Barefoot Monologues

A Journey of the Sole


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Obstacle Races and Ultrarunning: A Horrible Match Made in CrossFit Hell?

I started running for real about three years ago. And by “for real” I mean three years ago I announced to the public world that I am a runner, and I did this by signing up for my first race (does that sound too much like I’m comparing my running life to the way more meaningful “coming out of the closet”? Hm. Is that weird? Whatever, nevermind). I started with 5K’s, then 10k’s, and then eventually I moved up to longer races and I have pretty much stayed there ever since. I guess you could say I evolved into a distance runner, or at the very least I found my sweet spot. Which, by the way, is somewhere between “pretty slow” and “fucking really slow.”

But of course, staying anywhere for too long is never enough these days. You’ve always got to be striving to finish faster or go longer. A couple of years ago, while I was still doing my best to pin down a better half marathon time, the ultramarathon snuck up on everyone and became the new thing. Plain old 26.2’s just didn’t cut it anymore (unless you’re a road runner, and I mean, who wants to be one of those? Ugh*). The new standard went that you didn’t know what it was like to really love running unless you’ve run a trail race that’s so long you needed to change your shoes, stop to poop more than once, and consume full meals during the running of it. But once you ran your first ultra, you were from then on deemed an “ultrarunner.” Oh yes, that nifty, arbitrary term that has absolutely no real meaning. And once you’ve earned it then maybe, just maybe, you could even call yourself a real runner. Anything less than that was sorta washy.

So of course, I just had to have it. In due diligence, I completed my first ultra marathon. And then I ran another…you know, for posterity. Did I run them for the privilege of being able to call myself a runner? Maybe, who the hell knows.  After all these years I’m still not even sure where walking ends and running begins, anyway.

But no need to get stuck on all that baloney: because the whole expectation has changed once again. Have you noticed? Now it’s all about the obstacle race. I for one blame the trendy, LuluLemon-outfitted, meteoric rise of the CrossFit workout. Now, CrossFit is all about obstacles. Machines. Heavy weights. Upper-body strength. Anaerobic exercise. Grunting. In other words, being a CrossFitter is the exact opposite of being a runner. And obstacle races, well…from the looks of ’em, they are the CrossFit of races. Or, wait…maybe they’re the race of CrossFitters? Either way they totally confuse me, because 5K obstacle races are everything that a 5K race…isn’t.

I have a handful of friends who make an enormous deal out of “running” obstacle races. I’m happy that they are getting off the couch and being active (even if they are only ever being active as such, on the day of the race). My friends, like most other obstacle race enthusiasts, seem to have taken the act of climbing walls, crawling through mud pits, jumping over small fires, carrying buckets of water, hanging from ropes and knocking down dozens of burpees, and packaged it up into their definition of “running.” As in, “BillyBob and I are running the Spartan race next weekend.” But the message is totally faulty. Because from what I’ve gathered about obstacle races, the skills required to finish them have very little to do with the skills and training required to finish, say, the regular old 3.1 miler. In a 3.1 miler, you run. And you don’t stop, for the whole time. In an obstacle race, what little energy devoted to running is just for the purpose of getting from one obstacle to the next.

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So why do so many obstacle race enthusiasts identify as “runners”? Has the obstacle course addict now become the new “runner”? Has CrossFit completely rearranged everything about fitness, encompassed it, right down to our beloved foot race? Have obstacle races taken away the hard-earned and much-coveted, bemedaled glory of the distance runner?

One might say yes, it has. But I reject that, gosh-darn it! Obstacle racers are not, in and of themselves, runners. They are obstacle racers, who participate in obstacle races. They may be strong, they may be badass. They may be able to do twenty more pull-ups than me (which is to say they can do…well…twenty pull-ups). But one thing they can’t do as well as me is train like a distance runner! They don’t spend long hours logging miles on their feet, they don’t obsess about pace and fueling, or sacrifice entire weekends for the long run. I declare that obstacle racers belong to the CrossFit Team, not the Runner Team.

Indeed, if you Warrior Dashers, Mud Runners and Spartan Sprinters want to prepare your bad asses for an obstacle race, you’d be much better off doing something like, oh I don’t know, 100 burpees a day. And then some deep squats. And a lot of grunting, too. You obstacle racers should stay over there with the kettle balls and the chin-up bars, and let us runners keep our race medals and our GPS watches and our useless upper bodies. Guys, there’s just no room for any kind of crossover**. You’re either one of them, or you’re one of us. I mean, seriously, I’ve never met an ultrarunner who does 100 burpees a day for fun. Have you?

(Shut up, Vanessa Runs)

I propose we all henceforth agree that obstacle racers shall call themselves “CrossFitters” (or some preferred variation of), instead of “Runners”. Because with all the man-made, non-runner-friendly contraptions littered all over the course, calling it a CrossFit race is much more fitting than calling it a Sprint or a Run. Or at the very least, if you want a true crossover, you should allow for the individual interpretation of the race by each participant, based on their preference and skillset. I mean, think about it: as a runner, using my very well-rounded*** runner’s logic, I would argue that the best way to complete the Spartan Sprint would be to…well…sprint. Sprint past, around and between all of the obstacles. A real “runner” would never climb over walls because that would just eat up precious seconds from our PR.

