Monday, October 12, 2009

Mission Accomplished

This article ran in today's Record-Journal in an edited form.

By mile 23, my once snappy stride had degenerated into a pathetically slow shuffle-run, which probably made it appear to onlookers like I'd ambitiously decided to bunny skip my way through Saturday’s Hartford Marathon.

Around mile 16, the supportive muscles in my feet, ankles and calves began muttering mutinous ideas, and at the mile 21 marker they openly rebelled, called me a masochist and closed up shop. I forced myself to keep running, though run was an overly positive interpretation of my body's movement at that time.

Taking a deep breath, I looked down at the toe-sock-like contraptions I was wearing on my feet. After I seriously messed up my right foot training for last year's marathon with the traditional heel-strike, corrective shoe mentality that just about everyone subscribes to, I started to look for something different last fall.

My answer was less shoe and more skin, and I found the Vibram Five Fingers, the closest thing to barefoot running I’m aware of that’s not actually barefoot running. They allow the foot to operate normally, and thus prevent the knee and foot problems I suffered from last year, while offering some minimal protection against sharp rocks and glass.

I looked up at the shoe-clad runners around me, most lost in their own internal monologues with pain, a few chatting away. Compared with me, they looked like they were running on platform shoes.

"Calf coddlers," I mentally joked with myself.

Starting in late spring, I'd been putting my all into getting my shoe-atrophied calves and feet into marathon shape, but simply ran out of time. Just like a cast will support a broken arm but atrophy your arm muscles, most shoes do the same thing. To build up my muscles in six months I skirted the edge between maximum training and injury, and my muscles were severely and painfully overworked.

Luckily I’m quick to recover and had my friend Ed Bellows of Innovative Muscle Therapy in Wallingford kindly get rid of my muscular knots as they appeared.

I needed another three or four months to safely myself ready myself for Saturday's marathon, but I didn't get it.

But In the midst of my pain, I was content. Before 2008 I'd never run farther than six miles, and six years before that I'd been so overweight the idea of running anywhere was a joke. Even if I crawled over the finish line, I'd be among the 1 percent of humanity that finishes a marathon. Bunny skipping across it would be a joy.

So many people supposedly in the know told me there's no way I could be athletic after more than 2 and a half years eating only raw fruits and vegetables, and that running a marathon almost barefoot with my flat, overpronating feet was going to end in disaster.

I'd like to show them the slight arch that's developed in my previously pancake-flat soles over the last six months, how muscular my calves have become, and the energy I had through the race.

The course took us from Bushnell Park over founders bridge into East Hartford, and then along the Connecticut river through some beautiful country landscapes in South Windsor. We eventually looped around and headed back to the park for a total of 26.2 miles.

I refuse to have anything to do with the bizarre running gels most runners use to fuel themselves, which I don’t consider a food, so my parents were kind enough to serve as my pit crew and brought water bottles full of a mixture of watermelon and celery at miles 9 and 17 to keep me going. The mixture worked well and my energy, was high throughout the race.

I was regularly forced into the role of minimalist shoe evangelist, because just about every runner wanted to know what I had on my feet. It seems like every runner has a story about being injured, or how they’ve been advised that their feet are defective and need supportive shoes, and many were happy to hear that I’d overcome the problem.

Around mile 18 my muscles were aching and I had to concentrate pretty hard to keep my 9 minute 45 second per mile pace. At about this time a rather shapely woman passed me with the words “gazelle” written on the butt of her pants.

Yeah, I thought as I looked at her, half dazed. Run like a gazelle.

About a half hour passed before I realized I’d been staring at this woman’s butt for some time, telling myself to run like a gazelle. But it kept me on pace, and I could certainly think of worse ways to run a few miles.

But she proved more of a gazelle than me and eventually left me in the dust. No more shapely rear ends emerged to inspire me, and my pace slowly crept downward.

Eventually I made it back to Bushnell park and saw the massive brownstone Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch above the trees.

Feeling a bit euphoric and giddy, I passed under the arch and crossed the finish line four hours and 44 minutes after I started. It was my first marathon, run just a day after I turned 25, and I managed to place 1672 out of 2287 runners.

After I caught up to my parents and posed for the obligatory snapshots, I gingerly walked around the park and watched the other runners come in, many in obvious pain. Some grabbed the foil-like blankets handed out to runners and wrapped it around their shoulders, looking like awkward, shivering baked potatoes buffeted by the October winds.

I downed a ton of water, and then downed the eight ripe bananas my parents brought with them.

I’m certain that, given enough training and form improvement, I can easily get my time down to three hours and 30 minutes within a couple of years. I’d like to track down one of the few dozen successful long distance barefoot runners in the country and have them look at my form.

But for the time being I’m ready for a rest and some serious eating.

After writing about my barefoot and raw food training experiences in the Record-Journal for several years, I’ve gotten plenty of questions about the specifics of what I’m doing. If anyone is interested, they can read a number of articles I’ve written about the subject at my website: