Barefoot Monologues

A Journey of the Sole


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Born to Run Ultramarathons 50K 2013 Race Report

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Balancing a wooden bowl of avocados, a folded lawn chair and a Solo cup full of margarita in my arms, I followed my good friend Caity and her two kids toward the center of the campground, where folks were selling stuff and Luis Escobar was up on a bandstand announcing contenders for the next round of ball races. I stopped on the way to chat with Pat Sweeney. Little Guadajuko, the ghost dog of the Sierra Madres, walked by us behind his mistress, the one and only Maria Walton.

I remember wondering how this could even be real. The series of events in one’s life are often entwined and complicated, but my route to this place was so linear that it seems almost fictional. It was probably true for most of us here at this 2013 Born to Run Ultramarathons event. One day, for whatever personal reason, we all picked up this book written by a NY Times journalist, entitled Born to Run. We read it, we fell in love with the story of Micah True and his Raramuri, and then we fell in love with the idea of running an ultramarathon someday. Many of us actually ended up running them, too. For me, that book placed a pivot point in my life so deep and strong that in three years time I’d ended up finally following my longtime dream to live on the west coast, wearing a pair of Luna Sandals, running a 50K race with a tribe of wild, beautiful, like-minded human beings and creating friendships with my own personal superheroes. And I credit that book, most of which I read during vacation on a beach in Bermuda, for the entire succession of events that brought me to that very moment, and that bowl of avocados.

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Before that moment, I hadn’t done anything that could be considered camping since I was probably fifteen years old. So, to make a 5-6 hour solo drive up the California coast and pitch my own tent on a ranch with no shower outbuildings or running water of any kind…well, that was kind of a stretch for me. And as this fact arose in full-color about a week prior to the event, I almost decided not to show up at all. A big part of me was intimidated by the “ick” factor caused by not showering for three days, and the knowledge that, as compared to the rest of the runners attending, I am totally a “city girl.”

And let’s talk about my training. Yeah, exactly: what training? A bunch of hill runs, a solo-ten miler here and there and a couple half marathons is probably not what most of these ultra runners would consider a good 50K training plan. But I went anyway, and I’m really freaking glad I did because I learned a shitload of important things about myself.

What did I learn? Well one of the things I learned is that I don’t need to train my head off to complete a 50K race, and in fact it’s probably a bad idea. I learned that finishing this kind of distance is 30% about adequate fueling, 10% about training and 60% about mental fortitude and a good attitude. Last year I spent 6 months running long in preparation for my first 50K. I suffered and toiled and even though I finished, I was mentally exhausted and totally over running even before I crossed the starting line. I didn’t eat enough all day, I indulged in negative thoughts, I whined, I cried, and I almost quit twice. And then afterward, I didn’t even feel like running again for a solid 8 months. All that training? It did jack shit for me on race day.

For this ultra I didn’t “train” at all. And that wasn’t even a strategic thing, really…I just didn’t feel up to it so I didn’t do it. Instead I joined a local hashing group and stopped taking running seriously. I ran gnarly technical trails on crazy steep hills with a bunch of insane beer drinkers, I ran several days in a row without fretting about it, skipped several days in a row if I felt I needed it, ran as slow as I wanted to and ran as fast as I could when the mood came over me. I signed up for a couple of half marathons for the hell of it, and really I just enjoyed myself. I even stopped wearing my Garmin watch because I didn’t care how fast I ran or whether the run was 4.0 or 4.2 miles long.  That is the attitude I brought with me to the starting line of the Born to Run 50K, and it’s the attitude that carried me, with much fewer tears this time, down the finisher’s chute.

