Thursday, September 29, 2011

Why barefoot running? Part III: Spiritual aspects

Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”  (Exodus 3:5)

We will recover our sense of the sacred only if we appreciate the universe beyond ourselves and our role in the universe.  (Thomas Berry)

We have the most fun when we are the most dirty.  (Caity McCardell,

For me, engaging with these outward manifestations of barefooting was the first step. One of the primary aspects of walking and running barefoot are the sensations. We have millions of nerve endings on the bottoms of our feet and part of the benefit of barefooting is that we become aware of all these sensations. At the beginning, it can be quite mind-blowing. Later on, it can be somewhat annoying (like when I am feeling impatient and want to run faster but my feet are loudly telling me that no, they cannot do that!) As I glance at the pile of shoes I know I will never wear again, I am led to ponder the ethical implications of this choice.

However, recently my exploration of barefooting and living a minimal life has begun to show its spiritual significance. On some level, this didn’t totally surprise me because running has always been a spiritual experience for me and, more generally, my whole life is a spiritual journey. But it has come in small experiences here and there with subtle meanings slowly unfolding. I cannot say that I am clear at the moment about the purpose of this movement towards minimalism, although it makes sense in my life for purely practical reasons. However, it is the deeper, spiritual significance that I find most compelling, though it seems that this is being revealed to me in the doing of things, not necessarily as the primary motivator.

Going barefoot started out as an idea of being more “natural” and exploring what was really “necessary”. What I am discovering is that it is teaching me what it means to be a human animal. It is showing me that all the earth is holy ground—here and here and even here. It is teaching me to be mindful of my “footprint” on the earth much more literally than is usually meant by that phrase. And from it, I am receiving nourishment and a more daily sense of my place in the universe.

I recently read an article about using walking in nature as a tool in spiritual direction. The author shared an exercise that comes from the Franciscan tradition which she found in the book Christian Meditation and Inner Healing by Dwight Judy. As I was reading, I was particularly taken by this instruction: “Consider how nature speaks to you about your spiritual journey.” Within the next few days, I was running barefoot along on one of my favorite local paths—a dirt (well, sand) road that runs by the Zambezi river. I’d reached the halfway point and had turned back toward home and was probably 2/3 of the way finished with the run when I thought, “what is this run telling me about my spiritual journey?” I realized that all my attention was on the ground in front of me—and not very far in front. In fact, I was so focused on this that I really saw nothing but the piece of ground roughly ten feet out. It took a bit of an effort to raise my head and look around but as I did that, I became aware that I do this all the time, not just while running. I look down at the ground and essentially withdraw into myself. Just picking up my head and looking around felt like sweeping the cobwebs out of my brain. I immediately became present to my surroundings and it was as if my whole universe opened up and became much bigger. I realized that this powerfully paralleled the way I have been living my life—with all my attention on what’s in front of me, what’s next, what should my next step be? And very little awareness of where I am now, what is here, what’s around me, of the universe in which I live and breathe and have my being.

I honestly don’t think I could have come to that awareness directly, that it had to come to me as an analogy while running. And because I was running barefoot and hyper-aware of my sensate feelings, it was quite a profound awareness for me, not simply to lift my head and look around, but to experience in so doing that it became easier for me to run. My feet and legs relaxed more and it became easier to feel and respond to the terrain below my feet, even without staring at the ground to be sure I didn’t step on something. Such a perfect analogy because I was staring at the ground out of fear of making a misstep just as I was constantly thinking about what’s next out of fear of making a misstep.

For me, taking off my shoes is not a response to a command that God says this is “holy ground” but rather my own statement that the place on which I am standing is holy ground—wherever I am. For I consider the whole earth holy. And it is a practice that reminds me that I am an animal, an earthly creature, part of God’s creation. As I run in my bare feet, I see a dog over there, “I am just like that dog, running along!” I see cows moseying along. “I am like those cows foraging for their food.” I see a lizard enjoying the heat of the hot asphalt, “ah yes, Mr. Lizard, I, too, am soaking up the warmth of the sun.”

Learning to run barefoot has forced me to slow down. I tried to do it without slowing down, but I kept getting devastating blisters and sore calves. Now that I have decided to focus my training on learning to run completely barefoot (that is, to be able to run barefoot all the time, on all terrain, and use shoes only when needed for protection from the elements), I am running very slowly. Based on the success of some other barefoot/minimalist running friends, I decided to start using a heartrate monitor (which I have never done before) and follow Phil Maffetone’s advice to build my aerobic base. Similar to Arthur Lydiard’s LSD method, Maffetone recommends running at a rate which is, for me (based on my age and fitness), no higher than 136 bpm. At this heartrate I can breathe through my nose or hold an entire conversation as I run along. Currently, it has me running between 10:30 and 11:45 minutes per mile. The heartrate monitor keeps me honest, which means slow, which also means that I am fully able to listen to the feedback I am receiving from my feet. And it is a very different experience to run this slowly. I think I did run like this when I was a teenager, but I certainly haven’t done so in the last six or seven years since I revived my running habit this time around. I don’t need to be so focused. I can look around. I have much more of a sense of “being here” wherever I am rather than running past the scenery.

