By: The Maple Grove Barefoot Guy
Let's be honest folks. Marathons can be downright dreadful. Unless you're an ultra runner, an elite, or a crazy person they are generally long, hard, and exceptionally painful for everyone involved. They are like getting your ass kicked along with several thousand of your closest friends. That kind of communal ass whooping isn't your local neighborhood fun run. I'm actually surprised sometimes that folks pay up to several hundred dollars for that kind of pain.
Marathons are serious business. They are about (among other things) how many 20 milers to run beforehand, sports drinks named after body parts, ideal heart rate calculations, dudes that run while holding cardboard signs with finishing times on them, sugary goop in packets that I wouldn't feed my dog, GPS watches that beep every 15 minutes, lubing up body parts so they don't chafe and bleed, and finisher t-shirts that they refuse to give you until you actually finish. But one thing that they are not, or at least that they are not supposed to be, is fun.
I've never had fun while racing a marathon. Up until this weekend I can't recall a since step that I took in a marathon that I would call enjoyable. My previous marathon experiences have been portraits of pain and suffering. They were three-way battles between the forces of pain, stubbornness, and stupidity where I completely bonked at around mile 12 and willed one foot in front of the other for another two hours until I crossed the finish line and collapsed in a completely un-local superhero-like fashion. They were incredible experiences to have, they gave me a ton of confidence, and they taught me a lot about myself. But they were not by any means fun.
Even dogs learn through repetition. Apparently I don't, because I keep signing up for these things hoping this time will be different. Not only that, but I think up new ways to pile on and possibly bonk sooner. So as I got ready for the Med City Marathon over Memorial Day weekend, I had a battle plan that would make Saddam Hussein look like a military genius. I was about to attempt a barefoot marathon on a course that I knew from experience was very rough for majority of the distance. I was going to do it having never run more than 20 miles barefoot on all asphalt (I've done more on a trail). And I was going to do it without consuming a single calorie before or during the race. Yes, I'm an idiot. But I'm a very brave idiot.
Luckily I have friends who do a good job of talking me out of stupid ideas. For this race, that bug in my ear was my good buddy and Barefoot Runners Society-Minnesota co-president Katie Button-Swenson, and Iowa Chapter member Evelia Hauck. My plan was to stick with them, and hopefully follow the 4:30-pacer for most of the race and come out with a time that would be at least a little better than my previous marathon PR of 4:37.
Of course, it wasn't that hard to talk me out of all of that posturing at the beginning of the race. I start out every one of my races with a list of goals that range from ridiculous to weird with all manner of dumbassery in between. I figure if I have a lot of goals that I'm not particularly attached to, the laws of probability say I should at least hit one and not feel too bad about being a complete failure at the rest. So I'm like the Boyscouts of daredevil idiots, I come prepared for all possible fuck-ups. In this case, that meant I packed enough food to get me through the race, and several different footwear options in case my feet turned into bloody stumps.
With every possible screw-up scenario covered, I headed down to Rochester with my mom. Not wanting to witness the carnage first-hand, my wife and daughter did the smart thing and headed up to the cabin for the Memorial Day holiday for a few cocktails. After she left for the lake, I started to doubt I had made the right weekend plans. A weekend of kicking back was starting to sound a lot better than a 4-hour death march. But it was Katie's first marathon, and all of our first barefoot marathon, so I wanted to cheer my friends to the finish line.
We got to Rochester at around 3:00pm, but hadn't planned on meeting up with Katie and Evelia until around 5:00pm. So we headed down to the Rochester Civic Center to hang out at the marathon expo. Now I'm used to marathons where the field is several thousand people. For those events, the expo looks like a running store combined with a carnival. Only 270 folks had signed up for this marathon. So the expo looked more like a craft sale. I did have a couple of cool celebrity sightings though. First, I saw Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak finish the 5K race that was finishing up just as we got to the Civic Center.
I pretended to be having trouble seeing my phone in all the sunshine and took a covert picture. Then I ran away when he looked at me. I'm such a tool.
I also caught a glimpse of the keynote speaker, Carrie Tollefson. I think she's the only athlete from Minnesota to ever make it to the Olympics in any sport. So she's quite a local celebrity. She's also kind of a hottie.
I'm not sure what she was speaking about. Guys have trouble listening to hot girls while they're talking. That's why I can never remember a damn thing that my wife says to me. See honey? It's not that I"m not listening to you! I'm distracted by your hotness! BTW, I guarantee my wife is shaking her head right now in a combination of shame and disbelief. That's kind of part of our relationship dynamic. If she's even reading this post that is. She kind of lost interest after the um-tenth joke about porn.
Anyway, we met up with Evelia and her husband Chuck as well as Katie and her family (husband Ian and kids Olivia, Max, and Nyla) at around 5:30pm for dinner. I had insisted that we get a pre-race dinner of Mexican food. I always run better with a few tacos in my belly. So we headed out for a night of laughs and good food at a local Mexican joint called Fiesta Cafe.
Here's a picture of the whole gang outside the restaurant. Pictured from left to right is Evelia, Nyla, Katie, Max, Ian, yours truly, my mom Susan, and Olivia. Chuck did all the photo taking for the weekend, so we don't have a picture of him. And yes, I really am that tall.
This is one of my favorite pictures from the weekend. There's me doing my best skyscraper imitation. The three amigos about to go boldy forth! After the meal we turned in early to get ready for the next day's events.
Byron to Rochester (Start to Mile 8)
Since our hotel was only a block from the shuttle to the start line, my race day morning was pretty relaxed. I was up at 5am and out the door by 5:25a.m. I was on the bus and off to the nearby town of Byron by 5:30a.m. with Katie and Evelia. The race course started in Byron and took us down the highway into Rochester for approximately 8 miles.
As we got ready for the race, Katie was something of a local celebrity. The day before the local paper had run a story on her plans to run the race barefoot. Lots of folks came up to her to wish her luck and ask her questions. Everyone was very positive. Then they realized that there were three lunatics with bare feet among them and were a little taken aback. I think they worried we were in a cult or something. I tried not to make any sudden movements until we started.
There were actually four races going on at the same time that morning, so the marathoners lined up with folks running a half marathon, marathon relay, and 20-mile race. It was a decent field of around 2,000 or so people. Regardless, the pack wasn't very thick as we got going. The road out of Byron was the silky smooth pavement you'd expect on a major road. The weather was a perfect 60 degrees with a good wind, and the route was nothing but gentile country roads with nothing but cornfields as far as the eye could see.
During this first portion I felt as good as I've ever felt during a race, and I think it's because of the company. We cracked jokes, did a little Zumba dancing, chatted up the other runners, and generally had way more fun than we probably should have during a marathon. A couple of runners even commented about how we were having too much fun, and should save our energy for later on. It was hard not to be so happy though. It was a perfect day for a race, and I had the perfect company.
There's my barefoot harem at around mile 8 running into the outskirts of Rochester. I'm further back in the orange t-shirt having a disagreement with my water bottle holder. I told them that this was because I preferred looking at them from the back, but it's really because they were trying to leave me in the dust. This picture is the result of a series of traded insults between Evelia and I over our chosen race pace. I accused her of hot-rodding and burning us out early, and she accused me of being a wuss. I guess I don't take crap well from short people, because I eventually relented to her pace. I was also having such a blast that I didn't want to get left behind.
Rochester Trail Loops i.e. the Bane of My Existence (Miles 8 to 16)
From the main roads we turned onto the city trails, and the race got a lot smaller and more intimate. The turn-off for the half marathon happened at about the same time, and the number of runners on the course dropped to almost nothing. I looked around several times and couldn't see another runner besides our group in either direction. It made the course a little harder to navigate, but also meant that the race volunteers and spectators cheered just for you. We got a lot of comments about how crazy we were for running barefoot. But folks were also very excited for us because they could see we were doing so well. You get special treatment in a race when you're doing something different. And we definitely got our fair share of special treatment.
At about mile 12 was also the point where the trails turned ugly. The butter-smooth blacktop turned into well-worn chipseal. This was the kind of stuff that I don't usually go on for more than a couple of miles because it usually does a number on my feet. We made the best of it by running on the painted lines, curbs, or in the grass when it was available.
Despite the rough terrain, when we saw Katie's mom shortly after mile 12 I gave her the huaraches I had been carrying in case my feet got sensitive. For some reason, the entire race I just knew I'd be able to finish barefoot. I never doubted myself for an instant, and I don't think Katie and Evelia did either.
