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Barefoot Ultramarathon Or Not?

Posted by on May 21, 2012 | 10 Comments

This upcoming Sunday, I’ll be running the Pineland Farms Trail Running Festival 50 miler. The big decision: Wear shoes or go barefoot?

The case for barefoot:

  • I’m familiar with the course, and it’s pretty barefoot-friendly.
  • I’ve covered the distance barefoot before.
  • The race was voted as the best barefoot event in the US… so I feel compelled to tackle it barefoot.
  • I have two sizable cuts on my heels from my recent road 25k, and going barefoot would assure the cuts heal before Bighorn (my “A” race 100 miler next month).
  • Barefoot would make the race itself more enjoyable… or at least the first 15 miles or so.

The case against barefoot:

  • I haven’t done much barefoot training. That will affect…
  • The chance for injury. Going barefoot over that long of a distance on trails has a fairly significant risk of injury. The last barefoot 50 miler resulted in a broken toe.
  • I can run long distances faster in shoes. I’ve trained extensively in shoes and managed to whittle my times down to respectability. This should be a pretty easy PR in shoes. Barefoot? Probably not. I have a strong desire to “race” this race.
  • This is essentially a training run, and training in shoes will allow me to more closely replicate the conditions at Bighorn.

The issue was reinvigorated after hearing about some of the experiences from the barefoot runners at Luis Escobar’s Born to Run ultras this last weekend. My friend Vanessa, an immensely talented barefoot/minimalist runner, took 7 hours to complete the first 10 miles of a 50k barefoot. As a testament to her bad-assedness, she still finished the race. Her experiences reminded me of this post I wrote about terrain that’s impossible to run barefoot.

The gist- I’ve reached a point where I’d rather push my limits as an ultrarunner than pushing my limits as a barefoot runner. I’ve come close to finding my limits of the latter, but only touched any real potential for the former.

In all likelihood, the heel cuts will be the deciding factor. If they heal, I’ll go with shoes. If not, I’ll go barefoot. Luckily I have plenty of time to consider the issue as Shelly and I travel the East Coast for our clinics in Chicago, Maryland, New York City, and, of course, Pineland Farms (in Maine).

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10 Comments

  1. Bryan
    May 21, 2012

    Jason:

    I live in West Michigan & have a few questions about barefoot running. What is the best way to contact you (via email, phone, etc.)? Thanks….Bryan

  2. PSlingers
    May 21, 2012

    I say barefoot! Life is not about the goal, it’s about enjoying how you get there. That’s what you remember.

    ….just look keep an eye on where your running. :~D

  3. Tim N
    May 21, 2012

    Do you get drop bags?

    Split the difference and run the first ’15 miles or so’ barefoot. Then change shoes (or into shoes) and race your badassest to catch up to your fully shod self

  4. Rob Y
    May 21, 2012

    I’d say the only thing that matters is your “A” race at this point. Don’t do anything that would jeopardize your performance at the event that matters to you the most. Keep your eyes on the prize. Only you can decide what makes the MOST sense. Personally I’d play it safe now, focus on your “A” race and then, once your past that, then experiment. But that’s just me. Good luck!

    • Jason
      May 21, 2012

      Part of the experiment would be testing a new shoe/sock combo that I’ll probably use at night at Bighorn. I haven’t tried that specific combo before, and won’t have the opportunity for a long training run prior to Bighorn. It’s a tough decision because I think the shoes will help my Bighorn performance. Eh, we’ll see. It’s not a life-changing decision, but I like the discussion. :-)

  5. Theresa
    May 21, 2012

    I am struggling with the same…I guess I’ll decide when I get to Pineland and review the course. I hope to be able to run part of it barefoot…the whole thing? Still food for thought this week as we get closer. Thank you for sharing. :)

    • Jason
      May 21, 2012

      Theresa, I think you’re right about the grass being the deciding issue. I was running through some recently-cut hay fields outside Chicago yesterday, and the dried stalks weren’t too bad.

  6. wiglaf
    May 21, 2012

    Can you explain how the cuts on your heel not being healed would mean not wearing shoes? Does this have something to do with the damp shoe environment or the speed at which you’d run?

    I ran the 25k in VFF sprints. I was recovering from a calf strain but still managed to finish under 2 hours, and yes, wanting to run faster than I could do barefoot meant I did not go barefoot. Got the action sports pictures and noticed I’ve still got work to do on my form.

    • Jason
      May 21, 2012

      I should have clarified- the cuts are on the back of my heel at the Achilles attachment point. Wearing any shoes will rub the scabs off prematurely, which is why I’m hesitant about Pineland.

      • james
        May 25, 2012

        You sound like you want to race this one which means wearing shoes. So tape the cuts/scabs so that any friction is between the shoe and the tape. The scabs might get a bit soft but hopefully stay on and continue to heal. Worst case you have to tape them again at Bighorn. Upside is you get to “race” and try out some shoe/sock combo’s before the big one.