I can get very wrapped up in my thoughts about work—am I doing what I am meant to do? Am I doing it well enough? Will we receive the funding we need? Am I meeting expectations? Am I making a difference? But then I’m running down the road, looking around, and I see a hawk just floating in the air. I doubt he (or she) is fretting over whether he is fulfilling his calling. He spots a mouse or a lizard or some other delicious morsel, swoops down to grab it and either succeeds and feels satisfied or doesn’t and moves back up to keep looking. And I am running barefoot and right now there is nothing else to be doing.

And I begin to recover my sense of the sacred.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Run Smiley Virtual Race

Lucky for me, this weekend was the Run Smiley virtual run. I don’t know if the Run Smiley Collective is at all hooked into the Running Podcasts community, which hosts the Worldwide Festival of Races (now for the 6th year I think), but the Run Smiley virtual run is the same idea—we all (hopefully all!) ran Smiley and barefoot this weekend. This was lucky for me because I had been feeling a bit under the weather this week and had not been out for a run since Tuesday. But I’d decided that I was going to get out and Run Smiley, even if I only got out to the road (about 200 meters)! But it seems that taking my Yin Chiao “at the first sign of a cold” pills all day Friday did the trick and I woke Saturday feeling just fine, though perhaps a bit lazy.


After listening to an episode of NPR’s “Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me” and “This American Life” while drinking my coffee, I finally got dressed and got out at 10am. My pace was a bit slow (in order to keep my heartrate in the right range), which makes sense since I’ve been fighting something off, but this just gave me more time to look around and say hello to people and smile. There aren’t that many people around my area (honestly, there aren’t that many people in all of Namibia), but it being a Saturday morning, and a bit later than I usually go out, there were quite a few people scattered here and there who were heading to town or to fetch water. I had one boy run with me for a few meters, but though I invited him to continue, he went back to doing his chores. By the halfway point, I was quite aware of the heat of the pavement underfoot and decided to return on the sandy path off the road. For the most part that was a bit cooler, though there were a few spots that were quite hot. So, I’m going to have to get out earlier now that we are heading into summer. Everyone tells me that October is the hottest month. Then the rains start in November. I’m not sure what to expect then, since I arrived here at the end of the rainy season and it only rained a few times, and always in the afternoon.


Of course, the most difficult part, as ever, is having someone take my picture. I’m usually the one behind the camera! But my friend John, who takes care of the building where I am living, gladly obliged me. So here I am – shoeless, braless, and smiley (just imagine two dots for eyes above my head – see? My arms are a smile ;-) )


Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Why barefoot running? Part II: Ethical considerations, the sin of consumerism

I said that the next thing I would talk about with regard to barefoot running would be the spiritual dimension. However, as I began to write about that, I realized there was another aspect which I needed to address—the ethical.


When I started to move to more minimal footwear and to walk and even run barefoot, most of my focus was on the physical experience and benefits. I was (and still am) inquiring into my own felt experience—am I more or less comfortable, can I do this barefoot or that barefoot, what are the sensations on this terrain or that, what are my feet capable of? Simultaneously though, I started to confront ethical questions having to do with what I really need and the materialism and consumerism both within my own assumptions and beliefs about what is necessary and within the marketing hype in the running and fashion industries.


Living in Africa, one of the things I have become very present to is the constellation of beliefs about what is “necessary” to live. When I lived in the United States, I had a lot of ideas about what is “necessary”—everything from certain types of furniture to special shoes for running (and several pairs) to special clothes for everything to a certain amount of space. The list goes on and on. But then I started traveling to Africa regularly and noticing that people could live just fine without the things I thought were requirements. When I lived in Cameroon and was President of the Mezam Stars Athletic Club, my fellow runners wore whatever used running shoes they could find in the 2nd hand clothing market. They were particularly pleased if they could find a pair of shoes that were the proper size. And they ran just fine. In fact, they ran very well. And they were professionals, or at least semi-professionals. Lots of casual runners, and even contestants in the famous Mt. Cameroon Race ran in flip flops or “jellies” (plastic sandals that pre-dated Crocks).


This past December, I did a series of spiritual retreats during which I kept getting, in stronger and stronger terms, the message that I need to pare down my material possessions in order to be mobile. “Really? What are you saying? Everything? Down to nothing but a backpack?,” I thought. And the feeling that I had was, “yes, as far as you can go.” I’m not sure if that is just a romantic notion, but given my lifestyle (I’ve moved every 4-8 months for the last several years) it certainly made sense to let go of a lot of things. And the longer I sit with this idea, the more I am drawn to “going all the way,” as one might say. I recently read a blog by a guy who got down to having 100 things and I find that idea very intriguing. I am planning to walk the Camino de Santiago de Compostela after I am finished here in Namibia and I want to do that as minimally/lightly as possible. (I have never been in to “backpacking” and the idea of carrying 30 or 40 pounds on my back for a month sounds horrendous.) In my first minimal experiment, my pack was 14 pounds. Not bad, though I think I can do better.


