maybe twenty people, but they’re clapping and yelling as we trot across the mowed grass towards the woods. I’m letting anybody that wants to go ahead of me, but even at a super light trot I’m ahead of some folks. I’m actually kind of amped and ready to go, so to conserve my energy, it’s probably good that as soon as our running horde hits the trees, we have to stop and walk, single-file. And keep walking, to the point where I’m thinking, uh-oh, this isn’t good. But people start to hop around the main line, and we hit a small hill, which, amazingly, even at a walk, slows some folks down.

Finally, we start to trot. I find myself behind two guy friends who seem to have a nice casual pace, so I fall in behind them. Others are still maneuvering, clomping by in the leafy sides of the trials, where I’m still hesitant to tread. I’m just not sure what’s under those leaves, and don’t want to stab myself on a pokey branch, though I know that’s not entirely rational.

The two guys I’m following had seemed fairly quiet when we started, but now that we’re running and kind of in a small group (there’s some folks behind me) they start chatting with each other, seemingly about anything comes into the brains, race-related or not. Which is fine. I know they’re nervous and excited, and I also know I’m jealous that they have a friend to run with, but running, to me, has always been a quiet, solo, meditative act. I like running with a group for something like this, so we can inspire each other, but I would just prefer we inspire each other quietly.

I’m not sure if they realize how many people are behind them either, but I know/sense that some of those people would be willing to speed things up. Out west, on mountain roads, it’s common courtesy for a driver to pull over to the shoulder if cars start to bunch up behind. Here, not so much. So, after one particular in-bad-taste guy-bonding joke, I decide fuck it, and jump out to the edge of the trail. And it’s fine. The leaves are leaves. I scamper past the dudes, hearing their conversation cut off when they see I’m barefoot, and scoot out ahead.

Feels ok to speed up too, until I come on the next group of backed up runners, going about the same pace as the previous one. And again, at the front are two loud males chatting away, nonstop. Hm, ok, it’s going to be a long race if I have to be stuck with people like this. But, we hit a good hill, and everyone slows down. I’ll see this the whole race, people walking the uphill sections, a strategy I suspect they learned from the book Born To Run, by Christopher MacDougall, that came out last year. The idea being to conserve one’s energy on the uphills, without losing that much overall time. I’m sort of half-convinced this maybe be right, yet nevertheless, the wildland firefighter in me wants to run the uphills too, if I can. So I do, and pass the whole group fairly quickly.

I fall in with a couple of other guys, going at a quicker though not unreasonable, pace, who are blessedly more silent, but my luck is not to hold, because soon I hear voices coming up behind, one of them quite loud. A guy I’d noticed earlier because of how tall and skinny he was, with knee-high socks, which I haven’t seen since the 70s. He’s also one of the those folks I’ve seen carrying a small backpack. Why? Just seems like annoying extra weight. What is he carrying in there? Water? Or is he a First Responder? Or is this some kind of Born To Run fashion accessory? Anyway, he likes to talk. Not a bad guy, just one of those that likes to chat with anyone and everyone around him. My enemy. And, being barefoot, I’m a prime target. “Hey! Barefoot Guy! How’re your feet?”

I hate that question. If they were bad, I wouldn’t be here. I resist asking his how his feet are, and just say, “Fine thanks.” He passes me and I hope I’ve seen the last of him, but no. At the next hill I find out he’s one of the Hill Walkers, so I pass him. “Hey! Barefoot Guy again! How’s it going?” And when I get to the top, a minute later he passes me again. “Hey Barefoot Guy!”

Yes, I’m in Hell. For the next mile he and I pass each other, until we get to a fairly big hill and I barrel up it, and barrel down, going super fast to put some distance between us. So much for conserving my energy.

The forest here in Michigan is a mix of hardwoods, like oak, and evergreens, mostly pines. The trail is about perfect: Soft dirt, changing to mud in the lower areas. Feels great squishing through, though a little slippery on the downhills. Very humid, the Spring ‘greening’ just starting up, with the spring peepers peeping us on as we cross wood bridges over boggy areas, and ponds. Gotta keep an eye out for screws sticking up, but the views are wonderful, with swans and ducks. I could get distracted real easy, but even concentrating I still manage to stub the second, longer toe of my left foot on a root. Hurts initially, then not, though I suspect later, after that a race, when I lose my adrenaline rush, it will hurt more. And then I do it again a quarter mile later. Ouch! Maybe I’ve broken it and it’s hanging down, flopping loose? I refuse to look. I’ll deal with it later.

I pass more folks, politely, with a ‘passing on your left’ to warn them, and everybody up in this part of the race is very cool about that, as I try to be with others. I pass one woman who recognizes me. “Hey! I ran with you in the Detroit Marathon!”

I don’t remember her, but I suppose my feet make me a memorable character. She and her boyfriend are running this race together, which rocks. I’d like to run a marathon with a girlfriend. What does a guy have to do to get one of those?

I move ahead of them. Not that I’m really tearing things up, because I’m still getting passed occasionally, but I’ve ended up running a lot faster than I planned. It’s just, it feels good. I feel like I’m running more of a half-marathon pace, and part of me wonders if I’m making a mistake in the long term. But, I just decide that if it feels good, do it. I’m going to be one of the shambling living dead after mile 15 no matter what, so I may as well gain some time now. For what? I don’t know. I’m not trying to ‘win,’ I just want to finish, but I guess my personal pride is on the line. I want to do my best.

We go through the first couple liquid refreshment stations. I have no idea why someone would volunteer to help out on a podunk small-time marathon, but they are, enthusiastically, and I’m grateful. I can only hope I offer them some small amusement.

I’m not being a very good emissary for barefoot runners. Another gentleman comes up behind me and just starts talking. “So I was talking to another fella back there about this barefoot running idea. It sure is an interesting theory.” And, any other time I’d be happy to talk to him about it. But I’ve only had like five hours of sleep, I’m already tired, and I have to concentrate on where I put every step. I just do not have time to do my PR spiel. So, I fear that he feels I’m being rude, even though I try to give him a polite, “Yes I really like it.” I can just imagine the word being passed from shod runner to shod runner: “Man, those barefoot runners are assholes.” No, not all of them. Just me.

We loop around back to the starting area, and all the runners around me seem to be doing the same thing, picking up the pace, as if we were finishing up a half-marathon. We’re passing the only crowd in the whole race, we have to appear to be non-wimp-like as we break out into the grass. Ahead I can see a woman giving directions to us to veer left over the marathon timing gate-thingy, and not the half-marathon finish line. When I get to her, she checks my number, sees my bare feet, and freezes, looking up at me, then back down at my feet. Something has disconnected in her brain. She stares at me, mouth open. I point and say, “Left?”

She recovers and nods. “Yes! Left! Good job!”

I go past the PA, with a little CCR to boost my spirits. I hear folks yelling out “Go barefoot runner!” They’re being encouraging to everybody, it’s just that assigning a nickname to me is easier. Still, I appreciate their encouragement. I confess that I secretly want the owner of Running Fit to see me, to show him the potential future of running. Vanity, I know. Thank you Ecclesiastes. It’s just, it’s true. Everyone here could never have to buy running shoes again!

But basta. Off my soapbox.

Back into the woods, back into the quiet, realizing that, oh shit, I’ve got another thirteen miles. And I’m exhausted. But, it’s a good exhausted. Onward!

I soon pass another bunch of guys, and one of them is wearing VFFs! Vibram Five Fingers, a “barefoot alternative.” Basically rubbery gloves for the feet, with none of the unpleasant things running shoes have, like arch support and cushion. Just enough to protect against small pokey things, and to keep feet clean. I have a pair, they were awesome last year when I wanted to run more but my feet weren’t quite toughened up enough. Good training wheels, though once I got used to going barefoot all the time, I couldn’t go back.

