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 voilà, 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!
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.