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The Ground Feel – Protection Continuum

Posted by on Oct 11, 2011 | 31 Comments

This last weekend, I attempted the Grindstone 100 mile race in Swoope, Virgina.  It didn’t go so well and I DNFed at about mile 54 or so.  I’ll be posting some more about the lessons learned in the race, which were plenty.

One issue in particular has garnered some discussion- my shoe choice.

I wore a pair of Merrell Trail Gloves.  Normally they are my default trail shoe.  The fit is perfect for my feet and they offer a good mix of traction and protection.

Until the conditions at Grindstone.

The course was extremely rocky in some sections.  Normally this isn’t an issue as I can hop around and land on the smoother, flatter rocks.  However, the rocks were covered with leaves AND it was dark. To add to the mix, I hadn’t run on technical trails since Colorado a few months ago.  I also hadn’t practiced night running.

Despite those conditions, I was able to avoid the big rocks for the first eight hours or so.  Once fatigue was added to the mix, I started catching my toe on the taller rocks.  My toes took a beating.  I started stepping awkwardly on large, pointed rocks.  My soles took a beating.

The net result was a much slower than planned pace.  Eventually it caused me to walk at times I should have been running.  Had I finished, it would have dramatically lengthened my finish time.

This race was a perfect example of why shoes are needed in some conditions.  Furthermore, it was an example of the importance of determining the minimal protection needed for any given terrain.

When selecting minimalist shoes, some people suggest buying the thinnest shoes possible.  This is great… if you run on smooth surfaces.  As soon as you add debris like rocks, roots, acorns, or thorns, more protection is required.

Think of it as a continuum with high ground feel (think socks) on one end and maximum protection on the other (think Hokas.)  As long as the shoe allows natural form, find a shoe that is as close to the “ground feel” end as the conditions will allow.

At Grindstone, I definitely could have used something a little closer to the “protection” end throughout the night.  Luckily Merrell is releasing some good options for spring (Bare Access among the contenders) that maintains all the same characteristics of the fit of the Trail Glove, but with more sole protection.  There may be a few other decent options too, like the New Balance MT110.


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  1. Josh W
    October 13, 2011

    Great post.

    II think one thing to differentiate is protection versus cushioning. Protection is a relatively hard sole that takes away ground feel but isn’t soft. Bad form is still uncomfortable (think tire huaraches). Cushion may take away ground feel but is soft and bad form can follow. Many places in between the two.

    It’s actually why I like my homemade sandals. Depending on what materials I put together for the sole I can get thin and hard (4mm cherry), add 2mm of veg tanned leather to the cherry and I get hard with better rock protection (the leather is a “rock plate). Use varying widths of Newflex and leather and I can get some cushioning but also protection. And if I don’t want to feel the ground at all – the tire huaraches come out.

    The product managers at Merrill probably know all sorts of things about rubber/foam characteristics (or they should)

  2. Eli
    October 12, 2011

    hey Jason I just wanted to put a race in your mind and that is the Wilcat 50k in wildcat den state park muscatine, IA for more info go to and then go to calendar and look for it. The Race is free if you don’t donate (although I recomend it) or bring food. also, the race is november 25th and is a trail race. plus it is very small scale and and 6 mile loop coarse.

  3. Josh
    October 12, 2011

    Jason, next time you’re in Seattle, meet up with Barefoot Ted and take a look at the huaraches that Manuel Luna made for him out of tire tread. They’re at least 3/4 of an inch thick of solid inflexible rubber.

    The Tarahumara aren’t dummies. That landscape is full of sharp rocks, thorns, and other hazards. Stepping on any of those when alone and in the desert = death.

    Good advice to your readers.

  4. Rob
    October 12, 2011

    Why is ground feel even a consideration for a long distance race? The problem is there is no thought to split up what you do in *training* versus what you do in *racing*. The minimalist approach is great for the bulk of one’s mileage since you are strengthening and sharpening but when you choose to race, it’s more important (I would think) to attempt to maximize your potential, otherwise why race? So to maximize potential, like you say, you need to carefully determine what terrain/surface you’re going to be racing on and choose a shoe with the proper amount of protection. Now if you just want to complete and not compete, then one can certainly get through these long distance races in just about any kind of footwear with more or less suffering involved. Shoes are tools, nothing more, nothing less; choose the right tool for the job and you’ll be successful, choose poorly and…

    • Jason
      October 12, 2011

      Rob- good form is inversely proportional to higher levels of protection. As ground feel decreases, the lack of feedback erodes form to the point where the cumulative effects of an ultra negate the benefits of added protection. Through experimentation with a bazillion shoes, this effect is very pronounced for me.

