My Journey to Becoming a Barefoot Runner, Part 2: The Why

I had the distinct pleasure of flying to Hilton Head, SC last weekend to watch one of my best girls, Andrea, marry her prince charming.  Ah, the beach, with its perpetual sand, sun, water and fresh air is a perfect recipe for a vacation to relax and reconnect with the earth.  In fact, 72% of Americans prefer a beach vacation according to a poll by ABC news, and that number increased to 83% when families had children under the age of 18. 

So why is this?  Well, there’s the obvious benefits to going to the beach including epic sandcastle construction, finding the best seashells, burying people in the sand, surfing and splashing in the water.  But did you ever stop to think that maybe this is the only time that you’re barefoot outside for any length of time?  “Toes in sand.”  Google that phrase and over 16 million results pop up.  Say it to a co-worker and they’ll have a thirty second escape, daydreaming about the warmth of the sand on their naked feet.  It’s no coincidence that Americans’ favorite spot to revive themselves is with their bare feet on the ground.

Why Bare is Better:

  1. Anatomy of d’ feet.  Your feet are totally awesome, in case you didn’t know.  You have 28 bones, 107 ligaments, and 19 muscles and tendons which provide a springy effect that stores and returns energy with each step.  Commonly, when you have a foot, knee, or hip problem, someone may recommend to you that you need arch supports, custom orthotics, or super stability shoes to control the overpronation of your foot.  Overpronation is common when we don’t strengthen our feet and we confine our feet to modern shoes.  Let’s consider this for a moment:  When you break your arm and wear a cast for 6-8 weeks, the muscles in your arm are nearly non-existent when you remove that cast.  They have atrophied, and it takes a significant amount of time to rebuild your strength and your muscle mass via physical therapy and exercise.  Now, apply that same principle of muscle atrophy to the foot.  If you support your arch in the foot with an arch support or custom orthotic, the muscles in the foot no longer have to do their job because they are held up by that support.  They will begin to atrophy even more, leading to weaker feet, increased overpronation without the artificial support, and increased injuries.  If any other muscle was atrophied in the body, we would strengthen the thing, right?  So why then, in the case of a wimpy, weak foot do we tend to rely on an artificial support instead of utilizing the powerhouse foot to its full potential?
  2. Shape of the Foot.  Dr. Ray McClanahan is a local podiatrist in Portland, OR as well as one of my personal heroes.  “Dr. Ray,” as I’ve heard his patients affectionately call him, is a proponent of restoring natural movement in the lower extremities by encouraging proper footwear and the usage of his rad creation, Correct Toes. 
    Correct Toes

      

These images can be seen on the NW Foot & Ankle website.  One of my favorite items that Dr. Ray discusses is the shape of a newborn baby’s foot.  We were all born with beautiful feet, feet which are widest at the toes!  By taking a glimpse at modern footwear, you would never know this with the narrow toe boxes and curve to the shoe.  And guess what?  Our feet become deformed as we stuff them into these narrow shoes, causing our big toe and pinky toe to turn inward leading to bunions, crooked toes and an endless array of other foot impairments.  We can just call them by my favorite umbrella term “Toeliosis,” a nod to an awesome clinical instructor in Waitsfield, VT.  Dr. Ray discusses the shape of the foot and encourages natural movement in this video

When the feet become deformed by the use of modern footwear, we run into the problem of “overpronation” as well.  In one of my favorite Dr. Ray videos, he demonstrates how when the normal foot shape is restored by bringing the big toe back out into proper alignment, “overpronation” is virtually impossible.  This is incredibly fascinating, as so many of us are wearing improper shoes and suffering from the results in the form of foot, ankle, knee, hip and low back pain.  When barefoot or in proper footwear that closely resembles the shape of the foot, this allows for normal functioning of foot mechanics. Therefore, the foot becomes stronger and the rest of the kinetic chain is much happier.  Dr. Ray’s website also has articles by Dr. William Rossi, another podiatrist that discusses the benefits of being bare.  Here is a link to those articles.

3.  Schumann Resonance.  Wha?  Natural healing through the earth’s transfer of energy right through the soles of our feet.  Sound screwy?  It’s for real!  I will admit this is a bit over my head, but I will attempt to sum it up here.  The earth has a frequency of approximately 7.83-ish Hz.  This frequency is important to us, as humans, because our brainwaves also vibrate at 7.83-ish Hz.  So that means that our human vibrations are perfectly paired up with our Earth mother’s, connecting us at a level that many of us haven’t ever thought about.  So here we humans are, buzzin’ along, directly in sync with the Earth, as long as we are connected to it by the soles of our feet.  The trouble begins when we separate ourselves from our Earth mama by driving cars with big ol’ rubber tires, wearing big ol’ rubber soled shoes, and living in our suburban houses set high off the ground.  The benefits of being connected to the ground are many, but as a wannabe athlete, the one I like best has to do with inflammation.  This paragraph from one of my favorite books by Michael Sandler, Barefoot Running, sums it up perfectly:

“Second, when you reconnect to the negatively charged electrons on the surface of the earth, the build-up of positively charged free radicals in your body that leads to inflammation is neutralized.  Chronic inflammation has been implicated in all types of serious health issues including diabetes, Alzheimer’s, cancer, leukemia, heart disease and autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, and many others.  When research subjects were connected to the earth, medical thermal images showed decreased inflammation in only minutes.”

