Portland fall/winter weather has officially arrived, bringing with it a sense of calm, stillness, and quiet solitude. Yes, it’s cold as hell, but with cozy cold weather running gear, lots of blinky things and a trusty head lamp, the exploring doesn’t stop when the darkness descends upon us. Just to be clear, the darkness descends upon us in this part of the country around 4:00 PM in the winter time.
It’s also that time of year when the running questions shift from, “What if you step on broken glass/needles/ebola virus/poop” to, “Don’t you get cold, what if your toes freeze off your foot, can you really wear VFF’s in snow?”
Earlier this year in March, Portland got a light dusting of snow, resulting in a couple of inches sticking to the ground at higher elevations. I decided to take the Prius up to Forest Park and run a nice 18 mile training run through the mud and snow in preparation for the Eugene Marathon. I bundled myself up, strapped on my Injinji socks and Vibram Bikilas, and set off down the Birch Trail to connect to Wildwood. I got about 30 seconds into the snow and muck, and decided this was a dumb idea. My toes were already numb and uncomfortable and I was COLD! While I was used to running in the cold mud in Forest Park, I’d never added snow to the equation.
Well, I take that back. There was one time when I was visiting my in-laws just outside of Boston in December, 2010 when I ran in the snow in my Vibram TrekSports. But that was when I was just starting this journey, and I could run only about 30 minutes at a time. The snow was just perfect there too, a cute, soft little squeak as I gently caressed the surface and sunk down just a little. It was more like running on hard packed sand, a perfect running surface.
Back to the slop fest in Forest Park last March. The running surface I was dealing with that day was nothing like the perfect, white, flawless festival beneath my feet in Boston. We’re talking muck and snow up to my ankles with every frosty step. Yep, 18 miles to go. Something told me to keep going, but I was honestly thinking that I might have black, frost-bitten nubs for feet by the end of this. Surprisingly, about 5 minutes after starting, my feet sprang to life. Hello again feet! They nearly felt alien, as I slowly became aware of each little appendage reaching out and gripping the rocks and roots as they normally do. “Don’t worry mom, we’re fine!” That’s what I imagined they were saying as they yawned back to life.
That 18 mile training run is to date, one of the best runs I’ve ever had. The snow no longer strangled my foot with each step. Instead, it became a welcome houseguest in Forest Park, decorating the trees and logs, adding beauty and diversity to the normally green trail. Remember the joy of jumping in puddles? I came up with a new word that day, “smuddles” which is a snow and mud puddle. I know, I’m a total cheeseball. The people on the trail that day were few, but they were also some of the most fun, outrageous folks I’ve seen. “GREAT DAY FOR A RUN!!” one man shouted, throwing his head back and laughing hysterically. “It’s so beautiful!!” said a sweet lady with a dog that was covered in mud and snow as he bounded along.
That day was truly an awakening, because I realized that running barefoot or in VFF’s (or any other minimalist shoes) probably didn’t have many limits. If I can run in snow/slush for 18 miles and keep all 10 of my toes toasty warm, anything is possible.
Fast forward to the first cold snap this season. Now, I consider myself somewhat of an expert minimalist footwear runner, and an amateur barefoot runner. The best way I’ve found to ward off those feelings of anxiety about your feet hitting the cold ground is to start with the shoes on. Whatever your preferred footwear, (mine are my VFF SeeYas or my new Invisible Shoes) run with these on for about the first 0.5 mile, then go ahead and take them off and carry them along as “hand weights.” Your feet should be sufficiently warm by this time to go ahead and go bare. To date, I’m up to 7 barefoot miles on pavement without any discomfort. I still feel amateur however because I’m not great on rougher surfaces like trails, woodchip paths, and especially gravel. So my new goal is to build up the soles of my feet in order to be comfortable running barefoot on any surface. Sounds easy, right? Well, not so much when you live in the suburbs with lots of buttery smooth sidewalks to run on.
However, it just so happens that I live about one mile away from the World Nike Campus. That’s right, the nucleus, the brain, the empire of Nike is spittin’ distance from my doorstep. Nike’s campus is nothing short of beautiful, with it’s glittery, shiny buildings, duck ponds, waterfalls, and other man-made marvels. Fortunately for me, Nike has a beautiful woodchip trail winding through it that’s at least a couple of miles long. They also have a brand spankin’ new path that winds through the woods behind me that is a fine gravel surface. Unfortunately for Nike, they have a wannabe barefooter that frequently trespasses on their pretty little trails barefoot, wearing running sandals, or Vibram Five Fingers. Muahahahaha…. You see, they put these little signs up that nonchalantly say, “Use for Nike Employees Only.” So even though they have these wonderful trails, they are supposedly to be used only by Nike employees? Nah, seems like all of the community should be able to use them. Afterall, they’re so awesome! Right?
So the other day, on my second or third run out in my new Invisible Shoes huaraches, I decided that I was going to run over to Nike and try them out on the wood chip trail. I’ve never actually been stopped by a security guard on the campus, so I didn’t think anything of it when I turned into the waterfall entrance and ran past the barriers. “M’am? I need to see your Nike employee ID please?” Huh? A very serious looking security guard was looking me up and down, but mostly down at my naked feet in my Invisible Shoes.