We shall see how far I really do go. But I bring this up to say that there is a background context, a movement of the spirit in me, of which being barefoot is a part.


We humans are smart and creative. We love to make stuff. And a lot of that stuff is very useful. But not always necessary. Airplanes are very useful if you want to travel across a continent or an ocean in a short period of time. But they, of course, have their drawbacks, one of which is missing being with, learning about, knowing that continent or ocean you just crossed. Cars can get you from here to there pretty quickly. But do I need to travel in a car the 3.5mi to work? No, actually. And with a bicycle, the time it takes is the same (given that I have to wait for a taxi).


Further than that, however, are the things we have been convinced are “necessary” which are, in fact, harmful to us. Processed food is a good example. “I am very busy, how can I possibly find time to cook?” is the necessity argument. And yet processed food is full of sugar and artificial ingredients that are linked to cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and all sorts of other things. “If you have low arches, you need motion control shoes” is one of the necessity arguments for running shoes. Yet, there have been studies showing that wearing a shoe “designed” for your type of foot does not prevent running-related injuries any better than wearing a general neutral shoe. (The Army did a study of 500+ soldiers, both genders, showing this.) And I think there is a growing body of evidence showing that shoes, particularly supportive or cushioned shoes, cause as many, if not more, injuries than they prevent.


When I was young, we only had “nice” shoes and “sneakers.”  I remember the late 1970s when there started to be distinctions among sneakers—“tennis” shoes and “basketball” shoes and “running” shoes. But then it really took off within the running shoe category. Even now, as far as I know, tennis shoes are tennis shoes and basketball shoes are basketball shoes. Within the sport-type, you would select your shoes based on comfort or fashion. But within running shoes, we have been taught to believe that we need “technology” to “keep us” from getting injured. As if injury were inevitable without the “right” shoes.


Not so.


It is a basic principle of marketing that your purpose is to convince your target audience that they need your product. Simply wanting the product is not enough. In the “developed” world, most people live far beyond the real necessities of life. However, if your society is built upon consuming, you need to convince the population that their job is to consume. If times are good and people are feeling flush, then you can get them to consume things because they “want” them. But when times get tougher and people are feeling pinched, they will pare down to consuming what they believe they “need.” Hence, if your product is a “need” you are going to make more money. This has been going on for long enough now (50 or so years), that it is pretty automatic for marketers to be able to come up with a “need” that their produce fulfills and it is pretty automatic for consumers to believe that they have this “need.”


For me, there are two basic issues with all of this. The first is that I am not a “consumer.” I am a human being, I am a woman, I am a runner, I am a Deacon, I am a citizen. I gladly take on a variety of roles and identify myself as such. But I do not choose to be identified as a consumer. I think one of the fundamental problems with the Western world, particularly the United States, is that the population has been defined as, and have now taken on the identity of, consumers rather than citizens. (Takers rather than givers, relatively passive rather than active.) Notice the difference in the response to 9/11 vs. Pearl Harbor. In response to 9/11, our President told us to go out and shop. In response to Pearl Harbor, the President told people to pull together and sacrifice for the war effort.


The second major issue is that the consumption of the “developed” world, and again, particularly the United States, is unsustainable and is ruining the planet.  I am shocked when I see people say that population growth is the problem (so easy to say when you are already born and living!). It is not population growth that is the problem, it is consumption.


So, for me, pulling back from that marketing hype, running in minimal shoes (which don’t have to be replaced every 500 miles) or barefoot (no shoes at all), helps me to regain my identity as a RUNNER rather than as a CONSUMER of running-related paraphernalia.


By Western standards, I probably live a very minimal lifestyle. I can definitely say that living in Africa will likely reduce your carbon footprint more than most measures you can take while still living in the US (though I realize this is not for everyone). Yet, by African standards, I still have an astounding amount of stuff. Not just “nice” shoes and “sneakers”, but several pairs of each! When teenagers here go off to boarding school (very common since secondary schools are only in towns), they go with a suitcase the size of a carry-on plus a blanket. All their worldly possessions. I am definitely not there yet.


For years now, I have been a “shoe hound.” There was a time in my younger, poorer days when I had one pair of “work” shoes, one pair of running shoes and maybe one pair of casual shoes. Then I needed two pairs of running shoes, because it is better to switch them. Then there were winter shoes and summer shoes. Then there were shoes to wear with a suit and more casual everyday work shoes. And there started to be shoes on the market that I loved. Somewhere along the line, I totally gave up the idea that a pair of shoes should “wear out” before they are “replaced.”