And speaking of the start, this was the most unique one I’ve ever been to.

cows2

*   *   *

Three gunshots pierced the quiet morning in quick succession, followed by the most exuberant mariachi music you’ll ever imagine wanting (or not wanting) to hear at 4:15am. In my damp tent on the hard, cow-pie spotted soil of the ranch, it barely felt I had slept a wink all night. I took a moment to release myself from my margarita-and-dancing-induced fog. By the time I managed to unfurl from the warm sleeping bag and meander over to the porta-johns, there was a line four people deep, all toting their own roll of toilet paper…you know, just in case. It was still dark and everyone moved like slow mutants, a strange contrast to the upbeat yipping of the mariachi singers.

Once the spikey tune of Voodoo Child started to ring through the camp, I was back in my tent dressing for the race. It was about 45 degrees and overcast so I chose capri pants, a long sleeve shirt and a handheld. Then I shoved as many calories as I could down my gullet: a banana, a pre-made protein smoothie, and some iced coffee to stave off the caffeine withdrawals. Krista Cavender, Jacobus Degroot, Caity McCardell and Tracey Longacre got themselves ready in their own camps all around me.

At 6:00 Luis gathered up the 400-person crew of 10-mile, 50K, 100K and 100-mile runners, went over the course markings, and made us repeat Caballo Blanco’s famous pre-race oath:

“If I get lost, hurt or die…it’s my own damn fault.”

With that done, another gunshot cracked through the air and we were off. Just like that. Excited runners whooped, hollered and yipped back and forth across the pack for the whole first mile. Unlike every road race I’ve ever participated in, where the runners are separated by race distance, lined up according to pace, and the fastest ones elbow each other for room behind a straight line drawn on the pavement, this was just a jumble of happy people all starting together as one, worrying not who was in front, running with dirt on their feet and huge fucking grins on their faces. The feeling of the crowd was wild, colorful and raw, and I felt completely at home in it. I was living inside my own poem that was written for Caballo. This was his world, and what a world it is!

Dust ascends on the horizon
A deep, rumbling thunder without rain
The sound of rampant hearts, a legion
Earthly, feral and unconstrained

Crista1Photo courtesy of Crista Anna Scott.

*   *   *

The first ten mile loop flew by, and I finished it pretty quickly. I don’t even know what I can say about that first 1/3 of the course, except that it just felt great. I had to wait out the first four miles until my body warmed up and got with the program, typical for me, but after that I was fine. The chilly air kept me comfortable, the two dozen or so runners around kept me company, and all my months spent on the hills of SoCal made the inclines on this first loop barely noticeable.

The ranch was wide and hilly with gorgeous, leaning oak trees spotting the gold-colored fields.  I chatted, laughed, heck I even sang: I ran by a chick who was singing a tune from the Muppet Show and I just had to join in. At this point I didn’t actually plan to finish the entire race, but I wasn’t worried about it yet. I just ran, and I smiled. When I finished the first loop I went back to my tent to change into lighter clothing, drink some Gatorade and eat something.  And to my surprise I noticed I still had so much energy left that it was as if I hadn’t even been running yet. What a wonder proper fueling does! So when I was done changing into my INKnBURN skirt and cotton tank, I just got up and started the second loop. Easy-peasy.

By mile 12 the racers had spread out enough that I was running solo, and I found myself a little off course. I backtracked for a bit and then saw a girl running up the road toward me. In my relief I yelled out, “Oh good, I’m still on course!” right about the same time she was asking me, “is this the right way?” There were a dozen cows standing on the trail and blocking the markers, but when they heard us talking they shifted away. We found the markers and continued on together. I expected her to fly on past me but we were running at the same pace, so we started chatting. Turns out that she was the same girl singing the Muppet Show song back at loop one, and we didn’t know it yet but we were going to be each other’s motivation for the remainder of the 50K.