Obviously, the easiest way to connect to the earth is just by stripping off your shoes.  There are other devices called grounding pads or earthing pads that exist to mimic the connection to the earth, and they are being used by athletes and us regular folks with chronic pain to increase energy and speed healing time.  Needless to say, I totally want one!  Afterall, I have more energy after a barefoot run than I do all day driving around in the car.

Another pseudo fact is that the NASA space program was using a device called a Schumann Resonator attached to their ships when they send their astronauts out into space.  I say “pseudo fact” because I have yet to confirm this with NASA, it seems they are too busy to answer my silly questions… they must be doing something more worthwhile I suppose.  Or doing nothing at all, since my husband just reminded me that NASA is no more.  Rumor has it that the astronauts that were going up into space were becoming quite sick when away from Earth’s precious frequency and only returned to their normal state when reconnected to the ground.  The solution was to send this device that emits the Earth’s frequency with the astronauts on the ships, and this seemed to solve this problem altogether.  Great!

So, could it be that we feel rejuvenated after a beach vacation because we’ve had our happy feet stuck in the sand and reconnected ourselves to Earth mama?  One full week of Earth’s healing effects to try to propel us through the next work week.  Perhaps that’s why we feel the post-vacation buzz linger for a while after we get home.  Now imagine connecting to the Earth daily via a barefoot run or walk, and consider the lifelong benefits.

4.  Heelstrikin’ (Or lack thereof).  When we run in giant marshmallow shoes with a high heel, aka traditional running shoes since the time of Nike’s takeover, our foot lands way out in front of our body smacking the ground with our sweet little heels.  Poor things, they certainly weren’t designed to absorb all that shock.  Check out this picture:

I apologize, I’ve had this picture for so long that I’m not sure of its origin.  Anyway, when we attach a cushioned heel to our shoe, it takes away our profound ability to feel the ground like when we’re barefoot.  In search of feeling the ground, we land harder to try to feel the surface with the eyes (nerve endings) of our feet.  One of my favorite studies that was featured in the book, Born to Run, was the gymnast study out of McGill University headed by Dr. Steve Robbins and Dr. Edward Waked.  They found that the thicker the mat, the harder the gymnasts landed, theoretically in search of the stability of the ground.  This could be directly related to the thickness of our running shoes!  The thicker the heel and foot cushion, the harder we land, seeking out the stability of the firm ground.

When heel striking, we disengage the natural marvel of the foot’s mechanics during running.  When hitting midfoot/forefoot, we activate the springy effect of our bones, muscles, and tendons which absorb the shock from the ground, store that energy and release it with power to propel us forward.  When hitting at the heel, we absorb the shock up through the bony heel, which has no way to dissipate that shock.  Therefore, the shock travels from the heel to the knee joint to the hip joint to the back and on up.  This is the very reason why my injuries became more frequent when my shoes became thicker and more cushioned, with a price tag to boot.  I always liked that saying, “to boot.”  What does that mean, anyway?

Take a look at the two pictures above again and you may notice how the heel striker would be the less efficient runner as his heel is acting as a braking force, impeding forward propulsion.  On the other hand, the forefoot striker will continue to glide along easily, as the foot is hitting underneath his center of gravity and his body will continue to propel forward.  This results in a smooth, easy ride and the storing of energy for use later on during a long race, just when you need it most.  The heel striker may tire out quicker with all the stopping and starting, leading to the infamous bonk.

5. The Pelvis.  For me, the position of my pelvis is one of the most important aspects of running injury-free.  When I was in physical therapy school, we learned in our neurology class how the position of the foot can impact the position of the knee and therefore the pelvis.  If we put our foot into plantarflexion, (pointed toe like a ballerina) even slightly like in a high heel or traditional running shoe, this creates a knee extension moment.  In otherwords, when your foot is in a high heeled running shoe, the knee will have a tendency to be locked out straight.  This also results in anterior rotation of the pelvis.  Translation: Your booty sticks out and the curve in your low back increases.  You seen them booty runners?  It’s ok to laugh a little, it’s funny.  I’m allowed to laugh because I used to be one. 

