Sunday, August 28, 2011

Merrill Naked Foot 5K

We are not alone! I’m in Riverside Park in Grand Rapids, for the Merrill Naked Foot 5K and never have I seen so many people barefoot! It’s wonderful! Add to us barefooters all the minimalists wandering around and I’d say we’re in the majority of the crowd of folks here. There are some regular shod-heads here to run too, but for once, they are in the minority, and I’m not sure if it’s my imagination, or wishful thinking, but they seem to be feeling the ‘odd people out,’ looking around at all of us thinking, ‘Hm, maybe there is something this barefoot thing.

I would not have driven and hour and a half, and stayed in a $120/night Radisson Hotel, for just a regular 5K, but for this I felt obligated to come. And, not just obligated: I wanted to help celebrate barefoot running, and the fact that there are now enough barefooters and minimalists to actually do and even like this. I think having this be ‘just’ a 5K is a good call, since we can have runners from all levels, and no one feels too intimidated.

There are a few booths set up in a vague circle on the grass. The registration booth of course, but then the sponsors, and some massage therapists, just giving away massages. The primary sponsor, of the race, and the series of Naked Foot runs (six in all at various places around the country, is Merrill, a new company to the minimalist scene. Although, at this stage, what company isn’t new? What I like about them is that they seem totally on board with the concept that actual barefoot running is best, but that there are times when a little covering for the feet is good. I don’t have a pair yet, but plan on getting some this fall, for when the harsh Michigan winter starts. What I didn’t know is that Merrill is a local company, so kudos to them!

The gods are here: Jason Robillard, back for a little bit from he and his family’s new gypsy life. I’m hoping he’ll run, but it looks like he’s involved in the organization of the event. Also, Barefoot Ken Bob, originally from Michigan, is here, hawking his new book, Barefoot Running Step By Step. I go over to say hello and thank him again for being so influential in my shift to barefoot running three years ago. the book is fifteen bucks, so I can’t resist and buy a copy. As a bonus, Ken autographs is, with a bonus inky foot stamp. Score!

What’s really nice is to bump into people I know, either from other races, and/or online at the website. [Forgive me guys if I’m getting names wrong!]. Here’s Brandon, who ran Burning River in RunAmocs this last summer, and finished, unlike yours truly. His teeth are wired shut, and will be for a while. Apparently, a plate in his jaw broke during the BR! And yesterday he ran the North Country 50 Miler, which he said was harder than the BR, because he couldn’t eat anything, having to go with just fluids. And having the jaw wires rubbing his lips raw. But, he promised to run this with a friend, so is here representing.

Also Ken, from Sterling Heights, who ran the Detroit Half-Marathon last year. Although we never actually saw each other there, we’ve communicated a little online, and both of us plan to do the Detroit Marathon barefoot, at around the same time, so maybe we’ll even get to run together and freak everyone out.

I also get to meet Johnny, from East Lansing, who has brought his whole family, and in fact his son will be running in the kids’ 1K. Meeting all these folks makes me realize how much I’m not reading on the site, since I learn that Johnny has an active blog going.

And then there’s El Presidente of the Michigan Chapter, Troy/Smelph, from Kalamazoo, also with kids in tow, or should I say in front, in a double stroller, both konked out, since they got up early this morning to be here. Troy and I ran the Kalamazoo Marathon this Spring, though again, we didn’t actually run into each other, though we’ve communicated online. He’s the one that shares all the secret places on the website that I haven’t explored yet.

First up is the kids’ 1K. there are about 20 who take part, which is awesome. I just never had that kind of exposure to stuff like this when I was that young, though I guess I’m so old that these kinds of events didn’t exist back then. Anyway, Jason R. is the ‘rabbit’ leading them around the course, all on grass, and it’s amazing to see the kids go, just all-out, smiling the whole way.

Next up is the Naked Mile, which actually only has about 10-12 folks. Everyone else is saving themselves for the 5K. It’d actually be nice to run this just as a warm-up. Jason actually runs this one, coming in second I believe. The best, most kick-ass, part is the woman who’s a little overweight, who yes, comes in last, but dammit, she finished. It was obviously a goal for her, and she pushed it at the end. Good for her.

Then the main event! I’ve never run a 5K before, and don’t really know what my strategy is, or should be, besides the fact that I guess I should just go all out sprint, or as close to that as possible, for the whole way, since there ain’t gonna be much time. And yet, I’m not a big sprinter. I’m still not sure if barefooting is even conducive to sprinting. The good news is that most of the course seems to be on grass instead of the bike paths. Or...I think that’s good news. I’ve never run that long on grass either! A bunch of new stuff to try today!

I line up towards the beginning. I’m actually not sure if that’s where I should be, since there seems to be a bunch of youths (pronounced ‘yoots’) here, fresh from cross-country running teams. So, I’m not gonna win. This is all about just pushing myself, maybe getting some practice at speed runs (after my sloooow half-marathon last week) and to have fun! To actually run with other barefooters!

