Sunday, 5 October 2014

The Non-Definitive Guide to Running a Barefoot Marathon (Hint: Plan not to do this)

OK so you want to run a barefoot 42? Well, that's the first mistake. You must definitely not have this as a goal. Do not put it on the radar screen. If you profess to want to run a barefoot marathon you will start to obsess about your feet, you will fear the possible damage, and the insults, and generally your mental condition will deteriorate to the point that you will not succeed. So the first point is this. Tell yourself,  "I do not want to run a barefoot marathon", then go and run a few barefoot miles. That's the start.

I am not an expert. I have run only one barefoot marathon. That is unimportant. If you ask someone that has run 100 barefoot marathons they will give you all sorts of misleading advice. They will say it's easy, you wont take any strain, and so on. They will say these things because they have forgotten what it was like to run their first. So I am writing this before I too am sucked into the vortex of memory loss and delusion.

The first part of the plan is clear. You DON'T want to run a barefoot marathon and you must believe this implicitly. The next part is to make sure that your conviction holds true for at least 3 years or more. This can be achieved in a number of ways. Upon waking every morning you can repeat to yourself  "I do not want to run a barefoot marathon". Alternatively you can adopt a more aggressive mantra along these lines, "People that run barefoot are mentally deficient delinquents with no sense of style or occasion" (you may choose your own expletives if you please).

By now the plan should be taking shape. You have given yourself at least 3 years grace. During this time progress as quickly as possible to the thinnest most unprotective footwear you can find. And if you can't find anything in your local Nike shop then go home and fashion something out of old carpets or car mats. Do not worry about what any of the experts tell you. If you get a sore foot keep running. This may exacerbate your stress fracture turning it into a full-blown displaced fracture but this is a small and insignificant inconvenience. Remember that when the fracture heals it creates a stronger portion of the metatarsal. This is "strength" building of the highest order.

After 2 or 3 years you should be comfortably running in your minimal footwear and perhaps even doing a few barefoot miles here and there. But the bottom line remains - you do not want to run a barefoot marathon. By this stage you will know that you do not want to run a barefoot marathon because your irregular barefoot runs will be fraught with drama. You will find glass embedded in your feet, toxic thorns  (we have these around here) will sink into the soft flesh at the base of your toes and cause painful swelling. Your feet will ache at times and you will doubt your chances of full recovery. Indeed there will be moments of  such intense pain  -- when you land, full stride on unseen prism shaped stones -- that you'll be reduced to infantile tears.

But this is nothing because you know you do not want to run a barefoot marathon. However your 3 years, your holiday, your sabbatical are now coming to an end. This is the time for some stealth planning. By this I mean you need to make plans in such a way that you yourself do not fully realise the implication thereof.  Make plans that even you cannot unravel, Stealth Plans. Oblique strategy!

Firstly find an accomplice, or in my case two. Find someone to do a few longer barefoot runs with. Preferably choose someone that will ridicule your motivations because in a contrary manner this will only strengthen your resolve at a deeply subconscious level. Your brain knows you are not a barefoot runner and you secretly despise those that are, but you need to sow the seeds of a different theme in your subconscious. And the mocking from your accomplice will help. In my case I solicited a second accomplice to actually run with me on my marathon attempt. The main purpose, as I saw it, was to deflect any insults and derisive outbursts from the bling-shoe parade.

Trevor, my accomplice registering for the Cape Town Marathon

At this time you should be comfortably battling through a few barefoot runs each week. It is better to make these longer runs on the worst road surface you can locate. This will prepare you in a rather perverse manner. Do not try and run barefoot everyday. Rather run far and then switch to minimal shoes for a day or two before going barefoot again. This allows the feet to get tougher.