I give him a wave as I pass. “Nice shoes!”

He laughs. “Hey man, I’m glad to see you still going! How are your feet?”

“Fine! When you going to wean yourself off those things?”

“Soon I hope!”

After that group, I suddenly find myself alone. Our whole pack is now strung out through the woods. I don’t even feel like I’m a race almost, just me running through the trees, like a regular run, except for an occasional person passing, though that happens all the time on regular runs too. The 13.1 mark seems to have really changed the outlook, or mentality. The groups seem to have filtered to the back.

I go alright for the first couple of miles of the second loop, but by Mile 15 I’m starting to slow down. I feel less light-footed, my feet slapping down harder on the path, or they feel like it anyways. I’m being less careful, or caring less. Either way, that’s not good, and I end up stubbing that same toe again. And yet, my feet are ok, meaning the soles are fine, not feeling raw like they might be on pavement by now. The real pain is in my legs, and now I’m incorporating the Hill Walk method, sort of non-voluntarily. I get to a hill and I can’t keep the pace. But when I switch to powerwalk mode, I find I can take longer strides, so I think there is something to this theory.

But I’m not the only one. The people I pass, barely, are hurting, and even the people who pass me do so in a pained, hurting kind of way, except for a few who seem to have tapped into hidden energy reservoirs, and just breeze on by. One I can hear coming up behind me, hacking up loogies every ten feet. Annoying, and I give the nickname The Looger and hope he passes soon. Except, the Looger turns out to be a woman! La Loogeuse! And she’s hot! Or, her backside is anyways! Yes, I am physically and mentally exhausted, and yet I still find the strength to stare at a woman’s ass as she passes. I’m horrible, but it’s just that she’s wearing these tight black and grey running pants, and she’s taken off her shirt, running in a sport bra—

Focus John, focus.

At the Mile 18 sign I know I’m for sure going to finish this thing. I mean, I already knew, but mentally, anything less than ten miles is doable. Eight miles is nothing. I do that for fun. No problemo. Ha.

I find myself replaying Johnny Cash singing “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” off of his American V: A Hundred Highways album, which I’d cranked on the drive over. The tempo is right at my running pace, and I hadn’t even realized how relevant the chorus is:

You can run on, for a long time
Run on, for a long time....

This is new. Usually in marathons there’s plenty to watch and listen to, keeping me occupied. Out here, I’ve got plenty o’ time to think, and it’s just me and Johnny.

The volunteers at the drink stations are just as enthusiastic the second time around, amazingly. I hope somebody buys them pizza or something.

And then I hear him from behind me. Loud Guy! No!

“Hey! Barefoot Guy! How’s the feet?”

“Fine, thanks.”

I fear that we’ll be passing back and forth for the rest of the race, and contemplate a strategic piss-break, but Loud Guy is in ‘game on’ mode, passing me and continuing on. Impressive.

I can hear the PA blaring music way off. I’m close. I step up my pace. I like to finish strong, tap into my reserves, and I can picture that last bit of open grass: perfect for a full-on barefoot sprint. I feel strong, if one can be completely exhausted and feel strong. I feel like I’ve pushed myself the whole race, and that’s all I could hope for.

I actually hadn’t expected this to happen, but as I trudge/waddle to the end, I find myself by myself, until one guy with whom I’ve been passing, quietly, off and on for the second loop, comes up right at the end to pass. I start to think, fine let him go, but then I see the grass! We’re almost there!

Not giving myself time to think about it, I hop out to the trail edge, re-pass him quickly, which actually helps get me going, and when I come out of the trees I’m already pumping out long strides.

One hundred yards. A few people, like twenty, are strung out along the edge and start to clap and yell when they see me sprinting, and I hear one guys say, “Hey, that guy’s barefoot!”

I go, pushing everything. Gotta represent here, and out non-wimp the non-wimps. And push myself.

And I do. And I cross.

5:05 and some change. Ok, felt shorter, that’s the longest marathon I’ve ever run, but for how hilly it was, respectable. How are my feet by now? Basically just caked in mud. I don’t see any blood, that’s a good sign. Time to soak them in the lake, then go home to a warm bath.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Top Ten Reasons Not to Run Barefoot

10. After realizing that corporations and doctors may not know what they're talking about, and may not have your best interests in mind, you will end up questioning all authority.

9. People will call you a "freak," which may or may not be a compliment, but which either way will still make you feel weird.

8. You can't impress people with your new stylish running shoes.

7. You don't always feel like you're in the beach-running scene from Chariots of Fire.

6. People may instead think you belong in the movie Quest For Fire.

5. You will have to perform the laborious chore of washing your feet after you run.

4. You will be shunned in any store-sponsored running group.

3. It will be just one more thing that your family doesn't understand about you.

2. Angry people may yell at you from their cars.

1. In races, people will talk about you as if you weren't twenty feet in front of them.

Why/How I Started Running Barefoot, Part Two

When I returned to Michigan, I continued to run short ‘four-thirties’ three days a week. I found a perfect size loop, down by the Huron River, that took me about a half hour. Gradually, through the Fall, I worked on taking less walking breaks, which brought the run down to twenty-five minutes. But afterwards, every time, my feet were sore. I continued to ice, but gave up hope of working up to the Detroit Marathon that year too. I also got really tired of buying athletic tape. It might be cheap if you’re a podiatrist and earn a six figure salary, and can buy medical supplies bulk, but for a poor grad student, spending at least $40 a month was a lot, and that was at my university pharmacy at a discount. I became know by the employees there as the Tape Guy. Being the only person on a campus of 20,000 people who needed that much tape, at least for that extended amount of time, wasn’t right. If I was getting ‘better’, or ‘healing,’ then I could see it. But for the rest of my life? Something was wrong.

At the end of that next Spring, about a year and a half after my first plantar fasciitus diagnosis, a couple things happened. First, an old friend mentioned barefoot running. I, of course, immediately dismissed the idea as something I might have wanted to try when I was younger and my feet weren’t injured. There was no possible way I could run without super arch support shoes, additional super arch support insoles, and taping my foot. If I ended up getting injured while wearing shoes, imagine how badly I’d hurt myself if I ran without shoes.

Then I heard a radio interview with Chris McDougall, a writer for the magazine Men’s Journal, who had just come out with a book called Born To Run, about, in part, a tribe of super-runner Indians who live in Copper Canyon, Mexico. They have never lost the ability to run, like the rest of us, because they live in isolation from civilization, and things like roads. And shoes. I went to my local Border’s and looked through the book, and was blown away by McDougall’s basic point, that humans are literally born to run: We evolved as long distance runners because that’s how we hunted for a million and a half years before we invented the spear and bow and arrow: We would run animals to death, just following them until they collapsed from exhaustion.

I also read a little about the Tarahumara, and their running style. Though for longer runs they’ll wear huaraches, a type of sandal which they make out of leather or old tires, they normally go around barefoot. Either way, they’re not getting arch support, and one of McDougal’s points is that the Tarahumara don’t get injuries. With all the running they do, they don’t get plantar fasciitis. In fact, they don’t really get sick either. No cancer, no diabetes, no nothing. That part made sense. Everyone would agree that if we all were more physically active here in the US, we’d be much better off for it. But the no running injuries part seemed bizarre. Was it because they just don’t have roads? It’s walking on hard surfaces that gives us plantar fasciitus, right? But even then, barefoot? Didn’t that hurt? And yet, it also made sense that, as McDougal makes the case for, if humans had been going barefoot for two million years, our bodies would be pretty well built for it by now. I didn’t read the whole book right then, since it was in hardcover and I was poor, but I put an order for it with the library, and I had to wait a long time: There were about 25 people before me who wanted to read it.