We count down, three, two, one, and we’re off! And yep, this is going to be a sprint. Wow, I’m not sure if I can keep this up, I’m already out of breath! Feeling primal though, through the grass, over some roots, and across some branches. How strange to be in grass. What I find happening is that I’m going into shod-mode, with a wider stride, kicking out the legs, because, well, I can. With grass, I can go back to a harder foot strike and have super cushion. Looking around, that seems to be what other barefooters are doing.

We zip out on to a bike path and my stride immediately changes, back to lifting the feet, though lifting them as fast as I can. I still feel like I’m maybe striking a little hard. Probably not a good thing, but for a short race, doable. Interestingly, a fast cadence seems to make leaning forward a little harder. I wonder if I just leaned forward more if I wouldn’t have to have such a high cadence. Not sure. No time to think! Just run!

The route goes between grass and bike path. We cross a wood bridge. Everyone around me seems to have fallen into a regular pace, just under a sprint. Not a lot of jockying for position. Again, I’m just happy to be seeing barefooters ahead of me, and minimalists. Lots of VFFs, and Merrills. I gotta admit, also nice to see barefooters ahead of shod-heads. We’ve got to be making some converts today. There’s no way that the people wearing regular running shoes can say that barefoot running isn’t doable, or isn’t even competitive.

We get to the mid-way point, where we’ll take a long turn around back to the north (I think?). There’s a water station, but no one up front here is going to slow down for any. there’s a sizeable crowd watching here, which I think consists of people who just happen to be in the park. Everyone is smiling, and I think (though again I could be imagining) looking a little amazed at the lack of footwear.

I’m slowing down a little, just unsure of what a proper pace should be. But, other people are slowing down too, though others are staying strong. We’re back on grass, and it’s looking like grass the rest of the way, which is fine, and which again makes me go into longer-stride-mode. As we work are way back, I can see the finish line flags and think, Hm, that was quicker than I thought. But no, we run past the start area, around some baseball fields. There’s a 1 Mile sign, but I’m still a dumb American and can’t figure out how many miles are in 5K. And then there’s a second 1 Mile sign, so who knows? But, do I pace myself? Or should I be stepping things up for a strong finish?

But yep, there are the finish flags again, and we’re actually running to them, so that’s it, that’s my sign to kick out the jams and leave it all out on the course. I start swinging my arms, sprinting as we come around the curve. The guy in front of me hears me coming and that kicks him into overdrive, both of us heading to the woman in the kilt that’s been ahead of us the whole time and the three of us cross at around the same time.

Whew! I shake the guys’ hand and we give each other ‘good jobs.’ Um, maybe I should reword that....Anyways, there’s a steady stream o’ runners coming in behind us, with other little mini-races to the finish line, everyone trying to finish hard. My time: 21:35. Ok, I’ll take that.

I watch the variety of people coming in. Again, barefooters and lots o’ minimalists. One girl comes in, and when I say girl I mean girl: She’s like 9, and I’m right next to her parents, who glowingly say that she PRed, ten seconds faster than her last 5K. So, wow. Amazing.

The most amazing run of the day has to go to Troy. He ran pushing his two children in the stroller, which has got to be a hundred pounds! And over grass! And he’s not even last!

Popsicles for everyone! And then there’s awards for the winners, and a raffle. The overall winner happens to be right next to me. And he ran it barefoot! His first time ever running barefoot! And he actually cut one of his feet somewhere along the line! His time was 19 minutes and some change. I ask him if he’s converted, and he kind of smiles. He’s a young guy, one of those cross country monsters, and he says maybe, that he might buy some Merrills. And, then he wins a Merrill gift certificate in the raffle. I think it’s destiny.

There are supposed to be some more events after the race, like a ‘bare ball’ contest, though no one I ask seems to know what it entails, and no one seems to be signing up for it. Jason gives a short seminar, though I miss most of it, since I want to take advantage of the free massage!

But, we gather as many of the Michigan Chapter members as we can for a group photo. Brandon has already left, but we get Eric, Johnny, Troy, me, and Jason. I asked Ken Bob, but there was a mix up and he didn’t make the first photo op, but he joins us for a second one, though by then Jason is busy with organization details. And, I’m sure there were others that we missed. Alas! Would have been a nice recruiting place, maybe to have a BRS table or something. Again, alas.

But, fun! Feels so good knowing I’m not alone. We discuss maybe doing another MI meetup, maybe in Lansing, which seem to be the most convenient. And, I’ll be seeing folks at upcoming races. I encourage anybody going to a race to check the BRS website about meeting people, it’s really a good boost to meet other barefooters. One of the Merrill organizers mentioned that this may have been the biggest gathering of runners out of the six races they organized. I was amazed to hear (from Troy) that Michigan has one of the bigger BRS memberships. Anyways, sorry SayPay, but I think we beat you and the Minnesota folks!