I drove all the way to Peterborough on Thursday evening through rush hour to get them since they are apparently completely sold out in the entire Greater Toronto Area.
I went to Wild Rock on the suggestion of a local barefoot friend, and the guy that helped me there was great. He said people come from everywhere to get a pair of these and he has to turn many of them away because the sizing just doesn’t work out.
When I finally pulled on a pair that felt literally like a glove, it was the coolest sensation. I was absolutely thrilled and wore them immediately for the rest of the day. On the way back to the car I saw a man walking barefoot on the street and I got excited again. I thought maybe there were a lot of barefooters in this town and I was wondering whether I could meet any of them. Then the man started picking through a garbage can and I realized he was a hobo. Sigh.
The next day was supposed to be a rest day for me, but I couldn’t resist and I took my VFFs out for a 10k loop. I felt great, and best of all I really got a feel for the texture and just trying to get used to running in them.
I did notice that there was one part that tended to rub into the side of my foot and threatened a blister, so I think I’m going to buy some injinji socks to wear with them, or slip them on with Vaseline.
Also, compared to barefoot running, it felt quite easy. I didn’t actually see a huge similarity to barefoot running, and instead could name more things in common with shoes. While my VFFs did preserve the barefoot form, the mind body connection wasn’t nearly as strong. My mind was more prone to wandering, as it does when I’m wearing shoes. I felt much more supported and stabilized to the point where I wasn’t really paying attention to the textures of the road. I couldn’t even really feel them.
The VFFs were significantly warmer than running barefoot. My feet were never cold, even though everyone is now out in winter coats. My calves still got a great workout, and quite frankly I love the attention I get with them. People suddenly want to stop and talk about running and feet. Or just stare.
On Sunday morning I took them out on their (and my) first trail race! I used Vaseline on my feet, plus I wrapped a cloth strip bandage around the base of my foot in an attempt to simulate a sock and avoid any blisters. It was a super exciting experience! There was one other person there in VFFs, and while we were waiting to start people were asking me about them.
The trail run was blissfully treacherous. I’m not even sure why they called it a trail run because there wasn’t a trail of any kind! I went through five rivers (two more than I was supposed to when I made a wrong turn). Mounds of mud. The steepest hills I’ve ever run. Straight through bushes and over trees. I didn’t even know there were places like this in my city.
The race was set up in a way that the slower runners would start first and the fastest would go last and try to catch up. I was near the middle of the pack, but before we started I set my eye on one girl who was part of the “elite” pack. She was very thin and had a ton of expensive running gear on. She looked like she could kick my ass any day of the week. I decided to keep an eye out for her. I wanted to beat her.
I decided last minute to leave my water bottle behind and run completely uninhibited. It was a decision that I was later most thankful for! I would need the full use of both my hands. The route was approximately 8k, and as soon as I entered the park I realized why it was impossible to say exactly how long it actually was.
We had to follow pink markers tied to trees, but there was no road to follow. We were constantly leaping over trees and logs. You couldn’t take more than 20 steps without coming across some type of major obstacle.
To make things worse the ground was completely covered in deep leaves, so you had no idea what kind of surface you were landing on. It could be a log. It could be mud. It could be packed dirt. At one point I even landed on a long metal rod.
The leaves and twigs would dig into your shins and calves resulting in tiny cuts that would later sting when you had to run through a swamp. There were three river crossings. A couple of them were difficult enough that the race organizers opted to use a rope to help people cross. Depending on where you chose to cross the rivers, the water would come to either your shins, your knees, or your waist. The water was freezing and – it was snowing. The wet clothes would stick to your skin and so would leaves and dirt.
The beginning of the race was quite congested and it was almost impossible to pass anyone. We had to all descend a particularly steep hill early on in the race where we had to go down using a rope, one by one. Soon after that the guy in front of me got his shoes stuck in the mud. He was right between a river and a hill, so the only way around him was up that hill. I scrambled up and around him while he stood there cursing.