So for me, a big part of barefooting is being confronted by my consumerism. I do also have some attachment to material things, but not that much. I do like and appreciate many of the things I own and there are a few things which I would feel quite devastated about the loss of. However, that is not my primary sin. I am much more guilty of the sin of consumerism—of wanting to have/buy/try this or that because I think it will fulfill/satisfy/solve some “need.”


But if I don’t need shoes to run, or a running bra, or special  shorts or shirts (I am reminded of the guy who showed up at the recent 12K I ran here in Katima, signed up, took off his shoes and socks, and ran in his regular pants and shirt) or any of the other paraphernalia that I have thought that I need, then the only reason I buy or have those things is because I want them. Okay, that’s not necessarily bad. But it puts them on a different level. Then, when I am looking at paring down my life so that I can move anywhere, anytime I want to, it leads me to ask, “do I want that enough to carry it around? Or pay to put it in storage somewhere?” How much of my life—my time, my energy, my money, my thought-processes—do I want to spend on these wants? And what is the impact of my indulging my consumerism in this way—what is the cost to the planet, to other human beings, to the soul of the planet, to my soul?


Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Frank Forencich: Don’t we want more from the Paleo than diet?

This is the from the MovNat website. I wanted to share it with you because I am totally with Frank here. I came to the Paleo way of eating FROM barefooting and MovNat--from wanting to find more natural ways of movement. That led me to exploring more natural ways of eating (and subsequently of sleeping, washing, traveling. . .) For me, this was never about a diet. Oh sure, I had those persistent 10lbs that I could never lose, which did come off right away when I improved my eating, but I'm not going back to the way I ate before because I lost that weight. It was never the point.

Guest Blog Entry by Frank Forencich: Don’t we want more from the Paleo than diet?

For me "Paleo" or "Primal" or "ancestral" or whatever you want to call it, is about learning what it means to be a human animal and how to live naturally in the world, on this planet. Yes, I find it a bit sad that I have to learn this, but such is our predicament as modern-day human beings.

The earth is a wonderful place, full of beauty and places to explore and I want to feel it, touch it, sense it as deeply and closely as I can. Won't you join me?

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Maple Grove Barefoot Guy: Soft Star Moc3 Review

I wanted to share this review of the SoftStar Moc3 minimal shoes because I, too, love these shoes. I think he does a good job of reviewing them.

The Maple Grove Barefoot Guy: Soft Star Moc3 Review: I rarely use overly strong language when I do shoe reviews. I don't want to use words like "ultimate", and "best" because I'm worried tha...

Why barefoot running? Part I: Physical evolution & benefits

I have been running in more and more minimal shoes for the past couple of years and experimenting with running completely barefoot. This started when I had a video analysis of my running gait at the Running Revolution in Santa Cruz, California back in 2009. Although I have had folks in running shoe stores tell me previously that I had a neutral gait, I always ran in stability shoes and found that I got injured if I tried to run in neutral cushioned shoes. However, the video analysis made it very obvious that I do not overpronate.


The primary reason I ran in stability shoes (my favorites were Brooks Adrenaline) was because they were “harder.” That is, not so cushioned. And it was, in fact, the cushioning that caused me trouble. I didn’t need the cushioning and it made my footfall so unstable that my IT band and hamstrings would have to compensate and that’s when I would get injured. However, now armed with this new information, I began to experiment with new shoe models. I tried Brooks Trance which were pretty good (a new category for Brooks, called “guidance” which was between stability and neutral). I tried Nike Lunars whose neutrality was great, but whose cushioning (way too much) was horrible. I didn’t even put 200 miles on them. Then I tried a pair of Newton Gravity’s which I quite liked as shoes and definitely increased my pace with no extra effort on my part. Unfortunately, the underforefoot piece that stuck out caused some serious falls (see May 2010 when I was living in Lubumbashi) on the uneven terrain I had to navigate. Then I tried Brooks Green Silence which are both neutral and “hard”—they are marketed as a “performance training” shoe and have little cushion and little extra support. Those were quite good and eventually became my main shoes. Throughout this experimentation period, I also bought Vibram FiveFingers and later a pair of VivoBarefoot Evos (both very minimal shoes-little or no padding, no support). Actually my first pair of Vibrams were bought when I was in the Solomon Islands in 2008 and I have run in them off and on since that time, but always thought that I needed “real shoes” for long runs. Simultaneous to my own experimentation, the running shoe industry has been changing and this past winter/spring several companies came out with minimal shoes. Before leaving the US for Namibia, I got a pair of New Balance Minimus Road shoes (those did not work for me) and a pair of Merrell Trail shoes (first the Pure Gloves which injured my Achilles tendon and then the Lithe Gloves which I haven’t run in much yet, but I think may work out).


I started to notice something during this period of experimentation. When I ran in the Vibrams or Evos, my back didn’t hurt. I have had an off and on chronic lower back issue—the flaring up of an old injury. It is often resolved by getting some deep tissue massage or physiotherapy, but it will come back when I increase mileage or overdo it. But even when it was flared up, if I ran in the Vibrams, I had no pain during or after the run.


