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Reflections on Running My First Barefoot 20 Miler

For me, 20 miles was a magic number. It represented a crossing over into real marathon training. Sure, I had been increasing total long distance and weekly mileage gradually. A couple of weeks ago I had run my first ever 18 consecutive miles, and I gave myself “credit,” but 20 was more like the turn of the century. What is it about round numbers and a new era? I have now entered the era of twenty-something mile runs.

All but 0.2 miles of it was completely barefoot, that short amount being in my Luna sandals due to chip seal sharp beyond my current running capability. I know because I encountered it on a run for the first time last week and could only walk on it slowly. I have run on some pretty rough asphalt, like a Chicken Dinner Road during the Shamrock Shuffle last March. I have even run on broken glass (that I didn’t see the first few times on the circuit), gravel roads (albeit slowly), and temperatures down to freezing (in dry weather), but I am an advocate of gradually building up my barefoot running tolerances. I love to run in my bare feet, but I know I will have fewer injuries and more fun if I am on the careful side with new limits.

I am always more careful with new limits with my bare feet when I am pushing new running distances. This is partly a way to avoid injury, and partly a mental strategy. Rough surfaces always take more energy to run on physically. I have seen the energy differential decrease between rough and smooth surfaces as I build up my barefoot running capacity, but for now, if I am going to be increasing to new long distances, I am already putting in a lot of mental effort. So, although I ran on several rough asphalt sections for this long run, they were sections I was familiar with, knew I could run a reasonable pace on, and I knew how my feet would handle running on them.

Last week I ran 10 miles on basically the same circuit and it did not tax me physically. I find this totally amazing. And hopeful. On the other hand, the new distances in the long runs are not coming quite as easily as I thought they would. I have done half marathon training two years in a row just prior to this. Reaching the 13.2 distance was not as challenging for me. Or maybe I have a bad memory. Maybe it’s just that it simply does not take as long. There has to be an element of the sheer duration of keeping myself propelled for that long.

It took me just shy of 3 hours and 40 minutes to run my 20 miles. My Garmin watch registered a 10:58 minute mile (mm) pace. I know from observing it at different points in the run that this at least varied between a 10:29 mm pace and 11:30 at other times. I didn’t see the readout after every mile, but I know I hit those average paces for some miles.

This is obviously not a “competitive” pace, but it is the pace that I can run and keep running for that distance right now. I am tempted to harass myself about being slow, but then I remember that this maximum aerobic function training is actually going quite well. My shorter distances are generally faster, I do some barefoot speed training, and I am feeling good most of the time when I am running. Not like I am struggling to breath the whole time.

But, still, those last few miles on my long runs have taken determination to run. I know this is somewhat normal. My legs and system are still building up to handle the training stressors I am putting on them. It is an admittedly odd mixture of fun and grueling, satisfying and exhausting.

I have already learned a few things to prepare for and accomplish these longer and longer runs. I emphasize the longer, because that is an aspect I find I have to be ready for. If I am constantly increasing the mileage, the same things that helped me increase to 16 and 18 can help me at 22 and 24. And 26! Some are possibly obvious, but others are my attempts at personal observation during my runs and recovery:

  • It is very important to eat well the day before. By well, I mean a solid calorie count, notably healthy, and foods that my digestive system can handle well. Much of this is similar to the common pre-race nutrition wisdom, and I had applied it to that, but find I have to be particularly careful the day before an extra long run, too.
  • A good night’s sleep, both the night before and the night after, has to be a priority.
  • I need to adjust my longer runs according to my hormonal schedule. I ran my most recent half marathon under the influence of hormones and did okay, but I am finding the hormones drain me too much to run an extra long run of a distance at my upper extremes. Maybe it won’t be an issue after I have “obtained proficiency” at those distances, but while it is more of a stress, I can’t do it.
  • It is harder to tell how my feet are going to feel or what temperatures are going to be in the final miles of a longer run, so it is more important that I carry back-up minimalist footwear. Luna sandals are my summer choice right now, if there isn’t brush and debris that my feet are sinking into. (My Moc3′s would still be my choice for that.) I have designed a carry pouch in my head, to be attached to my water belt. It is on my short sewing list!
  • My legs are going to feel heavy the last few miles, anywhere from 2- 6 of them, depending on how active my chores have been the day before. For instance, the day before this first 20 miler, I had to be processing apricots much of the day, so was walking and on my feet in the kitchen. But it is really important to me to not feel plodding or feel like my pace is crawling. I have found that if I think about relaxing and running lightly, it helps my pace without me trying to run faster. And I feel better even though I am tired. This doesn’t mean running on tip-toe or the ball of my foot. I just think about not sinking into the ground, and keeping a light, forward moving sensation.
  • Thinking about my progress in various ways helps me with the mental aspect of these longer distances. I recognize each major fractional point of the run, I count down to the finish mile after the half-way point, I remind myself of my overall progress with running, and particularly as I do the final couple of “extra” miles, I tell myself whatever I run from that point on is “longer” and therefore a great achievement. How could it not be?

For what it’s worth, those are things that have helped me as I attempt these strange new running goals. Why do I want to run a marathon? I don’t know if I can say for sure. I do like the running, even if it is hard to increase the distance. But I can’t run farther if I don’t increase the distance. You see the problem? It is much like practicing to do anything you want to get better at. It takes time. And now, I find myself thinking mind boggling thoughts, like, “only 6.2 more miles and I will have run a marathon distance.” I now say “only” about 6.2 miles with all honesty and a touch of surrealism floating in my mind. Even right after a tiring 20 miles, I find myself looking forward to my next barefoot run.


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