There's Katie telling her mom to come get my gear. I was by far the gear junkie of the group with my calf sleeves, sunglasses, visor, tech t-shirt, water pack, huaraches, tape, and carbs. Katie showed up with an '80s rock t-shirt and some safety pins for her number.
The trail never did get better, it actually got worse. There were spots that were so rough that we were forced to start walking, and skittered over to the grass as fast as we could. The girls made the best of it and hopped over to the grass. For the most part, I stayed on the paths and just took it. That lead to many jokes about how I was the most hardcore barefoot runner in the group.
The day got more ridiculous as we wound through the Rochester neighborhoods with nothing to mark the race route except a few cones every mile. The ridiculousness reached a peak when the course took a loop around a parking lot that couldn't have been much bigger than 1000 square feet and was littered with rocks and glass.
Still, for as bad as things got sometimes, we never let our spirits get down. When the trail got tough, we cracked each other up by swearing like sailors. When we had to do a loop around a parking lot smaller than my first apartment, we trotted around the grass along the edges and laughed at how we were doing the race day equivalent of running back and forth in front of your house until you make your distance for that day's run.
Katie doing her lap around the parking lot.
River Run i.e. Digging Deep (Miles 16 to Finish)
After looping around the outskirts of Rochester we headed back to the downtown using the backroads. This didn't provide any relief for the feet though. If anything, it was worse. The three of us got a little quieter and buckled down. But our spirits were still pretty high. I was usually a wreck by this point in the race, and I was actually feeling pretty strong. We had been maintaining pretty consistent 10:00 minute miles up until that point, and were still charging hard.
As we hit around the 19 mile point, my legs started to fatigue. So I used a trick that my ultra friends taught me, and sped up. What I really wanted was to say that I had been in the lead for at least some portion of the race. Regardless, it worked like a charm, and I was back running strong. I was surprised at how well my feet were doing despite all of the abuse I'd been giving them for the past three hours. They felt very beat up, but I wasn't feeling discomfort and overstimulation like usual. I think my determination to finish took over, and prevented any pain from getting the best of me.
Look! I'm winning! For at least another couple yards anyway. I continued to sprint ahead of Evelia and Katie until around mile 25. I am totally doing that sprint thing in the future! It really works!
We reached the Zumbro River at about mile 21 and I could tell Katie was starting to feel the miles. We slowed down to around a 10:30 min/mile pace. I tried to motivate her by staying close and telling her to run her race and focus on all she had accomplished so far. There was no way we weren't going to finish now! We were blessed with a little bit of rain and a fantastic stretch of concrete as we ran along the river. It calmed our feet down and helped us power on to the finish.
We came out of the river trails and out onto Rochester's main drag at mile 25 for the final stretch towards the finish line. Then we all held hands and started towards the finish line together. We were all smiling from ear to ear and beaming with pride at our accomplishment. I was so fricken proud of everybody at that point I could have hugged them right there!
Right before we crossed the finish line we were joined by Katie's kids, and we ran the last couple hundred feet next to them. It was very sweet, and reminded me of when my family ran me in during my first marathon.
We crossed the finish line with a time of 4:31. That's a PR for me of six minutes. The time didn't really matter much to me though. I was proud that we all finished our first marathon barefoot and stayed together. Katie and I didn't end up walking much more than a few tenths of a mile, which is completely unheard of for me. And I didn't bonk at any point, despite the fact that I paid little to no attention to my hydration or nutrition. I did consume some calories during the race because I felt like I needed to, but I was only doing it as necessary and was really listening to my body. I felt incredible, and so happy and proud of my friends.
I think this race showed me that marathons don't have to all be about hard work and serious business. You can work hard and go through a lot and still have fun. And it's a lot more fun when you have good company. The training for and running of this marathon showed me the importance of having friends along with you to motivate you, share the burden, and keep you smiling. Now that I've run with a group of friends, I'm not sure how I got through a race before that. It was an absolute delight to run with them. I hope to do it with them, or any of you fine folks again very soon!
Hail the conquering heros! We all finished our first barefoot marathon with smiles on our faces. What an incredible day! Cheers and beers citizens!
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