The last morning of our stay in Corvara (in Italy’s Dolomite Alps), I had time for a short adventure, 2-3 hours max, before we’d need to pack and leave for the long trip home.
I decided to climb up and then run down the 2,100-foot slope from town to the Piz Boe Alpine Lounge and ski lift, which I had enjoyed two days ago, but with a twist: I’d hike up barefoot, and run down in LUNA sandals.
My purpose in barefoot hiking (and running) is to improve technique and become more aware of how the body naturally moves over different terrain without the intermediation of footwear. In recent months I’ve been incorporating more and more barefoot exercises into my training routine, and I’ve already noticed that when running barefoot, I flex/spread my toes significantly more than when running even in the lightest-weight minimalist footwear. Also, I land even more forward on the ball of the foot when barefoot. Small differences in form like these might add up over thousands and millions of strides to big differences in performance. Scientific research indicates that people run differently with and without shoes, but given the limits of current research techniques, scientists haven’t been able to measure what this means in terms of speed, economy, or injury. If you’re curious, you have to go out and try it yourself and see what happens.
Another reason to try the slope to Piz Boe barefoot and in sandals would be see the expressions on the faces of European tourists, who seem to favor the belt-and-suspenders approach to Alpine hiking, i.e., heavy boots, head-to-toe goretex shells, and trekking poles – and often all of this looking suspiciously scuff-free as if it were brand new.
And so, at 7:15 in the morning, I headed out into a light drizzle and was soon struggling up a very steep dirt road, with a grade of close to 30%. A little backhoe was busy at work on the road, and once I was past the construction site, the road leveled off to a more civilized grade, and off came the sandals. The first impression was that the ground was a little cold! And not surprisingly, with light rain and temperatures in the low 50s. But after a couple of minutes I was used to it, and heading uphill I was soon warmed up.
The road alternated between sections that were muddy and rocky. The mud was great fun: there’s nothing quite like squelching barefoot through mud to make you feel like a kid again (even though I never went around barefoot as a kid).
The rocky sections were not so much fun. When the gravel is embedded in a muddy surface, that’s no problem, when you step on a rock, it sinks deeper into the mud. But when the gravel lies upon a hard compacted surface, then the rocks press into your foot and it’s not very comfortable – especially for those of us who are new to barefoot running and still have tender feet.
When faced with rocky sections, I gritted my teeth and put up with the discomfort for a few yards before seeking a work-around, which was to walk through the grass and weeds on the side of the road. This was fine, and even thistly-looking leaves didn’t bother me.
The only issue with the mud was when the grade got steep, say above 10%. Then I’d start to slip. Bare feet do not have the same traction as trail-running shoes. For these sections, I’d head back onto the rocks and step up gingerly from stone to stone, or switch back into the grass and weeds for better traction.
After 1,200 feet, I found myself in a cow pasture, and the trail turned rocky again. The cows must not like the rocks, either, because they had worn muddy side paths on either side of the trail, for which I was very appreciative. One cow stared at me long and hard. Perhaps he had never before seen a hiker without shoes.
The last 500 feet in elevation was very steep again, easily a 30% or 40% grade. I alternated between short switchbacks and going straight up, walking on the balls of my feet, digging in with toes, heels not even touching the ground.
After about 1 hour and 45 minutes, I reached the ski lift, which was shrouded with fog. Success! I might be the first person to ever have hiked up to this ski lift barefoot, and if so, perhaps I have set a record. It’s also possible that if you were to go back fifty or a hundred or a thousand years ago, all sorts of people walked barefoot up this hill and perhaps much faster than I.
Now it was time to head back down, and I strapped on my LUNA sandals, thinking I would scamper down the slope quickly, like I had done the day before.
But while the LUNA sandals are quite versatile, the mud was quite slippery, especially on the steep sections. The mud in the southern Tyrole is very interesting, because as it starts to dry, it develops amazing traction, like a thick clay. But when it’s covered with a layer of moisture, it’s slick. The sandals gave me very good protection against the rocks, so that’s where I now headed, because on the mud my feet were starting to slip out from underneath me.
The other day I had run down the slope at a brisk 8:00 – 9:00 minute pace in my INOV-8 trail running shoes, but this time the best I could do was 12:00-15:00 minute miles. It’s not really a fair comparison because of the slippery mud.
The last leg down, just past the construction site, was the trickiest. Vehicles had churned up the mud, which now squeezed n between feet and sandals. I slipped and staggered down, and then grabbed for a tree and hoisted myself off the road as one of the construction vehicles came barreling past.
Once at the bottom, I waded into a stream, and presto, feet and sandals were instantly clean. Doesn’t get much easier than this.
The take-aways from this exercise: barefoot hiking is enormous fun, provided the terrain isn’t too rocky. It teaches you to place each step carefully, react quickly if something is sharp underfoot, and watch your balance.
Also, walking barefoot reinforces the importance of stepping on the ball of the foot, no matter how slow you’re going, as this technique activates the natural suspension of your arch and engages the core muscles, helping you keep your balance and react quickly to a misstep. I did land on a rock with my heel once during the hike, and was careful not to repeat that mistake.
Finally, a nice aspect of barefoot hiking/running on rough terrain is that is slows you down. Not every run or hike has to be at full speed. Figuring out how to move through rough terrain step by step can be just as much fun as going all out.