In the meantime, I went to “teh Internet” and Googled “barefoot running” to see what came up, which got me to runningbarefoot dot org, run by Barefoot Ken Bob, a mountain man-looking bearded guy from San Diego, and proponent of barefoot running. And he was not alone. On the site there were testimonies and pics from other barefoot runners. Still skeptical, but curious, I joined their Yahoo Group, where both veteran and beginner barefoot runners were talking and exchanging info. There were more than a couple mentions of running barefoot actually helping injuries go away, which just seemed crazy to me. And yet, also not crazy. I remembered a guy I worked with who had a hairline fracture in his hip bone, and the doctors had him walking around as soon as possible to keep his muscles strong. Our bodies don’t heal unless we use them. Sitting around watching tv is not enough.

So I decided to dive right into the convo and write my own post, explaining my plantar fasciitus history and asking if people thought running barefoot would help. Within a day I had at least fifteen replies, both on the group site and emailed to me personally, from people urging me to try it, and telling me how they too had gone through the same frustration with plantar fasciitus, and with doctors. One guy said he’d been “put out to pasture” by his doctor, who told him he would never be able to run again. After going barefoot, the guy was now running, playing soccer with his kids, and active again. What struck me was that most of the people who wrote to me were either my age, or older. These people were talking like they’d gained a new life.

I still tried to resist, play Devil’s Advocate, and offer up my argument that it wasn’t shoes that caused plantar fasciitus, but paved roads, and I was gobstruck by a guy who said running barefoot on sidewalks was like running through butter. That was just the complete opposite of what I’d learned about running: I’d always avoided sidewalks because cement was the hardest surface. Another guy offered this explanation: Our feet don’t need ‘support,’ and in fact support actually weakens them. For example, if I put my arm in a cast for six weeks, it would get weaker. Like with my co-worker’s hip, the only way my arm would get strong would be to use it. Likewise our feet. He, and others, swore that my plantar fasciitus would vanish once I tried going barefoot.

As I said before, I’m a real man: I jumped right in. Almost two years of doctors, some of whom I didn’t even like, telling me to do stuff that didn’t seem to work, was enough. Here were real people, runners like myself, who had nothing to gain from lying to me, and were sincerely trying to help, a feeling I never quite got from most people I talked to in the medical profession. Plus, like Montaigne said, they’d ‘been there, suffered that.’ Or, and this was even more than my marathon running podiatrist, they’d ‘been there, cured that.’

I biked down to my river loop, near the train station, leaving my shoes tied to the bike. Then I stepped across the railroad tracks to the dirt road paralleling them. Standing there barefoot felt really really scary. Naked. If I weren’t a real man I would almost say, vulnerable, unprotected. And it wasn’t just the fear of slicing my feet open on rocks, it was the fear of making my plantar fasciitus worse by running without arch support, of ruining that year and a half I’d spent getting my feet back to where I could at least do short runs. I didn’t want to do anything that would force me to spend another year and a half not running. But, I also knew that was the doctors talking in my head, and what good had they done me so far?

So I started running.

I realize now that a dirt road is the worse place to try a first barefoot run, but I was still in shoe running mode, where dirt was my friend, because it was softer than pavement. What I noticed immediately was that I was paying attention, both to where I was stepping, and to my body. Focusing. I aimed for the sandy patches, and I went slow, barely what I would even call running. And yes, accidentally stepping on a rock hurt, but it wasn’t like every step I took that was happening, nor were the rocks ripping gashes in my skin. Not huge ones anyways. They just poked. What was weird was feeling anything down there at all, feeling sensation in the bottom of my feet. I don’t think I’d felt that since I was a kid, walking back to the car from the beach.

I was soon at the bike path, smooth flat pavement, and it was just like that one guy from the barefoot running Yahoo Group had said: after the pokey rocks, that pavement felt like butter. There was still sensation. I could feel dirt grit, flakes of grass, and yes I could feel my skin rubbing against the pavement, sort of sandpapery-like, but not in a bad way. I was barely trotting, doing the penguin-trudge, taking super small steps. But you know what? I was running. I had planned to just do a really short run, just up the bike path section and back, but when I got to the end of it, to the bridge crossing to the other side of the river, I decided ok, if I’m going to be a real man, I’m going to do this all or nothing. So I crossed over, a little bit more bike path, then a wood boardwalk, then I was on a trail. I crossed a small creek, and squished through a muddy section, which felt great! Squishy mud oozing through my toes! I was smiling!

And I hit a patch of rocks and they all poked me at once. I started cursing loudly. But I kept going. The path did have long smooth packed-down-sandy parts and I kept up a pretty good trot. And if I hit more rocky sections (and if I paid attention I could see them coming) I just slowed down and walked my way gingerly through them. What killed me was the dirt parking lot next to the canoe rental place, and the metal grates of the dam where I crossed back over. Oh, and then I had to go back over Pokey Rock Road back to the train station. When I got to my bike, my feet felt like hamburger, and I knew I’d been perhaps a little stupid to not work up to the whole loop. But you know what? Even if my feet felt raw, there were no real bad cuts, just a couple area were skin had been scraped off. No blood. Everything had changed: I had gone against the advice of all the medical professionals I’d talked to, and that was the first time in two years I had run and not felt the dreaded plantar fasciitus ache. I could take pokey rocks, and the sandpaper effect from pavement, that was just a question of building calluses. Suddenly I could picture myself becoming a runner again.

Once I knew that barefoot running was not only doable, but even good for me, my next stop was to go try out a pair of “VFFs”: Vibram Five Fingers, that people on the Running Barefoot Yahoo Group kept mentioning. They look odd, like a gloves for the feet, with individual toes, and the concept is that they’re just a cover, with a flexible, though still tough, leather-like, bottom. No support, no cushion, just a barefoot experience but with just a little protection. I wanted to try a pair, since I knew toughening up the bottom of my feet would take time. I wondered if, like people in the Yahoo Group had said, wearing them would allow me to get out running with the barefoot experience (that is, with no arch support) as I also worked on running completely barefoot at times. Turns out there was a outdoors store, Bivouac, right in downtown Ann Arbor, about four blocks away from me, that sold them. I went in, found them, tried them on, and fell in love. As soon as I walked around in them, I knew I had to have them. It was just like walking barefoot, but I could immediately see, and more importantly feel, that I would be able to thwart my new nemeses, the pokey rocks, at least a little. Plus they had the added bonus of looking weird, so I could enjoy causing people to do double-takes walking around town.

I went home that afternoon and went for a run. And, instead of biking down to the train station, I just ran. I crossed the tracks, hit the dirt road, and yes, the pokey rocks did still manage to poke me a little, but only the bigger ones. The little ones I glided right over. At the trail section, my body took over. It had been waiting two years to run normal, and it took off. And I didn’t mind. It felt great.

