I’d been looking forward to the Grasslands Trail Run for more than a year. Late March weather in Texas would be a break from New York’s lingering winter, and the course follows gorgeous sandy trails – for a barefoot runner like me, this would be a real treat.
The race was three months off, but here I was stuck in New York for the winter, and heavy snow was falling — conditions not conducive to barefoot running. This raised an interesting question — how would I prepare for the race?
During the winters of 2019 and 2020 I traveled to Texas frequently for work and took advantage of the milder climate to do a lot of barefoot running. It didn’t take long for me to discover the LBJ Grasslands, located about 90 minutes north of Dallas. I was enchanted by the rolling hills, scrubby oak-cedar groves, and fields of tawny grass where you can see for miles. When I found out that a trail race would take place there in March of 2020, I signed up for the marathon distance. But due to the pandemic, the race was canceled.
Fast forward to 2021, and the Grasslands Trail Run was back on. This winter, however, the pandemic kept me in New York, which was not ideal for my training.
Sometimes I go barefoot in winter. Now, I’m very conscious of conditions. Temperature. Sun. Wind. Depth and condition of the snow. The nature of the underlying surface. All these factors matter. But the body has amazing capabilities if you’re willing to develop them. The year before I ran 31 miles in New York’s Shawangunk Grasslands, barefoot the whole time despite snow and slush – in fact it was snowing as I ran.
This year I lucked out with mild conditions in December, but January saw deep snow. When the temperature sank to single digits, I gave up and stayed indoors.
One day while scrolling through social media, I discovered two Guiness Records for running barefoot in snow. There was one record for the 5k distance and one for ½ marathon, the latter of which had first been set by Wim Hof, a Dutch fitness guru who trains extensively in the cold. These records were probably too quick for an aging runner like me, regardless of conditions, but I was curious to see how close I could come.
The next morning I headed off to the local track. The surface was coated with a couple inches of fresh accumulation, which seemed ideal for my purpose, although the temperature was lower than I would’ve liked (I typically draw the line at 32 F, but now it was 26 F). I thought that by hustling energetically I would generate enough body heat to keep my feet warm.
I took off my shoes and discovered the snow was slippery underfoot and squeezed up between my toes. It was hard work even moving slowly. My time ended up not being very fast. Afterwords, I pulled on socks and shoes, barely feeling them, and then clumped around wiggling my toes, as my mother had taught me to do when I was a child.
When running in snow some loss of sensation is unavoidable, but it’s not a good idea to let your feet go numb. I think the depth of the snow had a bigger cooling effect than I realized. Also, it may be the case that when working hard, leg muscles demand more blood, leaving less to warm extremities (on a prior run I’d noticed that phenomenon affecting my fingers).
I stopped for breakfast on the way home, while my feet gradually recovered. All was good until 45 minutes later, when I pulled into the driveway, at which point my toes started stinging. Within a few minutes they felt like they were on fire. The pain was so severe I had no choice but to cancel a conference call and crawl into bed. It took 90 minutes before I could pull myself together and get back to work. For 3 or 4 days I limped around, toes burning day and night.
My philosophy is that you cannot learn about the world without taking risk. If you go through life taking even small, measured risks, the law of averages dictates that you will sometimes experience negative outcomes. You might as well be matter-of-fact about it. In this case, I had learned something valuable about my limitations, although the lesson was an expensive one.
After a week the pain eased enough for me to get out on a hike – with socks and boots. Another week passed, and I managed to run 13 miles on the roads – in shoes. I thought ahead to the Grasslands race and the joy of going barefoot on soft sandy trails and decided to play it safe. Instead of exposing feet to snow, I decided to keep shoes on and run bare-chested – this being another of Wim Hoff’s training methods and another way to learn what you can do. I ran shirtless in the 30s without problem and then found the 20s weren’t much different. Taking a calculated risk, I removed my shirt when it was 18 F – figuring that as long as I could move my fingers I’d be OK – and then I did so at 8 F, although I kept the distance short. The body has amazing capabilities to withstand the elements. When you expose yourself to the cold and power through, the feeling is exhilarating!
