Barefoot running is so different from shod running that it’s practically a new sport.
— Ken Bob Saxton, “Barefoot Running Step by Step”
Running on pavement without shoes is tricky, according to barefoot guru Ken Bob Saxton. The uniform surface may feel smooth at first but offers less feedback than a rocky trail. You might think you can get away with bad habits developed while running shod, like slipping, skidding, or scuffing your feet. But if you do so while barefoot — even by a tiny degree — that friction will accumulate over a few miles until your soles are too sensitive to continue (think of rough pavement as a kind of coarse-grained sandpaper and you’re dragging your feet across with the full weight of your body. . .). Some people can run barefoot on smooth surfaces, like sand, grass, sidewalks, the surface of a track, or super-slick asphalt, Ken Bob observes, but rough pavement or gravel defeats them. And that, I’m afraid to say, is a good description of me.
To practice my form and hopefully improve it, I showed up at the Gardiner 5k Classic Run/Walk a few days ago, to attempt my fifth barefoot race on a course that includes both smooth and rough asphalt and also a mile of gravelly trail. . . .
Arriving a little early, I hang out in Majestic Park in the small town of Gardiner, New York (population 5,713), while volunteers finalize preparations for the race and the post-run BBQ. I find a patch of grass to relax on, enjoy the late afternoon the sun, watch parachutists descending toward a near-by jump ranch — and review risks and goals. Risks include a number of injuries: the slowly-recovering posterior tibilias tendon in the left ankle, the recently strained left peroneal brevis tendon, an inflamed piriformis from too many squats, a banged toe. Having just returned from a traverse of New Hampshire’s Presidential Range the day before, quads are sore, and feet sensitive from hiking fifteen miles barefoot on rocky trails full of New Hampshire’s trademark orange-gray and rough-edged granite.
Goals? Why, I could try to break my barefoot 5k PR of 26:46 (Declaration Day 5k, July 2016), or try to break my most recent time of 28:56 (Ellenville Run Like the Wind 5k, May 2018). . . or just focus on finishing this race in one piece.
Warm-up procedures commence at T – 35 minutes with a .25-mile walk, on account of the sore quads (sandals still on), and this is followed by a slow jog and then some short strides culminating in a step or two at a 6:30 pace (leaving me gasping for air). Now it’s time to take off the sandals. . . and the smoothly-paved path does not feel good underfoot. I teeter along for a short distance at a 12-minute pace and make a command decision: this race will be a low effort endeavor, probably a slow jog; I’ll carry sandals in case my feet give out and be happy to reach the finish.
With three minutes to the start, I position myself at the very back of a small crowd of runners. . . . and then the announcer shouts “start!”
It takes almost 30 seconds to squeeze my way across the starting line, and then I start jogging, slow and tentative. Here the asphalt is quite smooth, and it takes but a second to pass a group of walkers and then one or two very slow runners — and this feels encouraging, a little triumph. Turning the first corner, the pavement still slick, I begin to run faster, and by 0.25 miles I’ve accelerated to a 7:15 pace — if I can sustain this pace, it will be sufficient to set a new PR, which is exciting. Stepping onto a rough patch in the road, I feel small bumps pressing upwards into my soles, but otherwise, the sensitivity in my feet has dissipated — perhaps it’s adrenaline — now I just have to hold on.
At 0.5 miles the course turns onto Sand Hill Road, a much grittier surface, and my pace crashes — I slow to an 11-minute mile and then in desperation seek out the double yellow line in the center of the road which is smooth as butter — and now my watch shows a 7:10 pace and I’m flying past other runners, feet pattering on the thick paint.
For the next mile I bounce on and off the yellow line, pace swinging from 7-minute to 9-minute miles, trying to follow Ken Bob’s advice on form: keep the knees bent, pick up the feet, relax. On some steps, a subtle friction — on other steps, footfall and take-off feel nearly perfect. My pace on the rough surface improves into the 8’s — if only I can remember how to do this consistently!
And now the course turns onto the rail trail, a mix of dirt, grit, and gravel, which for the sole barefoot runner in this race is going to be most challenging part. But I’ve been here before and have a plan: I edge over onto the grassy shoulder of the trail, which appears to have been recently mowed, and now I’m barreling along at a 6:30-7:30 pace, not totally in control — the grass sometimes soft and yielding and sometimes containing little surprises (sticks, a rock, some gravel) — and then the grass pulls away and I crash into gravel, fall apart instantaneously, pace collapsing to 9, 10, 11-minute miles — and then it’s back onto the grass again — and I’m passing another runner — and my how I’m wheezing and gasping for air!
Off the trail, back onto slick pavement, the last half-mile, knees pumping, I cross the finish at a 7:04 pace for an overall net time of 26:59, #42 out of 157 finishers.
13 seconds behind my 5k barefoot PR — not bad considering sore feet and a challenging mix of surfaces! And a good lesson in form. I feel like I’ve got lots of room to improve. . . and with more training, what fun it will be to run really fast!