The only minor problem was that, since the VFFs still felt ‘shoe-ish,’ in that they were a covering over my foot, I think I still wanted to run as if I were in shoes, so I took longer strides, hit heels first, and tended to hit the ground hard, harder than I needed to. By the time I got to the bike trail section, and Ken Bob and others on the Yahoo Group had mentioned this, I realized “running barefoot” required that I rein myself in a little and concentrate on taking shorter strides, with my legs bent. That would need work, but again, no soreness after the run. There was a little bit the next morning, when I first got up, which worried me, but people on the Group claimed this was normal, and that it would take a while to get my proper running stride and to stop extending my feet out. I proposed alternating going barefoot with still wearing arch support shoes, like my Birkenstocks, but one person in particular wrote me back personally urging me not to do that, and when I thought about it, she seemed right. For example, if I only put my arm in a cast half the time for six weeks, it would still end up weaker. Other people kept saying that the only thing the would really cure the plantar fasciitus was actually using the feet, using the arches, and that made sense, and it made sense that there would be some at least minor pain involved. If I broke my leg, I’d eventually have to start getting up and walking on it, even if it hurt some at first.

From then on, with my loop runs, for the bike path section I’d go barefoot, then when I hit trail or dirt road, I’d just slip on the VFFs real quick and keep going. As my feet got tougher (which by the way didn’t mean they got thicker—instead, they seemed to lose their fattyness and get smooth) I would sometimes run across the dirt parking lot for example, to make sure I was exposing my feet to tougher terrain. I also experimented with a longer route, all on the paved bike path. And, I started to run more than three times a week! My body was responding, it wanted to run. We were both just waiting for our feet to catch up. In fact, in the VFFs, I started running longer, and one day, maybe three weeks after I’d bought them, I just put on my VFFs and let my body go and run as much as it felt comfortable, telling myself I’d stop whenever I started to feel any pain or weariness. And I ran an hour and twenty minutes. Admittedly, I did feel a little of the plantar fasciitus soreness the next day, so took a couple days off, but I realized, after this happened again later, that it wasn’t the running so much as the running in the VFFs: I was still treating them like shoes, and extending my stride too much and coming down on my heels. That, combined with the fact that my fascia were still probably inflamed irritated my feet. For someone starting off with normal healthy feet and the VFFs, I don’t think this would have happened.

I also realized after a while that what someone had said on the Barefoot Running Yahoo Group seemed true: that actually running barefoot helped heal my feet. Something about the act of running, of exercising the feet, seemed to also soothe them. I can’t verify this scientifically, nor explain it medically, maybe someone else could, but I tried running barefoot a couple different times after feeling some plantar fasciitus soreness and felt great afterwards, so that after about three months, when my feet were getting tougher, I tending to avoid running in the VFFs for the regular pavement routes and reserve them for the trails, which is what they’re really designed for anyway. Though also, the more I ran barefoot, the more used to the stride I got, and the more I was able to duplicate it in the VFFs.

I was surprised by how much energy I had. More even than before my injury. Once my feet toughened up, I found myself running almost every day. And I was pushing times, from my initial half hour loop, I was extending to an hour, then and hour and fifteen. I was also going barefoot more and more. I even found myself, inspired by the crazy endurance runners, both American and Tarahumaran, in Born To Run, running twice a day. I’d do my usual morning run, and sometimes in the late afternoon, with an hour before dinner, I’d just go run my short loop real quick. One day I ran an hour and fifteen minutes, all barefoot, then later that day, ran the short loop in the VFFs. The next day I ran an hour and a half, all barefoot, then again later ran the loop, half-VFF, half barefoot again.

After those three months, I felt great. My feet were getting tough, and my runs were getting longer, so I took the next step and signed up for both a half-marathon in August, and the Detroit Marathon in October. I had no doubt I could run them in VFFs, but my goal was to go barefoot for both. If I could do the half-marathon barefoot, then I was pretty sure in two more months my feet would be even tougher. If not, either way I was doing the marathon again, after two years.

At the end of August, I ran the half-marathon, the “Somerset Stampede.” I’d planned on doing it barefoot, but since half the race was on gravel roads, I opted for my VFFs. Once I did that, my priority changed from just finishing, to finishing well, and I did great, with a time of 1:44, an eight minute mile. Five months before I would not have thought that possible. Even better: On October 18th, I ran the Detroit Marathon. Barefoot. I wasn’t sure if I could, so I’d carried my VFFs in hand the whole way, as a Plan B, but the roads were smooth, and I started out slow, to pace myself, and by halfway I knew I could do it. Not my best time, 4:42, but that was fine. When I crossed that finish line, I almost cried. Two years! Three since my last marathon! I was back! A runner once more.

So Montaigne was wrong. Sometimes the experts aren’t experts. It’s not enough that the doctor has experienced the malady/sickness he is treating. It helps. It helped the podiatrist be able to talk to me about plantar fasciitus. And yet, knowing about plantar fasciitus didn’t stop him from getting it, nor did it help him to heal it, nor to even think about healing it. He was still just treating the symptoms. In Born To Run, McDougall does a great job showing how Nike basically created a demand for running shoes in the early seventies, along with the idea that runners needed cushioning and support, etc. Those ideas didn’t exist fifty years ago, yet they’re now considered standard ‘knowledge’ in the medical profession, without, that I can tell, anyone even testing out the validity of the claim. Sometimes it takes laypeople, the so-called non-experts, like the people on the Yahoo Barefoot Running Group, to question authority, to question the status quo, when the status quo isn’t working. McDougall does this in his book, and Ken Bob Saxton and others did it on their own.

I teach college-level composition, and some kind of research type essay is considered important for all students to have experience with, meaning in part that students should gain experience in knowing how to determine what is a “reliable” source or not. In my case, that all got turned upside down. For a question about a medical condition, a running injury for example, most teachers would probably think of a traditional reliable source as a medical website, or a physician, or even a running magazine and/or its website. But none of those places would have recommended running barefoot. Not that these source want to intentionally harm people, but not coincidentally, their idea of ‘helping’ people is also tied in with whole industries (like insurance companies, and shoe companies) and even their own form of income. Fixing symptoms makes more money than curing something once and for all.

Things are changing, hopefully for the better. McDougall’s book has maybe showed many people/runners that the Emperor has no clothes, and even in the book he does find some trainers and people in the medical profession open to the idea of barefoot running. The book itself has made more converts to the forces of light: Every day Ken Bob Saxton’s Running Barefoot Yahoo Group gains new members, many mentioning Born To Run, and more online discussion groups like that are popping up. And, like me, those barefoot runners are not going to go back to shoes, ever.

Works Cited
McDougall, Christopher. Born To Run. New York: Knopf, 2009.
Montaigne, Michel de. The Complete Essays. New York: Penguin Classics, 2003.
Saxton, Ken Bob. 2009. Web. 24 October 2009.
Saxton, Ken Bob (Barefoot Ken Bob). BarefootRunning Yahoo! Group. Yahoo! Inc. 2009. Web. 24 October 2009.

Why/How I Started Running Barefoot, Part One

One month to the Detroit Marathon. After all the long trail runs that summer out in Arizona, I was confident and ready, feeling good, back in Ann Arbor, Michigan, upping my running time on my once-a-week long runs, to a goal of four hours by the end of September: my marathon time from the previous year. But there was a problem: my right heel was starting to hurt after long runs. Not a sharp pain, so I knew I hadn’t pulled anything, but more like a throbbing ache, which tended to go away after a little while. Being a real man, I ignored it. And, the pain got worse, appearing after all my runs, even the shorter ones, and started to show up in the mornings too, when I first get out of bed, though again, it always went away as I started to walk around. So I kept running. I was long-distance runner! I could take aches and pains! I was tough! I was healthy! My body would never break down on me! My body likes me! With less than a month to go, running the marathon trumped everything. It had been my goal all year and I had put a lot of time and effort into it. Plus, the $85 entry fee would be wasted!

