As I crossed the finish line of the San Diego Half Marathon this past Sunday, I choked back the tears as a powerful flood of emotion overcame me. Two years ago at this time, I was recovering from my second metatarsal stress fracture, just one of a series of severe injuries that kept me sidelined from racing – and nearly from running at all. Over the previous two years, I had tried – and failed – to treat my torn achilles, peroneal and extensor tendonitis, hip bursitis, metatarsal stress reaction and two fractures, by experimenting with every therapy in the books and every shoe available (seriously, you should have seen my shoe rack). My running accomplishments had rapidly diminished from regular marathons to hobbling a few painful miles at best. Each successive injury was followed by yet another, sending me faster into a downward spiral of intensifying hopelessness, as it appeared that my running days were nearing their end.
There was a deeper imbalance that was untreatable by rest, physical therapy or new shoes. It was time to hit the reset button and retrain myself to run … from scratch. When I vowed to give up shoes a year and a half ago (September 7, 2013 to be exact) I was terrified. This meant intentionally reducing my mileage to frustratingly low levels and risking more broken bones or worse (as the media promised, with headlines to the tune of “Barefoot Running Can Cause Injuries, Too” and “Barefoot Running Injuries: Doctors See Health Problems Ranging From Stress Fractures To Pulled Calf Muscles“). Although I had been dabbling in running barefoot for a year or so prior, I had approached it as a casual occasional training tool to improve my form, not to mention have a little childlike fun on the side! It seemed unsustainable for the distances and regularity I had been logging and longed to return to. Yet, as every conventional option had failed me, the novelty and craziness of barefoot running offered just the glimmer of hope I needed.
As I progressed through my barefoot journey, the initial apprehension quickly wore off. The requisite patience was offset both by the thrill of running painlessly and freely, as well as by the small, victorious milestones along the way. I vividly remember the satisfaction of completing my first barefoot mile, the giddiness after my first 5-miler and the astonishment after finishing my first 10-miler. The experiment was working!
Racing: The missing piece
Yet, although I had overcome the chronic injuries and – most importantly – had regained my love for running, there was still a missing piece to my inner runner. Due to the incessant injuries, followed by the gradual transition to barefoot running, I hadn’t seriously raced since my last marathon over three years ago. I knew from others’ experiences that returning to full performance (in terms of distance and speed) after switching from shod to barefoot running can take years – around a decade by some estimates. While I dreamed of returning to racing, I was admittedly terrified. Foremost, my barefoot training required a new level of control and precaution, forcing me to limit my terrain mostly to smooth pavement and concrete, and to abandon speed and distance goals. But further, racing for me has always been a chance to explore and test my physical and mental limits. Barefoot racing was uncharted territory and I feared the disappointment if I were to fail that test.
Soon, this race anxiety was overpowered by annoyance with the anxiety, and fed up with my complacency, I took the plunge. My body may never be “perfectly” barefoot-race-ready, but my mind was itching to race. With more excitement than perhaps for any past race, I spontaneously registered for the San Diego Half Marathon, just a couple weeks out. I had been warned by a fellow barefoot runner of some rough spots, but refused to check out the course in advance. Ignorance can indeed be bliss. I was anxious enough, and preferred to bask in blind eagerness than further worry myself.
To my despair, a week from race day as I began to taper, I developed an odd forefoot issue: tight, burning metatarsal heads and painful, tingly first and second toes (I suspect this was related to clumsily wacking my foot on a curb weeks prior, but we’ll never know). The two days before the race, the ‘injury’ peaked and I was hobbling in pain. The mental battle raged, as I weighed the risks and benefits of showing up at the starting line – a painful, miserable, slow run, versus intense disappointment and regret.
Race morning, my foot still ached. But I had to try. The buzz at the starting line reaffirmed my decision, as the shared anticipation amongst the running community flooded me with excitement.
Mile 1: My big toe ached. “Already? Ugh. Why I am I here again?” By mile 2 the pain was gone.
Mile 3: A rough stretch of nasty road. What would have typically ripped up my feet now barely fazed me as I focused intently on light, relaxed form.
Mile 5: Drained and anxious. My foot had been acting up around mile 4-5 in my training runs, and I anticipated the end of my race was near. “This race was such an idiotic decision. I’m injured and tired … there’s just no way this will end well. I’ll most certainly end up more severely hurt, and for what? To prove that I can race barefoot?” But the energy of the runners and spectators propelled me forward, and the constant stream of “Barefoot … thats awesome!” and “Look, she’s barefoot!” reminded me that not only could I do it, I was doing it.
Mile 6.5: Half way already? The foot still felt fine.
Mile 9: After an ugly stretch of not-so-well maintained pavement crossing the 5 freeway, “the hill” appeared. As the 300-foot ascent began and runners around me began to walk, I savored the smooth concrete under my feet as I climbed steadily. But as I peaked to flat ground, I felt a painful ‘pebble’ under my big toe. After a couple of minutes I pulled aside to wipe it away, but there was no pebble. My already finicky flexor tendon had apparently been irritated by the hill, but with only 3 miles to go, I had to push through.
Mile 11: The course weaved through my neighborhood, and as I passed by the cheering onlookers at my typical weekend coffee spot, the pride hit me. I could have been one of those spectators myself, sipping my tea with regret. But not today.
To the finish: Perhaps the most frustrating stretch of the race was the downhill finish. I felt exceptionally strong, but had put on some slight breaks to avoid tearing up the quads, calves and of course, feet.
13.1: I crossed the finish line with deeper gratitude than at perhaps any other race. Compared to my shod days, I hadn’t run particularly fast, and the distance was nothing remarkable, but I had broken another type of PR. After years of being sidelined by injury, I was back in the game. That missing piece to my inner runner was finally found. I was no longer transitioning to barefoot running … I was there. I was a real runner once again … strong, healthy and basking in the post-race passion of the running community that I so missed.