This rotation at the pelvis creates total disconnect between your upper and lower body because the core musculature is imbalanced and can’t hold everything together.  This is a disaster, because much of our power, balance and forward propulsion should be coming from strong stomach, back and hip muscles where our center of gravity lives. Additionally, your quads and hamstrings which are attached to your femur and your pelvis, are wildly trying to recruit and activate at a bad angle resulting in injuries all the way down the chain due to shortened quads and overstrained hamstrings.  Hello hip and knee injuries!  The Dr. Rossi article has a nice picture of what happens to the pelvis in high heels in Fig. 1.

Contrarily, when the foot is in dorsiflexion, (bringing the toes up towards the nose) this creates a knee flexion moment, or bent knees.  Have you ever seen someone walking around in ski boots?  To my knowledge, there aren’t any running shoes on the market that put your foot in dorsiflexion, but there are some walking shoes.  But this video is just pure entertainment, and you can see how this would not be a favorable running position either.

When barefoot, and with a little postural reeducation for those of us who’ve been sticking our booties out for a long time, the pelvis can be restored to its neutral position.  The pelvis can truly be the center of power for your stride and I never even realized this until I began running bare.  I will talk about how to properly position your pelvis in my next post, which will be the “how to” section.

In closing this post, I want to reiterate that running barefoot not only reconnects us to our Earth mama, but we begin to feel the connection between us and others as well.  Thinking back to the races I’ve done over the years, I only really began noticing other people when I took away the inch or so of rubber beneath my feet.  When you’re closer to the ground, the energy that you feel not only comes from Earth, but also from the people surrounding you as you all vibrate along at the same frequency.  I can honestly say that I never had much of a desire to run with other people before, but now that I am the way I am, you can bet that if you ask me about running, I will invite you to run with me.  My running buddy, Christy, and I were talking last night about the effortless conversation that flowed between us the day that we met, which also happens to be the day we did a 19.5 mile trail run together.  My husband and I have run for miles through the woods together without saying a word, appreciating the quiet solitude yet connecting to each other through the ground that we tread upon.  So whether or not you have a beach vacation planned, take off your shoes and get your feet on the ground!

Through running and reconnecting to the ground, we can improve our overall health and wellbeing.  I’ll leave you with links to a couple more articles:  How Humans Ran Comfortably and Safely Before the Invention of Shoes and Running Shoes May Cause Damage to Knees , Hips and Ankles.

My Journey to Becoming a Barefoot Runner, Part 1

Tonight, I had one of the top ten best runs of my life.  No, top five, for sure.  Fall weather has finally descended upon us here in Oregon, unpredictable and wild.  I got home from Pilates feeling energized and decided to go for a barefoot run.  Let me be clear: When I say barefoot, I mean naked feet, not running in Vibram Five Fingers or VFF’s for short.  Although I do run in VFF’s often, I’ve been venturing out more and more in my nudey feet.  The streets were wet, but it was only misting outside and the temperature was a perfect 60 degrees. 

Off I went, taking in the fresh evening air.  About half a  mile in, the rain came, exploding  from the sky with such focused energy that it literally startled me.  My first thought was, “Crap!”  My second thought was, “Sweet!! LET’S DO THIS!”  It took less than one second for my mind to switch gears and begin to feed off the strength of the rain that was quickly flooding the streets.  My feet were on sensory overload with the wet leaves, twigs and giant puddles that crossed my path and I took in all in with gratitude.  As the rains raged on in the darkness, I was running faster and faster, my clothes plastered to my body and smiling the whole way.  As I ran past the McDonald’s drive-thru, a lady sitting in her car stared at me like I was a total lunatic as I fist pumped my way through the monsoon.  I even got up the courage to wave to her to come join me, but she acted as if she was more interested in her Big Mac than joining me for a barefoot romp in the slanted rain.  Weird.  For five glorious miles, the rain poured and I was soaked and full of joy.  So how did I go from an injury ridden cushioned shoe heel striker to the loony neighborhood barefooter?  Great, I’m glad you asked.  Let me tell you:

In October, 2009 I encountered one of the nastiest injuries I’ve had to date.  I was running in St. Augustine, FL on the flattest beach you have ever seen.  I had just returned from an internship in Vermont, where I spent my weekends running a few miles on the beautiful paths of the Appalachian Trail, so I was feeling pretty confident of my footing on the beach.  I should note that I was also sporting custom orthotics, a heel lift in my left shoe, and the best stability shoes on the market with a huge built up heel and medial support.  All of the sudden, a giant sea shell rose up from beneath the sand and attacked my foot.  I didn’t really feel it with all that stuff under my soles, but the next thing I knew, I heard my ankle make a sickening SNAP and I fell flat on my face.  NOT GOOD.  Tried to get up.  Fell again.  NOT GOOD.  Finally, I made it to my feet and tried to “walk it off.”  It was terribly painful.