But the aching started to not go away after walking. In the mornings, I could barely limp to the shower. I’m also a musician, I like busking out on the streets, and after standing on a cement sidewalk all one afternoon, I could barely walk home. So, since I didn’t have health insurance, I swallowed my runner’s pride and decide to see a doctor, a sports medicine ‘specialist,’ at the medical center of the university where I was a grad student, who diagnosed me with something called “plantar fasciitis,” He asked my pain level on a scale of one to ten, ten being unable to walk. I said seven. Despite that, he seemed to mentally check me off, and give me what seemed like his usual fix for plantar fasciitis at any pain level, assuring me that, with some icing, some things called “heel cups,” and stretching with a big blue rubber band, I would be running again in six weeks. Cost: Fifty dollars. Six weeks later, after no running, and sitting out the marathon (which did not make me happy), and doing everything the doctor said, I was still in pain. I went back, reminding him about the six weeks. He became flustered and said that sometimes recovery from plantar fasciitus can take up to six months. I should continue what I’m doing. Cost: Seventy dollars.

By now I was not quite convinced he knew what he was talking about, so decided to go online and do some research on what the hell this plantar fasciitis was. I did find out that at least his diagnosis sounded right: We have ‘fascia’ all over our bodies, sheaths of tissues between our skin and muscles, that aid in just about everything, from motion, to strength, to posture. The ‘plantar’ fascia runs along the bottom of the foot (you may have also heard of, and had, plantar warts, on the bottom of the foot) and aids in arch support. When it becomes inflamed, the pain is generally felt in the heel. Plantar fasciitis can affect athletes who spend time pounding their feet on hard surfaces, like runners and basketball players, but it also affects normal folks too: I ended up working with a guy who had been a concierge at a ritzy hotel, with lots of marble floors. He was perfectly healthy, in his twenties, but claimed that just walking around all day on that hard marble ended up causing him excruciating pain. Also, my sister, who isn’t a runner at all, but was newly pregnant at the time, got it. Once I found out what plantar fasciitus was, a lot of people seemed to be suffering from it.

The second doctor, at the same university clinic, at least has the decency to admit she didn’t know anything about plantar fasciitis, and, after charging me fifty dollars, forwarded me on to a third doctor off-campus, someone she’d only heard about, who ran a running clinic for high school cross-country runners. This third doctor actually seemed angry that I had come to see him, and I found out why when he told me, as if it were my fault, “The problem is, you don’t have any insurance.” Meaning, I guess, that he couldn’t make any money off of me. He offered no other ‘advice,’ but, seemingly in order to get rid of me, at least wrote me a recommendation to see a physical therapist.

At my first physical therapy appointment I was also asked about insurance. And just having to worry about money affected my physical therapy. I’d thought a session would cost seventy dollars, but that was actually per half hour, and my physical therapist had me there for an hour. And, she used a sonogram machine on me, which was another seventy dollars. I tried to be very clear to her that I could only, barely, afford the seventy dollars I thought I’d been quoted. She didn’t seem happy with that, and again I’m not sure why, except that I think she was used to not having to worry about price, since all of the people that usually get that far have insurance. With the money barrier between us, we couldn’t trust each other: I was always defensive about anything we did, wondering if it would cost me more money, and she had to deal with a ‘problem patient’ who was constantly questioning her. But, to be fair, she didn’t charge me for everything and kept the cost down to seventy dollars. She also, again not exactly happily, arranged for me to only come for half hour sessions, once I convinced her that I could do most of the exercises she had taught at home, something it turns out most people won’t do.

I felt really really weird going there: The other patients were all people recovering from broken bones and other serious stuff, most could barely walk into the office on their own. Meanwhile, since I’d stopped running, I wasn’t in much pain just walking around. There I was, biking to the office, feeling kind of silly picking up marbles with my toes as one of the exercises, when the guy next to me could barely lift his leg. And, even though my physical therapist was trying to help me out, I once again felt like I was just being put through a set of standard procedures for all sufferers of plantar fasciitis, without anybody asking how I felt, or if I felt that what we’re doing is effective. She had just read the doctor’s diagnosis, and had me do what everyone else with plantar fasciitis would do. And I suppose that’s her job, but I just felt that these exercises weren’t doing me as much good as everyone seems to think they should, especially the sonogram treatment, which didn’t seem much better than just icing heavily for the same amount of time. By then, I’d also started going to a Chinese massage place at the mall and getting my feet worked on. Twenty-five dollars a session. More money, though less than any doctor’s appointment or physical therapy session, and I sure as hell felt better after a session there than any other place.

In the next year, in addition those three doctors and physical therapist, I spoke with three well-meaning shoe store employees, one well-meaning shoe repair person (also a former nurse), and numerous well-meaning friends and coworkers. Everybody had advice, and some of it even seemed, at the time, to help, like which running and dress shoes have the best arch support, and about certain exercises to strengthen my feet, and that applying styrofoam cups of ice directly to the affected area is more effective (and bearable!) than soaking my feet in an ice-filled bucket. But I also spent hundreds of dollars on orthotics, physical therapy sessions, and sonogram treatments, when I was making less than twenty thousand a year, and had three thousand dollars in my savings account, and I wasn’t getting better.

Meanwhile, in part because I was not running at all, I was getting really depressed. I had also started grad school, was living in a loud crappy apartment building in a loud crappy student ghetto part of Ann Arbor, and starting a new job with a supervisor I was starting to have problems with, or starting to take my problems out on. Running is the thing I would have turned to in order to help me deal with the stress of all those other things. I decided to see a (thankfully free) therapist at school, and when I described everything that was going on, and that I’d gone from being a marathon runner to not being able to run at all, she said, “Well no wonder you’re depressed!” At least she was actually sympathetic. I had begun to be a little angry at the people I had been paying to supposedly help me, especially the doctors, about whom Montaigne, from his essay, “Experience” has this to say:

"Certainly medicine professes always to have experience as the touchstone of its performance. Plato was therefore right to say that to be a true doctor would require that anyone who would practice as such should have recovered from all the illnesses which he claimed to cure and have gone through all the symptoms and conditions on which he would seek to give an opinion. If doctors want to know how to cure syphilis it is right that they should first catch it themselves! I would truly trust the one who did; for the others pilot us like a man who remains seated at his table, painting seas, reefs and harbours and, in absolute safety, pushing a model boat over them. Pitch him into doing the real thing and he does not know where to start" (1225).

None of the doctors I have seen, nor the physical therapist, have ever had plantar fasciitis, therefore, I realized later, I never quite trusted them, because their ‘cures’ seemed ‘by the book,’ standard procedures they’d only read about. Maybe that works for other people, maybe it works better for more minor cases of plantar fasciitus, and I did have to remind myself that my own stubbornness was what got me into this mess, but I felt like I couldn’t even talk to any of them. I’d try to tell them what I’d been doing, my training, my ‘story’ basically, but no one seemed to care. Maybe what I had to say wasn’t as relevant as needing to feel that someone was listening. That counts for a lot. I’d be more willing than Montaigne to work with a doctor who has no personal experience with plantar fasciitis, if they at least seem to want to find out what they can about it, from someone who does.

Fortunately, when I went back out to Arizona for my summer job as a wildland firefighter and received my first paycheck, I decided to splurge and see one last doctor, this time a podiatrist, someone who knew feet, instead of a sports medicine “specialist.” To my surprise, a miracle actually, this doctor was a marathon runner too, and he had had plantar fasciitis himself. Suddenly, somebody was speaking my language, asking about my running history, my schedule, recommending a shoe (the Aesics Nimbus: high arch support and the most cushioning) that he himself used. He also showed me an ultrasound of the bottom of my foot, where the inflammation was, how bad it was (still very, after 8 months!), and recommended stretching versus strengthening.