It was February 20th, and the Grasslands Trail Run was one month out. It was time for a 20-miler, which would be my last long run before the race. Since the weather was mild, I did the last 4 miles barefoot, and all was good — except for a mild tugging sensation in my left hamstring, just below the butt. The week before I’d done some hill work and possibly strained the muscle. So I kept the intensity low and focused my breathing on the sore spot. As an aside, this is a technique I’d learned in Karate many years ago. Sometimes when I’m lying in bed at night, I take a few minutes to control my breathing and focus my concentration on body parts that need some extra help. Whether this speeds up the rate of healing is hard to tell, but I figure it can’t hurt. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve experienced new aches and pains, which has meant plenty of opportunity to experiment with this technique.
A few days later I was just starting out on an easy jog when that sore muscle spasmed. Now the strain arced up into my butt and radiated down the groin and into the lower hamstring where it attaches to the back of the knee. These muscles hurt when I lay in bed at night, and they ached the next day while I was sitting in a chair.
For the next week, the only exercise I could tolerate was short walks. With each step, I felt that tugging sensation, although the muscle action felt a little more fluid when I focused on my breathing. This injury was a setback, but there was still some time before the race. Now my focus shifted again — instead of running vigorously, I’d slow things down, and find other ways to challenge myself and learn.
By the weekend, the sore muscle was feeling a little better. I drove to the Catskills to climb Windham High Peak. It was a beautiful sunny day in the mid-30s, although quite windy. After walking in a mile, I took my shoes off, hung them around my neck, and then went barefoot on the snow. The trail was mostly hard-packed and easy to walk upon (not much snow squeezed up between my toes). In a few places, the trail was steep and I struggled getting up as bare feet don’t have great traction on slick surfaces. I concentrated on my breathing, made it two miles to the summit, and put my shoes back on. Afterwards my feet felt fine.
The next day was overcast but still in the 30s. I headed out to explore a trail which circles around North-South Lake. At first the surface was chewed up with frozen bootprints, and this was a little painful, but where the path was flat and smooth, I ambled along, mindful of the cold, shoes hanging around my neck just in case, but otherwise enjoying the sight of the frozen white lake under an arctic gray sky and the sounds of ice fishermen drilling and talking and laughing. The most difficult part was the last ½ mile. I cut across the flat surface of the lake, which looked easier than going through the woods. But the snow was actually three or four inches deep, and I started punching through a crusty surface. By the time I returned to my car, I’d completed four miles. I was feeling triumphant — indeed I was contemplating another mile — when I noticed blood.
I am not the first person to have cut my feet in snow. T. E. Lawrence, the British officer who led Arab forces in battle against the Turks, wore the local garb, which meant going barefoot. Once he had had to dig a path for a reluctant camel through deep snow, using hands and feet, since he had no tools. “The crust was sharp, and cut my wrists and ankles till they bled freely,” he recalled. “The roadside became lined with pink crystals, looking like pale, very pale, water-melon flesh.”
Once I was in the car driving home, my toes starting stinging, and soon they were on fire again. I turned up the radio to drown out my howls of pain. My toes hurt that night and the next day, too.
This was lesson was even more expensive, and the timing was not good. The Grasslands Trail Run was now three weeks off, and I could hardly walk. My feet were a mess. The worst damage – the tips of three toes had cuts. I applied antibiotic ointment and fresh band-aids twice a day.
It took a full week before I could do anything. On a short walk around the house I could feel the hamstring tugging with every step, and the tips of the three injured toes burned continuously. With two weeks until race day, the prognosis did not look good. I recalled that Teddy Roosevelt had a saying — “Black care rarely sits behind a rider whose pace is fast enough.” I figured the best thing to do was keep moving. The next day I dragged myself out for another short walk.
The priority was anything to speed up healing. I could see there was a little infection in the cuts, as each time I changed a bandaid the fabric was discolored from a dot of pus. Scabs were forming, but as they hardened, they tugged at the surrounding skin, and when I went out and hobbled for a mile or two, the hard lumps drilled into my toes. I stuck to my routine — lots of ointment twice a day, knowing that this would keep scabs and dead skin moist, which was essential. If they became brittle, they might tear the neighboring skin and create new cuts.