So don’t call it a sprint. Don’t call it running. Call it racing, if you must…but it would be even better if you found some other term. Maybe you could just settle on something more accurate, like hustling, or maneuvering. Or how about scampering. I’ve always liked that word, scampering. Nobody uses it anymore. I think we should bring it back.

*Before you get your panties in a bunch, I should let you all know this post is meant to be tongue-in-cheek. Get off the treadmill/rowing machine and laugh, people.
**Yes…still jesting. This is supposed to be fun, no whining allowed.
*** I know what you’re thinking: my logic is airtight thus far.
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Boston’s Pride

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On April 15th, 2013, twenty-six thousand people lined up at the starting line for the 117th running of the Boston Marathon. These people were runners who worked their asses off to train for one of the oldest and most celebrated races to occur each year. A race held in one of the oldest and most beautiful cities in the world, and my home town. All around them, hundreds of thousands of supporters lined the streets from Hopkinton to Boston. On April 15th, 2013, these runners and their amazing Boston-bred supporters showed the entire world just how incredible the human race is.

You’re probably expecting to see hundreds entries pop up all over the blogosphere about this awful tragedy. Many writers will seek solace in putting words to paper on this day. Everyone is sad. Shocked. Angry. Hurting. But, at least for me, there is an underlining emotion behind all of the negative ones: pride.

If you love movies like I do, you’ve seen a thousand tragedies happen on screen. You’ve seen it all. Bombs blowing up in buildings, cars, on airplanes, you’ve seen depictions of war, destruction, distopia. You’ve seen giant alien monsters crush entire cities and bullets pierce hundreds of brave main characters and evil bad guys. In the movies, where the one or two bravest and best fictional heroes fight evil to its doom every time, the hundreds of innocent nameless people caught in the mix are always running fast and far away from the danger.

What I saw yesterday afternoon when I turned on my television was a scene right out of a horror film. Giant explosions of fire and smoke, people screaming, glass shards blowing. Nothing could prepare me or anyone else watching for that reality, and my brain wanted to remain convinced that it was all fake.

But, very much unlike anything I’ve ever seen on a movie screen, everybody close to the explosion was running into the danger, not away from it. It was one of the most incredibly unexpected things I have ever seen. Runners, spectators, officials…all of the innocent nameless people. They were running toward the fire, the smoke, toward the people who were hurt by the blast. They didn’t know if there were going to be more explosions, and they didn’t care. They pulled down fences, they ripped off their own shirts to use for rags, they came in droves to help wherever they could. They weren’t asked. They didn’t even think about it. On my television screen I saw dozens of nameless innocent people becoming heroes, right before my very eyes.

What a sight. I just couldn’t ignore the incredible goodness amidst the badness.

mrrogers1Many people will recall this event as an awful tragedy, a terrorist act, a bloody date in history. And it is all of those things. But perhaps even more importantly, this event is an opportunity. That’s right. It’s an opportunity for each one of us watching that dreadful horror movie to remember the enormous amount of good that exists in all of us. And the courage. With all that’s going on in the world of politics and international affairs, it can be easy to lose your faith in the altruistic nature of the human race. Yes, one or more – but few – individuals are responsible for creating this evil. But their numbers are infinitesimal, as compared to the many, the droves of the benevolent.

Events such as the tragedy at the Boston Marathon ask us…no, beg us to unite in recognition of the greatness that we are, and the greatness that we can be for one another. On April 15th, 2013, there were no Democrats, no Republicans, no minorities, no gays, no Muslims, no gun-supporters, no pro-lifers, no politicians…just a lot of great people. A lot of heroes.

You make me proud, Boston.

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The Marriage Question

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I think it’s time for me to put into words a topic that always receives much question and scrutiny in daily life: relationships and marriage. We live most of our adult lives looking for, learning from and being in relationships or marriages, we talk about the intricacies of them at length with our friends and family, and we dedicate at least ¼ of our media consumption on celebrity relationships, marriages, and particularly breakups.

We humans love war, blood, bad news and especially breakups. Love them. We feed off the emotional carnage of romantic heartbreak. I have a sort of half-assed theory that because, for the first time in all of history, humans have acquired such a comfortable, civil world with such a comparatively healthy, long life, we have everything we need, don’t have to hunt for food anymore or fight each other to the death in arenas for the entertainment of Kings, we instead feed our animalistic desire for blood with emotional death. We watch it unfold on reality television shows and in the lives of our celebrity royalty. In a way it really turns the tables. But that’s for another post, I think.

So we all naturally crave the drama of life, and watching it happen in other people’s relationships is one of our favorites. I’m sure many of you readers have experienced watching a close friend or family member go through a bad relationship…or, probably more accurately, what you yourself consider a bad relationship. You feel badly for them, but at the same time you hope they’ll smarten up and leave or that the other person will eventually change for the better. You’re probably a caring enough person to hope for the happiness of all involved, but, deep down inside, you’re still utterly fascinated by watching the whole thing unfold, no matter which way it goes. Go ahead, you can admit it. Drama is addicting. That’s why they always say it’s so hard to turn away from a train wreck. Or from that girl climbing onto chairs at the wedding and dancing seductively with the Best Man so she can make her ex-boyfriend jealous, as he sits across the room nursing a beer and pretending not to notice. They’re both the same thing, really.

