Today I ran in Pittsburgh's Great Race 10K for the tenth time in my life. For various reasons, I performed a number of experiments for this tenth running of the race, doing things I've never done before.
During the race, I heard someone say, as I passed him:
…obscene… but in a good way!
It made my day.
I'll explain what might have triggered this reaction.
Preparation and uncertainty
After the Pretty Good Race 5K, I was so tired out from my effort that I totally lost the desire to run. Plus my left foot was hurting more again. I ended up not running a single step for two weeks. This meant, of course, that there was no way I was going to go after the goal of beating last year's time in the Great Race 10K.
In fact, there was the question of whether I should even run the Great Race at all this year! Until almost the last minute, Abby and I agreed that if I did not feel up for running it at all, I would just sell my registration. Part of me felt bad about the possibility of breaking “tradition” and not running the race; I have stubbornly run it while horribly sick in some years! At the same time, it's not really the end of the world if I miss a race.
Change of purpose and plan: enter the Invisible Shoes!
Eventually, after my two-week absence from running, my left foot injury resolved itself, and I started running again. The plan was to start road running (since I prefer to trail running) in preparation for the Great Race. The problem is that I actually don't like wearing my road running Vibram FiveFingers shoes, my Bikila LS shoes. In fact, since my taste in footwear has become more and more minimalist over time, the Bikila LS shoes seem like a step totally in the wrong direction. I got them last year really only for the purpose of road racing, since the KSO blisters me and the KSO Trek is for the trails.
Just to start running again, I began going out for 2-3 mile casual runs in my Invisible Shoes that I'd been wearing all summer for walking, and sometimes for running. I enjoyed my short runs in these huaraches.
Given that I was just getting back into running after such a long break, I never ran more than 3 miles during any of my runs leading up to the Great Race. And I never wore anything other than the Invisible Shoes. So that led me to the idea that since I wasn't going to be able to achieve a goal of running super fast this year, I could set a different goal for myself.
My new goal: run the Great Race 10K in 4mm huaraches. More specifically, I wanted to see how my joints and muscles would hold up, as well as my feet and skin. Also, I'd never run fast in huaraches before, so this would also be an experiment in running fast in them. I had every intention of running pretty fast: I simply expected that I would not be able to run as fast as if I were running more protected shoes, because of many factors such as flopping soles and more pounding, resulting in my going more conservatively than if I had already experimented and knew what the limits were.
In fact, originally I had planned to run a 5K race sometime in the huaraches; I had never planned to suddenly run a 10K in them without running a 5K first!! Also, I was going to run this 10K without having run more than 3 miles at a time in an entire month.
Last minute panic and recovery
On Friday, I was coming down with a sore throat, and my boss said he and his son were both sick (they were both signed up for the Great Race this year). Now I was totally uncertain about whether I was going to run on Sunday. I tried to get healthy, and on Saturday, was feeling more stable, although a sore throat kept lingering, and picked up my race packet. Luckily, I was feeling great this morning, with no sign of a sore throat, so apparently my “placebos” worked (sleep, healthy food, various supplements). I canceled all my Saturday plans (such as going to a French dance workshop) in order to rest up.
The other concern was the weather forecast. All week it seemed like it was going to rain sometime this morning. I've run in rain before, raced in rain before. I can do it. But the last time I ran in Invisible Shoes in the rain, I got into trouble. So now what? I simply decided I was going to deal with rain if it happened. Yet another variable.
To eat or not to eat?
One experiment I did today that I deem a big success: I ate almost nothing before the race. I ate a bunch of almonds when I was leaving the house, but that was it. In the past, I always ate something more substantial before a race. Rationally, it does not make sense, but for some reason, I always felt that I should eat a mini-meal. This was completely irrational, a weird clinging behavior I engaged in: after all, when I casually go running in the morning, I do it before breakfast! So why should race day be any different? We human beings have enough fuel stored in our bodies. It's true that when I go for a run of over, say, 8 miles, I get hungry, and like to either have a snack on me to eat, or have eaten right before going on the run, but when it comes to 5K and 10K races, clearly there is no need for me to eat before the race. Experience has shown that it only makes me feel sluggish. So from now on, no more mini-meals before a race of 10K or shorter!
As usual, I jogged a mile from home to the start line as my warmup.
The temperature was in the low 50s F: ideal racing temperature, not too cold. Under 50, I would have worn a long-sleeve T-shirt instead of a short-sleeve one. As it was, since I anticipated rain, I did not wear my usual singlet but instead a standard short-sleeve T-shirt. It was not yet raining, thankfully!