There was one week until the race, and I didn’t know what to do. To clarify the situation, I decided on a test — ten miles at the local track. I showed up to a cold wind howling out of the north – but this time there would be no stripping off shirt to confront the elements bare-chested – instead I limped around the track, bundled up but still cringing in the wind, my pace hardly faster than walking. With every step the hamstring ached, and the toe-scabs smoldered. After four miles I was ready to quit.
I thought of distant ancestors who had to contend with snow and ice. They must have suffered similar wounds. But they had no choice. Those who couldn’t keep up got left behind. .
Ten miles is forty laps around the oval. It was not a pleasurable experience, but I counted them down one-by-one. So I went ahead and purchased airline tickets and reserved a hotel room in Dallas. Meanwhile, the daily ointment was helping. I was able to tease off a couple of the larger scabs without damage to the surrounding skin. But once the scabs were free, the fresh new skin underneath felt raw and unbelievably tender.
During the flight to Texas, I focused on my breathing, trying to visualize blood and healing powers flowing to toes and hamstring. I slowed my respiration to 3 breaths per minute (another Wim Hoff technique) and then found I could make do with only two. In Dallas I stayed off my feet, while I worked remotely and did more breathing exercises.
The day before the race, it was time for a final test. I showed up at a local park before sunrise, dressed in all my race gear, bandaids secured in place with extra tape. I shuffled along slowly with shoes on for one mile. Then I took off the shoes, stowed them in my runner’s pack, and headed out on a grassy field. At first the sensations emanating from my feet were overwhelming – as if I’d never run barefoot on dry ground before. I trotted along slowly and began to feel optimistic, but after one-half mile the prickly sensation from the grass began to percolate all around my toes and spread across the balls of my feet, until it felt like everything was on fire again, and then I was groaning in pain and had to stop. I sat down on a brick wall, blinked back tears, and caught my breath.
After five or ten minutes, my feet cooled off. With shoes back on again, I was able to jog back to the car. This burning sensation, which I’d experienced three times now, was as debilitating as any pain I could remember, but this time it had vanished just has quickly as it had come.
The night before there was nothing more to do except go through the final checklist: reviewing the route to the start, setting the alarm, studying the course and cut-off times, laying out clothing and gear, and purchasing some ibuprofen. And then I went to bed….
So, how did the race go?
Surprisingly well. I ran the first 12 miles in shoes and then ran 14 miles barefoot, and those soft trails felt great.
That’s not to say there weren’t some issues. I tried to run barefoot at the start, but after ½ mile, my feet caught fire again. I put my shoes on and limped along groaning, as runners passed me from behind and asked was I OK. I now think this pain was a reaction to the temperature (it was 36 F at the start) and perhaps my body’s way of warning me not to do anything stupid again. Or maybe the new skin lacked conditioning to the cold. A couple hours later I took off my shoes to try again, but now the day had warmed, and my feet didn’t complain at all. In fact, where the sand was yellow, it felt cool and silky underfoot, and where it took on a darker chocolate color and got some sun it was delightfully warm. The hamstring ached at first, but the ibuprofen helped. The biggest issue was the strong Texas sun. I had to drink a lot of water. That evening I discovered that my shoulders and the back of my neck were burned.
The grasslands are beautiful in the spring. The forests were full of pink flashes — blooming Eastern Redbud — and tiny white flowers were sprouting on the chickasaw plum bushes along streams and ponds. Dark leafless post oak branches twisted underneath the blue light of the sky, and you could see across the tawny hills forever.
At mile twenty I encountered a horseback rider. He commented, “Barefoot? Hardcore.”
With two miles to go, I saw a half dozen runners ahead moving toward the finish. The matted grass was slippery underfoot and it was hard to gain much traction, but I made a concerted effort and overtook them. Someone shouted, “Barefoot runner, you’re awesome!”
And so ended my 92nd race of marathon distance or longer. Two days later, I looked up from my laptop and out the hotel window at gray skies and heavy rain as lightning flashed and thunder cracked. In these conditions, the Grasslands experience would have been quite different. If this story has a moral, it’s that life is variable and intense. It contains both pain and exhilaration. It’s full of uncertainty. You might as well embrace it.
My next race is the Chicago Lakefront 50k. I have one week to get ready.