I myself am guilty as well of being fascinated by the inner workings of human relationships. For reasons unbeknownst to me, people like to vent to me. Who knows, maybe it’s because I look like I’ve been through it all and couldn’t possibly have anything to judge them for! Heh. Might be true. But in all seriousness, I have found myself judging sometimes. It’s a hard thing to turn off. It’s way too easy to find myself rooting for the wrong side, or imagining that I’d have handled their situation better. With that said, I probably lend a lot more forgiveness overall to people’s actions in their relationships than most would (or so my husband Shawn often tells me). And that’s mostly because I have endured a whole lot of undue scrutiny in my life, and I don’t like the idea of passing on to others what I don’t like happening to me. You know, Golden Rule and all that. I’ll never say I’m perfect at it – I’ve had my share of asshole moments, but I digress.

What brought this rambling subject up to the surface today is the feeling that my marriage has been very much put under a magnifying glass in the wake of meeting new and different people. Mind you, I certainly understand why: even though we are married and share the same house, Shawn and I have completely different interests that barely, if ever, overlap. Sure, we both have art jobs that require us to work from home, thus we understand each other deeply on a creative level and we get to spend most weekdays in the same building. Also, we owe our relationship in part to our equal love of conversation: for the 11 or so years since we met, we have never run out of topics, and we love to ponder them together while sipping on cups of hazelnut-flavored coffee and relaxing on our cozy, taupe-colored couch. We share similar views about people and relationships in general. We see women and men as equals and although we each have our personal flaws and annoyances, we both generally feel that things are fair and just between us most of the time. We agree on the things we consider important: what we want our lives and our future to look like, how we value family, what we need from a partner, how we choose to spend our money, et cetera. And probably the most fundamental item that Shawn and I agree on is our absolute need for freedom and independence within our marriage.

We each struggled in past relationships for a lot of reasons, but mostly because of this one thing. I was so independent in my previous relationship that I grew out of it emotionally, always spending time with my own friends while he stayed home and sulked because he didn’t know how to reel me in. Shawn had two long-term relationships with women who wanted more mutually dependent relationships than what he could give them, and as a result he felt stifled and always at odds with their needs.

When we became friends, Shawn and I spotted that independent flair in one another. We were both not into being leaders, would never be followers, but would rather carve our own paths and leave them for others to join or not. With that frame of mind, Shawn has taken his love for comics, art and movies and crafted a unique niche for himself in the costuming/comic con/FX world that few others, if any, have ever done before or since. I am proud of him, I respect and support him in everything he does, would help him succeed in any way I could, and I think he is the best man I have ever known. But he goes to most ComicCons by himself because he has his own friends there, and because it allows him to fully explore his interests without feeling the need to keep me entertained.

And I have my own separate things going on, too. My big one, of course, is that I love to run. I spend many hours a week taking the dog out for a run or going with friends for an entire Saturday. I spend hundreds of dollars a year on races, and go on run-related weekend trips to see friends, many of whom he has never met (but heard a ton about during our morning coffee conversations). I am also a lover of the written word so I spend a good deal of time creating this blog, which he sometimes reads and sometimes doesn’t. And I honestly don’t mind either way, especially considering that most of what I write on here, I’ve already told him. But he supports all of my efforts and is genuinely proud of all my accomplishments, and I don’t need him to wait at the finish line at any of my races in order to believe that. Besides, if he was at the race, what would I have to talk to him about the next morning over coffee?

Recently I’ve joined a fun new activity, hashing. I’ve met some amazing, beautiful, funny and seriously fantastic people, who love to run and share my penchant for beer and fun. Many hashers are married and their spouses are hashers, too. It doesn’t really surprise me the number of times I’ve been asked, “Does your husband hash, too?” followed by, “No? Why not?” I dislike this line of questioning, but it does often remind me that our relationship is not the norm. Instead it is quite unique: we don’t participate in many of the same interests, but we still get along, love each other and appreciate the freedom to do our own thing. I understand that quite often when two people in a marriage seem to be spending a lot of time apart, it’s because deep down they want to be apart permanently. It certainly turned out to be true of my last relationship, anyway.

I go back and forth between caring and not caring about anyone’s opinion on this. My independent streak often affords me the luxury of letting lots of things slide off my back, because I don’t feel I need to have people sign their approval on my life. But sometimes when this type of conversation starts I want to reach out and start explaining the dynamics of a marriage that can survive two people not doing everything together. I want to get them to see the good that I see in it, encourage them to understand that not every relationship is the same on the inside. But gratuitous explanation just reeks of a desperate attempt to justify fallacy. For example, ever read 26 Facebook status updates in a row from someone lauding their oh-so-perfect marriage with their hunny-bunny, still so deeply in love after all these (3) years…and then see their relationship status change to “single” a month later? Yeah.

