How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Gravel (sort of!)

So the big news is that I’ve run my first Park Run completely barefoot! At 28 mins 33 seconds this was a whole 9 minutes slower than my PB. But I don’t care because running a BF Park Run has been my ambition for a couple of months, and for most of that time it felt like the equivalent of running a marathon. Bruised heals, stubbed toes, sore Achilles tendons – it has been a steep learning curve!

After the run - feet still in one piece (just about)

After the run – feet still in one piece (just about)

And I will put my hands up and admit that strictly speaking I should not have run it. Park Runs are 5KM and the furthest I had run before that was 3KM. Add to that the fact that Park Runs are timed so there was the temptation to race and injury myself even further, this was a reckless act. Do I regret it? Well, yes I did get injured (details towards the bottom of the article), so maybe a little bit. But I think I learned a lot from it, so overall I think it was well worth it.

Normally I’m busy on a Saturday morning so Park Runs aren’t possible. It is only when I visit my parents in Dorset that I have the opportunity to run the one in Weymouth. A couple of days beforehand, I practised running barefoot across my parents gravel drive. I found it incredibly painful and I soon gave up. I then entertained myself by running hill reps, something I don’t have the opportunity to do close to my home. I’ve always had trouble controlling my speed when running down hill, and I found that barefoot I had to really shorten my stride and pick up my cadence in order to prevent friction from damaging my feet. I was pleased to find that when I got back inside there was no visible wear to my soles.

I was still apprehensive about doing the Park Run, but the success of the hill running spurred me on. I just couldn’t remember whether the Weymouth Park Run involved any gravel. Part of me thought it might do, because it involves going around Lodmoor Nature Park. On the other hand, if it was too gravelly I would surely remember it for being a slow course.

My Innov8s - you're suppose to wear them on your feet not your hands!

My Innov8s – you’re suppose to wear them on your feet not your hands!

On Saturday morning I still wasn’t sure so I took a pair of minimalist Innov8 running shoes so I could decide when I got there. I haven’t worn these shoes for a few months but remember that they felt very different to cushioned running shoes, which I was used to. I naturally thought that after a couple of months running almost entirely barefoot that I would run a lot more naturally in the Innov8s. How wrong I was! When I got out of the car I tried a warm up jog and couldn’t believe how rough it felt – it was like driving a car with no suspension. I had to consciously make myself run as if I was barefoot. This helped enormously and I was moving smoothly again. But clearly without the feedback from bare soles, this style is not natural to me. It is going to take a while to embed – another lesson in why going barefoot is the best way to change running styles.

I did some warm up exercises in the car park, then joined the crowd amassing behind the start area. At 5 minutes to 9 I took off my shoes. No one seemed to notice. The ground was warmer than I was expecting, but my feet started to cool down after standing on the tarmac for a few minutes. For the first time in a long while I positioned myself at the back of crowd. If I was going to be hopping along in bare feet I didn’t want to be accused of getting in anyone’s way.

The run started. I carried my shoes in my hands, just in case. The course goes out of the car park and then left – straight onto a gravel track. Oh, god, I thought. I then remembered that we do two loops of the gravel track before going onto a tarmac path. What could I do? With people around me I couldn’t just stop. The humiliation of giving up and putting shoes on almost as soon as I had started was too much. So I soaked up the pain and got on with it, concentrating like never before on those gentle landings – picking up the feet just before they land to minimise the impact. This was a real baptism of fire – or strictly speaking, gravel.

Somehow I made one slow lap, then two, all the time longing for the tarmac where I could relax and hopefully pick up some speed. When I got to the tarmac path the change was a bit of a shock and I had to alter my style slightly to compensate for the harder, smoother surface. It was not necessarily easier than running on gravel, just different. I’m sure most runners, including myself, would not change running style when moving between the two surfaces in cushioned shoes, but being barefoot you have to adapt your style a lot more.

The tarmac stretch of the course goes up a hill then straight back down it. The hill reps I did a couple of days beforehand gave me the confidence that I could manage this. Going down hill I speeded up my cadence significantly to prevent my soles from being torn by friction. Then I got back to the gravel for one final loop before the finish. This time I had the finish line in my sights and so I speeded up. Suddenly I didn’t care that I was running on gravel. Maybe my feet were numb from being beaten across the ground, or maybe it was adrenaline, but for the first time I felt like I could run quickly barefoot. It felt natural and smooth. I was zooming past the other runners, nipping through gaps when I got a chance. I was running on gravel and having fun!

With a sprint I crossed the finish line and one of the volunteers said I was looking good. I don’t know if that was a comment on my running form or whether she says that to everyone. Another volunteer asked why I was carrying my shoes. I explained that as this was my first barefoot Park Run, they were my insurance policy in case I couldn’t finish it. During the run other people had remarked that I was barefoot. This is one bit of barefoot running that I don’t like – being noticed. I’m naturally a very shy person so being the centre of attention is not something I enjoy. I guess it is just something I’ll have to put up with until people get used to me running without shoes.

Because I hadn’t trained for this distance I paid for it straight away with sore soles and a blister on a toe. Then for two days after I had sore Achilles tendons and foot arches. Today (Tuesday) my feet feel reasonably okay again, but I’ll give them another day’s rest before I try running again. So yes, maybe ill advised but I think I learned some important lessons during my Park Run. I’m now re-reading parts of Ken Bob’s book and it makes more sense to me now.

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