      At Grindstone, my miscalculation happened because I overestimated my ability to avoid the leaf-covered rocks at night. I didn’t have any problems in the daylight.

      When I run the race again, I will either train on similar terrain in similar conditions with Trail Gloves, OR wear Trail Gloves in the daylight and something with more protection at night. I’d opt for the TGs in the daylight because they allow good protection without altering my form, which increases efficiency.

      Interestingly, this need to pick the right tool for the job is one negative of being a minimalist runner. It’s also one of the fun elements of what we do…

      • Rob
        October 12, 2011

        What do you mean by “lack of feedback erodes form to the point where the cumulative effects of an ultra negate the benefits of added protection”. If you have more protection you can cover rough terrain faster, isn’t that the point if you’re racing? I understand that perhaps your form may deteriorate over long enough distances by wearing a more protective shoe, but if you’re off the trail hours before a runner with good form and a more minimal shoe… who cares? I agree that one can over do the amount of protection needed. Ground feel for me has more to do with having enough flexibility deformablity to provide excellent traction and less so with any prioproception needs, though I do understand that that is very important.

  5. Liz
    October 12, 2011

    Heh. Had the same thoughts at Cascade Crest – some surprisingly sharp rocks (for this Michigander). And, was certainly slowed in my Pace Gloves. I just chalked it up to lack of practice!
    I’ve also found about a 30-35 mile limit in Pace Gloves & VFF Treks. I have a pair of New Balance WT20s coming… perhaps they’ll offer just a bit more for the later parts of Ozark Trail. :-/

    • Jason
      October 12, 2011

      Liz, practice can make a huge difference in the terrain you’re able to navigate. If I would have properly prepared, I should have been able to navigate the rocky sections of Grindstone… which was a major failure of my low-mileage training plan. :-)

      • Liz
        October 12, 2011

        I’m hoping the leaves drop soon (well, only over my trails – the rest can stay) so I can get some practice running blind.
        The WT20s arrived today – I’m liking them much better than the Merrell Lithe Gloves (which are way stiffer [and not in a good way] than the Pace Gloves – they will be returned to the store). And, I think they might could maybe be the ticket beyond 50 miles…at least that’s my story. I’ll let you know. (Of course, Ozark isn’t known to be rocky like Grindstone or Massanutten.)

  6. Jon S.
    October 11, 2011

    Jason, just playing devils advocate but curious to know… do you feel you would have had the same “protection” perspective three or four years ago when just starting out and really finding your identity as a barefoot runner?

    • Jason
      October 12, 2011

      Jon- back in those days, I was convinced I could do anything barefoot. Experience taught me otherwise. :-)

      My ideas of ground feel versus protection evolved based on routinely encountering terrain I couldn’t easily handle.

      Worth noting- this is the first time in a long time I’ve run into the problem of needing more protection.

  7. Aaron
    October 11, 2011

    My limit with the Trail Gloves on rocky terrain is around 35 miles. That’s when I start hurting enough that my pace slows. I found that out this spring with a very rocky 50k and then a significantly better 38 mile fun ran at the Kettle Moraine 100. Even that one was a bit too much towards the end.

    • Jason
      October 12, 2011

      Aaron- I think everyone has specific limits based on training and experience. I wore the Trail Gloves (and Sonic Gloves) for all of Western States without issues. The biggie for me- leaf-covered big rocks at night.

      Any plans to do the 100 ay KM?

  8. Harry Bellew
    October 11, 2011

    I have often refered back to one of your articles where you made the case of shoes as tools . You use different tools for different jobs. I ran some test runs over the North Face Endurance course at Bear Mountain prior to my Ultra attempt there and soon realised that my VFF Trek’s were going to be insufficient for the job – I would have serioulsy struggled to make the cut off as I would have been forced to walk in many many more places. I ended up in the NB minimus Trails and they were excellent in that very rocky terrain and although I kicked a bunch of rocks – underfoot they were enough protection (only 50k mind you).
    I loved running in that extreme terrain and would rather wear a suitable piece of footwear and enjoy that , than chose to let my choice to be barefoot dictate where and when I can run. That seems counter to all the reasons I looke d to barefooting in the first place.