So how I answer those questions is much like how I answer people who ask me if I have kids: I give a truthful, simple answer, and then leave it at that. Do you have kids? No, no kids. Why don’t you want kids? They’re just not for us. Does your husband run with you? Nope. Why not? We do different things. Don’t you want him to come support you at the {insert big race name}? He does support me, just not by standing at the finish line.

Maybe Shawn and I are completely different, completely weird people, but one of the most important qualities for each of us to have in our lives is freedom. Hell, I even had a bird tattooed on my back to symbolize this desire (to the chagrin of my then-boyfriend, who had expected me to get his permission before marking up my body). The bottom line is that we both want and need to live a happy, free life without being held back by our partners, and we both know how to love someone who needs their own version of freedom. In my opinion, the most important thing you can give your partner is the one thing they want most. You should give it wholeheartedly, while expecting the same in return. It might be respect, trust, loyalty, attentiveness, freedom, devotion, intimacy or whatever. And if you cannot or will not give that one thing to your partner, then it may be harder than it is worth to keep them around.

I’m not here to say that I’ve got an oh-so-perfect marriage with my hunny-bunny. Or that your relationship is less than perfect than ours because it’s different. Just like any marriage we have our good days and bad days. But, like my amazing sage of a best friend Kathy always says:

Marriage is a choice that you make every single day. You wake up each morning next to the same person, and you make the choice to live with, live for and love them, all over again.

So, it’s my choice to be happy, and I applaud myself for choosing it again today.


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Fatty

loverunning

Across the street from my little neighborhood, there is a park with hilly trails, single track, streams and a small pond filled with ducks, geese and seagulls. I like to take my dog there a few times a week and do some running. Sometimes I unclasp Oscar’s leash so I can watch him let loose on the large open field at the far end of the trail, which is one of my favorite things in the world.

It was cloudy this morning, but once my work day was over at 3 o’clock the sun peaked out and burned off all the clouds in short order. The cool February air felt nice. Oscar and I jogged down our usual path that runs past a swath of eucalyptus trees and headed toward the field. Sometimes there are horses grazing on the other side of the fence that delineates the public park area, and Oscar always looks for them. There were no horses today, but that was okay.

I’ve been feeling kind of lazy for the past two days, but on a whim I decided to add some sprints to my workout, maybe wake myself up a little. I found a straight section of the path around the outside edge of the field, walked to the farthest opposite end with Oscar, and then turned around and booked it, full-speed. Oscar followed behind and quickly overtook me, wagging his tail and running with enough joy to light up half the planet.

Like my dog, I adore sprinting. I love feeling all the normally awkward and separate parts of my body come together at once, feeling the fluid rhythm of my legs and arms as they push me forward. I love that even though all systems are on full-force, it feels like my muscles are only expelling as much energy as needed to do the job. When I sprint I feel efficient and beautiful. When I run like this, for a few brief moments I transform into a wild animal: I am a bird in flight, I am a lion in chase.

I did three sprints like this. Just as I was about to turn back for a fourth, I heard the couple across the field. They’d been hanging out by the little stream the whole time Oscar and I were there. They were two college-age kids, probably no older than twenty. She posed on the wooden bridge in her size 2 skinny jeans, knitted hat and fluffy shearling boots, while he took photos of her. As they walked back toward the parking lot now, I heard the boy remark in a low voice, “you’re still slow, fatty.” They both laughed.

There were so many reactions that I could have had to hearing this. I could have called them out on their rudeness or insulted them back, and I would have had every right to do so. I could have stated all sorts of facts and studies proving that fat athletes are twice as healthy as skinny couch potatoes. Or I could have let it hurt my pride, stopped running for the day and gone home. But instead I pretended I didn’t hear them, and turned back around for my fourth sprint as they disappeared down the path. And this time I ran harder.

Truth is, I am a fatty. I have been more fat and less fat than I am now, over the years, but I’ve pretty much always been at least ten or fifteen pounds overweight. I prefer being lighter, but hey it is what it is. When I was in elementary school the other kids called me “Mount Killamanjaro” and laughed at me any time I tripped and fell or ate junk food in public. They made fun of me for taking gymnastics classes and shook their heads when I tried out for the cheerleading squad. I was never very obese. It was just that I was the only overweight girl in the class, so it was fat enough.

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I’m used to the stigma that’s placed on overweight people when they’re exercising. I’ve always been fat, but I’ve always been active, too. Only during my drunken college years did I not do some kind of physical activity on at least a semi-regular basis. So I’ve heard it over and over again. “You don’t have a dancer’s body.” “You’re too fat to be a gymnast.” “You don’t look like you could run twelve miles.” Even my father has said these kinds of things to me, and my Godmother said them to other people behind my back.

But despite my extra weight, I’ve always done well at the physical activities I chose to take part in. I was always placed front and center of formations during dance recital numbers, I was the first gymnast in my 7th grade group to perform a back handspring without assistance, and I was selected to be Captain of my cheerleading squad after only one year of participation. And let’s not forget that I’ve run an ultramarathon, despite what I look like I can do. In other words, fat has never stopped me.