He also shared a very simple taping technique with me that allowed me to be running that next day. At first I didn’t believe it, already having half-unconsciously resigned myself to never running again. But no, with a simple tape job that basically lifts up the arch of my foot and takes pressure off the fascia, I was able to do a light, slow run of “four-thirties” (run four minutes, walk thirty seconds, repeat) with no throbbing pain in the heel afterwards. It isn’t until the second run, two days later, that I almost started to cry. I didn’t of course, because, like I said, I’m a real man, but I was running again! I’d been worried that if my supervisors found out I couldn’t run, they might put me on light duty for the summer, and I wouldn’t be able to work the overtime and hazard pay hours, with which I could make a lot of money in four months. But no, with doing those minimal runs, plus lots of biking, I was fine.

And yet, I still had questions. I made one last appointment with the podiatrist before I left for the summer. Would I ever heal my feet up back to ‘normal’? He said no. In fact, he still had plantar fasciitus. Would I ever be able to walk on the wood floors of my mother’s house again? Nope. Did he really tape his feet every time he ran? Yes, he said, it wasn’t that expensive. Could I expect to be able to run a marathon again? I never got an real answer on that. He did, even with his plantar fasciitus. He left me with the impression that, as I got older, because I was older, plantar fasciitus was a permanent condition I would have to deal with for the rest of my life if I wanted to keep running. But it being a permanent condition just didn’t seem right. If I pull a tendon, it heals. If I break a leg, it heals. It seemed to me that a fascia was no different than any other body part. How, after almost a year, was it possible that the plantar fascia in my feet were still extremely inflamed, when I’d been doing everything all the doctors and physical therapists prescribed?

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Top Ten Reasons to Run Barefoot

10. Your knees (and other joints) will love you

9. You get an all over tan

8. Every run becomes an experiment/adventure

7. You save hundreds of dollars a year by not having to buy shoes

6. You get to fight the power of the capitalist pig corporations, who have manufactured a demand for shoes with no science to back themselves up

5. You get to tell the doctor who said you'd never run again because of plantar fasciitus that he was wrong wrong wrong

4. You get to enjoy the uncomfortable reactions of shod runners as they look at you in shock, then pretend not to be looking, then look at you again, then pretend to ignore you

3. You get to splash through puddles

2. People think you're "hardcore"

1. You get to squish in mud

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Running Barefoot in Winter

This past Winter I did indeed continue to run barefoot. I almost didn't. I'm not a fan of the cold, and tend to bundle up. But, I found myself missing the feeling of feeling, the sensation of sensation, when running.

After running the Detroit Marathon in October, and freezing my feet off at the beginning, I took a couple weeks off. The cold came early that Fall, so by the time I was ready to start running again, I chickened out and experimented with both my VFFs and my moccasins. The moccasins worked better, actually, because I could wear socks with them, but in any case, with either, the experience wasn't the same. They were, or seemed, too 'shoe-like' and somehow I wasn't running right, or well. Either I was over-thinking the whole experience and overcompensating in some way (i.e. bending my legs too much) or because my feet were covered I was therefor 'hitting' the ground harder, but I found my feet were sore afterwards, especially my left foot (There could be other factors, like that my plantar fasciitus hasn't completely healed).

Meanwhile, over at Barefoot Ken Bob's Yahoo Barefoot Running Group, I was reading some other folks' posts on running in the cold, so I knew it was possible. I knew that I could survive twenty minutes of anything. No matter how cold, or how much snow on the ground, it seemed feasible that I could run for twenty minutes, enough to get my heart rate up a little, and get back to my apartment to warm up.

I devised a new, short, route of about that length. I could have even done small laps around the block I suppose, but I wanted to still make my route a loop, so that I would have to commit to a certain time and not chicken out. And, success: if the sidewalks were clear, the pads of my feet were actually thick enough to protect me from the cold cement, if I kept moving. Also, since I was running, I got a constant flow of blood to them and, just like in the Detroit Marathon, as I started to run, my whole body heated up. I also always did ten squats right before I walked out the door to have my blood pumping right from the start.

The tops of my feet didn't feel any more cold than my face did. Yes, sometimes that was indeed cold enough, and sometimes after twenty minutes my feet would be red and numb, but that was either on really cold days (temps below 20 degrees) and/or if there was snow/slush. If I had to run through snow, and especially slush, that tended to be very, very uncomfortable, because the non-pad parts of my feet aren't so thick.

After I got used to the initial feeling/shock of cold, and if the temp was mid-twenties or higher, and especially if the sidewalks were clear, I found I could bump up my time a little. I found a new half-hour route up around the U of M Hospital, which keeps its walkways super-clear. Also, sometimes the temps even got up over freezing, over 32, and again, if the routes were clear, I could go on one of my 45 minutes routes.

I also found that, if I couldn't run real long runs, I could at least still run twice a day: Maybe a twenty-minute run in the morning (to wake myself up!) and a slightly longer one in the afternoon when/if the temps rose a little.

So, as long as I kept the rest of my body bundled, with wicking non-cotton clothing, I was, if not fine, ok. I did lose some calluses on my feet though, because I went back to wearing moccasins/boots for walking, so this Spring I've had to build them up again. And generally, every time I ran, the cement/pavement was wet, which tends to soften calluses too. The one annoyance was rock salt. It's not quite as pokey as rocks, but it's harder to see, and some people inundate their sidewalks with it. And running on gritty salt when my feet were a little raw was not a pleasant experience.

There were also days, even maybe a week or two, when the weather was just too bad even for someone crazy like me, when it was really cold, and really snowing hard. On those days, I just stayed inside, did some yoga, and played my bass along to heavy metal albums, which does tend to raise my heart rate a little!

I ran less in the Winter, and never for any long length of time, but I did at least maintain a level of running that allowed me to still think of myself as a runner, and I didn't have to cave in and join a headache-inducing gym.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

First Barefoot Marathon

It’s COLD this October morning in downtown Detroit, below freezing. The sun isn’t up yet. A lot of fit folks here. With sixty percent of all Americans obese, seeing people gathered together to challenge themselves physically instead of staying home and eating Doritos is refreshing. And oh my goodness, the women: Never have I seen so many fit ladies in tight spandex in once place. And then they do things like bend over to stretch and it’s madness. Any future mate of mine must be culled from these Amazons.

The music starts over the PA. First a guy way up front that I can’t even see sings “The Star Spangled Banner,” then a woman sings “O Canada,” which actually gets more applause, though there can’t be that many Canadians in the crowd. Or, maybe there are? Maybe that’s why there’s so many fit people here? Anyways, we are told to get ready, and gather in the starting ‘corrals,’ sectioned off by our estimated finish time. People are already are giving me strange looks for my Vibram Five Fingers (“VFFs”), thin, rubbery-bottomed gloves for the feet. Little do they know though, what I’m about to try: Running this whole marathon barefoot.

It began last May out of a form of desperation. I’d had an injury that some runners get, called plantar fasciitus. Fascia are sheaths of tissues between our skin and muscles which aid in just about everything, from motion, to strength, to posture. The ‘plantar’ fascia runs along on the bottom of the foot and aids in arch support, and as a natural shock absorber. With too much shock though, the fascia becomes inflamed, resulting in a soreness in the foot, mainly felt at the heel. I couldn’t run for almost two years, saw three different doctors and one physical therapist (all without having health insurance) but nothing seemed to work. The fourth doctor I saw taught me a way to tape my feet so that the fascia was supported, and that, plus inserts and special high arch support running shoes, got me running again, but only about three times a week for twenty-five minutes each time. Anything longer seemed to bring back the throbbing pain. Plus, that doctor said, because I was getting older (forty!), I would always have plantar fasciitus, and always have to tape my feet every time I ran. At the time, I was grateful to even be running again, but after a few months, and lots of tape, I started to question what he’d told me: It just didn’t seem right. If I broke a bone, it would heal. If I strained a tendon, it would heal. Why not a fascia?

