On the long drive down (it took nearly three hours) the rain lashed against the windshield of my jeep incessantly. When I finally pulled into the parking lot of the Hainesport Municipal Park, the rain had paused, the air was still, and the skies were gray and heavy. A moment later, I started running…
Seven years ago I began integrating some barefoot training into my running practice in order to improve my form, thinking this might reduce the risk of injury, as Chris MacDougal suggested in his bestseller Born to Run. Initially this was an experiment. But it has morphed into a journey, and every so often I pause to reflect.
A year and a half ago, I reported on my 5,000th mile of barefoot running, hiking, and walking. Last summer I reached the 6,000th mile somewhere on the John Muir Trail. In March of this year, I passed mile 7,000 and as I write this, I’m at 7,108, having just completed my 6th barefoot race of marathon distance or longer. Along the way, barefoot has gone from experiment, to training technique, to my preferred way to run and hike, and now’s it become a part of my philosophy.
I’ll start by reporting on accomplishments in the eighteen months and 2,000 miles since my last report, and then I’ll share the failures.
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? Continue reading “Getting Ready for the Grasslands”
Over the last few years, I’ve spent a lot of time climbing the Catskill High Peaks, traditionally defined as summits of 3,500 feet in elevation or higher. Not only have I climbed each of these, I’ve done each in every month of the year, which is called the Grid.
The Catskills All Trails Challenge is a different kind of exercise. It requires you to complete every hiking trail in the region, which total 347 miles in length. I embarked on this challenge with curiosity, for it would take me out to places I’d never seen before.
Since I’d been hiking and running in the Catskills for many years, I already had close to half the trails complete. Over the last year, I’ve made several trips in pursuit of this new goal, which has pushed my completion level to 66%. It’s been slow progress. Many of the trails are remote. Sometimes the trails I need are quite short, but require a long walk to reach a junction I’d never taken before. While there are some loops, most often I have to go out-and-back, which means it takes twice the required distance to complete the trail.
Like any challenge, this exercise provides structure, a specific goal, camaraderie, and a sense of meaning. I’m looking forward to earning the certificate of completion, which I’ll add to my collection of finisher medals and other trinkets. But the real question is what I’ll experience by going out to new places. What I’m finding so far is that the All Trails Challenge is a different experience from peak-bagging. Instead of rocky summits with distant views, I’m discovering lovely forests and meadows and so much water — ponds, lakes, streams, bogs, and falls.
What follows are a handful of images and some observations from trips taken over the last year.
The John Muir Trail is a famous 210-mile hiking route that traverses California’s Sierra Mountains, which Muir referred to as “the range of light.” I visited the Sierras in 2018 and was impressed by the spectacular landscape. After some consideration, thru-hiking the JMT became a goal for 2020.
Just getting ready for the JMT was a big operation, as the trip entailed competitive and thus hard-to-get permits, extensive route-planning, careful selection of gear and provisions, and travel logistics that were complicated by the COVID pandemic. Additionally I decided to take on the JMT in an unconventional format by hiking as much as possible barefoot. Why barefoot? For the extra challenge, the special feeling of lightfootedness that comes from moving naturally, and the distinction of doing something important a little bit differently.
The 23-day journey turned out to be an incredible experience; indeed, it contained enough impressions to fill a book. In the interest of brevity, however, this blog post will consist of a short synopsis of each day on the trail and a photograph or two.
Some highlights from a 37-mile circuit over the holiday weekend along the so-called “Super Pemi Loop” in New Hampshire’s Pemigewasset Wilderness. The purpose of this trip was i) to make progress on the peak-bagging list for New Hampshire’s 48 mountains over 4,000 feet and ii) to test gear and train for my upcoming trip to the John Muir Trail in California’s High Sierra.
The Nine is not for the faint of heart. It’s a daunting 20-mile route which summits nine of the Catskill High Peaks — and it’s longer if you get lost, for what’s especially challenging is that five of the peaks have no trails, which means it’s necessary to “bushwhack” or move through the forest using map, compass, and GPS. Even with this gear, navigation is no simple task, for the terrain is steep and rocky, and the forests thick and tangled, which renders “the eye of little service,” as Catskills author John Burroughs wryly noted.
I had completed the Nine, or parts thereof, on several occasions: once trying to run it for speed, once at night, once in the winter. In April 2016, as a novice barefoot hiker, I tried to complete the Nine without shoes, but after six of the peaks I’d had enough. A year later I tried again and this time gave up after a single peak, defeated by the rocky trails.
Over time, my practice of running and hiking continued to evolve in a minimalist direction. I developed an interest in “natural navigation” (moving through the forest without technology — meaning no map, no compass, no GPS). I began to incorporate intermittent fasting into my dietary and training plans. And I became somewhat more experienced at going barefoot. One day these themes coalesced in my mind, and I came up with a grand plan: to complete the Nine not only barefoot, but navigating naturally, and without carrying food or water. I would call this the Diogenes Challenge, after the ancient Greek philosopher who advocated for simplicity and self-discipline.
Upon reflection, however, the Diogenes Challenge seemed like a little too much, even for an arch-minimalist like me. I quietly let it slide and focused on other things.
Until one day my friend Kal Ghosh asked, when were we going to do it?
With the Coronavirus pandemic sweeping the country, it was no surprise that the races I’d signed up for were all canceled. However, one of the organizers offered up a “virtual” option, allowing you to run the distance you’d signed up for, in whatever location you happened to be, within a few weeks of the event date. At first I dismissed this as a pointless exercise. But after a week of sheltering at home, I was eager to get outside and cover some miles. So I picked Saturday morning to execute the virtual option, deciding to run my marathon at a local university track.
Last May I reported on reaching the 4,000th mile of barefoot hiking and running since starting the practice almost five years ago. Last week, the finish line of the Knob Hills Trail Race marked mile 5,000.
When I started, barefoot was primarily an experiment, to see if the practice would improve my form and reduce the risk of injury. However, there was also in the back of my mind the idea that for an aging athlete it might not be a bad idea to embrace shorter distances and a slower pace, as would necessarily be the case without shoes.
The surprise was how much fun it’s been to run and hike without shoes. I found that the barefoot practice taught me better agility and balance and a lighter step and turned every hike or run into an adventure. Because barefoot’s more fun, I no longer train in shoes unless there’s snow or ice or too much gravel for me to handle, although I still wear shoes at work and other places where they’re expected….
By way of background, I’d registered for this race a year ago, curious about the trail, only to find out a few weeks later that it was canceled. Evidently the Knob Hills Trail is maintained by mountain-bikers, and when conditions turn muddy, they close the trails to prevent erosion. The race was rescheduled to January 18, 2020, and my prior registration rolled over automatically.
For barefoot runners, the nature of the trail matters for the obvious reason that smooth dirt or sharp-edged rocks have different implications for speed and thus goals and strategy. Since this race would take place on the northwestern shore of Grapevine Lake, I imagined a mix of sand and dirt with some crumbled limestone strata, which is what I’d experienced on the lake’s southeastern shore, where I’d participated in the Rockledge Rumble…. Continue reading “Knob Hills Trail Race”