So even though I made the choice not to respond to my antagonizers this afternoon, I spent a few minutes thinking about their perception of me. Their prejudice toward fat people has lent them the belief that they know what I’m running for. They think that I run so I can look more like them. But the truth is I really don’t. I don’t run to be skinny, even though weight loss is a fortunate side-effect. I don’t really run to be fast, either. And I certainly don’t run so that I can impress them. Or anyone, for that matter.

And even though I never spoke to that couple at the park, and probably won’t ever see them again, I want to respond to them here. I want to tell them, and all the others who have doubted my athleticism, why I run:

I run because I like to be outside.
I run to spend time with my dog.
I run to be social.
I run to be alone.
I run to listen to music I haven’t had time to experience yet.
I run to hear silence.
I run to put space between myself and my inner demons.
I run to escape my negative body image, the one that people like you have given me.
I run to sweat.
I run to breathe hard.
I run to hear my feet land almost silently upon the earth.
I run to feel the sun’s heat on my face, and the cooling wind at my back.
I run to burn off steam.
I run to burn off excess calories.
I run to recover.
I run to discover new trails and to see the ground from the top of a mountain.
I run to get lost in my thoughts, and in the wilderness.
I run to learn things about myself.
I run because it’s hard, and because sometimes it hurts.
I run because most people don’t.
I run because in some ways I’m good at it, and in many ways I am not.
I run because some have told me I never could.
I run because it constantly challenges me to be better.
I run so I can live a longer life.
I run because it is my life.

In some ways, I encourage people to tell me what they think of me when they see me running. I welcome the disapproval from judgmental family members, and the disgusted gaze from skinny elite runners as I slow to a walk up a steep hill and allow them to whiz by. And I gladly accept all the wary looks from people who don’t believe that I have run over thirty miles at once (and in one day), because it helps me to sort out the difference between the people I respect and the people I don’t. It fuels the fire in my (rounded) belly, the one that burns hot enough to add strength to my character and poise to my stride.

And I challenge them all to love the run the way that I do.


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On Being a Poseur

If you have read this blog for more than thirty seconds, you have probably picked up on the fact that I really love running. For better or for worse, over the past three years or so running has become a HUGE part of my life. Most of my friends think of me as “the runner,” they come to me for advice on minimalist shoes, tease me about my penchant for going barefoot, and ask me when my next big race is. I spend a lot of time writing about running on this blog, or having my thoughts published elsewhere. I love being thought of as “the runner.” I also spend a lot of time running, too (strangely enough). For the last month or two my mileage has gone down, while I dedicate more of my free time and energy toward our cross-country move. And I am starting to feel the difference down to my bones.

I need to run. It’s my exercise, my escape, my reward, my alone time and my social hour. Running is where I learn the most about myself. It’s where I feel the most accomplished, and sometimes it’s where I fall the hardest. Running has renewed my self-confidence, and it has also broken my heart.

Last Sunday I lined up at the back of a pack of runners at a local 10-mile trail race, pumped full of nervous energy. The race started off really well, and for a trail run my pace was excellent. But in an unexpected turn of events, I couldn’t finish the race. At mile 7 I started to feel some pretty bad stomach cramps and I had to listen to my body and drop out. As I jogged uncomfortably toward the end of the third loop (and the porta-johns), I passed by a running friend of mine who had finished with an impressive personal record and was so kindly waiting to see me cross the finish line. It killed me to announce that I was dropping, because I wasn’t even tired yet….and also because I had spend the last year or two talking so much shop with him and others I’ve never met on Facebook, that it doubled my shame.

In my growing love for this sport, I have spent years waxing poetic with people about running, and it turns out it’s been enough to make them all believe I’m some kind of runner.

But right then I didn’t feel much like one. Instead I felt like a bit of a poseur. And I felt even more like a poseur later on that very afternoon, when I just happened to decide to sign up for my first marathon. The two events of the day were not even related in my mind. To me, a bad ten-miler today really has no bearing on a marathon that’s happening in five months. But, I can see how it may have looked sort of weird to someone else. If I couldn’t finish a ten miler today, what would motivate me to sign up for a marathon? Am I just digging myself a hole to fill with failures?

Perhaps this dude doesn’t even think of me as a poseur, who knows. But even if he does I don’t suppose it would make much of a difference to me anyway. Despite my wordy posts on the subject, at the end of the day I don’t really care what anyone thinks about me as a runner (hence my lack of hesitation in signing up for that marathon). I’m certainly not a great or talented runner, and I’ve never tried to make others think that I am. I just like to run, and that’s all the promises I’ve ever made to anyone.

But on the other hand, is signing up for something like a marathon or a 50K a promise? Is it a promise that I’ll have trained well enough to complete the race in a decent amount of time (preferably, well before the embarrassingly long cutoff time)? Are my shoe and swag reviews my promise that I’ll consistently be running 30-mile weeks? Is my signature at the bottom of an ultra-marathon application a contract that I’ll at least keep up with the runners in the middle of the pack, rather than closer to the back where I typically end up? Or am I letting my readers and my friends down if my pace is slower than 9:30, or if I drop out of a race or, god-forbid, wind up finishing dead-fucking-last?