Being a physical therapist and a runner is a funny thing, really.  You see, the physical therapist sits on one shoulder and tells you, “Do the right thing and stop running because you’re obviously flat on your face and injured.”  The runner sits on the other shoulder and has no common sense at all, because she tells you, “Keep running you worthless turd, you’re fine!  Walk it off!”  Unfortunately, I listened to the runner on this occasion, and ran the two miles home.  I didn’t really see any other choice, I needed to get home!  My ankle was a pretty, purple softball when I got home.

As it turns out, I had a partially torn calcaneo-fibular ligament (CFL) and a completely torn anterior talo-fibular ligament (ATFL), two ligaments that are commonly involved in a lateral ankle sprain.  The podiatrist used ultrasound imaging to confirm this, although he said there may be a single string left in my ATFL.  If there was, it sure didn’t look or feel like it.  I was terrified to walk on my foot for fear it would give out again at any moment, so I resorted to wearing a beautiful orthopedic boot for a while.  I developed a complication with the healing process called Anterior Impingement Syndrome, which was likely my anterior capsule of the tibiotalar joint getting pinched every time I dorsiflexed or brought my toes up towards my nose.  This happened with every step as well as when trying to stretch my Achille’s tendon, which was painfully tight due to wearing the boot.

Over the next year, this improved slowly, but I was still battling chronic ankle pain on a daily basis.  My running was not going well, and I was only up to about 4-5 miles at a time with my huge shoes and equipment inside.  By this time, it was October, 2010 and I was living in Portland, OR working as a P.T.  Almost a year to the day of my first ankle sprain, I went out for a run on a rainy October evening.  I made it about 2 minutes down the road before I was flat on my face in the middle of the sidewalk. “NOOOO!!!” I shrieked to no one in particular, and followed that with a slew of profanities.  I had sprained the same ankle again on an unknown piece of uneven sidewalk that I never saw or felt coming.  A scared, elderly gentleman was in the nearby storage center and kindly asked if I needed an ambulance.  I told him I would survive (although I wasn’t sure) and hobbled back to my apartment where I knew my husband, Mike, was working out in the gym.  I burst into the gym soaking wet and panicked and asked Mike (also a physical therapist) to test my ankle and determine the damage.  The test confirmed my greatest fear, that my ligaments were totally incapable of supporting my ankle.  I had a full blown MELTDOWN.  It’s a good thing I have such a wonderful husband because he stood by while I rolled around on the floor like a wounded animal and decided that I would never run again. 

The next few weeks was filled with icing my ankle and brainstorming.  Let’s face it, I was a lousy runner.  I’d had nearly every running injury possible and hadn’t even come close to my longterm goal of running a marathon.  Sometime over the next month or two, I was on Facebook, when my friend Ryan (also a physical therapist) posted something about running in Vibrams.  That’s right, those goofy shoes with 5 toes.  Gorilla shoes.  I was intrigued.  Coincidentally, Ryan was also the person who showed me an article about barefoot running while we were in school that always stayed with me.  At the time, I thought I could never run barefoot, and anyone who did had probably lost their mind.  I also remembered the seed that Steve Vighetti, PT had planted in my brain when rehabbing the first ankle sprain.  He was convinced I didn’t need all the junk in my shoes, and maybe I should go back to the basics.

Then, a funny thing happened.  I started using my brain and thinking about all the knowledge I had acquired over the past few years.  I finally stopped listening to the people who told me for all those years that I needed support, custom orthotics, and a giant marshmallow shoe.  I donated my new cushy running shoes, and I went out and bought my first pair of Vibram Five Fingers, the Trek Sport model.  My friend Ryan had successfully inspired me to buy them along with my very own copy of the now famous book Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall.  I devoured Born to Run and breathed new life into my legs and feet by beginning to run and walk for very short distances in my TrekSports.  Much more about this in the next post, along with how to properly increase your running distance in your bare feet or minimalist shoes.  I will also provide much more insight into why bare is better and point you to some fascinating research studies that have confirmed this. 

In the meantime, if you see a crazy person running barefoot in a monsoon, I would love some company.  You don’t know what you’re missing!