Last year, when I was living in Lubumbashi, I would try to run all my shorter runs in the VFFs. The roads were horrible—rocky, full of holes, etc.—so I thought I couldn’t run barefoot. I ran barefoot on the beach when I was on vacation in Zanzibar and again in Diani Beach, Kenya. I really liked it but felt my feet were so tender! When I was back in the US last winter, it was very cold for my feet, but as Spring started to peek out from under the cold, I again was using VFFs for shorter runs. By the time I was getting ready to come to Namibia last March, the Brooks Green Silence had become my “long run” shoes—a far cry from the Adrenalines!


The big advantage of these more minimal shoes for me is that they give me the firm feel I have always been wanting without the unnecessary support. So I am able to get back to my natural gait and, it seems, this is resolving the issue with my lower back. As I’ve mentioned on this blog, I’ve been wanting to go completely barefoot, but was training for a marathon and dealing with winter here in Katima, which was cold enough in the early mornings to make running barefoot very uncomfortable. Why bare feet? In part, because all of the advice I have read says that the best way to perfect your form is to go completely barefoot. I know that now I can really feel how much padding the VFF Bikilas have compared to some other more minimal shoes I have (Luna sandals and now my new SoftStar Moc3s). When I have experimented with running barefoot, I have to run more slowly and mindfully than when I wear the VFFs. This means that the VFFs are not only protecting my feet, but they are allowing me to run less attentively, less naturally. Now that the marathon is behind me, I’m committed to running as often as possible completely bare. This past week, this meant on the weekends, when I can run later in the morning when it is warmer. If the temperature is in the 50s F in the early mornings, my feet go numb and this is not good. When it is too cold to go completely bare, I use either my Luna sandals or my Moc3s, which are the most minimal shoes I have and seem to change my form the least.


I also now walk barefoot or in minimal sandals as much as possible. This helps condition my feet and muscles. I no longer have any calf pain and my feet, ankles and legs are quite well conditioned. Also, the bottoms of my feet are getting less callused and more leathery and padded/fatter. My proprioception is very good just from living and running on trails and in Africa where the road is not smooth and predictable, but it has definitely gotten better through barefoot running. I don’t always know how to change my gait, but I am keenly aware of exactly what my feet, ankles and calves are doing. These are very good developments.


So that has been my physical evolution—from stability shoes to very minimal shoes and soon bare feet. My current goal is to build up to be able to run a half-marathon in bare feet. Perhaps after that, I will shoot for a marathon, but we shall see. On a related note, I am also using Phil Maffetone’s MAF method (maximum aerobic function) and running with a heart rate monitor for the first time in my life—to run much slower than usual. My range should be 126-136 bpm which looks like it will be between 10:30 and 11:30 min/mi pace at the moment. Maffetone’s idea is that you will start out quite slow, but as you increase your aerobic conditioning, your pace at the same heart rate will increase. This will make me more aerobically efficient and, hopefully, faster. The added benefit is that slowing down helps me stay more mindful as I run barefoot.


In the next post, I will write about the spiritual aspects of barefooting.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

I contributed to a Podcast!

Hey folks. My friend, Steve Runner, produces a podcast called Phedippidations. It is a podcast for runners and quite popular, though of late he is following a more philosophical path (so it’s not about how to run better or how to fuel for marathons or stuff like that). His most recent episode “In Vino Veritas” is about truth and I, along with two others, contributed some thoughts on the subject. I encourage you to take a listen.


Monday, September 05, 2011

Shoeless, braless, SMILEY!

After my marathon, I decided I would start running again when I felt like it. And I want the focus now to be on running barefoot and building up my barefoot mileage. The key to this is, I believe, going by feel—running when I feel like it, going how long or far I feel like going, and having fun! In other words, running smiley. I must admit however, that this is quite a challenge for me. I almost always have a plan that I am running to. “Do I run today or not? Let’s see what my plan says.” Now, I keep thinking, “oh I need to create a plan for transitioning to total barefoot running.” Even though all the advice I’ve read and received from those who are successfully running barefoot much longer distances than me is that I need to play, feel it out, follow my body, NOT have a plan. Oy! It’s insidious. Wish me luck.


By Saturday morning, I really had no more residual aches or pains from the marathon. Also, the heat has returned to Katima rather suddenly and I was looking forward to getting out in the heat. I really do not like running when my feet are numb. No, not at all. So, after enjoying a tall cup of coffee, while getting dressed, I recalled a conversation I had with Caity McCardell of Run Barefoot Girl ( about wearing bras. Do we need sports bras?