What kind of expectation am I setting up for myself by writing an entire blog about training and signing up for all these big races? If I’m not all that great a runner in the end, is my influence on others essentially all smoke in mirrors?

Truth is, I never meant to be influential (nor do I really believe I am). It is amazing, however, whenever I hear that I’ve inspired somebody to start running, or that they became interested in barefoot running after they read an article in my blog. I’ve got nothing but confidence about my talents for writing. But all I’ve ever wanted to do was use that writing talent of mine to share my love for running (and geek out about running shoes) with my readers…whomever they are. I’ve never meant to fool anyone into thinking I’m a great ultra marathoner. I’m not. I’m a deeply flawed runner with much more will and drive than natural talent. And I happen to get a huge kick out of setting high goals and writing about how I work toward them. I make mistakes, I fall, and I write about that too. And then I set even higher goals. This blog is a documentation of my personal journey, not a sermon on great running.

So far I haven’t figured out how to turn off that feeling of fraudulence that happens every time I meet a talented runner who also happens to read my blog. Nor the feeling of injustice that comes with being reminded of how unskilled a runner I actually am, despite how much I know and love the sport. Yet none of this comes with an expectation that others should pity me or waste any time encouraging me to continue. I don’t really need encouragement to keep on running and signing up for races, and I think that’s what perplexes people the most.

I run because I want to get better at running, sure…but mostly I run just because. And whether I suck at it or not, because is enough of a reason.


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Think Running is Boring? Then Go Find Some Trails.

Like most people who don’t run much, I used to think that running sucked because it was boring. Back then I would gut through a couple miles on a treadmill twice a week and talk to my friends about how much I hated it. Then once the hamster wheel got so monotonous that I would work through my lunch break just to avoid it, I took my boring two-mile lunch hour outside. I liked running outside better; there were cute dogs, hills, some good people watching. But it didn’t take more than a couple years before that got rather boring too.

So I took my runs to different places; I ran around my neighborhood, sought out a different lake near my office to jaunt around during lunch, started going after work, got myself a dog to run with. In that time I started running barefoot/minimalist and grew to love it. I even mapped out a 10-mile loop around my town to train for my first half marathon.

But, soon enough, that got boring too.

It wasn’t until I signed up for my first spring 50K race last winter that I learned exactly how not to get bored of running. How? Well, you gotta run trails.

Because the 50K I’d signed up for was on trail, I knew that I probably should start training on them. And at first I wasn’t even sure I understood why it was so important; I mean, running is running, right?

Wrong.

What I discovered during my training is that trail running is a totally different animal. And trail running can turn you into a totally different animal. All of my ultra-running friends know this, but almost everyone else does not. Running trails can turn you from a lazy-ass who jogs around the block on the weekend just to work off Friday night’s beers and pepperoni pizza, to an ultra-marathoner who gets up extra early on Sunday mornings just chomping at the bit to get a few hours of undisturbed miles in. In other words, running trails has the potential to change your mind about running entirely.

Recently, I had a revelation of sorts. It was about 11 o’clock on Sunday morning and I was running down some rough, gnarled New Hampshire trails with my best friend, Kathy. We were aiming for somewhere around 10 miles, and we were already at mile 8. A couple miles back, we had turned off the main trail onto a 3-mile long fire road we’d never run before. It was unmarked, rocky, hilly and so narrow we had to run single-file. At a few points the terrain was so rough we couldn’t run without falling on our asses, so we walked. We tripped over vines and roots a lot. At one point I kicked a rock the size of a basketball that I should have seen but didn’t. Kathy laughed. In fact, we were both smiling and laughing pretty much the whole time, despite the fact that the rain had washed off our bug spray and we were being eaten alive by mosquitos and I-don’t-know-what-else.

At one point during this run I looked up from my feet and noticed that we were traveling in a scene of utter beauty. The trees around us were tall and magestic, with all their branches way up over our heads. The undergrowth was lush and so bright it seemed to be lit from within. Everything was a shade of green so ethereal that it could never be replicated by any hi-def computer graphics in this world. This place, not more than 12 miles from my home, was timeless and magical, really something to behold.

I will say with complete honesty that I have never enjoyed a run so much in my entire life (one or two have come close, though, and they were also trail runs). When it was over I wasn’t tired, and I barely noticed that my hamstrings were sore and that there was a half pound of dirt in my brand new trail shoes. In fact, probably the only reason we stopped was because we were starving and tired of batting away the swarms of insects. After our feet were freed from our filthy shoes and the bagels and juice were gone, I think we both felt a little let down that the run was over.

That morning held all of the reasons I love to run. And I think more people who profess that running is boring should try running trails. I mean, try it in earnest. And I’m talking about real trails, too: winding, hilly paths of dirt that challenge your balance, not just those stick-straight and flat ones cut artificially into the land.

If you hate running, I think the right trails can change your mind. And here’s a few reasons why:

Trail Running Brings You Closer to Nature

Yeah, you’re probably thinking this one’s too obvious; of course, you’re not only going to be close to nature, you’ll be in it. But I’m not just talking about spacial geography here. I believe there’s a little part in all of us that needs to feel primal, animal-like. Many of us have lost that intrinsic part of ourselves, and running trails can bring it back.

