Bull Run Barefoot Style

by Charlie Mercer
April 12, 2008

In my first-ever Bull Run Run, I toed the starting line in…well, toe shoes. After a 4-year battle with plantar fasciitis, I decided earlier this year to try the new “barefoot” shoes made by VibramFiveFingers, and the results were amazing. No pain in the arch, and a whole new outlook on life. So I laced up…..err, I mean, velcroed up my black Vibram KSOs (stands for “Keeps Stuff Out”), pulled on an ankle wrap over each shoe (for support and to serve as gaiters), and waited with equanimity for the race to begin.

Soon I was out on the trail, surrounded by the beautiful bluebells, lost in the reverie and bliss of the present moment. I had never raced more than 5 miles in these barefoot shoes, so I was certainly a tiny bit apprehensive as I navigated the mud, roots and occasional sharp jutting rock. I must admit that the sensation of stepping on such a rock is amplified when there is no cushion beneath your foot. I think I scared a few other runners with my expletives when these rare, unfortunate accidents did occur. However, I was amazed that for the most part, my feet “knew” where to land, and as the race wore on, the missteps became fewer and farther in between. The shoes were excellent on the uphills, as their lightweight design allowed me to stay on the balls of my feet and bound up (well, at least not trudge) the rollers like a sprightly mountain goat. Going downhill was a bit of a different story; I was mostly tentative for fear of “pounding” myself into a stress fracture. More training is required for this skill, and I must say I missed the sensation of flying down a hill with wild abandon. But that’s why these “shoes” are good for plantar fasciitis and other typical running injuries: they don’t let you overdo it.

As for the course itself, I loved it. Spring in bloom, rolling wooded hills, soft mud to skim through, wet leaves, riverways to admire, picturesque bluebells, croaking frogs, gentle rain for cooling, whistling birds, and a nice soupy humidity to keep things, well, let’s just say….challenging. I downed about 10 Succeed salt capsules over 50 miles and 9 hours and 47 minutes of motion, and probably could have used a few more. I joked with one fellow runner that I felt like Luke Skywalker doing his training on the Dagobah planet, where Jedi Master Yoda lived (think oozing, dripping swamp). Later, I joked with another runner that I felt like we were actually in the Battle of Bull Run, as we could hear the echoes of a nearby firing range. Hard to fathom that over 12,000 soldiers lost their lives in these woods & pastures on one single day in the mid 19th century.

For those who like to compare nutrition intake, I think that along with the 10 Succeed pills, I also consumed about 10 Hammer Gels, drank 5 cups of Heed, ate about 10 salted potatoes, 5 slices of orange, 5 wedges of banana and indulged in small amounts of junk fuel (chips & guacamole, soda, a few cookies) when I needed a little reward for my Herculean efforts. My secret weapon was Chia seeds soaking in water, in my Nathan 020 running pack. I learned about this strategy on various running blogs, and I think it did help my body keep hydrated on this humid day. I never bonked, although I did have quite a few “low points”. I slowed to a walk or shuffle during these moments, but never let it affect my overall sense of “relentless forward motion”.

The favorite part of the day was meeting up with my wife and 2 ½-year-old daughter at the Fountainhead aid station. They both gave me a big hug and kiss and lifted my slightly wavering resolve. My daughter wanted to run into the woods after me as I left the station, and as she skipped along next to me, another runner joked that “she’s running faster than I am, that’s for sure.” At mile 37, a rested toddler’s energy is hard to match. She cried when Momma called out to her to tell her to return to the car. I had already joked earlier out on the trail with BRR veteran Frank Probst that I had to win the award for most insensitive runner, since my wife is 8 months pregnant with our 2nd child, and yet was out there crewing for me. I surmise there are others out there who can top my story, but probably not many. Frank, in the spirit of the running community, arrived at Fountainhead a few minutes before I, and walked straight up to my wife (guessing that it must be her) and reassured her, “your husband knows he’s being insensitive, and he’s very sorry.” So there you have it, my public apology. My wife related Frank’s quote to me when I arrived shortly after, laughed, and then told me to hurry to the finish. No problem, thought I: just 13 miles to go.

Well, there was one slight problem. Fatigue and general breakdown of muscle fiber. And growing disorientation. However, one thought occurred to me as I became mildly discouraged: this wasn’t Massanutten, and I wouldn’t be running through the night! After remembering the despairing depths of last year’s 33 hour odyssey over the rocks, my motivation (and sense of relief) returned in force, and I was once again springing up the hills, gingerly bouncing down the hills, and ignoring all the aches and pains on the straightaways. The sun was now out, the hills were alive with the sound of…gunshots (back near the firing range again), and soon enough, we crested the final hill, glided across the grassy knoll, hit the dirt road, and cruised into the amazing barbecue at the finish. My daughter broke her personal best, consuming ice cream, popsicles, cookies and brownies in record time. I downed a veggie burger (yes, I’m one of those dreaded vegetarian runners), handed my wife a Pepsi, and thought, “it doesn’t get any better than this”. Last year, after my first Massanutten 100 miler, I vowed never to return. This year, after my inaugural Bull Run 50 miler, I say the same thing (hey, these things are painful), but with slightly crossed fingers and…yes, toes. Thank you, “toe shoes”, you were a good friend out there indeed. And thank you to a wonderfully managed Bull Run Run, you are a superb race.

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