Evy-Lynn1The famous Barbie Aid Station. Photo courtesy of Evy Lynn

Her name is Crista Anna Scott, and she’s from Ventura California. She writes a blog called Run, Eat, Create, Repeat and she had just received her Master’s Degree the day before the race. She wrote her thesis on ultra running, and this was her first 50K. And, she didn’t really “train” for this race either. I mean, it couldn’t have been a more perfect match-up. We spent the entire second loop running, exchanging stories, laughing, missing turns (oops) and backtracking, being halted by cow stampedes, and pondering the invaluable glory of downing Coca-Cola during a long race. We didn’t really notice that we were tired, we didn’t care if we were slow (we totally were), and we didn’t even talk about the steepness of the hills we were climbing. If I believed in that sort of thing, I would say the universe sent me a buddy to reflect back to me all the positivity that I wanted to have about this race. Whatever it was, I couldn’t be more grateful, especially during the third and final loop.

Twenty miles in, I was getting tired. But it was really only a half-marathon kind of tired, so I was still a bit bouncy. Back at the tent I refilled my water bottle, grabbed a Luna bar and stuffed a bunch of gels into the pockets of my skirt. I met up with Crista and her friend Alexis (who decided to join us for the last lap) and we continued on together. We ran for probably two miles but then slowed to a comfortable, speedy walk. I had been ignoring it successfully for the last few miles, but my IT band was now starting to give me some real pain. And I knew exactly what it was: too much slouching early on in the race (likely during the aforementioned first four mile shuffle) had me over-striding for long enough to cause inflammation that was slowly getting worse as I continued on. It was too late to fix it with a form change, so my only choice was to walk for a large portion of the last loop and hopefully finish without causing any lasting injury. I was a little peeved because I had fixed my IT band issues over a year ago and I should have known better than to cause it to come back again – but for the most part I didn’t let the disappointment bring me down.

It was tough to walk. Every other body party was still on board to run. My feet were tired but okay. My hips were sore, but they liked running better than walking. However my knee only had a little left in her so I decided to save it for the last push at the end. I think Crista wanted to run more, too. But she refused to go on without me so we resorted to speed-walking through the fields as the sun grew hot in the clear, cerulean-colored sky.  We avoided the subject of our physical struggles and instead passed the time by singing. Rather loudly and badly, too. We covered Disney tunes, The Beatles, Tom Petty, Michael Jackson and the Steve Miller Band, and the wind passed our noise to the racers walking behind us, who laughed amiably whenever a voice cracked or we all forgot the words at the same time. Eventually we arrived back at the Muppet Show song (“mahna-mahna”), and by then we’d been dancing around on the trail like fools and had forgotten all about our sore feet for nearly an hour. And now we only had about four miles left to go.

The power of music, indeed. Someone should write a master’s thesis on that.

The last four miles were long, and my knee was starting to hurt significantly, but at this point I only remember the pain intellectually. Emotionally, I was all-in. Before, I had all but planned to drop out of this race, but while it was happening I didn’t spend a minute considering it. Each time I came back from a loop my mind was on fueling for the next one, instead of stopping or taking a nap. During the moments when I was the most tired, I was thinking about what I’ll do differently for my next 50k, instead of swearing off ultras for the remainder of my life. Rather than worrying over how exhausted I felt in the moment, I remembered one of my favorite things that my friend Vanessa wrote a while back in her blog, about ultra running: “One foot in front of the other, forever.”

amuletAmulet hand-made by Akabill. Mahalo!

*   *   *

So the final thing I learned about myself during this race is that I’m stronger than I usually give myself credit for, and I’m more beautiful than my eyes let me believe. Sure, today I may be looking at photos of myself during the race and lamenting my recent failures at weight loss – the one thing that, if successful, would have helped me finish the race much faster – but my body, at its current weight and training level, still took me across the 50K finish line. And has done it twice. However much I complain about my round tummy or my flabby arms, my body is strong, and my will is even stronger. It’s unfortunate that my eyes have trouble seeing the beauty that my heart feels for these chunky legs that carried me for 31 miles, and it’s a dichotomy that troubles me every day – and possibly it even hinders my weight loss goals. But I sincerely hope that my motivation to run this race again (and do it better next time) will naturally help to reconcile this conflicting double-vision body image that I struggle with, and that next year I’ll come back with both kinder eyes and a lighter body. It’s probably about time those two made up, anyway.

mencrista Taken with Crista and “Skirt Dude” (who handed out all the medals) right after finishing the race.
Photo by Michelle Amber Evans.