Well, when I was on the cross-country team in high school, there were no such things as sports bras. We wore our regular bras – nasty things for running with metal hooks and things that caused bad chafing. And there was no Body Glide back then either. Several of my friends and I stopped wearing bras while running. And it worked fine. And our boobs did not fall down (neither then, when they were young and perky, nor as we grew older—at least mine did not). I went back to wearing a bra shortly after that when a) sports bras were created and b) I was living in cities where men were obnoxious jerks. Most of my 20s were a time of buying into, or at least conforming (as best as I was able) to, societal expectations. Then I went to Africa where a lot of women, probably the majority (all those in rural areas and some in urban areas), do not wear bras. And because breasts are viewed as baby feeding mechanisms rather than sexual objects (and I’m significantly less well-endowed than many of my African sisters) my going braless drew no attention. So I stopped wearing a bra. I never found them comfortable and the less I wore them, the less comfortable I was whenever I tried to wear one. But I continue to wear sports bras and am always on the hunt for one that is comfortable and does not chafe—a seemingly endless chase.


So there I am about to go out and run barefoot, remembering this whole conversation about bras. Could I run without a bra? Wouldn’t I bounce? Would it hurt? Would I feel self-conscious? This would be a good day to try. I had no agenda. It would be fine if I just ran a couple of miles. I ran in place a bit in my room and it didn’t hurt. I ran in front of a mirror and it didn’t look too bad (Lord knows I did NOT want to look ridiculous!). Okay, let’s try this. I set out in nothing but shorts and a tank top (with my watch, sunglasses and iPod—I do still have my attachments).


It felt great to run barefoot. The ground felt neither cold nor warm and I felt my posture & form were good. (I used the Shelly Robillard test—my necklace wasn’t bouncing around. Another benefit—neither were my breasts!) I had decided that I was going to run totally on the road, on the asphalt, which is new for me. I’ve run as much as 6 miles barefoot, but 5.5 of those miles were on the sandy trail. I had some fear of the road—that it would be too hard, there would be too much impact, but all the barefoot experts said the best way to learn good form and the right way to run was to run on the road. After half a mile or so I noticed how light I was running, how I felt no impact. I was just rolling along. And I felt so free, so relaxed. I was just there, everything was as it should be, I didn’t need this or that to be able to run. There was something about running without a bra that felt so liberating. I was not expecting that. I felt more present, more confident, more open (and less anxious, cautious, guarded). And my feet felt totally fine.


I decided to run 4 miles, though part of me thought, “oh, or maybe 5.” But I turned around at 2 miles and changed to the other side of the road which is rougher. I started to feel a sort of pain on the outside of the ball of my right foot. I knew that this was a contact spot when I walked as well because it was one of the places on my feet that gets dirty. I tried to change the way my foot was landing and think more consciously about lifting my feet (rather than pushing off). I was doing okay until about 3.5 miles when clearly I was starting to get a blister on that spot (and on the top of the 4th toe on my left foot). All the advice says I should have stopped right then and walked home. I did in fact stop once or twice and feel around (to make sure it was a pebble or something) and I walked a few paces which didn’t really hurt at all, but then I ran because, well, I was out for a run. Besides it was only a half mile more to go.


In the end, my feet were a bit sore for the rest of the day and I was thinking I was stupid. (I don’t think of myself as particularly stubborn by nature, but I certainly can be about running.) The spot didn’t turn into a big blister I could pop, but the skin is tender. The general rule of thumb is to run barefoot every other day if everything is working well, so I resisted the urge to run today, even though I think I could have. I’ll see how the feet are tomorrow, but I think I dodged a bullet. Lucky me.


The World Wide Festival of Races is in 5 weeks and I would LOVE to run a half-marathon that weekend totally barefoot. That could be way too ambitious and it could be possible. We shall see. Stay tuned. . .

Victoria Falls Marathon Race Report

The 26th of August was Heroes’ Day in Namibia, so my friend Janice and I headed down to Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe to run in the Vic Falls Marathon (I ran the marathon, she ran the half-marathon) which was being held Sunday the 28th.


After a lovely Saturday being tourists and an early evening, we woke before dawn to prep and walk down to the start of the race. I thought (hoped?) it would be cooler and I would need to bring my jacket, but I felt fine in just a shirt and my MoeBen sleeves. It was dark at 6:00am when we left our hostel, but it gets light pretty quickly this close to the equator, so the 6:30am start time was well-timed. There were a few hundred people milling around—for the marathon, the half-marathon, a 5k fun run, and about 6 or 8 guys in wheelchairs for the half-marathon. We found the starting banner and I tried to breathe and not be too nervous. The marathoners would start first, 30 minutes ahead of the half-marathon, so Janice wished me luck and I looked around at my “competition”. Soon enough, they announced “5 minutes to go” over the loudspeaker and then, we were off.


For the marathon, we would run two loops – with slight variations. The race began by going down and over the bridge over the Zambezi River, with Victoria Falls on the north side and the gorge to the south. We climbed a hill after the bridge, ran all the way to the Zambian border and turned around, crossing the bridge again, passing through the Zimbabwean border control and providing much entertainment for the border agents who were just arriving for their workday.