Around then I had a friend recommend barefoot running, and at the same time a book by Christopher McDougall called Born To Run came out, in part talking about how we humans ran barefoot for about two million years and that our feet are designed for it. Curious, I found a Yahoo! Group for barefoot runners hosted by a guy named Ken Bob Saxton, and asked folks on there about my situation and got overwhelming, and passionate, responses saying that my plantar fasciitus would go away if I took the barefoot plunge. Go away? Really? So, I tried it. Slowly at first, and not very far, and with a bit of pokey rock discomfort, but voilĂ , I was running again. And: no plantar fasciitus. In fact, the more I ran barefoot, the better my feet started to feel.

This is a ‘wave start’ where not only are we corralled off, but each section is released at intervals. We’re cheering and clapping even though the start line is at least three blocks away. The first group of runners is off! More cheers. Everyone starts to move forward a little, even though our section can’t leave for a while. Two more groups are released, every one is shifted forward. I still can’t see the start line, but I figure we have to be getting close, so I take off the VFFs in preparation. There are gasps from people behind me, though it takes a while for people nearby. When one woman does notice, she exclaims, “Oh my god! Barefoot?!” Which causes everyone around me to look, and the whole group of women next to me to gasp, stare at my feet, stare at me, stare back down at my feet, then turn away whispering to each other. Not knowing how else to respond, I just pretend I don’t hear them. Besides, I’ve got better things to worry about: I’m freezing! I hadn’t thought my feet could get any colder, but they do. I’m basically standing on frozen pavement. I consider putting the VFFs back on, but then I think, no, we’ll be starting soon. Then another group is released and I think, no we’ll be starting soon. Then another....

The pace team leader for the section behind me, 5:15, leaves his post for a second to come up and talk to me, asking how long I’ve been running barefoot. I tell him the abbreviated story and he smiles, nodding. “That’s amazing, man! I’m seriously going to get a pair of those Five Fingers at least!”

He goes back to his position, and those of us left move up again, finally, to the within sight of the start line, and we are released! This far back in the group, I can’t say that we ‘surge’ forward so much as trudge forward, but ok, we’re moving. On the advice of Ken Bob, I’m not going to pass anyone for the first three miles, in order to warm up and not burn myself out too soon. What I’ve always done before is start farther up front, in a time slot even faster than I know I’ll finish in, and use the excitement of the day to push myself hard from the beginning. The problem with that is around Mile 15 or 17 I’d always lose all my energy and end up penguin-waddling the rest of the way. Back here, not passing anyone is generally doable, except for the occasional ‘competitive walker’ folks (a category I didn’t even know existed) who somehow slipped in up in a faster time corral.

I’m carrying my VFFs, one in each hand, as Plan B, just in case my feet end up getting too raw. At this point, they’re frozen, which freaks me out because I can’t feel if I’m stepping on anything sharp. Normally, if I did, my feet would react instantly and pull away. I actually start to imagine pain: like I’ve got something lodged in the bottom of my left foot, and that I’m coming down on it with every step. I fear the worst: a piece of glass would do that, and that would be my luck to step on one in the first mile. I also start to feel like I’ve scraped off the tip of my right big toe. I can even feel the flap of skin! But when I stop and check both of these things, there’s nothing, my feet are fine. Thankfully, after a mile, they start to warm up, sensation comes back, and my whole body starts to get that lovely runner’s glow. I’m still maintaining a slow trudge, not in any hurry, and really not feeling any sense of urgency like I’d worried about. I know I’m not even going to get a personal best, I just want to finish.

A man slightly older than me jogs up to me. He’s lean, with an almost military haircut, and a thin mustache. In some kind of accent, he says, “You know, I used to do that, run without shoes. I never had shoes until I was twelve!”

He’s from Malta, a small island in the Mediterranean. “I tell you, we would farm and harvest crops barefoot. That’s it! Next time I’m doing what you do. No more shoes! I’m sick of paying all that money!”

I laugh. “Me too!”

This year’s route takes us across the Ambassador Bridge into Canada right away. I had to laugh when on the race website I saw they had an elevation chart, as if anywhere in Michigan, which is basically a low-lying swamp, would have an elevation gain! The chart was basically a flat line for the whole race except for the bridge, when we gain a whopping three hundred feet, at the most. But going up the onramp is where I start to pass people just by maintaining my speed. Some even stop and walk. Come on guys! This isn’t even a hill. This is nothing! Go running out in Arizona and Colorado and I’ll show you a hill!

But man, what a view from the bridge! The sun is up, on both sides of the river the leaves in the trees are in full Fall colors. The air clear, with some ships on the water. Everything quiet, just the sound of thousands of people breathing, down into Canada where, curiously, the people seem almost civilized. Actually I lived here in Windsor for a summer, and we’re running north through the park right along the river. I remember walking there at three in the morning by myself, everything peaceful, and looking across the river knowing if I were on the other side I’d probably get shot. Plus they have free healthcare. Almost civilized indeed.

When I told people I was going to run the Detroit Marathon, some of them warned me that, since it was Detroit (meaning since it was a city in decline with one in three buildings abandoned and high unemployment and lots of poor people everywhere) that the roads would be really rough, but I have to say that the streets we were on were the smoothest I've ever run, especially Windsor, smoother even than the bike path I run in Ann Arbor. This is where I start to think I might actually be able to do the whole race barefoot.

I’ve been overhearing people talking about me this whole time, discussing me as if I couldn’t hear them running twenty feet behind me. There are gasps, cries of astonishment. “Look at that!” “Jesus Christ!” “That guy’s crazy.” “That’s insane!” “Oh my god!” “He’s going to get blisters really bad.” “Dude, that’s hardcore!” “He’s a freak!” That guy from Malta isn’t the only one to approach me though, which is weird: usually in a marathon I run the whole thing without anyone saying anything to me, since I’m a tall guy with long hair dressed all in black, who for at least half the race looks like he’s in great pain. Or, who for half the race is in great pain. But, now I’m getting curious folks, asking if it hurts, how long I’ve been doing it. I tell them my story. One woman, running the race with her husband, tells me, “Well, you’ve definitely opened my eyes to new possibilities, and I think some other people here too. I’ve been following you for a while and you’re definitely causing some reactions!” Her husband doesn’t seem so eager to talk to me though, and looks at me like, ‘Hey buddy, stop talking to my wife and doing something that impresses her that I can’t do!’

The sun warms everything up and the weather becomes actually about perfect: low 50s with no wind at all, not, like last time I ran this marathon, with a brutal wind coming down the Detroit River. Our time in Windsor is short, which is too bad, but now’s my favorite part: coming back to the U.S. through the tunnel, the ‘Underground Mile.’ Both lanes are closed off for us, and I realize our run across the bridge wasn’t silent at all, because down here there really is only the sound of people breathing, and the clop clop clop of their shoes. This is the warmest place on the whole route.