Thank you to Luis Escobar for putting on a race that to me is the ultrarunning adventure Mecca: I can’t wait to do it all over again next year. Thank you to Crista for your companionship: you were like my North Star! Thank you to Guadajuke for letting me pet you: your presence alone imploded my symbolism-loving mind. Thank you to my friends who made it to the race, new and otherwise: you continue to inspire me in ways I never see coming. Thank you to those who believe in me and especially to those who don’t: you give me strength beyond your understanding. Mahalo nui lo!


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Review: Luna Sandals with ATS Laces

Coming right off my announcement that we are moving to San Diego this summer, it feels rather fitting to be reviewing a product that comes out of the West Coast. Founded by none other than Barefoot Ted McDonald, the illustrious insane barefoot character in Chris McDougall’s book Born to Run, Luna Sandals is located in Seattle, Washington. The name Luna comes from a Raramuri dude named Manuel Luna, who actually taught Barefoot Ted how to make his own pair of running sandals.

And now, you can wear his running sandals!

I’ve always sort of dug Luna Sandals, they’re gorgeous and super high in quality. And any runner can up their cool factor by ten points or so just by wearing them (which is something I definitely needed). But I never much saw myself actually running in sandals. I had worries about pinching, rubbing, hot spots and bloody toes. Especially bloody toes. I mean, I can barely walk across my office building without bruising my hands on metal filing cabinets or stubbing my foot on the edge of a desk. But, after some unexpected networking, I was granted a very generous discount to try out a pair.

So I jumped over to the website and discovered all of the different choices of sandal that Luna offers. Suddenly, I could see myself running in these things! You can take your pick from several different footbeds, including trail soles, or you can even get a DIY kit to make your own, if you are so inclined. Not to mention three different lacing choices: leather, elasticized leather, and something called ATS laces. ATS stands for “All Terrain Strapping,” which, unlike the other styles, has its own backpack-style buckle closure (rather than the traditional wrap-and-tie method) that makes last-minute adjustments a little easier.

I decided to go with the Original Luna Sandal footbed, which is a 6mm neoprene Vibram (yeah, those guys are everywhere) sole with a thin suede leather covering. When I started to look at their sizing, I noticed that you could measure your foot width as well as length to choose the right size. But, not surprisingly, the width of my foot was like three sizes higher than the length. So I went with the option to have my sandals custom made to fit my foot. Which is GENIUS! I mean, how many other shoe companies do you know that are willing to make you a shoe that’s exactly the shape of your foot? Can you say amazing customer service?

It was fun, too. I got out a sheet of paper and some markers and drew the outline of my Flinstone feet. It felt a little CSI and a little 3rd-grade-Thanksgiving-turkey-art. I was tempted to write “gobble-gobble” in the margins. Then I sent it along to Dylan, who is one of the chillest sales reps I’ve ever spoken with. In fact, I’ve met about half the team and so far they’re all laid-back and super friendly.

The question of lacing choice was a little harder for me. I have always loved the way traditional huaraches look, all wrapped up the ankle like ballerina shoes. Of all the lacing styles I’ve seen for running sandals, the traditional tie is the most feminine looking as well (no offense, guys). That style of sandal happens to be in fashion for women this summer, too. But I decided to go with the ATS lacing because I wanted to run in these, and I wanted to get the most feasibly comfortable style, so that I would have a better shot at actually wanting to run in them.

I won’t say that a little part of me doesn’t want a second pair with the original lacing…but alas. Story for another day.

