Today I ran the Brooks Brighton 10km in my Vibram Five Fingers. I used to be incredibly sceptical about the benefits of barefoot running. LactateDawns has been a passionate proponent of Vibram Five Fingers for a couple of years, but my standard response to his attempts to persuade me to join the barefoot revolution was “Why would I want a pair of those freak feet?”. However, since the beginning of October, I have been flirting with barefoot running.
I started small, wearing the Five Fingers for cross training sessions such as kettlebell and boxing classes, and built up to wearing them to speedwork sessions. I then began wearing them for short runs of 4 or 5km and soon became addicted to the feeling of lightness and speed that came with them, I had a greater awareness of what my feet were doing and my gait improved dramatically. I began to dread going back to my Asics 2160s for my long runs – they felt heavy and clumpy on my feet and I felt slow and sluggish. I duly pestered LactateDawns to take me to a running shop so that I could treadmill test more pairs of minimalist trainers, and added “pair of Newton – Lady Isaacs” to my Christmas list.
After building up to running 6km at race pace in the Five Fingers, I really didn’t want to take a backward step into my Asics for the Brooks Brighton, so I decided to take a chance and go the extra 4km on race day.
When I made my rendezvous for the minibus at the crack of dawn, London was covered in swirling fog straight out of a Jack the Ripper film. By contrast, Brighton was bright, sunny and crisp. The sea sparkled, the sun shone, and I shed my many thermal layers and put my best, Vibram-clad foot forward onto the course.
Thanks to a last-minute sprint to the baggage tent to retrieve my running watch, I was forced to start towards the back of the field. The course starts with a 3km there-and-back loop towards the Marina, meaning that the first 1.5km was frustratingly slow as I had to thread through the slower participants. The tedium was broken by an exciting moment when we followed marshals instructions to move over to the right to make way for the front-runners coming back through, only to then be faced with a herd of stampeding elites headed right for us. (Guess it’s not just me who has trouble telling left from right!) Once I turned round at 1.5km, the course thinned out a bit and I was able to make good time and hit 3km on target.
3km to 5km bought a slight hill, I saw it stretching ahead of me and had a moment of doubt about how my calves would handle the incline. I decided to focus on overtaking people in particularly lurid t-shirts, and was surprised to find myself at 5km still feeling pretty fresh. Shortly after, the smooth pavement turned into gravel path, which was rather uncomfortable under my feet. I suddenly didn’t feel so smug about my fancy lightweight shoes, and while started worrying about continuing on the gravel for any length of time, I was frantically scanning the horizon for a clue about when the next turning point was.
In fact I only had another 1.5km until I could head back. I had mentally accounted for a short walking break around 6km to give my calves and feet a break, but I only needed to snatch a couple of seconds for a minor wardrobe adjustment to turn my full-length tights into Capris. The somewhat bizarre fashion statement consisting of partially unzipped full length tights and neoprene shoes prompted two ladies I overtook to discuss whether I was running in a wetsuit. I picked up the pace to get as far away from their fashion critique as quickly as I could.
I got to 8km and felt cramp in my calves and the tell-tale sensation of a blister developing under my left foot. I focused on the pier, knowing that the finish line was just a few feet further, and distracted myself from the pain in my legs by playing a game of cat and mouse with a lady in a Triathlon club top and a guy wearing Skull Candy headphones. I finally managed to overtake and “sprint” away from them at 9km, ignoring another blister forming on my right foot but stopping for an adjustment to my tights (finish line photos are bad enough without rocking the possible-wetsuit look). I crossed the finish line in just under 60 minutes, beaming at coming in on target and with all my toes still in tact.
After the race (and stretching! – perhaps not enough as my soleus muscles are still aching) I plucked up the courage to survey the damage caused by my first barefoot 10km. I peeled off the left Vibram to reveal a tiny blister under my arch, “not too shabby for my first 10km” I thought. I then removed the other shoe, and discovered an enormous blood blister decorating my big toe. I winced at both the sudden throbbing in my toe and the realisation that I now truly possess a pair of what rundancerun calls “ugly runner’s feet”. I limped around until I got home for some emergency surgery (involving a sterilised needle and a tube of Savlon) and have resigned myself to not wearing the Five Fingers for at least a week. I foresee an emergency trip to Run and Become for a pair of Newtons, and possibly to Nails Inc for an emergency pedicure.