“Um, I don’t have that.” I said, trying to keep a straight face although a smile was creeping up before I could stop it.
“What in the heck are you wearing?” He managed, before beginning to laugh himself.
“Huaraches!” I said proudly, working on my pronunciation. “They’re running sandals.” It was quite obvious at this point that I didn’t work for Nike.
“Well I’ve never seen those before! I’m sorry, but I can’t let you in.”
“Ok thanks anyway!!” I tried to say cheerfully.
“Be careful in those,” he said, sounding genuinely concerned for both my safety and my mental state.
I happily ran off back toward the road, and then proceeded to cut through the trees and onto the wood chip path that I knew was there. Woohoo! Success. While I don’t encourage trespassing, it’s sort of known that even though you’re supposed to be a Nike employee to run on the trail, many people in the community use it as a running trail, and I think it’s great that they’re usually pretty flexible. I suppose it was just pretty obvious that I wasn’t an employee on this particular day. I also have to admit, it’s a bit thrilling to run injury free and barefoot or almost barefoot in the lap of the running shoe giant. A giant which I consider to be the main creator and distributor of a thick, padded, heeled shoe and therefore the cause of many running injuries, including all of mine. That’s over a decade of running injured that I didn’t really need, but was manipulated by the ideals that Nike created for a profit. However, Nike probably also increased the popularity of running and fitness in general ten-fold, so you win some, you lose some. But now, as a physical therapist, I’m trying to undo a lot of the brainwashing that has been ingrained for so long. And people think I’m the nutty one! 🙂 Well, maybe I am, a little.
I was very happy that my sandals held up wonderfully on the wood chips, and the sensation of the chips brushing my toes was uplifting. So much so, that I got the courage to take my shoes off and run barefoot along the wood chips which was even more exciting. Let’s just say, I still have work to do in this department.
Last night, I had another Nike encounter. I was just finishing up a delightful 7 mile run in my new Invisible Shoes, and turned on to my street to head home. I’m really beginning to like those shoes! Again, my toes were a little cold in the beginning of my run in the 38 degree weather, but quickly warmed up. I spied the fine gravel Nike path winding through the darkness into the woods, and couldn’t resist taking my shoes off and trying another go at it. The other night, I tried this and could only manage to walk gingerly over the gravel for about 3 minutes. That stuff’s no joke, sharp little boogers digging into all the spots on my feet that don’t normally hit the ground. So I whipped off my shoes and began carefully walking over the gravel. I decided to start channeling Jessica Lee from the Barefoot Runnning movie with Michael Sandler. They say that when running over a rough surface, try to bend your knees and get low, closer to the ground. Straighten out your arms and swing them like a monkey to try to land as light as possible, increasing the surface area that is hitting the ground to try to distribute the forces coming into your feet.
So, with a burst of confidence, I began swinging my arms like the best of apes and off I went, running lightly, low to the ground through the darkness with my headlamp switched on. It was pretty dark in there, but note that I was actually only about 10 feet away from the brightly lit sidewalk, an important safety consideration. I was doing pretty well actually! I let a couple of “ooh ouch eeks” slip out as a few gravel pieces were really hitting where it hurts. Running on gravel is supposed to be one of the best surfaces for pad development though, so I was determined. I was really starting to do my best monkey impression and might’ve let out a few “ooh ooh ah ahs” when one of the hazards of cold weather running hit me. You know what I’m talking about. Snot. Yep, when it’s cold outside, let’s face it y’all, we have to let the snot fly. My husband, Mike, taught me how to blow an expert snot rocket, so I wasn’t too worried. As I monkey waddled along, I turned my head to let the snot rocket fly. I must have really been into this moment, because I didn’t even hear the head to toe dressed Nike employee or perhaps sponsored runner flying towards me to pass by. I looked up just as the snot flew, mid monkey stance, mid “ooh ooh ah ah”. My headlamp shined across his face just in time to see his horrified, confused look. What? I wondered. Oh, right. I’m barefoot running on the Nike trail, like a monkey, blowing snot rockets, while this guy is dressed to a T in his neon Nike running jacket and neon Nike shoes as he blew past me. I listened to his jacket flapping as he ran off, then started cracking up as I began to put myself in his shoes. Well, at least I was having fun!! He looked a little too uptight for a Friday night run. I was actually quite pleased that I could run like this on the gravel! Thanks Jessica Lee, for your perfect monkey running demo in the movie. I was able to do a 3 minute gravel run versus a 3 minute gravel walk from the other night.
To sum up this post, cold weather barefoot and minimalist running is possible and quite enjoyable. If you’re not having fun, it’s not worth it! Be prepared to have some cold feet during your initial warm up, but realize that as your core temperature heats up, vasodilation occurs and you will enjoy warm blood coming into your toes and feet as they work hard to capture the ground. Additionally, try playing with varied surfaces including concrete, asphault, wood chips, gravel, and best of all, natural trails to encourage pad development. Even if you’re running in shoes, the different surfaces will help to prepare your muscles for anything. Trail running will encourage lateral movements which we don’t encounter very often running on pavement. In turn, we are stronger, happier runners by increasing our strength and changing the scene every so often. And light yourself up in the dark so you can be seen!