A week and a half later, they came in the mail…and they were breathtaking! I mean, it sounds weird to say that about a pair of sandals, right? But they were. They were just so…undeniably cool.

Soon as I put the sandals on they felt comfortable. The footbed is supple, soft and almost silky (alliteration is fun). The shape is exactly the shape of my foot, no falling off the edge, a big deal for me! The heel strap is elasticized for comfort and fit. The plug hole at the top of the shoe (between my toes) has an indent at the bottom, so I can’t feel a lump on my second toe like one might with some other huarache laces.

I will admit the ATS lacing was a bit tough for me to figure out at first. Tighter or looser?  Should the elastic stretch across my heel or just sit there? How close should the buckle be to my ankle? The first two runs I took in them, I stopped about a half dozen times, tightening and re-tightening. I found that the way I need to wear them for running is not comfortable when I am walking, and vice-versa.

I learned that for comfort and stay-put-ability purposes, the buckle on the ATS laces must be adjusted tightly and as close to your ankle as possible, positioned behind that bump on the top of your foot. Otherwise it gets loose faster and it somehow tends to throw off the way the rest of the shoe fits (although it’s really not an issue when walking). Only problem is I can’t get the buckle to stay there; the loop that attaches the buckle to the lace is a little on the loose side, and as a result it keeps sliding back toward my toes. I’ve actually considered stitching the loop down to keep it there, and that might solve the problem. Also, this could just be an issue for my particular foot…as you may have read time and time again, I have a weirdly-shaped one.

Lacing aside, running in the Luna sandal is really, really FUN. The soles are truly comfortable. I love that I have air on my toes instead of hot fabric, and yet I don’t feel like I’m missing out on any of the positives of wearing shoes. I think they help me keep my form a little better than shoes, too. The first few times I wore these I got hot spots; but then it stopped. Since then my form has felt a little more natural, and I have been able to run farther barefoot, as well.

The original luna sandal was made for all terrain. I haven’t tried them on trails, I am not in any particular hurry to find out whether I’ll like having little tiny rocks trapped between my foot and shoe. But they are fine on roads. It’s probably good to point out that I have also had none of the pinching, rubbing or bloody toes referenced earlier. Please ignore the broken toe nails, though – hazards of running a hilly 50k.

Since it’s now summertime, my Lunas have all but replaced my other running shoes, sandals and flip-flops. I have been wearing them everywhere. To the grocery store, to the beach, out to dinner, even to the office. As I mentioned before, the ATS lacing isn’t the most feminine of Luna’s choices, but I’ve gotten along just fine. I’m happy to sacrifice for comfort, these days.

But don’t be surprised if I show up some day soon wearing a second pair of these babies, with traditional lacing. Oy vey.

Overall, I am very impressed with my Lunas. They exceeded my expectations for comfort, and they have made me into a cooler runner and person. 🙂


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Running as Art

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Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t like sports.

Despite having been raised by an athletic father who played softball in the summer and hockey all winter, despite having been a basketball and football cheerleader in high school, and despite the fact that I live right smack in the middle of Red Sox Nation, I have absolutely no interest in sports. It’s a lot like living in Nashville and not liking Country Music. While most of my coworkers are looking for tickets to the Yankees/Red Sox game during our next business trip to New York City, I’m mentally planning a quiet night at Shake Shack with the few who don’t give a hoot about which team wins.

No, I don’t like sports at all. But I am a runner. So what gives?

Last weekend I attended the Boston leg of Chris McDougall’s “Naked Run” tour. It was Marathon weekend, so there were tents, noise, streets blocked off and police everywhere. And the glorious finish line was all set up right next to the Boston Public Library, where about 60 barefoot and minimally-shod runners met up to run a 5-mile loop together. Regular Joes and Nancies all pounding the pavement with the likes of Scott Jurek, Dr. Daniel Leiberman, Lee Saxby, John Durant, and of course the man himself, Christopher McDougall. It was probably the coolest run I’ve ever done to date…yes, even cooler than that warm morning jog on Coronado Island last December. Kathy and I smiled until our faces hurt and she snapped a photo every 3 minutes. We ran behind McDougall most of the way, and at one point I was able to catch up to him for a quick chat. It was relaxed, laid-back and beautiful, exactly the things you want out of a run. With a half mile left we stripped off our shoes and ran “naked” across the Boston Marathon finish line and back to the library steps, still smiling like a couple of fools.