I saw several people fall (they were always immediately helped). I myself stumbled five times, but caught myself. I stubbed my toe twice, but I looked and felt like a Vibram commercial. I was leaping logs and clearing mud at a rate much faster than my shod competitors. The water was no problem. I was in and out and my feet never felt heavy.
After about 20 minutes the elite girl caught up to me. I didn’t want to let her pass, but she eventually did. After that I managed to stay right on her tail for quite a while. Then we got to the hill of death.
My VFFs has much less traction than the shoes of the other runners, so hills were my weak area. I would slip on leaves and mud much more easily than the others, so I quickly learned to adapt by using my hands. I cleared most hills using my hands as well as my feet – on all fours like an animal. Every single other runner either tried to run or walk, which was completely exhausting.
By scrambling up in more of a crawling position, I was able to spread out my body weight and conserve more energy. I was more spider-like, and by the time I got to the top I still had the energy to run. That is how I passed that girl on the hill. We got to the top at the same time and she was huffing and puffing (she ran/walked the entire hill). I had crawled it, so at the top I simply stood up and took off running. She stayed behind to catch her breath.
After I passed her I realized – I couldn’t see anyone else ahead of me. I found this to be much more challenging since it’s easier to follow the steps of the person in front of you than to make your own way.
When someone is in front of you, you quickly learn to keep your arms up to prevent twigs and tree branches from slapping you in the face. Now I was first in line and there were several people following behind me. Instead of waving my arms in front of me wildly, trying to stop the branches from poking my eyes out, I put my arms out straight in front of me like a swimmer and dove right through. Like water, the twigs would separate and there wasn’t any snapping action that would injure the runner behind me.
It soon became apparent to me after I passed my elite competitor that this was not a race based on speed on strength. It had nothing in common with landing a quick 5k or 10k PR. Like barefoot running or marathoning, it was a race to be run with your heart and your mind.
I say this because I noticed that almost all the runners were so focused on looking down at their next step, that very few of them would look up at and see the bigger picture. To be fair, the terrain was so treacherous that you HAD to look down constantly, but the best runners would do both. I found that because of my barefoot running experience, and the way I was feeling in my Vibrams, I could handle doing both. I was running intelligently while most people were just following the path forged by the person in front of them, which was often not the easiest or best way.
At one point we were heading down a steep hill with an enormous fallen tree right across it. The girl in front of me was so focused on her next step and going in a straight line that she spent all her energy climbing over that tree. I looked up, and instead of following her I took a few steps to the side and avoided the tree entirely. By the time she had gotten over the tree, I was nearly at the bottom of the hill. As a passed her, she looked up at me and grumbled, “That was smarter…”
Downhills were the hardest for me to run in my Vibrams. Because of my lack of traction I was slipping all over the place. So I resorted to sliding down more on my bum and hands, again spreading out my body weight. When I couldn’t do that, I would grab twigs and trees around me and sort of swing off of them all the way down.
The trees and twigs were small enough and plenty of them, so I could easily grab them and swing all the way down – but they had spines on them. So I had to really focus on where I put my hand. Also, some of them weren’t strong enough support me and they would break, so I would have to quickly grab another one to avoid falling down the hill. I managed to keep a steady rhythm and despite my Vibrams I ended up doing most of my passing on all the hills.
The very last hill was the deadly. We had to again climb it one by one using a rope. It felt like it was close to 90 degrees. After that the hill continued, but less steep so I could actually run it. Just when I thought my lungs would explode, I could sense we would finish soon.
I finished strong. And that elite runner never passed me again. When I got to the end, I was so proud! I have never run anything even close to a route like that, and I could name several people who would be incapable of even walking it. I finished in 52 minutes, and I thought I was in the middle of the pack. But when I walked into the base there were only about 10 other runners there. A couple of them were outside and a few more were indoors nursing their feet. My feet felt amazing. I walked up to the food tables and I was the first one there.
I grabbed a banana and headed home. I had Halloween plans.