Friday, July 9, 2010

Injuries I Have Known

I would like to write about all the injuries that I've had while barefoot running, for at least two reasons: One, just to be honest. Some of the barefoot 'gods' like Barefoot Ken Bob and Barefoot Ted seem to be invincible, and maybe they are. Myself, I've definitely had some things go wrong, and I'd like to share those incidents in order to give people a more realistic idea of what barefoot running entails, and maybe so that they can avoid some of my silly blunders. Not that I want to scare people away, not at all, because all these little pains are worth it. As I've described elsewhere, I couldn't run for almost two years due to plantar fasciitis, which I acquired through wearing shoes. I'll never go back, and I'll take any bumps and bruises.

Despite, and maybe because of, the things I'm about to describe, I've never felt more alive when running than I have in the past year and a half. I don't like these minor pains, but somehow they keep me honest, and curious, and alert, and ensure that running is a continual experiment.

Without further ado, here's a list, with commentary of some injuries:

This is the most common question I get when people see me out running barefoot, and the most common concern, or fear, conjuring up the scene from the first Die Hard movie, where Bruce Willis has to run barefoot along a floor filled with broken glass, and then in the next scene we see him pulling a huge shard out of his foot. But one thing you will learn when running barefoot is that you almost automatically pay attention to where you're running. I've even noticed that on the rare occasions when I run with my VFFs or huaraches that I tend to let my eyes wander. Unprotected, my eyes automatically focus in on what's in front of me.

I live in Ann Arbor, a big college town, with lots of angsty young people who like to express their anger at having to go to the University of Michigan by smashing beer bottles on sidewalks. Given that, glass is mostly very visible, especially the bigger pieces. The only time I've ever almost stepped on a big piece of glass is when it's been swept into the grass next to a sidewalk.

Having said that, yes, I have stepped on pieces of glass. Three times in the last year and a half. The size of the pieces have all been about a quarter of the size of my pinky finger nail. The first time, a couple months after I'd started running barefoot, was the worst, I think in part because the bottoms of my feet hadn't quite thickened up yet. In any case, I felt it immediately, a small pain in my left foot. When I looked, there was a piece of glass sticking out of the ball of my feet, with a little blood. I pulled it out and went home and cleaned it. The bleeding stopped immediately, there was no pain, and I just ran in my VFFs. What I found though, was that a small piece of glass had broken off when I pulled out the larger piece (which again, was small) and become lodged in my skin. So, I had to go back and dig it out with some tweezers and a knife. I put a bandaid on it, ran in VFFs for a couple days, and was fine.

Later that summer the same thing happened, this time when I was walking. I felt a small sharp pain, checked my foot, and pulled out a small piece of glass. No blood. Actually the 'pain' was more just the sensation of having something stick in me. My feet were thick enough that the glass didn't even penetrate.

The third time was this last spring, about six months after the previous two. I was running through a parking lot on the way to the 'Arb,' when I felt a sharp sensation. Ihecked my foot and again, a piece of glass sticking out of my foot. This one was actually a little bigger, and it was sticking vertically out. I just pulled it out and kept going.


I've actually found splinter to be more annoying than glass. The park where I run a lot has two wooden bridges, made with railroad ties, and I've been poked a couple of times. Again, no blood, but the splinters lodged into my calluses and they were tough to get out. I used a knife and tweezers, just like with the glass.

I've also gotten a couple splinters trail-running, when I just seem to come down on small branches hidden under leaves (though mostly I'm a fan of leaves, they're soft and cover up bumpy rocks). Again, never any blood, just the annoyance of having to run with something poking into my foot.

Cuts, scrapes and bruises
I do get these when I trail run. Mostly I don't even feel them when I'm running, just afterwards I'll look down and see them. These come from both rocks and branches and usually are on the parts of the feet without calluses, like in the arch area and the insides of the feet. But, I'll get them on the soles too. When trail running, I will also sometimes feel the pokes. I cannot lie, sometimes they hurt, and sometimes I hit a rock or stone just so, so that it just really really pokes, and I know I'm going to have a bruise from it. Fun? No, but this doesn't happen all the time. I run in Michigan, where the trails are mostly sand or mud, and usually a pleasure to run through. If a trail gets rocky, I slow down.

Oddly, when I ran my first trail marathon this Spring, my feet emerged almost unscathed. I've scraped myself up worse on one of the trails down in Barton Park by the Huron River.

