Thursday, February 4, 2010

Barefoot Running

I ran seven miles today, the last five of them barefoot.

Let me preface this post by saying:
  1. I am not a doctor. I don't even play one on TV.
  2. I am not compensated in any way by any shoe company (dammit)
  3. These are my opinions and my experiences. Your mileage may vary.
I'm a 47 year old pack runner. I am better at short distances than long, but even in high school I was really a JV runner; I only ran varsity because we had a lousy track team. I have done several (eight? ten?) marathons, but haven't broken 4 hours since I was in my early 20s. Over the last ten years or so I've been running 5Ks and 2 mile races and even 800M races over the summer at the Club Northwest All-Comers meets.

But a couple of years ago when I was doing "just one more" 400M interval there was an audible pop behind my left knee. No warning, just a pop. Since then I have tried different ways to work around it. No long distance. Limited intervals. Never run two days in a row. Anything that would let me keep running, but nothing helped. Even weeks of rest at a time wouldn't fix it. Every time I ran I could feel it, just one tendon tightening up, but it was enough to shorten my stride and reduce my turnover. Running slowly didn't even work: any downhill at all, even the slightest grade would make me wince. It was frustrating and took the fun out of running.

Around Memorial Day last year I ran one 800M race. I broke 2:30, but I didn't feel good, and I gave it up. From June to December I ran maybe once or twice a month. Running was frustrating. It just wasn't worth it.

Now, last summer I read about the Vibram Five Fingers shoes and was smitten. All my running from July on was in a pair of KSOs. I wore them around in general. I've gone barefoot around the house for years and don't wear anything more formal than flip flops unless I really need to. It took a while to build up the strength in my feet and the outside of my calves, but it felt good.

The only real drawback to the Five Fingers is that because each toe has it's only little sack there are more friction points than with a traditional running shoe. That means more blisters, at least at the beginning, but for me that was a small price to pay, especially because the blisters quickly abated.

So I started running again on the 9th of January, a Saturday. I put on my Five Fingers and went down to the slough. There's a flat, paved trail that extends 5.5 miles south and 20+ miles to the north. I covered three miles, but only one of it was running. My calf tightened up, so I just walked.

This was my first good decision. I listened to my body. I wasn't running with a partner. I wasn't wearing a watch. I wasn't trying to pass people because my ego said I should be faster than them. I jogged slowly. When my calf tightened up, I pulled up and walked. I didn't force myself to jog to the next distance marker, I just stopped right there. Twice I made it a little less than half a mile. I walked the rest.

Sunday I did the same thing, but was able to run 2.5 out of the three miles.

Monday I jogged all 3 without stopping.

I ran every day for 8 days in a row. All slow. All flat. All paved. No watch. No pushing. I got my mileage up to 5 miles without stopping. When I felt good I picked up the pace. When I felt bad I slowed down to little more than a fast walk. Always listening to the body.

Excruciatingly slow people passed me. I let them go.

The most important thing was that I ran all 8 days with no pain. Some soreness, particularly in my calves because I hadn't been running, but that's the good soreness from awakening sleeping muscles, not pain. For the first time in years I was running without pain.

I took two days off. Then I started up again with 6 miles. Three days later 7. Three days later 8. Three days later 9. Then, because I missed a distance marker I pulled a Spinal Tap and went straight to 11 miles. Two days of eleven miles. 14 days in a row running. 112 miles. No pain.

Then I got my second pair of Five Fingers in the mail. The first pair was a little too small and the toes on my left foot were ripping the fabric. It didn't stop me from running, obviously, but eventually I want to go offroad into the hills, and I didn't want shoes with ripped toes because the rocks would get in, so I got a second pair, this one a size larger.

So on the 15th day I took off for another 11 mile run in my new shoes. Now, with traditional running shoes you don't normally do 11 miles on your first day, you give your feet a little time to get used to them first. But the Five Fingers are different, right.

Not really.

Maybe it was because they were a size larger, but I got a blister. It was nothing but a bloody, pulpy crater in my foot by the time I got done, but I could tell it had been a blister once. The thing that surprised me is that the blister was on the inside of my foot, on the arch, a part of the foot that doesn't even strike the ground. Still, I finished the 11 miles.

Yesterday: day 16. I put a huge band-aid over the raw flesh and ran again. After a couple of miles the endorphins kicked in and the pain in my foot subsided. In fact I felt really good, doing more than half the miles at a reasonably brisk pace (brisk by my new standards, anyway). Given the pain in my foot I was very pleased with the run. Much better than the day before. 134 miles in 16 days. Running 24 out of 26 days. Even with the sore on my foot I was feeling pretty good.

Then I went down to the trail today. I covered the sore with another band-aid and started down the trail, but after more than two miles one thing was clear: the pain wasn't going to stop today. I felt really good otherwise, but that rubbing on my foot was more than a distraction. For the first time in almost a month I pulled up and stopped in the middle of my run.

I took the shoes off. There was some bleeding, but no worse than yesterday. But yesterday it stopped hurting, today it didn't. So I started walking back.

I had heard of barefoot running, and last week I happened to read Born to Run, which talked about Barefoot Ted, amongst other people. I knew my feet had been toughening up from running in the Five Fingers anyway, so when I got to the 3.5 mile marker I just started jogging.

If there is one thing that feels better than running in Five Fingers shoes, it's running without them.

Yeah, I still had the sore on my foot, but like I said, it's not on a part of the foot that hits the ground. It felt good. I started to pick up the pace. It felt even better. It felt so good that when I got back to the 5.5 mile marker I just kept running. Past 6, 6.5, and finally turned around at 7 and it felt like I just kept going faster until somewhere between 6.5 and 6 I slowed to cool down into the finish at 5.5.

My feet were dirty, but I felt really good. It was so much easier than running even in the Five Fingers. I didn't have to compensate for the shoes at all.

I found my own stride.

Tomorrow I'll run again. This time I'll go barefoot from the start so I don't have to carry the shoes with me. If I do 10 miles I will have my first 70 mile week in more than 25 years. If not, maybe I'll get 70 miles next week.

It doesn't really matter, though.

The important thing is that I've been running pain free for a month now. I've done it by not worrying about any goals except mileage. I've done it without rest days. I've done it without relying on fancy shoes, and I may finish it without any shoes at all.

A month ago I couldn't run even one mile without stopping. I ran seven miles today, the last five of them barefoot, and I can't remember enjoying running as much as I'm enjoying it right now.

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