Some guy stepped on my right toes with his shoes as he wandered through the crowd. I was upset by this and hoped that my toes were OK. They were sore for a few minutes but then I forgot about them and was OK.
Within the first few minutes, I saw Don Slusser ahead of me; last year I had tracked him and then passed him at the end of the race. This year, he was obviously going much slower, thanks to his shot knees, so I passed him early on.
I saw my boss standing on his street corner watching the race. I asked why he wasn't running and he said he was too sick. It's too bad he had to miss the race yet again, after missing it last year because of another commitment.
My huaraches seemed to be working pretty well as I ran faster than I had ever run in them. I rather enjoyed being able to feel the ground, as though I were fully barefoot. At 4mm, running with these is pretty close to being barefoot, much closer than wearing Vibram FiveFingers shoes.
I wasn't paying much attention to any glances or stares at my feet, or remarks people may have been making, although a few runners did directly ask me about my “flip flops”, with an attitude ranging from incredulity to amusement to admiration.
Near halfway through the race, it started raining fairly steadily. I had to periodically wipe the water away from my eyes. Well, it was in the forecast. One thing I can say is that I was never in danger of overheating in this race! There have been instances of the Great Race in warm conditions under a sun, when even in a singlet I got very warm and had to dump water over my head: ha, today I got free water on my head constantly!
Since I started the race further back than I usually do, there were very few people running at exactly my pace. I was always either passing or being passed by people. This is one thing annoying about big races where people can cross the start mat at very different times.
However, at one point, a guy came to be in front of me who was running approximately my pace, so that I was almost a constant distance from him. On downhills I would tend to overtake him, but then he would come back. We would be mostly together for approximately the last two miles. At one point when I slowly passed him, I think I heard him say, “That's obscene… but in a good way!” I believe that comment was directed at me and my footwear, and I kind of took it as a compliment.
The water puddles were starting to get to me, as I had earlier feared. I did not feel confident about running any faster than I already was, given the road conditions and the way my huaraches were slipping around. And my toes were getting sore from the pounding. Normally, in the end of a race, I turn it on and try to use up the remaining energy I have, but today, I just did not feel confident in my footing. I continued going reasonably fast, but did not put in any finishing sprint at all. Even if I had wanted to, it would have been difficult, because of so many slower people in front of me. This is a direct consequence of my lining up at the start line far further back than I usually do: what happens is that slower people who started further up are in the way for the entirety of the race!
However, I did turn it on just enough to pass that guy I had been more or less with for two miles.
My chip time was 48:23, not too bad given my footwear experimentation and lack of conditioning and failure to go all out in the final mile; last year's time was 47:46. Next year, I would like to go under 47:00. I should be able to do that if I maintain a regular running regimen. 2006 was the last year that I went under 47:00.
After the race
I got some water, was given two Smiley Cookies, and ate a bagel and a banana also. I hopped on the shuttle bus back to the start line (the ride took 30 minutes), then walked 25 minute (1.5 miles) back home in the cold. In the future, I don't want to do this walk. I should park my car near the start line the night before, so that I can hop off the bus and drive home. It's no fun to be walking so long in the cold when you're tired and you're not sure what the condition of your feet are, except that they hurt.
Here are my feet after I got home:
It turns out that I got only one blister, and it was exactly where I got a blister last time I ran in the rain in the huaraches: between my first two toes. There was some roughing up of the callouses on the balls of my feet (from wearing the huaraches all summer), but otherwise, my feet were OK.
After some more hours of recovery, I was feeling fine. No joint pain whatsoever, no muscle soreness whatsoever, none of that stuff. Even last year I had some stiffness when I got off the shuttle bus. My conclusion is that truly minimalist footwear trains me to land in such a way as to minimize problems to my body. No shin splints, no ankle soreness, no knee pain, no hip pain, no shot quads, no cramping calves, nothing. Just a blister, and toes and forefoot that were sore for a while but right now no longer are. It's amazing what no cushioning for the feet at all did to prevent the problems I used to face when running. I am so completely sold that I will look into running more races in huaraches, and in optimizing my lacing in order to prevent the flopping limitation and that one blister spot. I am consider going up to the 6mm sole from the 4mm sole, with the idea that 6mm would be more solid for racing.
Another thought: assuming a race with no rain or extreme cold or hot surfaces, I should run a race barefoot sometime next year. I'll think about this. I know people who have done this. Why not? Barefoot, one does not have to worry about blisters caused from laces, or sole flopping, or water slipping. One may have other worries instead, but knowing a course ahead of time can help.
Official photos of me in action, including beating the guy I mentioned, are here, but since they are copyrighted, I have not inserted them directly into my report here.