100 Miles in 9 Months: The Journey of a Reluctant Barefoot Runner

Discussion in 'Front Page News' started by Barefoot TJ, Nov 3, 2012.

  1. Barefoot TJ

    Barefoot TJ
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    100 Miles in 9 Months: The Journey of a Reluctant Barefoot Runner
    By Robert Knowles
    Guinness Record Holder -- Twice! -TJ

    In June of this year I fulfilled a 9-month obsession to run over 100 miles non-stop in bare feet in 24 hours. A description of this 24-hour run really can't be separated from the events that went before it, so I'll begin at the beginning...

    Background and Philosophy

    For the record, I was not born to run barefoot. As a child I enjoyed lush carpets and chunky training shoes. As an adult arriving in Australia from the UK 5 years ago, I would avoid removing my shoes on the beach in all but the softest sand, and only because the sand risked getting in my shoes. I frequently complained to my wife about the amount of people that shop at the supermarkets here unshod (through choice not poverty)… I disliked seeing feet when choosing ingredients for my dinner.

    So where did it/I go wrong? In 2010 I started running longer distances for fun; I was stoked to run a marathon in 3h52min. The next year I carried on running, but DNF'd two marathons due to poor pacing and training choices. It probably would have been a good time to choose a different sport, but my stubborn streak had been activated. I started doing trail running and at about the same time (September 2011), I was feeling inspired to do something to fundraise for a charity called Yalari, which sponsors Indigenous Australians from remote communities to go to some of the country's highest performing schools. I wanted to raise $7,000 for them, but I had a problem; when it comes to charity I am a grumpy old man of 34 years of age. I don't like sponsoring people to do what I perceive as anything fun, like trekking in a holiday destination, growing a moustache or wearing a brightly coloured shirt to work. You want my cash, I want to see you suffer as least as much as I did to earn it. This opinionated world view has a downside though, it means putting my money where my mouth is i.e. doing something rather unpleasant if wanting to raise funds. The idea came to me pretty quickly, I wasn't enjoying DNFing marathons so an ultramarathon must be terrible. And doing it without shoes, OUCH and YUCK, that would totally suck eggs.

    Training

    I had initially chosen a shorter target race as my goal, taking place in July 2012. I thought I should see a running coach to get some advice as I had no idea about running with no shoes on, nor about running ultras. I figured running form would be increasingly important at longer distances, but had no idea if mine needed fixing. I might add that I had not read Born to Run, nor did I believe I was pursuing a path to running enlightenment; I just wanted someone to help make this experience less brutal on me.

    My gait analysis was done by an accomplished ultrarunner/coach/physio who was informed about barefoot running but equally did not push it. I was told that I landed on my heels with a very straight leg, which was apparently not good:

    Photo 1.jpg
    Pre-barefoot running gait analysis
    I was however given the reassurance that adapting to running barefoot would go hand in hand with improving these aspects of my running form.

    The coach encouraged me to run with minimal contact noise, faster cadence, shorter stride and to land more midfoot, with my feet underneath me. This seemed reasonably intuitive; I only used to overstride as I thought it would make me go faster. The gait analysis gave me a vocabulary with which I could articulate what was happening to my body when I ran, so it was time to put it into action.

    I did a 50k ultra in shoes the next week and tried to apply the gait advice I had been given. It seemed to help, I finished the thing (I did 60k in fact, due to a missed turn) and with the shorter striding I didn't feel as sore afterwards. After a week or two of recovery, I started some tentative barefoot runs and did a couple of kms around the block on hilly roads. On the first run my heels didn't touch down and I noticed it made my calves ache, so the next time I let them sink a bit and it felt better. I was feeling optimistic and with 4 short barefoot runs behind me I thought I would test my limits and do a 47km beach ultra in bare feet. There were a couple of blisters, but I came second out of 11 runners and my marathon split was faster than my previous shod marathon time. I'm not sure why, but I actually got a kick out of racing with no shoes on and to my surprise it hadn't seemed to impair my performance.

