Today was the Helderberg to Hudson Half Marathon. In my spring fever leading up to the race, I indulged in overdoing everything including all-day trail running, an icewater swim, bonk racing, etc. I came away relatively unscathed. However all this week my feet have been strangely sensitive. The bottoms of my feet are speaking in plain english saying in stereo, “please don’t run the Helderberg to Hudson Half Marathon barefoot”. This has lead to increasing pre-race anxiety. I don’t want to wear sandals because, well, I never do during road races unless absolutely necessary. Why break a nearly clean track record? However, this race is almost entirely on a bike path and bike paths are notoriously rough. Because cars aren’t constantly driving on them to kick all the debris off to the side, bike paths tend to be covered in rocks, sticks, acorns, you name it. It’s not a big deal over short distances, but 13.1 miles is a long way to race while carefully managing every step. I discuss my concerns with Bill, a fellow barefoot running friend who uncharacteristically states, “there’s nothing that says you have to run it barefoot”. I am pretty well decided to wear sandals for the race. But I know that whatever I decide in the days before the race, I am likely to change my mind at the last possible minute.
My wife drops me off at the starting line. On the car ride I decide to run barefoot, knowing full well that there is a high likelihood that this choice means sacrificing the race. Ultimately, this is the mentality that brought me to barefoot running in the first place. Rather than put too much focus on maximizing speed and trying to create a guaranteed outcome, forge ahead into the great unknown along an uncertain path. I already have a pretty good idea of what’s behind door number one. Whammy or big bucks, I want to see what’s hiding behind door number two. I hop out of the car and meet up with fellow runners. I’m a little discombobulated, I had meant to leave my sandals in the car but now I have them with me. I will need to either wear the sandals for the race, or put them in someone else’s drop bag. Volker helps me out. I wrap the sandals up in my extra shirt and Volker deposits the drop bag to be picked up after the race is over. We run a brief warmup. The area is surfaced with horrible pebbles. My feet are begging for mercy and I cry uncle. A few minutes before the race starts I run over to the drop bag area to see if I can get my sandals back. Alas the sandals are already en route to the start. Maybe it’s for the best. I dug my grave now it’s time to lie in it.
Is this all just race anxiety? Or are these concerns real? Yes to both, they are one and the same.
Over 2,000 runners are lined up at the start. We observe the giant U.S. flag hanging from a firetruck ladder while the national anthem plays.
Pre-race announcements are made, including an unprecedented mention about somebody running the race barefoot. I get a few amused looks from the runners around me. Meanwhile I’m feeling more than a little insecure about this whole situation.
The race starts promptly 15 minutes late. The first 50 feet are on the worst type of gravel road. I started up near the front so I have got to suck it up and run fast to avoid getting trampled. Next up is the annoyingly pebbly road we warmed up on. A slight uphill is followed by a big downhill with several particularly steep sections and sharp turns. The moment of truth comes at the two-mile mark: the newly paved bike path.
The bike path… is… it’s… perfect! It’s as though the path is so new and smooth that debris hasn’t yet had a chance to accumulate. What a relief! I immediately relax and pick up the pace. I get into race mode and look for folks ahead of me to gradually catch up to. I’m in no rush, 13.1 miles is a long way. Around the halfway point I am approaching two runners. Just as I catch up to one of them, my wife and her friend are spectating enthusiastically. Shortly after, a runner up ahead starts walking. He said it’s his hamstring. I am feeling it too, I ask, “your right hamstring”? “Yeah!”. The bike path has a slight left lean that allows water to run off when it rains. This slight unevenness is taking a toll after running on this unusual surface for so long.
One 50-foot long unpaved section of the path is covered in the gnarliest of railroad rocks and gravel, marring the otherwise smooth surface. Yikes. A baiting crowd is cheering apprehensively at the end of this gauntlet.
I pick up the pace and charge through. It’s much easier to hang on with intense focus for 10 seconds rather than drag it out to a painful 25 second tiptoe. The elevated effort triggers something in the brain that immediately embraces the aggressive approach and it’s over before I know it.
I see a runner taking a break up ahead. I go by, and he quickly catches back up. I’m feeling ok so I keep pace. After a moment of silence we chat for a bit. With two miles left, the bike path is coming to an end. He warns me of some upcoming sharp turns.
The remaining roads are rough. The course makes its way onto the bike path along the Hudson River for the final stretch. We are now running along this painted green path, “stay on the green!”. The roughly textured path is killing my feet which by now are sensitive and tender. I am just thankful that the previous nine miles weren’t like this! I can deal with it, knowing that the end is near. All manner of expletives drool from my mouth. I do my best to dole them out while I’m alone and curb them while spectators are watching.
I push hard to the finish, completing what turned out to be an excellent race. As soon as it’s over, I feel much better. The unknowns are now knowns. The source and destination of all my anxieties are behind me. I can look back and say I’m very happy with the outcome and wouldn’t have changed a thing. I just might need a few days of taking it easy after this. Not such bad thing once in a while.