I ran the Moreau Lake 15k Trail Run at Moreau Lake State Park today. This was my first barefoot trail race, and what a great race it was! 35 people ran the 15k. The price was reasonable, and the trails were long and intense. The run consisted of a steep (that is an understatement) loop through absolutely perfect wilderness. Every step was covered with roots, rocks, sticks, and leaves. The ungroomed trails showed little erosion, with no signs of overuse.
Looking around me at the starting line at the Moreau Lake Beach, there wasn't a single person there that you would want to mess with. The average age was much higher than a typical road race. In most races there is a smattering of all sorts of different people, but in this race it looked like a single unified team, Team Intense. I went the wrong way within 10 seconds of the race, and I got my first shout of, "that's what I get for following you" from a familiar face in the group. I found myself constantly asking, "Which way?!?" to the people around me at every intersection.
The steepest section of the race occurs in the first few miles and is called the "Staircase of Death", a steep, rocky, and looong climb. I managed to miss the Staircase of Death, and instead ran up an identical yet less-travelled Staircase of Lost People, followed by two unsuspecting victims. After reaching the top and proceeding for far too long, it became clear that we had gone the wrong way and eventually proceeded all the way back from whence we came. I don't imagine that the Staircase of Death has ever been such a welcome sight as it was for us because now at least we were going the right way.
After the staircases, it felt to me like the hill just kept going up and up. I should have listened to one of the front-runners when he said that he knows that the first section is horrible. What he didn't say was that the rest of the race wasn't much easier. There was the unmistakable sense that miles were moving very slowly, while time flew by. A few short miles into the race I already felt pretty worn out. I have done a 15k road race this year where I felt like a super hero from start to finish. During this race, I felt perfectly humble by the time I had completed the first 5k. I was tired and slowing, and my feet were politely requesting mercy.
A notable phenomenon that only happens in a trail run and not in a road race occurs because leading the way and finding the trail is slower than following. So what ends up happening is that the person in front will build up a couple of people behind him. As soon as you pass someone, you become the slow one and people pile up behind you. You can feel the distracting pressure of the people behind you. I should be focusing going *my* speed, but instead I'm going a little faster, much like when someone is tailgating in the car. I know I shouldn't let it affect me but it does.
My arrival at the only aid oasis brought the pain of knowing how much it took out of me to get to the halfway point in the race. I grabbed a few half-cups of water and proceeded on my way. The remaining course provided new challenges. Running downhill barefoot is really tough. On uphill and flat terrain, it is easy to play with your momentum to maintain a solid forward thrust. On downhill terrain, your best slow-down method involves reverse friction on the foot-bottoms, something my feet are definitely *not* conditioned for. Going out-of-control fast is not an option, because one fast heavy footfall in the wrong place would really smart. Dropping speed significantly is the only option, and still feels too fast.
Another difficulty while running barefoot is caused by the fact that I am hyperfocused on the ground in front of me, carefully avoiding obstacles. There isn't a moment to spare to look up at where I'm actually going making it really easy to lose the trail. I lost it again on the second half, and once it's lost it's hard to commit to turning around. Eventually after not seeing any pink trail markers indicating the race direction for far too long, I turned back to find a group of runners going the right way.
As I boldly ran past one person on the trail, she said, "see you at the gravelly section". She knew well that an upcoming section of nasty gravel was going to slow the barefoot guy to a crawl, and she was right. The gravelly section was tough on my now-sensitive feet, and she cruised past me while I whimpered my way across. Fortunately it didn't last very long, and soon we were at the final stretch of normal flat footpath, where it felt good to unleash the fast in me even if it was only for a short bit before happily crossing the finish line for chats, fruits, water, and a much-needed hug.