The next part of the Stealth Plan (remember, you are an unsuspecting participant), is to locate the marathon you don't think you should run, certainly not barefoot. The most important thing is surface condition so do not choose an event in a derelict, decaying and generally decrepit town. Another important variable is weather. Make sure the experts are not expecting a blizzard and that the early morning temperatures for the race will not cause frostbite in your lower extremities. Then do not enter it. Not until the very last moment. In my case, at the last minute, the entry cut-off was extended by a week. This was a windfall. I had a whole new week to not enter. You do not want to enter until the last moment because as soon as you pay your fee, the Stealth game is up. Whoops? Am I going to run this barefoot? Yes dude, you are! You are now trapped in your own web of deceit.


After 3-4 years of not wanting to run a barefoot marathon you will now have a week or two to evaluate your sudden change of stance. A pitiful evaluation nonetheless. These will be taper days and you will be unable to squeeze in any last minute furtive sprints around the block. But importantly that sense of morbid dread will only corrode your stomach for the time remaining until the race start, and not a full 3 years.


Race registration

And so to the race, or rather the day before. You should be barefoot all the time, not to run, but to walk and play. Do not lie in bed and do not lie in a bath. In fact do not shower or bath before your run. Keep your feet hard. Your plans for the race should also include all sorts of escape tricks. Carry some phone numbers, some spare cash and if you can, carry some back-up footwear or have it stationed at places on the run. Running barefoot puts different stresses on your lower legs and abdomen so take some electrolytes to prevent the chance of cramping in strange places.

Now the race itself. The first thing that will strike you is that you cannot easily run amongst a big start crowd. Barefoot runners need at least 3 or 4 meters of clear road ahead so that you can see, anticipated and avoid small yet dangerous items. Move to the side of the group if you can. Besides some clear road ahead,  you will also need some leeway to the left and the right. Yes, your lurching to avoid those dangerous items means you need space. Alternatively find some people that wont mind you crashing into them as you weave erratically from time to time.

Messing around before the start

Another big difficulty is predicting your time. This is your first barefoot marathon and as such it is littered with unknowns. How fast, how far, how tired, how sore ... you don't even know if you'll finish. My suggestion is to not take a watch. It will be of little use. Your running will be mindful, as you focus intensely on each stride and foot placement. You will determine your pace through a complex algorithm incorporating feel, expected feel, surface, expected surface, heat, need for reserves, possible issues, and more. Your brain will do this for you. Not your watch.

Runners spread over a wide area. Not sure where the start is!

And on the day, if you're lucky enough, you will feel light and strong. The regular outbursts from the spectators will motivate you. "Look a barefoot runner, that's amazing!"  Your feet will connect truthfully to the ground and the contact will inspire you, each positive step followed by another. The tactile joy of sensory messages filling your brain. And your eyes will fixate on the road ahead and slowly you will escape to a separate reality of primal motion. If you're lucky enough you will lose a sense of time as you fixate on cadence, stride length and foot placement. The distance markers will pass but you will not see them as the self absorption becomes complete. Passing the halfway mark you might be lucky enough to notice that you're OK, and if nothing has gone wrong you may still have a very good run. And your focus will return to the road, that 3 meter horizon and the breathing .... always breathing.


And if you're lucky enough you may get some long hills that allow you to work a little harder, measured effort. And still more spectators, and other runners calling out "well done!" This will inspire you to move more deliberately. You will know that the long time spent conditioning both your legs and your core, your feet and the toughening of the soles, will be worthwhile. You will feel compelled to run cleverly, efficiently and as you pass those that are slowing into the final 10km you will start to move with a little more resolve and a little more passion.


And if you're really lucky you will finish with a big glow of satisfaction and exuberance. You will feel invincible and know that the skeptics are wrong. The pure delight of unhindered running will resonate in your mind as you relive the full distance.  You will probably think a little more deeply and reflect on the fact that you have now run a barefoot marathon. And once noticing that it is done you may very well decide that planning not to do this was better than no plan at all.

Trevor and I drank beer afterwards. Quite a lot.

Reluctant to move on!

(If you must know my finish time was 3:56. First half 2:02 and second, with the hill, 1:54)