The worst terrain, where I get the most cuts, scrapes and bruises, is on gravel roads. I've gotten better in my ability to run them, and I try to push myself run on them sometimes, to challenge myself and build up some toughness, but mostly they're a pain in the butt. Or foot.

I've actually scraped up my feet pretty bad just running on pavement. It's bizarre, but I seem to be kind of a sloppy runner and end up hitting my toes on curbs, so that I've torn open gashes on my big toes more than once. I think I'm kind of unique in this, and I'm not proud of it.

I've also stubbed my toes pretty bad, but usually this happens when I'm wearing my VFFs, because the toe sockets seem to 'catch' on things my bare feet would breeze right over. Also, my own stupidity: The worst time was when I was in The Great Smoky Mountain National Park, and ran farther out on a trail than I'd thought, with the sun going down. I got a little panicky and tried to run back before it got dark, instead of just patiently walking back, and really stubbed my middle toes bad. Again, the toe sockets in the VFFs seemed to catch, and that's one reason why I've said that they don't seem to add much to the running experience. Or, not anything useful.

Plantar fasciitis? Again?
When I first started barefoot running last summer, my plantar fasciitis vanished, almost immediately. It was a miracle. Then over the Winter and into Spring I started to feel that annoying ache again, not in the same place (instead of the heel, it was more in the arch and on the inside of the foot) but enough to worry me. After attending a workshop with Barefoot Ken Bob, and getting a refresher on BF basics, I realized I'd actually strayed from the BF running technique I'd started out with, which was to bend the legs a lot. Instead, I'd switched to running more on the balls of the feet, which caused a strain on my heel and ankle. I think I'd been lulled into thinking that I didn't need to bend my legs that much, by posters on Ken Bob's Yahoo! BF Group, and then with the cold weather I'd been experimenting with the VFFs and moccasins, and when I decided to just continue barefoot running, perhaps I was tempted to lift as much as my foot off the ground as possible, just because the ground was freezing!

In any case, now that I've gone back to bending my legs as much as possible, and taking smaller strides, the fasciitis ache seems to be going away.

But the worst thing happened recently, and I'm embarrassed to say it happened when I was merely walking barefoot. I was leaving a bright sunny parking lot into a dark tree-covered trail, where I was a little blinded for a second. Right in the moment of blindness, my foot hit what I think was a root. And when I say hit, I meant HIT. It felt like I'd kicked something, and I have no idea why. I must have just hit the root, or whatever it was, at just the right angle so that all of my body weight was on it. Its 'impact' was right at the front part of the foot, right where the 'ball of the foot' section starts to curve up to the toes, so right where the thick part of my sole thins out.

It hurt, but I was more surprised than anything. I mean, I was walking! I checked my foot, there seems to be a minor scrape, but I didn't pay it too much attention, figuring I'd probably have a bruise the next day. But, as I kept walking, the pain continued, and my foot got a little tender. I finally checked again and realized there was blood all over my toes. Apparently, whatever I'd hit, or kicked, came at just the right angle to penetrate just above the thick part of my sole, right at the base of my second toe, and scraped it open, going deep enough to cause bleeding. Argh.

I turned around, but still had a couple miles to walk back home. I just let it bleed, figuring that was the best way to keep the cut clean at that moment, and by the time I got to my apartment, the bleeding had stopped. There, I washed it out, though there wasn't a 'flap' of skin so much as a 'pocket.' I'd been stabbed. I still can't quite believe a piece of root could penetrate me, especially at that angle. So, I held off on running for a week, and wore my VFFs and moccasins while walking around, to keep out dirt.

I fear that in listing all these (minor!) injuries, I'll scare people away from trying barefoot running. I hope not, because I'm leaving out all the good things. The injuries are about 1% of my running experience, if that even. The rest is all the wonderful sensations, the mud, the water, the sand, the mulberries. The sun. The air. The not paying $120 for a pair of shoes. The being able to run again period.

When I ran in shoes, I never suffered some of the injuries I later heard people complaining about, like losing toe nails, or blisters. Compared to those, the things I'm describing seem minor. That's not to mention the larger, long-term, injuries that shoes create, like the dreaded plantar fasciitis, but also the ground down knees, the back pain, I've even heard about hips hurting. I'll take a poke in the foot to those things any day.

But I don't want to end on something negative like having to choose the lesser of two pains. Running barefoot just feels good. I think I even like the pokes and scrapes, as long as they're not too pokey or scrapey. I like the sensation of having sensation down there.