The 41st Running of the Boston, no, the Portland Marathon

There’s something you may not know about our great city of Portland, OR.  You see, when it was claimed by the fine folks from the East Coast in 1842, they decided it needed a name in 1845.  One guy was from Portland, Maine and the other was from Boston, Mass.  They each wanted to name it after their hometown, and only a coin toss decided that the city would be called Portland, OR and not Boston, OR.  That’s what wikipedia told me today anyway.  So you can surely understand how I might’ve gotten confused and fancied myself running the Boston Marathon for a while today during the beautiful course in Portland, OR.  As a matter of fact, if I would have kept up my grueling pace that I set for myself the first half of the race, then I surely would have qualified for the Boston Marathon.  But then, “the wheels fell off” at around mile 14 or 15.

The marathon experience always begins with the Expo the day before the race where you can get your race number and lots of necessary loot.  I say “always” as if I’m an old pro at this these days, but this was afterall, only my second marathon!  I found myself wandering downstairs to pick up my number and timing chip.  The timing chip was a “D tag” with a video demo of how to fasten it securely to your laces.  Disaster.  I DON’T HAVE laces.  To the volunteer running the D tag demo: “Excuse me, what if I don’t have laces?”

“Who doesn’t have laces on their running shoes?”  she asked, honestly confused.

“Well, these are similar to the shoes I run in,” I said, pointing down at my VFF classics that don’t have any kind of a strap.  In my excitement, I couldn’t remember what the straps were like on my See Yas to determine whether or not the D tag would work on them!

“Oh honey, I don’t know, go ask one of the guys in the yellow vests.”

Yellow vest number one looked at me wide eyed, shrugged, and sent me to yellow vest number two.  Yellow vest number two delivered me some matter of fact news:  “You might as well give up now.  If you don’t have laces, you won’t get timed.  Do you really need to get timed?”  What?  Of course I need to get timed!  I’m racing, dude! 

I then found a booth called Register Solutions, which seemed like they should know the answer.  After waiting in line for a while, I got more wide eyed stares and finally pointed to a woman who was the head honcho of registration.  She wasn’t the biggest sweetheart you’ve ever met, but did have some facts for me.  I learned that the D tag had to be kept low around your ankle or laces to be timed accurately, which foiled my plan of just keeping it attached to my race number.  She then asked, “What corral are you in?  I mean, are you planning on getting some really fast time or setting a record so that you absolutely need to be timed?”  I didn’t know what corral I was in, so I held up my race number which determined I was in Corral D because I had put down a finishing time of around 4 hours just so I wouldn’t set the bar too high for myself. “Oh.  So maybe it won’t matter if you’re accurately timed or not.”   Ouch!  Just because I’m not an elite (yet hehe) doesn’t mean that I don’t care about my time!  I’m proud of my fellow D Corralers, we were hype!   

When I got home though, it turned out the D tag went on my shoes without any problem at all.  Check it out!

The morning of the race I woke up at 3:58 AM with a plan to be eating breakfast by 4:00 AM so that I would be mostly digested by the 7:00 AM start.  Breakfast included oatmeal with brown sugar, honey, 1/2 a banana, and 1 tbsp of coconut peanut butter from Earth Balance mixed in, a slice of Ezekiel bread (my hero Scott Jurek’s favorite) with the Earth Balance peanut butter and honey spread on it, a cup of coffee (my staple before races even though I never usually drink it) and 20 oz of Hammer Heed sports drink.  Good lord, I was full. But I knew that was a perfect mix of carbs and protein to get me through the 26.2 miles I was about to devour.  Not to mention the kick in the pants from the caffeine in the coffee.

When Mike and I arrived downtown, we quickly found Corral D and I warmed up for the race by running around a little bit.  I was also trying to (unsuccessfully) shake off the pre-race jitters.  About 30 minutes prior to the race I ate a Clif Shot chocolate flavor gel.  I like the Clif shots because they don’t seem to upset my GI tract and they’re mostly organic; clean eatin baby!  About 20 minutes prior to the race, I decided I had paraded around in my Boston Marathon sweatshirt long enough (a gift from marathon mommy before the Eugene Marathon) and stripped down to my racing gear.  Boy was I neon!!  It was supposed to be 38 degrees at the start, so I decided that my racing tank wasn’t going to be warm enough.  Obviously, I had to buy some matching neon yellow arm warmers at the expo because I NEEDED them for the race.

Can you see me??

I made a few friends in the Corral before the start of the race.  “Are you seriously going to run the whole marathon in those shoes??” asked a sweet group of girls running the half marathon.

“Yes!” I replied.  “If I tried to wear your shoes, I’d make it to mile 5 and have to be carried away by the medical team!”