Running...ahem..."with" Chris McDougall.

What strikes me the most about that run, and about all of my running experiences since reading Born to Run, is that running represents nothing but joy to me. Unlike those who grunt out two miserable miles on the treadmill twice a week to fulfill their New Years resolutions, I’d rather be running than doing pretty much anything else. Could it be because I took my shoes off? Revamped my slacker running form? Could be. But I think the real difference is that now I see running less as a  sport and more as a practiced art.

The subject of barefoot running is filled with a ton of historical hypothesis, instructional information and biomechanical science. There are books, blogs, videos, forums, events and lectures all over the place about it. Anything you want to know about why you should run barefoot or with minimal footwear, it’s easy to find. There will be at least a few minimalist runners at every 5k and half marathon you’ll enter this year, and every running store worth its salt is carrying at least a few pairs of minimalist running shoes.

Running naked in Beantown.

I don’t believe that running should be thought of like a sport, or used as a workout that you do to get back into your high school jeans. Those jeans are out of style, anyway. I believe running should be approached as an art form, like dancing, singing, painting or writing. Things that we all do at some level all our lives, as a form of pleasure or social activity. For example anyone can sing, and it’s enjoyable even if you suck at it (think of all the times you’ve belted out “Happy Birthday” to your embarrassed friends and family at TGIFridays). And then there are people like Aretha Franklin, who sing too, just much, much better.

What I’m saying here is that some activities are part of who we are, part of our cultures, our societies. Why have we made running out to be anything different? Running is a default movement of our species. More specifically, it’s a default art form of our species. It’s inherent in all of us to run, just like bopping our heads to a great song on the radio, or drawing a stick figure of ourselves on our notepads during snooze-fest board meetings. We all have the tools to run; our bodies were built with parts meant to make us able to run, stuff that not all creatures have. We run constantly as children, and we do it without the aid of motion-control shoes or GPS watches. Certainly 99.999% of us will never win the Boston Marathon, we just don’t possess the talent. Still thousands show up every year to run it, just the same. It’s because these people know that running is a good thing, and that yes, it’s good for you. These people haven’t forgotten how to enjoy movement. Haven’t allowed themselves to become too distracted by their televisions, their careers or their iPads. They’re not members of the huge majority of Americans who have inexplicably convinced themselves that they can’t run. So let me take a moment here to remind everyone again, in the words of Chris McDougall:

  • You weren’t born broken.
  • Running isn’t a perilous punishment-for-pizza.
  • Everything you need [to run], you had the day you were born.
So yes, I believe that running is a form of art. Or at least that’s what it’s become for me (an artist by trade) since reading Born to Run last year. The book taught me that practicing my running form is cathartic on a level superior to deep breathing or antidepressants. That completing a difficult run is 90% mental. And that 10 miles is about so much more than just burning calories…it’s about the journey within myself. Learning these things has made my life happier, and in some ways it has even made me a better person.

Precisely the moment at which I choked. I thank my good friend Kathy for catching it on camera.

I wanted to thank Mr. McDougall for writing the book that would do such a thing for me, last weekend when I finally caught up to him on the bridge over the Charles River Basin. But instead I choked, and ended up asking him why he wasn’t running barefoot. It turned out okay anyway, and I even got a compliment on my running form. Maybe if I read the book again, I can learn to be zen enough to talk to celebrities without that residual “OMG I’m such a GEEK” side-effect. One can only hope.

I even geeked-out at the signing.