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?”
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.