    I went back to the running coach for another gait analysis (this time barefoot) and there was a significant difference:

    Photo 2.jpg
    Gait analysis after a couple of weeks of adapting to running barefoot
    Things actually seemed to be improving! Given I'd just done 47kms, I felt like I needed to target something bigger than the race originally planned, which is when I read on Barefoot Runners Society website about Todd Ragsdale running just over 100 miles in 24 hours in a possible world record. I also found out about an Italian (Francesco Arone) running 100kms barefoot in 11 hours and 42 minutes for a separate Guinness World Record. With only one 50km ultra under my belt I'm not sure why I thought I stood a chance of running this far, let alone barefoot, but I believed I had a chance and so decided that I would try to break both records in a single race, the Sri Chinmoy 24hr (to be held in Sydney in June 2011).

    Over the coming months I built up my Kms, easing back if I was feeling any inflammation from impact (there was some initial teething with the little bones in the balls of my feet), but pushing through if it was just a bit of soreness from abrasion. I got up to a maximum of 100km barefoot in a week. Mostly though I ran 30-40km barefoot and 30-40km shod a week. The barefoot was all on road, some of it fairly rough and incorporating quite a few hills. I did a 12 hour track race in Feb 2011 (95km, shod), a 50km barefoot race on concrete (4hr 39min) and a 100km solo (shod) training run in April, and the 100km North Face race (again shod) in May. This last race was intended as psychological preparation; with 4500m of punishing vertical climb I knew that however hard it got, I would appreciate the flatness of a track 24hr race afterwards. And so the training had peaked, all that was left was to embrace the unknown and find out if my self-belief was due a massive correction...

    The Race

    The former Olympic venue could have been any modern athletics stadium once you were down on the track. I remember that even at 10am (the start), the sky was blue and sunny but the ground was cold. I thought that this coldness could be of significance once night fell in about 7 hours time… I live in subtropical Brisbane so barefoot running in the cold would be a new experience for me.

    Photo 3.JPG
    My soft office feet before the race
    A minute's silence is held before the race begins, which when you are standing there in no shoes, supposedly about to try and run 100 miles is really much too long. The mind inevitably turns to the question of "what the hell am I doing?!" Commencing running was therefore quite a relief. My race plan (finalized over pizza the night before) was to run at 10km/h for as long as I could; to try to break the first record (100km in 11h42m) and then use whatever reserve I had left to try and exceed a total of 102 miles in the remainder of the race…
    Photo 4.JPG
    Having fun with my shod competitors
    …and that’s pretty much what happened. At 8 hours I had done 74kms, and was feeling pretty confident that I could make 100km inside the old record. My pace had been very consistent, I was running non-stop and close to 10km/h. My fellow shod runners had been great company; there were lots of supportive comments and a bit of banter. One runner looked very pleased with himself when he asked me if I had used the trackside portaloos yet (they definitely weren’t the highlight of competing barefoot).

    Photo 5.JPG
    8 hours down and spirits high
    The first record came and went at 11h 17min and gave me a real lift:

    Photo 6.JPG
    100km down
    My shod competitors congratulated me and for a while life tasted sweet. The cold of night soon sobered me up though... it dropped to -3 Celcius trackside that night, and I had only packed running shorts and a light jumper. At about midnight I encouraged my wife (and sole crew) to go back to the hotel spa suite to get some sleep so she would be fit to drive the next day. I did some math, told her to come back at 6am and consoled myself with the hot mashed potato that had just been served. Runners’ food and drinks were freezing up and I could see sweat freezing on the clothes of some of the other runners. It got so cold that at one point that I ran into the food tent and hugged the hot water urn for warmth, earning a very confused look from a volunteer in the process.

    For all that freezing though, my feet didn't actually feel too cold, although they did start to ache. My soles had remained unscathed, but the soft tissues of the feet and lower legs were starting to swell and generally show the brunt of all this running.

    Over the following hours my run slowed to more of a shuffle. I don't listen to music on these long runs, so I tend to think quite a bit. Thoughts ranged from the banal "Should I have a carb drink this lap or next?" to the philosophical "Where does this ultra stuff all end? What do I hope to achieve by all this?" Despite the lack of music I was generally filled with a bit of a Rock and Roll feeling. I was running a 24 hour ultra, something I had been in awe of, and under the circumstances I was holding up OK. I had a grin on my face and the tougher it got to run, the bigger the kick I was getting out of being in this race.