Energy was high, and so was the moon.  It was really neat to start at dawn, with both the moon’s descent and the sunrise in the opposite corners of the sky.  Corral D got off to a fast start and we paraded our way through the cheering crowd and the otherwise quiet Sunday morning downtown area.  Before I realized it, there I was doing nearly 8 minute miles for a while.  I convinced myself to slow down because that was delusional, but I really wanted to catch the pacer guy doing the 3:55 pace so I sped up again.  I forgot, in all my excitement, that the 3:55 pace group had started in Corral C, so they actually started a couple of minutes before me.  What would’ve been 3:55 for that pace group would’ve been a few minutes faster for me, since I started in Corral D.  But I wanted to pass them anyway, so I gritted my teeth and passed them easily!  This is when I started getting nutty ideas about the Boston Marathon qualifying time which would have been 3:40, which I found out from my ultra running friend, Christy.

Christy and Brian are my new, cherished friends who also happen to be some of the biggest badasses I know.  They are both physical therapists, smart, soft spoken and some of the sweetest Tennesseans I’ve met.  They are for sure a power couple, who in their quiet demeanor will casually tell you that they run ultra marathons back to back for fun in some of the toughest terrain in the country.  Just two short weeks ago, Brian ran the Flagline 50K in Bend, OR and then turned around and ran the Portland Marathon today, destroying his goal time of under 4 hours.  He came in at 3:50:52 and looked like he’d just been for a walk in the park.  He was certainly a stark contrast to the corpse that I was, splayed out at the finish line with my legs straight up in the air!  Christy is also an incredible runner, but she pulled a stunt walking down a boat ramp a few weeks ago resulting in a broken foot and a temporary halt in her racing schedule.  I should note that despite the broken foot, she’s been aqua jogging for hours on end and still plans to run the exclusive Northface Challenge 50 Miler in December.  Geez, and Mike and I thought we were active people!  Much more to come about how these two inspire me to be a better, stronger runner.

At some point, I’m not sure of the mileage, I caught up to Brian who was running a smart race.  I, on the other hand, was not.  But I was having a blast!  There were pirates on the course for heaven’s sake, and those “Arrrgh!!!”  and “Aye matey!!!” shrieks were giving me more energy than I’ve ever felt in my life!    Brian and I ran together for some time and then I powered ahead, keeping up my ambitious pace.  It was probably around this time when I heard more and more people talking about the St. John’s Bridge.  This is known to be the pace killer and the solid wall that stands between a racer and the finish line due to the hill going up to the bridge.  It hits at about mile 16-17 when racers are weak and susceptible to the demons that whisper “You’re not going to make it up this hill, muahahaha…”

A particularly loud guy who was obviously a Portland Marathon Expert and pacing an elderly gentleman was telling anyone who would listen that the bridge was going to be your demise.  “Oh just wait, this part is flat as a pancake, but that bridge is going to kill you!  It’s straight up!  Get ready!” he was saying, while doing spin moves and random Air Jordan dunks at mile 14.  This must have been to show everyone just how fresh he felt and this was the easiest thing he’d done since putting on his Nike’s this morning.  The poor man next to him seemed to be annoyed as he shuffled along, trying to dig deep.  I’m willing to bet he was questioning his decision to have Mr. Air Jordan pace him.

I don’t know if it was the Air Jordan guy or my stupidity (likely the latter) that was the beginning of the end, but that “flat as a pancake road” leading up to the bridge was most certainly my demise.  We were in an industrial area with very little cheering and one abandoned set of speakers blaring something that sounded like it could’ve been music.  I felt myself slowing down, so I ate my Clif Gel earlier than I planned at around mile 15.  I planned to eat a gel at mile 8, 16, and 22 to properly fuel myself to the finish.  As far as I know, they only had Gummy Bears and pretzels on the course, which were far from appetizing.  The gel gave me a kick for a few minutes, but soon I found myself shuffling along, unsure if my legs were still moving or not. 

Finally, the hill going up to the bridge appeared.  Contrary to Mr. Air Jordan’s hypothesis, that bridge saved my life today.  I don’t know if it was a break in the monotony of the pancake road or the views that I knew were waiting for me, but I felt like a new person when I got to the top of the bridge.  I might’ve even been able to do a spin move; Mr. Air Jordan would’ve been impressed.  The views were breathtaking, and I think I got a little emotional looking at the surrounding mountains and the river flowing beneath us.  As good as I was feeling though, I looked down at my watch and realized I was still going slow and I was rendered incapable of moving my legs any faster.  I tried to make peace with this, and kept in mind that even if I did 10 minute miles at this point in the race, I could still easily make my goal time of 3:55.

I was trying to let gravity pull me down the hill when all of the sudden, Brian flew by me looking “fresh as a daisy!”  The lady from the Eugene Marathon flashed through my mind with her peppy sign that said, “Smile, you’re fresh as a daisy!”  That was the second time I got emotional today, because I knew that Brian was going to smash his goal time.  He was probably what pushed me to get through the rest of the race, because he was inspiring me to dig deep and get the thing done.  Afterall, he’d just hurled himself up and down mountains at the Flagline 50K two weeks prior, and he was looking like a beast.  Fitting, since the name he picked for his race bib was “MONSTER.”  Brian “Monster” May, it would appear I have a lot to learn from you sir, well done!