Around 5K, the course followed a road/path around the Vic Falls Park and I started to see regular km-marker signs. They seemed very frequent, but that was because there were signs for the first loop and the second. This part of the course was very nice—pretty flat, scenic, bushy and mostly vehicle-free. We passed “The Big Tree” (see my Flickr page for more photos: and soon after turned onto a major road headed north towards Zambezi National Park. By this point, we were all spread out and settling into our “spots”. There were two guys ahead of me who were walking and I passed them, thinking perhaps they would pass me back when they began running again, but that never happened. We climbed a hill, at the top of which an enormous valley opened up before us and I had a tremendous feeling of spaciousness. As I started to descend, I could see the frontrunners coming back towards me after having turned around inside the Park. Other than those at the water stops, there were not many spectators, particularly those cheering, but at the bottom of the hill, before entering the Park, there was a guy standing by his pickup truck who cheered everyone on. That was great! I thanked him. Also on this stretch, I saw the first three women, who were young Africans. The first was a Zimbabwean who had shared our dorm with us last night. Then I saw the first white women. There were not many ahead of me at this point, three for sure, maybe 4 or 5 (there was a portion inside the park where the return is split and so we do not see each other). I was pretty sure the first three were veterans (over-40) though, and they were all within 10 or so minutes of each other and easily 10 minutes ahead of me.


Inside the park we got to run on a trail for maybe a kilometer, which was really nice. And there was a water station sponsored by FedEx in there which was great. (There were the official water stations and then at least an extra 4 or 5 sponsored by specific groups which seemed to set up wherever they wanted. This made the distribution not very even. However, the last, unexpected one, sponsored by Botswana Tourism, 2K from the end after a long drought was very, very welcome!)


Coming out of the park, I was smacked by the headwind and had to fight that for a couple of kilometers. By this time, I could see half-marathoners on the other side of the road and as I reached the bottom of the hill, the lead pack of the half-marathon swooped past me. Boy, that was a bit disconcerting! As I climbed the hill out of the valley, I heard my name and looked up to see Janice happily running along taking pictures. (Her goal for the race was to take it easy and take photos, not run for time, and she seemed to be doing well.) After cresting the hill, the course turned right into a very hilly, barren section called Elephant Hills. At this point there were two other guys in my vincinity—1 passed me, I passed 1, then on the hills the other passed me and I passed the first. Suddenly we could hear drums in the distance. We turned a corner and climbed the last steep hill to the entrance of the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge whose security guards directed us, drummers entertained us and staff plied us with water and energy drinks. Good advertising!


It seemed this might be the end of the hills, but it was not so. They were more gradual now, but they persisted as we made our way through what they call the “low density area” and you or I might call the “high rent district.” As we reached the main road back into town, we had to go out a bit further to a turn-around. Just when I wanted to grumble, “why can’t we just turn towards town?” I was met by a family of spectators cheering and assuring us that this was the end of the hills. How nice of them! And right before the turnaround there was a little shop, in fact, “Little Harrod’s” as it proudly announced in letters perfectly painted in the Harrod’s font! (In many ways, Zimbabwe is very British colonial.)


The route to town was a wonderfully slow-sloping downhill and fortunately I knew the way because as I ran through town I found myself totally alone without another runner in sight and no police or water stations to provide direction. Finally, as I passed the Kingdom Hotel and climbed the hill to the start of the second loop, another running caught up with me and we navigated the last bit together.


At the turn on the road by Vic Falls Park there was a water station and I decided that, even though I wasn’t the least bit hungry, this would be a good time to take a gel. So I started walking, grabbed some water and tore open one of the Honey Stinger gels I brought. I sucked down the whole thing (mostly so I wouldn’t have to carry an open one) and tried to drink enough water so my mouth didn’t feel sticky. About a kilometer later, I was already dreaming of the next water stop, however, because I hadn’t taken quite enough water.


So the first half went very well for me, actually. I came through 13 miles at 1hr 52min, which is darn close to my half-marathon PR and I was still feeling strong. I decided that for the second half I needed to take more water and walk through those water stations. A couple of miles later, as I came out to the major road towards Zambezi Park, they were offering a blue drink. I asked what it was, and they named a local Gatorade-type of drink, so I took that hoping for a sugar boost. The taste wasn’t too bad, but it was really sweet. I was starting to slow somewhat and my spirits were beginning to lag a bit because the section from here to the park was rather desolate, but I didn’t feel at all like walking, so that was good. Somehow in my head I decided that if I made it to the 30K mark in good time, it would all be great.