    • Jason
      October 12, 2011

      Harry- i think most of us have come to the same conclusion. As far as Bear Mountain- I agree. VFFs wouldn’t be quite enough. I used Trail Gloves there with excellent results.

  9. kai keliikuli
    October 11, 2011

    I really like the NB 100 and 101s and have run most of my trail races in them. I train mostly in vff and minimus but I love the rock plate come race day. I tried to get used to a pair of hokas in time for grindstone but I wasn’t able to. They’re too different from what I’m used to.

    • Jason
      October 12, 2011

      Hokas are definitely different… and not in a good way. :-)

      My problem with the 100 and 101s is the raised heel. It’s just too much for my tastes.

  10. David Sutherland
    October 11, 2011

    I had the same experience this summer at a muddy, steep, and rocky 40 miler this summer. I wore Trail Gloves, and they did great at first through the drier parts of the course. But as conditions deteriorated, I started slipping on the muddy rocks (hidden underwater at times), and I repeatedly masted my toes and insteps into various hard objects. Like you, I was reduced to walking through some sections that I would rather have run.

    I have high hopes for the MT110 (though the MT101’s don’t run in my size), but will definitely have to give the Bare Access line a try.

    • David Sutherland
      October 11, 2011

      ‘masted’? I mean ‘mashed’!

    • Jason
      October 12, 2011

      I’m excited to try Merrell’s water sport shoes for that reason- awesome drainage in wet conditions. I’ve handled the MT110s… they’re good shoes. They’re sort of hybrid between the Minimus Trails and MT100s. I’m not sure they will fill the “general purpose” shoe as much as the Trail Gloves, though. The shape doesn’t fit my particular foot as well and the 4mm drop gives me problems.

  11. Tracy Longacre
    October 11, 2011

    I hear ya Jason. I ran a half-marathon this past weekend in Luna Catamount huaraches. 50% was road, no problem. The other 50% was a dirt road that was sand on rock with lots and lots of small stones. My feet felt pretty beat up by the end.

    • Jason
      October 12, 2011

      Tracy- that’s one of the reasons I don’t use huaraches for the trail. I LOVE them for casual wear or even road running, but they can be a disadvantage off road.

  12. Wiglaf
    October 11, 2011

    It’d be cool to have an option like the yak traks that you could pull on to your shoes but that would give you extra protection.

    • Jason
      October 12, 2011

      That’s a pretty good idea! I think a removable thin, hard plastic insole would serve a similar purpose… just enough to dissipate some of the force.

      • Wiglaf
        October 17, 2011

        For four bucks, I can get a pair of odor eaters, the durable model, and cut to size. I have size 9 feet, so I can cut the size 12 insole to size in a way that spreads the whole toe box in Merrells. Works pretty good. If you have larger size feet, it might not work because they don’t design the insole for a wide toe box. It has a bit of cushioning, but certainly should be great for winter casual wear when standing on ice and snow and would certainly provide some insulation. They’re flat, so no “arch support.”
        I haven’t run in them yet, though:

  13. The Maple Grove Barefoot Guy
    October 11, 2011

    So if I want more groundfeel I need to get some Punky Brewster toe socks? So that’s what I’ve been doing wrong ;)

    • Jason
      October 12, 2011

      Yes. ;-)

  14. Troy
    October 11, 2011

    Back in August I had a similar experience at Sugarloaf Mountain in Marquette Michigan. I had planned to try to run it barefoot, quickly discovered the rocks and roots were too extreme and put on my trail gloves. Even then, the trail gloves provided just barely enough protection for a slightly uncomfortable hike (running was hard on the feet even in the shoes and I flat out ran out of breath trying to run up the damn thing!).

    while I thought they were pretty well suited to the conditions, it did occur to me that I could have used just the tiniest bit more protection.

    • Jason
      October 12, 2011

      Troy- having hiked that trail in the past, I agree it’s pretty technical.

  15. Jamoosh
    October 11, 2011

    Excellent post and one that needs to be expanded. I whole-heartedly agree with different levels of protection. I think this is a subject that gets lost in the barefoot conversation because many people believe that being a barefoot runner means “always” running barefoot.

    • Jason
      October 12, 2011

      Agreed Jamoosh- there are some conditions where some degree of protection is an advantage.