The last miles ticked by slowly and I tried to convince myself that I would finish the race.  Mile 25 was the toughest as before, and I wasn’t sure if I was going to make it.  Then I saw Mike!  Mike was the person who got me to the finish, because I saw him about two blocks to go. I again gritted my teeth and my feet appeared to be moving.  I ended up finishing in 3:50:57, a chip time of 5 seconds slower than Brian.  What are the chances?!  When I crossed the finish, I must’ve looked pretty wrecked because a medical tent lady asked me if I needed assistance.  I looked at her, and I honestly wasn’t sure.  I needed something, but I wasn’t sure how they were going to make me feel any more alive.  I think I mumbled something like, “No, I’m fresh as a daisy,” and kept stumbling along.  I grabbed an electrolyte cup and a water, a couple oranges and a banana, but didn’t feel like eating.  I wandered around for a while and then decided (out of sheer necessity) to lie down in the middle of the street on my space blanket.  I guess others liked that idea because I was soon surrounded by a small group of similar looking corpses lying on our space blankets, feet straight up in the air like dead bugs.  We were a funny bunch though, and easily talked among ourselves sharing stories about our journey.

Finally, I slogged down to the reunion area and easily found Mike as well as Christy, Brian, and Brian’s sweet mother, who came all the way from Tennessee to watch him race.  I resumed my dead bug position for a while and was able to get up long enough to get some great post race pictures with our new friends.

Modified dead bug pose

  When I got home I dead bugged it for a while longer and then ate a delicious post-race meal.  I decided to go for a couple of Hammer Electrolyte tablets, more Hammer Heed drink, a banana, a black bean/mushroom/lentil/corn burger made by my wonderful husband on Ezekiel bread with vegannaise, roasted red pepper hummus, spinach and a generous heap of avocado.  Heaven!  For dessert, the vegan anniversary cake I got Mike and I for our one year tomorrow.

So would I do it again?   If you asked me around mile 14, I’d have had some choice words for you.  But now that the race has come and gone, I would absolutely do it again. Running brings people together doing something so human, so basic, and so raw that we not only race together, but we journey together.  Running a long race parallels our lives like nothing else I’ve found.  There’s hills, annoyances, and pain, but there’s also the sublime relationship you have with yourself and with others who are fighting the same fight.  For these few hours together, we are all connected on that race course and to the people cheering us on.  So when it comes down to it, the yellow vests were probably right.  The time itself doesn’t really matter, and whether you’re running the Boston Marathon or the Portland Marathon, you still get to take a 26.2 mile trip with some crazy good folks.

How to Recover From Your Running Disease(s)

I haven’t always been this way.  I haven’t always been vegetarian, and although I grew up as a pseudo on-again-off-again runner, I didn’t always stick with it.  What I can tell you is that I grew up with two active parents who have always quietly inspired me.  I say quietly because they never asked me to be a runner and they never asked me to be more active.  They simply lived by example, they walked the walk. 

When I was eight years old, my mother ran the Boston marathon.  It was April 18, which also happens to be my birthday, and I also happened to be a stinky, miserable mess because I had some unknown GI tract disease that I was sure was going to be my demise.  I have never been so pissed at my mom for not being with me at that very moment in all my misery.  I remember speaking with her on the phone, and she said to me, “Leigh, I want you to remember this day because you’re going to be proud of your mom one day for running the Boston marathon.”  I had no idea at the time precisely what that meant, but now that I’m adult, of course, she was right.  I’m not sure if it was that day, but somewhere along the way, my mom and dad must have planted a seed, because I now have a new disease:  The Running Disease.  It’s very serious.

Growing up, I ran a few 5k road races here and there, sporting some traditional, supportive, motion control running shoes.  Even at a young age I was told by running shoe gurus, docs, and the orthotist that I had another type of disease:  I was an Overpronator.  It turns out that this is also a very serious disease, because my shoes got more expensive and I had to wear something called custom orthotics, even in my soccer cleats!