Once I hit the park, however, I was feeling very tight. I walked some and then stopped and stretched. My thighs were already shouting pretty loudly and my lower back and hamstrings were predictably tight. I looked up and someone was coming, so I got back underway. Up a hill, then down a hill, turn right onto the trail and then downhill to the FedEx water stop. I didn’t need water, but I thanked the guys ‘cause they’d been out there for hours and they were still cheering us and directing us and lying that we looked good ;-)


One guy passed me and then I passed him back and as we came out of the park we both passed two other guys and the four of us sort of jockeyed back and forth all the way up the hill out of the valley and through Elephant Hills and past the VF Safari Lodge. By now, though, the hills were really, really killing me. There were still some half-marathoners on the course, but they were the only ones I passed. After the Safari Lodge, I had one of my worst miles as I realized that my quadriceps were in a lot of pain. I hadn’t seen another woman since the first 10K or so, but as I passed the turnaround by Little Harrod’s, first one, then a second, young woman passed me (both Americans, I think, as they both had extremely short shorts and red, white and blue ribbons in their ponytails). I kept trying to run, but stopped at one point again to stretch (squatting down was simultaneously very effective and intensely painful). A couple of guys caught and passed me right as we were back out on the road to town, before turning onto the last leg which was unknown territory through the “high density area”. We had about 6K to go.


It was in the high density area that I started to walk more and more. It was a bit of a strange experience. Up until now, the course had been pretty empty of people, but those we saw were there to cheer us or support us with water, drinks, etc. Now we were running through the residential part of town filled with people walking to church or from church and going about their business who mostly looked at us wondering what on earth these weird white people were doing. Luckily, I kept those two guys in my sights and after a few turns, I noticed strategically placed arrows showing us where to go. I ran up a hill and at the top was the last water stop and a film crew who stuck a microphone in my face (I shudder to think what I looked like), but I ran on. Running up hill didn’t seem to bother me much, but I could get no relief running downhill because that was when my thighs really hurt. This section of the course didn’t look very hilly because I could never really see very far ahead (there were many turns), but I think it was just as hilly as Elephant Hills.


Then we were out of the high density area and on the highway, then back in to run by a school. As I came to the corner by the school, I was walking, but a marching group of some sort (it didn’t look particularly military, though they were in uniforms) was coming up the road behind me, so I tried to run a bit. The thing I hated about these final two miles or so was that my energy was fine. It was just my legs that were totally shot. It was 10:30am or so by now and getting hotter, particularly since we were away from the river and couldn’t really feel the wind anymore. After this school we were headed back out on the highway again. Just before turning onto the highway, there was another cameraman asking me, “how is the final leg of your marathon going?” “Not very well, as you can see,” I replied, thinking that was obvious since I was walking, “but I’m going to finish, so that’s great.” Then I looked forward and there was the 40K sign and the Botswana Tourism water station—hallelujah! (Later, I talked to the woman at the Botswana Tourism tent, got some information about Chobe park, which is quite close to me and the best park in Botswana, and scored a really nice Botswana tourism polo shirt!)


Walk, walk, walk, run a little bit, ouch. Then there was the entrance to a private school and people were pointing me in. A few more yards? I could run that! There was a sort of chute which made it clear where to go, but then it became unclear – I was on the outside of this tape and on the inside were all these tents/booths and people. Not knowing where I was supposed to go, I asked a guy at one of the booths who directed me to follow the tape all the way around. Aargh! But I was running and my feet kept moving, so okay. I got to the end, crossed the line and they tore off my tag. Walking a bit further, I was greeted by woman handing out our t-shirts, water bottles and water. I made it!


I wandered around looking for Janice but didn’t find her. I sat and took my shoes off which felt good, but was difficult—it was very painful to get down to the ground to sit and very painful to get up from sitting. I wandered around looking at all the sponsored tents (by hotels for their guests, by some companies). ShopRite was there and tons of people had ShopRite bags. That would have been very handy, but I got there too late for that. The Kingdom Hotel had a tent that was serving food. At first I thought it was only for guests, but then I saw some people who clearly were not guests going there, so I followed them. The food serving guy asked us for our tickets, so I wandered around to see how to get a ticket. I asked another food serving guy who directed me to a drink serving guy who pulled a book of tickets out of his pocket and just gave me one. Score! So I got a few meatballs and a couple of little drumsticks and a bottle of cold water. I found a chair and sat and ate. It was a little heavy on my stomach, but I knew I needed real food—protein & fat. After eating, I succumbed to my tanking blood sugar and drank my annual Coke which definitely hyped up me up. Then I wandered over to see if they had announced the winners. When I saw the list of women’s veterans, they all came in between 3:24 and 3:45 or so. Way before me. There was no visible clock, so I wasn’t totally sure of my time—I forgot to stop my Garmin until several minutes later, but I knew I was just under 4:30. Later when I saw one woman with the prizes (all the veteran winners were given walking sticks, so they were easy to spot), it was the woman I had last seen as the 3rd white woman, so I wondered if I had been right all along and those three had stayed pretty close throughout the race.


Shortly after this, I was thrilled to find out there was a shuttle bus back to town because the only route I knew was at least 6K back to my hostel and I really could barely walk. The shuttle driver asked for vouchers, but didn’t even notice if you didn’t give him one (thank God). There was a nice Italian guy who was also staying at our hostel and when the shuttle dropped us off, there was Janice sitting in the Reception lounge chair in the shade!


Final result (according to my Garmin Foreunner 410): 4:24:36 for 26.22 miles, a PR!