This may sound corny to some of you, but when I’m flying over rocks and roots, splashing through puddles and sliding around in mud, I can feel the rich and layered history of my ancestors. Trail running calls to a side of me that is purely instinctual, a side which understands the movement of the wind and the growth of the trees. I feel the hunter and its prey, I hear my steady breath, I trust my legs. Running in nature is meditational in a way that doesn’t feel forced, but totally natural. Afterward my body sings and my mind is at ease. It’s better than years of therapy.

Mental Distractions Become Unnecessary

Used to be I had to have music in my ears on every run. In fact, I have skipped runs altogether, turned and gone back home because I forgot to bring my iPod with me. True story. And if you think running is boring, you probably have your head plugged in at all times too.

Well, all that changed once I started running more trails. And it wasn’t like I stopped bringing music with me out of some hippy/purist sensibility to never run with it. I stopped bringing my iPod because it was a distraction to my run, and I didn’t want to be distracted. At some point I found the music irritated me, made me feel clumsy and blocked off from the experiences of my surroundings, which were renewed and different every second. I think it’s a lot like when you’re driving somewhere new, and once you’re close to your destination you turn off the radio so you can concentrate. You don’t need your ears to find the right place with your eyes, but somehow the noise still becomes an obstacle to your concentration.

With no extraneous sound pumping into my ears I can monitor my form, enjoy the sounds of my dog’s panting and happy frolicking through the underbrush, and take in everything around me with all five senses at once.

Another point I want to make is that running trails can be just as much a mental workout as a physical one. This makes it a lot harder to get bored. During the tougher trails my mind is on overdrive, constantly measuring distance and making thousands of calculations on where to land and how to maneuver around rocks, brush and roots without falling. It’s so much fun! And when I’m not watching my feet, I’m taking in all the minutia of my surroundings: the flowers growing just off the trail, the variation of trees around me, the way the sun casts shadows in the soil…my scenery changes every second, and I don’t need any other diversions to help me enjoy my run.

Trails Strengthen Your Feet, Ankles and Legs

Mental advantages aside, going out on trails can have a huge impact on your physical strength as a runner. When you’re traveling on smooth paved roads, your feet touch the ground in the exact same spot each time, without variation, for thousands upon thousands of strides. Roads may feel easier than trails, because in many ways they are. There’s just not much there on roads for your body to contend with or learn from. No wonder you’re bored.

Trails, on the other hand, tear up your muscles by making all of them work harder to keep you upright and moving forward. On such varied terrain, each and every landing is different from the last, which keeps your proprioception wide awake and in a constant state of practice and adaptation. The day after your first trail run your ankles and calves will likely be on fire for the first time in ages. And yeah, that’s because you actually used them the way they were supposed to be used. Muscle imbalances solved. How novel.

But Trails Are Easier on Your Joints

Although I have no real prejudice against running on roads for speed or for an easy short jaunt, I will say I have noticed that over longer distances (greater than 8 miles), trails are much easier on my hips and ankles. The constant, consistent pounding of the pavement makes me sore and achy the next day, while I’ll typically feel just fine the day after running the same distance on trail. I believe the lower impact on dirt and natural land, combined with the variable foot landings, is what makes all the difference.

No Traffic, No Fumes, No Noise

Sure, I tend to run in places where I’ll cross paths with a lot of cyclists, dog walkers, other runners and even folks on horseback (and, further down the path, piles of horse crap). But I prefer it to all those honking, fuming hulks of loud metal that populate all the roads on my dangerously sidewalk-scarce hometown. It’s pretty hard to relax into a nice run while you’re dodging oncoming cars and trying to keep your confused dog from running you into traffic. Besides, I don’t really think I want 20 people at a stop light to see me blowing snot rockets into the bushes, anyway.

It’s Better for Your Dog, Too

Like to run with your favorite canine? That’s wonderful! And I mean it. All dogs need plenty of exercise and not enough people take the time to do it (especially my neighbors). But physical exertion isn’t the only thing that makes a simple walk so fulfilling. Dogs need a mental outlet too. Just like us, being cooped up within the same four walls day in and day out can drive a dog to tail-chasing. And walking the same route around the block is just as monotonous to them as it is to you.

Dogs live for running in the woods, just watch yours once and you’ll understand. Whenever I take my Boxer, Oscar, out for a trail run, he embodies the mere definition of happiness. He is exuberant and beautiful. He holds his tail up higher, he bounds bigger, and he acts, well…like a dog is supposed to. When there aren’t a lot of people around I let him off his leash so he can chase squirrels up trees, pick up sticks to carry with him, sprint and stop and then sprint again (a running pattern that is more natural for dogs than our near-constant steady pace). I let him cool off and have a drink in the natural ponds. When we get back home Oscar is usually exhausted, panting and drooling up a storm, and I know he loves me for it.

Oscar smiling after a nice long trail run.

I will admit that I do find road running to have its merits, and I spend a good deal of time on them. But if you don’t run, or don’t run enough because it’s boring to you, then really…try running out in the trails sometime. Just don’t forget the bug spray.

