Barefoot Half Marathon

One of the great joys of running is how it often it brings wonderful surprises. Sunday’s Mississauga Half Marathon did that, in a number of ways.

My approach to running this half wasn’t what you’d call serious. I had mixed feelings about doing it, I hadn’t followed any sort of training program for it, and, to top it all off, Sunday’s weather was far from ideal. At race start, the temperature was 9C, the wind was blowing at 35 km/h, and it was raining pretty heavily. But, for reasons I’ll explain soon, I decided to do it anyway. I told myself I’d run slowly (I was worried that the wet roads would inevitably bring blisters on the soles of my feet), that I’d treat the whole thing as an ordinary (albeit wet) Sunday run, and that I’d enjoy whatever came out of it.

Waiting for the gun

Waiting for the gun

(Apologies for the low-res and watermarked photos. I’ll post some better ones later on.)

It turned out to be a much better race and result than I’d expected. My finishing time was 2:12:39, only five minutes short of my PB for this distance. I felt very good throughout the race, and finished with no blisters, no forefoot bruising, in fact, no issues at all. A great barefoot race for me. I enjoyed myself thoroughly.

Just truckin' right along

Just truckin' right along @16K

Why did that happen? A couple of reasons – my form had improved significantly in the two weeks prior to the race; and I managed to get into a good (almost ideal) head space for it.

Much of the credit for the form improvements goes to Ken Bob Saxton, or more accurately, to his book “Barefoot Running Step by Step.”. I’d been reading this for the two weeks prior to the race, and had been integrating Saxton’s wisdom into my daily runs. The results were impressive, quick, and remarkably easy to come by Within days, I was running more smoothly, more comfortably, and more quickly. What it meant for the half marathon was that, after running the first 8K of the half at a pretty gentle pace, I then picked up my cadence (and therefore my speed) slightly. I followed Saxton’s triple mantra of “bend your knees,” “lift your feet before they touch the ground,” and “curl your toes.” I remembered to “relax, relax, relax.” I motored up the race’s one hill (about 600 meters and a 6% grade). I let everyone pass me for the first 10K. Then, at 15K, I picked up my cadence and pace a little more, and after that moved steadily through the pack. I also experienced an extended flow state between kilometers 16 and 18; it was like being carried along by a powerful, yet blissfully safe, river current.

On the Port Credit bridge @17K

The psychological readjustment came as result of reading J. Krishnamurti’s book “Total Freedom.” You might think it odd that preparing for a half marathon would include reading a book on philosophy, but Krishnamurti’s words about how one faces and engages with one’s environment – without creating conflict or stress – did me a world of good. Krishnamurti wasn’t a guru in any sense, rather a philosopher who refused to give answers, offer models, or seek followers. Instead, he asked people to think about what he said on a variety of topics, and find their own directions. So, rather than worry about my lack of proper training, my nervousness about being in a crowd of 7,000 other runners, or the lousy weather, I simply encountered the environment calmly. It worked. I don’t think I’ve ever been as relaxed and happy while racing.

Having the right set and setting made a huge difference. Having good physical (form) and psychological (attitude) made for an easy, quick, and comfortable half marathon.

Nearing the finish line

At the end of the race, I heard a lot of shod runners talking about how much their feet hurt. Mine didn’t. I had no blisters, no hot spots, nothing. I saw a lot of people limping from the finish chute, and going straight to the massage/physiotherapy tents, or collapsing on mats to work out their sore muscles with rollers. I had no discomfort at all, much less any pain. Before, during, and after the race, I answered a number of questions from people about barefoot running. Their reactions to my unshod run were uniformly positive. Some had heard or read about barefoot running, some were simply curious, most were impressed. I hope that some of those folks will give barefoot running a try.

After I got home, I went through my usual post-race rituals – some almond butter on toasted multi-grain bread, an espresso, and a hot Epsom salts soak. Followed that with some stretching of my legs and some exercises to open up my hips, and I felt as good as new. I finished the day feeling relaxed, happy, and complete.

As if that weren’t enough goodness, I think I’ve finally found a trail for my experiment with barefoot trail running. At the pre-race runners’ expo, I picked up a brochure for the Caledon Trailway. It’s 36K long, and variously surfaced with crushed limestone, some gravel, soil, and boardwalk. That’s pretty gnarly stuff for barefoot running, so it’s definitely going to be a challenge. I’ll have to do more practicing on my two local tracks (one sand and light gravel, the other packed dirt and stones) before I tackle a long trail run. But, with patience, I’m sure I can do it. Stay tuned.

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10 comments

  1. Really impressive story, thanks, Alan — it makes me think maybe I can manage a half marathon myself. You looked great in the pix. BTW, it sounds nice and cool — that helps.

    1. With adequate preparation and as decent strategy, you probably could do a half marathon, Pierre. It’s one of the nicest race distances – long enough to make for a satisfying experience, but no so long as to beat you up badly. And there are lots of local half marathons from which to choose.

  2. I’m also very impressed Alan! You look very strong and focused on those pictures I must say! And for taking a “sunday run” you had a really great finish time!

    For very post you mention Kenbobs book I get more eager to get a copy of my own!

    I will add your post to my arsenal of positive mental prep for my second half marathon this saturday 🙂

    1. Yes, I was happy with my finishing time, and very happy with the run overall.

      Where is your half taking place this Saturday? Will you live broadcast it, as you did the last one?

      1. You bet! 🙂

        It is the Göteborgsvarvet in Gothenburg. It’s quite a big race with aprox. 45.000 runners. As far as I know it’s nearly 100% asphalt/street so it might be possible for me to go barefoot allt the way this time.

      2. 45,000 participants is an *awful* lot of runners. Watch your toes! 🙂

        I was in Gothenberg twice in 1972. Both times were to catch the ferry connecting with Denmark. Wish I’d seen more of it.

  3. Alan – Great writeup!

    I like the “just trucking….” pic – looks like you were at the end of touching down with your toe still up in the air. And of course the pic with the tat rocks.

    Your writeup made me think of a video clip I saw of Christopher McDougall talking about BFT running Leadville and how his training mostly consisted of running relatively short runs, yet he completed the ultra and crossed the finish-line in high spirits and as talkative as ever. The take away – and why your write-up reminded me of it – is that it’s about how we perceive running, ergo how we approach it – our attitude towards it, if you will. Running for the joy of running, just you and the road. You trained, and your body knew what to do. You relaxed, and, well, flowed.

    Without a doubt, your writeup will positively influence my next race. Thanks for sharing your experience.

    1. Thanks, Daniel. I like the truckin’ photo, too. It may be the one I get printed for my training room “Wall of Fame.”

      Any positive influences I can send, whether for racing, training, or running, makes me a happy guy. Thanks for reading and replying.

  4. Well done! Congrats with your barefoot half and no blisters or other issues. I would like to be able to run barefoot 21K on an asphalt having no blisters. Got to train a lot more to achieve that! 🙂

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