When we get out, the Department of Homeland Security folks are waiting, asking us to have our number tags visible. I would have almost thought that that was kind of silly, except while we were in Windsor I passed this guy running with a backpack on, and he didn’t seem to be wearing real running clothes. Speaking as someone who ran his first marathon in cut-off camo pants, I should be willing to let that go but, since I live in America where we’re told to fear everything odd, and since the backpack, the kind that college students use all the time, seemed full, I thought, ‘Huh, that’s odd.’ Well, sure enough, he passes me coming out of the tunnel and the DHS guys go nuts on their radios and pull him out of the pack. I don’t stop to see what happens, but if he had a bomb I guess he doesn’t manage to detonate it. Still, why run a marathon with a backpack? I guess running a marathon barefoot might seem just as odd, but at least I’m not hiding explosives in my shoes!

Back to Detroit and the run-down buildings, except, wait: after a couple miles we suddenly enter a really nice neighborhood. Not super-rich, but immaculate lawns, trees, nice well-taken-care-of houses. None of them are even for sale. Are we back in Canada? I’m not the only one who seems to be thinking this, because two different women runners near me yell out to the folks sitting out in lawnchairs watching us that they have a great neighborhood, and there’s a tinge of that same surprise in their voices.

As planned, since Mile Three, I’ve been slowly passing people, giving me a continuous barefoot confidence boost, especially when as I pass someone, a couple seconds later they notice my lack of shoes and gasp. It’s not just that I’m barefoot, it’s that I’m running faster than them, and probably going to beat them. Who wants to be beat by a barefoot dude? By this time, on a practice run I might have been feeling that slightly ‘raw’ feel of the pad parts of my feet getting a little worn down, but here I don’t feel that at all: I’m actually going to do this!

At Mile 11 I even pass Elvis!

Some of the coolest things I’ve seen have been parents running with their children. I can’t even conceive of that happening with my parents. And I don’t mean older parents with their college-age kids, though there are those too, but there are some pre-teens out here. As we get within a half mile of the end of the half marathon, there’s a surge of runners, finishing strong, passing me on both sides, and on my left zips by a boy no older than I swear ten, who I’d seen running with his mom earlier. Go little man! Hey, is your mom single?!

The half-marathon folks split off to the right and suddenly I’m feeling exposed. I didn’t realize how many of them there’d been. I’m out in the open, with spectators on both sides. Now I start to get people from the sidelines noticing me and yelling out, “Way to go barefoot runner!” I wave. Kinda embarrassing, but cool too. Even more embarrassing is coming up on one of the many “fluid stations” manned by various volunteer groups. This one is a bunch of college-age jocks. Maybe a football team? Not sure, but when one of them sees me coming, he yells out, “Hey! That dude ain’t got no shoes!”

They all start yelling like cavemen, and a few of them howl and lift up their arms, flexing their muscles. One guy crouches in front of me, clenching his fists, growling, “Dude, you’re an ANIMALLLLLL!!!!!

I smile and give them a raised fist, thinking that, back in college, guys like this would have kicked my nerd ass if I even looked the wrong way at their girlfriends.

At around Mile 17 maybe, I start to feel that old body freeze-up happen, the lactose acids kicking in, though perhaps not as bad as in previous races. That is, since in running barefoot I take small steps anyway, I don’t lose any stride length like I would if I were running in shoes. But I’ve stopped passing people. My pace hasn’t slackened, I’ve just caught up to the people going at my pace.

I’m coming up on the 4:45 pace crew, and their leader is an obnoxious ass, pretending he’s a drill sergeant instead of some mid-level management guy at a bank, yelling at the people running with him. “This is the 4:45 crew! We don’t stop! We’re marathon runners not walkers!”

Please. So, since by now I know I’m going to finish the whole thing barefoot, my new goal becomes to at least beat him. I start upping my trot, passing his group, though I can still hear him yelling. Unfortunately, I have to stop to piss (never drink tea right before a race!) and they pass me, so I have to listen to him all over again as I pass a second time.

Belle Isle, where’s Belle Isle? I know we’re going to run around it at some point, I know it’s at the end somewhere, but it just doesn’t seem to be coming. Maybe I’ve zoned out and run right through it? But no, there’s the bridge out to it, with the incoming runners on one side, and the outgoing runners on the other, so that we’re passing each other. I have a twinge of regret when I see the 4:30 pace team going by: That’s the slowest time I’ve ever had in a marathon, and I’m probably not going to be able to catch up to them at this point. I try to remind myself that my original goal was just to finish and forget everything else, but still, just because I started with the five-hour finisher wimps doesn’t mean I want to be one myself, even if I’m barefoot. That, plus the fact that I can still hear that 4:45 pace guy screaming at everyone, makes me boost up my pace a bit. New goal: bring my time down to as close to 4:30 as possible. But I have to make a real conscious effort to get the feets moving faster.

Another guy comes up to me at this point and nods at my VFFs I’m still carrying in my hands. “I wish I’d worn mine!”

“Why didn’t you?”

“I just got them like six weeks ago and I wasn’t sure my feet for ready for something long like this. But I’m definitely making the change!”

“Alright, well, next year then!”

He smiles and nods. “Definitely!”

We talk briefly about Born To Run, then he waves. “Ok I gotta drop back now, I just came up to talk to you.” As I’m pulling away (or rather, as he falls behind) he yells out, “I can’t keep up with you because I’m wearing shoes!”

I laugh and wave, knowing that was for the benefit of the folks around us more than me. But right on.

The good thing about having Belle Isle so late in the race is that it’s a little over three miles, and there’s no mile markers. Usually, most people’s marathon ‘wall,’ where they start to have doubts and consider giving up, is around Mile 19 or 20, because six or seven miles to go is still long enough when one is exhausted to be intimidating. But Belle Isle is tranquil, with great views of the river, so by the time we come around and back over the bridge, we’re suddenly at Mile 22! The isle absorbed the wall! Four more miles! That’s it! That’s nothing!

Or, almost nothing. Or, ok, pretty damn hard actually. My feet ache. I try to maintain good barefoot running posture, back straight, hips pushed forward, the feet right under the body, legs slightly bent, which helps, but concentrating is difficult and it’s so so easy to slouch. We make our way south along the river in a ‘river walk’ type park that I didn’t know existed, and seems fairly new. In Detroit? Does anyone even use it? But soon we’re getting back into the downtown area, with the taller buildings. I think we pass Cobo Hall, but it’s all a blur now, with more and more people lining the route and cheering.

On the last mile, and especially the last .2, I try to make some semblance of a sprint. I always try to finish strong, even if ‘strong’ at that point more seems more like ‘kinda pathetic.’ The mistake I make though, is taking longer strides instead of faster shorter ones: I’m reverting back to shoe-wearing mode. Doesn’t hurt right at this moment, but it will, and I’ll regret it. Now I’m just tunnel-visioning on that finish line, passing people, pushing myself, because soon it’ll be over and I don’t want anything left over. Which is kind of dumb, since I do have to drive myself home afterwards, but never mind that! There is only now, here! And there it is! The finish line! Go!

I cross!

And almost start crying. I don’t of course, because I'm a real man, but it's been two years since I got that damn plantar fasciitus, three years since I’ve done a marathon, and I've made it. I’m back.

I take one of the medals they hand out to all the finishers. I haven’t ever really cared about them before, since I run for myself and don’t need to prove anything to anybody else, but this one I’ll keep. My estimated time according to me? 4:42. My official time? 4:48, which can’t be right, or else the 4:45 folks were way off, but it doesn’t matter, I finished. I check my feet: From my ill-considered mad dash I’ve got scrapes on the outside edges of both feet, just off the ‘pad’ area. The one on the left foot is longer, almost bleeding, and hurts pretty bad. Even so: Totally. Fricking. Worth it.

Now it is my intention to go home and go into a coma.