*nevermind the fact that at about three miles in, some bug bit or stung my forehead and drew blood. I cleaned it off and ignored it for the rest of the run, but by the time I got home, my entire face had swollen so much that I looked like Sylvester Stallone at the end of Rocky 2. Lesson learned: early morning rain makes bugs come out in droves, not hide in shelter as originally thought.


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Building a Better Toolbox

Photo blatantly stolen from competitor.com. Click on image for source.

Barefoot and minimalist running is growing in popularity by day, but right now it’s definitely still a lifestyle niche. As with any niche and the folks involved in it, differing opinions fly, people get segmented into this group or that, and elitists are born.

Personally, I try to stay clear of all that. When the debate over shoes versus barefoot circles again as it always does, I just roll my eyes and wait it out. I don’t like to pigeonhole myself into any one role in life. When it comes to this topic, mostly I just identify as a runner and leave the barefoot part out unless it’s pertinent. Frankly, the barefoot part is only a small fraction of what my running life is about. Obviously, I prefer running with much less on my feet than most people, but that’s because to me it means good form with less injury, and it feels more natural. And I enjoy running much more when it feels natural to me.

My opinion on the whole barefoot vs. minimalist shoes debate is that there should be no debate. I feel strongly that it’s important to embrace all aspects of something important to you, or else you’ll never see the whole picture. I agree that barefoot is your best learning tool. I agree that shoes are tools. I agree that good running form requires a mid-foot strike, straight posture and high cadence. I agree that minimalist trail shoes are good for trails, and that you can go barefoot on trails. You can call me wishy-washy, but I believe that to truly understand something you must welcome all facets into your study of it, not just one or two specific ideas.

People who go barefoot 100 percent of the time arrive at limitations when it comes to extreme temperatures and certain aggressive terrains, and there may be some experiences they will have to avoid because of it. People who never go barefoot remain numb and consequently miss out on the glorious wealth of the world that can be experienced through the soles of their feet. Only those of us who fling aside the puritanical garble from both far ends of the spectrum can really gain the benefits of both worlds.

Like I said, I am a runner first, and a barefoot/minimalist second. Like the rest of the folks in the minimalist niche, I use my choice of footwear (or lack thereof) as a tool to allow good technique and improve my joy in running. I am also a bit of a minimalist shoe geek. I love to test and review all kinds of minimalist shoes for running and casual wear. I believe in minimal footwear and enjoy promoting it over shoes that alter or try to “fix” one’s gait. It makes me happy to think that even in some miniscule way I am serving to shape the future of the sport through the quality of its products.

No shoe company has ever paid me to write a review of their shoes, good or bad, but most of the time the products I write about are given to me free of charge. On occasion, if I want to try out a certain shoe badly enough, I will purchase it myself if the company’s PR department is unresponsive. Some people will tease me by calling me a “shoe whore,” and well, I suppose that’s partially true. I relish in my growing choice of footwear each time I head out for a run (and likewise, in giving some away to others who will enjoy them more). But my intentions are pure: my childlike curiosity and desire to be as involved as I can in this sport are my driving forces.

But I am most certainly not without a canyon of flaws. For the last two years I have run almost exclusively in minimalist shoes. Yes, you read that right. Except for on rare occasions and really good moods, I all but avoided running barefoot out of a fear of nasty blisters and uncorrectable form issues. And the few times I tried to run bare, it felt too difficult and had some less than desirable outcomes. For the longest time I lived by the resolve that it would take too long for my feet to adapt, and in the meantime I want to bank mileage at every run, not limp around over tiny stones that my baby-soft feet can’t handle.

But in the last couple of weeks I have finally taken the opportunity to set aside my hesitations about running barefoot, and just started doing it. I guess you could say I’d finally had enough of hearing myself talk. One night I came home from work, got into my running skirt and sport bra, leashed up the pooch and left the toolbox of shoes at home. I didn’t take a pair with me as a back-up, just in case, like I’d always done (and invariably put them on half a mile later). I left my front door just as barefoot as my beloved dog Oscar, and I found out that it wasn’t nearly as scary as I thought it would be. I ran a mile around the neighborhood and I didn’t get any blisters. So I did it again a few days later and it was a little bit easier. Last night I ran two full miles completely barefoot, for the first time ever. I came home, washed my feet off and started dinner like it was no big deal. Because it wasn’t, not anymore. What a triumph to know such simplicity! In a few weeks my feet will be tougher and I’ll take on more challenges. I am thrilled that I’ve finally overcome my fears and feelings of inexperience related to running barefoot.

So I guess you could say that I am finally coming to a point in my experience where I can make an argument for or against running totally barefoot, because I’m actually dedicated to the use of both toolboxes. But I actually have less of a need to argue about it now than ever before. Why? Because there’s really no point.

Many barefoot purists have felt the glow of enlightenment as they shunned those who choose to wear shoes in their daily life. Many shod runners have felt smart in their cushioned shoes while they shook their heads at those weird barefoot hippies. But I have never felt more enlightened than I did the day I realized that I don’t have to make a choice. I can have the whole toolbox for myself, and I can be ready for anything.