    Sunrise was something special; clear sky, with golden orange sunlight shining low across a frozen grass oval. Soon after this sunrise I passed the previous 24 hour record (156.2km):

    Photo 7.JPG
    Passing the old record of 156.2km, the grass infield still frosted
    The final 2.5 hours were spent just adding whatever distance I could to the records. Passing 100 miles gave me another boost:

    Photo 8.JPG
    Passing 100 miles
    At 10am we stopped, I placed my block on the track and sat down for the first time in 24 hours. I can honestly say I have never appreciated a chair as much as this my whole life:

    Photo 9.JPG
    In case you’re wondering, it’s water in the glass not vodka
    I was elated; breaking the records meant my sponsors had to double their donation to Yalari, which took me over my $7,000 target. I celebrated with a big curry and some beers for lunch, then got on a plane to Brisbane to try and re-establish some sort of normality. When I got home and checked out my feet, I wondered how I was going to get into my work shoes on in the morning:

    Photo 10.JPG
    I believe the technical term is “cankles”
    Maybe I didnt need work shoes, my feet had these funky leather soles now:

    Photo 11.JPG
    No blisters at least
    Don’t tell my sponsors but running 24 hours without shoes isn't actually such a terrible thing... dare I say it, I had a blast and can't wait to do it again!

    PS: This is how my feet looked 1 week later, back to their soft pink former selves:

    Photo 12.JPG
    No-one would ever know
    PPS: A few months later and these arrived in the post:

    Photo 13.JPG
    Guinness World Record Certificates
     
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  2. Barefoot TJ

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    Congratulations, Robert! Excellent story, excellent adventure! Thanks for sharing here. Love your opening comments too! Hysterical! Not born to run barefoot...yea right!
     
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    happysongbird likes this.
  3. DNEchris

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    G'donya!

    Jolly good show old boy!

    Holy f*$k!
     
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  4. meiniles

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    I am in awe. Thanks for sharing your trip with us.
     
  5. RunningPirate

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    Well done, you!

    So when you're in the Guinness Book of World Records, does that mean you get free Guinness for life?

    BTW, after seeing all those pictures of you, all I could think is: "He's the Cat in the Hat"

    RP
     
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  6. Longboard

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    Wow!!!
     
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  7. Bare Lee

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    Great job, great writing, but I have to say, I don't know how you managed to run around the track so many times without going bonkers.
     
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  8. DayRunner

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    Thanks for the positive comments folks, it's been an enjoyable journey so far and all the better for meeting good people such as yourselves.

    @RP: I haven't read the small print about Guinness entitlements in the Record Book yet, but hopefully it will all be there in black and white ;)

    @Lee: It's not as bad as it sounds; you get to change direction every 4 hours!
     
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  9. dutchie53

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    Congrats on a great accomplishment.
     
  10. RunningPirate

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    Or, better still, Black and Tan [rimshot]
     
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  11. ThomDavid

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    Can't even begin to express how much in awe I am of this accomplishment, and your written description of it. Congratulations for the inspiring and motivating account of your run. Good on you for your charitable impulse, too. That you did this not in service of ego but of others makes it that much more sweet.
     
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  12. spoonerweb

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    Congratulations.
     
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  13. Barefoot HannahC

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    Great Job! Awesome.
     
  14. Robin

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    congrats mate...really awesome!!:D
     
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  15. OdiarAmor

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  16. Bernd

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    Unbelievable.... Congratulations! Great story and great inspiration to beginners like me..:)
     
  17. BFwillie_g

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    Inspirational! Thank you!
     
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  18. Barefoot Dama

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    WOW, WOW, WOW is all I have to say.
     
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  19. barefootn

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    Amazing run. Well done!

    [​IMG]
     
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  20. Stig Walsh

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    Wow, I'm WELL impressed - very cool, well done!!!

    On the other hand, growing a moustache is a serious business and not to be underestimated. I certainly wouldn't do it. Not even for charity!
     
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