Let’s jump ahead to my college years. I always owned a pair of running shoes, but they were quickly gathering dust in the corner.  The orthotics were moldy, I’m sure of it. I’d forgotten about running for a while and was known as the girl who brought a 6-pack of Bud heavy tallboys to the party along with a BBQ chicken calzone from Oscar’s in Knoxville, TN.  In case you were wondering, I finished all that.  By myself.  Also, in case you were wondering, a calzone consisted of a large pizza crust folded on top of itself to create the calzone.  More or less, (probably more) I was basically eating a large pizza to myself on any average Tuesday evening.  Real talk:  I was overweight.  I still remember the day that I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror as I was walking across my room in baggy gray sweatpants and bra.  My skin looked old, my hair was stringy looking, but most importantly, the face looked unhappy and swollen.  WHO THE HELL WAS THAT??  I suddenly saw myself going down a bad road.  Why didn’t I see it before? 

That day, I decided I was going to make a change.  I hadn’t been on a scale in years, so I hopped on my roommate’s scale to get an idea of the damage.  This was bad.  Really bad.  The next day, my beautiful roommate, Katie,  took me to the local Bally’s where she belonged and we did 25 minutes of running followed by 20 minutes on the elliptical trainer.  THOUGHT I WAS GOING TO DIE.  After the workout, I was shaking like a leaf and starving, so I rewarded myself with a cheese pizza.  Afterall, I deserved it right?  I’d burned off all the calories, right?

Over the next 5 years after the gray sweatpants incident, I would lose a significant amount of weight through diet and exercise, but usually gained it back because I was doing the Lean Cuisine deal, the Lean Pockets (diet cheeseburger Hot Pocket anyone? Check out the sodium in those!!) Slim Fast, you name it and I probably tried it. 

I also attempted running again and was pretty decent at the shorter distances, so I began running 5k races again.  One day, when I was 21, I decided I was going to try to run a marathon.  I had some aches and pains, but I figured that comes with running.  Everyone gets hurt running right?  I went for my first 10 mile run without too much excitement except for some mean chafing between my thighs. Otherwise I thought I’d escaped unscathed.  The next day, THOUGHT I WAS GOING TO DIE.  I had a new disease, the My Hip is Going to Fall Off Disease.  More about this in future posts. 

To make a long story short, I spent the next 5 years fighting different ailments that I associated with running such as Runner’s Knee, ITB syndrome, Leg Length Discrepancy, Possible Torn Labrum of the Hip, Iliopsoas Tendonitis, Tendonosis, Rectus Femoris Tendonitis, Lateral Ankle Sprain, SI Joint Pain, Low Back Pain, just to name a few.  Sound familiar to anyone?  :)  So what was the treatment?  There were many suggestions:

  1. Surgery to fix the torn labrum in the hip and torn ligaments in the ankle
  2. More expensive, supportive running shoes
  3. Custom orthotics because you are an Overpronator (which by the way, when combined with the most expensive stability shoes on the market may directly contribute to a lateral ankle sprain)
  4. Grow your left leg to be as long as your right (I still haven’t figured that one out yet)
  5. Stop Running

I gave number 2 and 3 a valiant attempt, leading to more and more injuries.

Then, there was one suggestion I had not considered before.  Steve Vighetti, a physical therapist at the University of St. Augustine, was assisting in my treatment for my lateral ankle sprain.  He was someone that I greatly respected, as he was a FAST runner, and the go to guy for running injuries.  In fact, I was calling out splits at our school’s 5k sporting my sweet boot for my sprained ankle when he ran by.  Or at least I think he ran by.  All I know is, someone flew by with a cute little boy in jog stroller, his hair blown back, cheeks flapping in the wind, giggling uncontollably.  I’m pretty sure the guy pushing the stroller was in first place at that point.   My sweet friend, Melissa said, “that little boy probably thinks he’s in a wind tunnel!”

Anyway, Steve kidnapped my expensive running shoes one day and pulled out my custom orthotics, my medial wedge for my Overpronation, and my heel lift, and threw them on the floor like abandoned children.  “What are you doing?” I asked him, terrified. “I NEED THOSE!” 

“Do you ever think that all this junk may in fact be your problem?”  He asked me matter of factly.  I’d never thought about that before.  However, that day, Steve successfully planted another seed.  Fast forward another 3 years, and I now have another disease: The Barefoot Running Disease.  This is by far, the best disease of all…

So you see, I haven’t always been a barefoot runner, and I certainly haven’t always been vegetarian.  What I know now is that my lifestyle choices today allow me to feel more alive and more excited about running and eating than ever before.  The journey to today has not been an easy one, and this is why I need to share my story.  I’ve had as many or more running injuries as the average runner, and I’ve struggled with eating for most of my life.  Today I feel like my body is strong and lean, and ready for the upcoming Portland Marathon with the support of plant foods, my Vibram Five Finger See Yas http://www.vibramfivefingers.com/products/Five-Fingers-Seeya-Womans.htm, and my loving husband, Mike.  This will be my second full marathon and I hope to follow it with a 50 miler next year.  So here we go, come along with me.  Happy Reading!