Yesterday was the kind of day that a barefoot runner looks forward to all winter. It's the day that you can throw off the shoes again and resume doing what you love doing; running sans shoes. The weather was almost above freezing, and the snow on the paths was all but melted. So I resumed the crazy...and took off out of the door for an exhilarating barefoot three mile romp over a thin layer of fresh snow. It was fantastic, as always.
For the barefoot runner, usually by February their feet have been cooped up in some manner of minimalist shoes for several months. My experience this winter has been a little different. I've stubbornly refused to put shoes on except in the most ridiculous winter conditions, for better or worse.
So anyway, here's some of what I've learned...
BETTER: Snow doesn't suck
My biggest fear going into winter barefoot running was the big white blanket that nature craps onto Minnesota for five months out of the year. I had visions having to go all Iditarod on my feet after they turned black and frostbit as soon as they hit the white stuff. At best, I thought they would numb up immediately and would be running around like Lieutenant Dan out there.
What actually happened is that snow didn't numb my feet much at all. After the initial shock caused by the difference in temperature between my foot and the snow, they actually stayed pretty warm. Sometimes even warmer than the top of my feet. I'm assuming this is because snow is also a pretty good insulator. I suppose Eskimos didn't build igloos out of it just so that they could store their beer anywhere.
In fact, snow is the least of your worries when it comes to winter barefoot running in my opinion. Other things like salt, wind, and wetness are your real enemies. Snow stays at pretty much the same temperature regardless of outside conditions. I've been able to walk on snow barefoot down to -20 degrees F with no problem. So, as for snow...I'm over it.
WORSE, Salt does suck
Although wind and wetness are dangerous because they can push you into the land of frostbite, I can deal with them for the most part. Salt remains my true enemy. Mostly because it's everywhere. We Minnesotans don't like to slow down while driving in the wintertime. We were all issued our obligatory 4-wheel drive vehicles (mine is a red Ford F-150 that I LOOOOOVE) along with our deer hunting license and ice fishing augers when we were 16 years old, and we're not letting any weather stop us from going 10 over the speed limit. So we spread rock salt around like it's road crack.
That's great for things made of rubber, but not those things made of flesh. I heeded a lot of warnings about salt and other road chemicals because they lower the freezing temperature of anything they come in contact with. That made me worried about potential frostbite.
Really, that kind of ailment hasn't come to pass for me. My problem with salt is that it has treated my feet like a couple of dry-aged steaks. Salt has played all kinds of havoc with my plantar skin. At first, it just caused a slight burning sensation. Like gonorrhea on your foot, but without buying a hooker first (okay...I don't have VD, and I have never purchased a "lady of the night"). A few weeks later, all of that plantar skin that I had taken a whole summer to build up was smooth and silky. Well of course...I had been exfoliating with chemicals it for hours a day. That's good for a foot model, but I'm a barefoot runner. I needed a big hurt layer on my feet, and it was melting away. Then, just when I thought it wouldn't get any worse, the skin on my feet completely dried up and cracked...then fell off like I was molting. Awesome image...I know.
And it's gotten progressively worse as we get deeper into winter. Now that the salt and snow have had a little while to get to know each other, they've made a delightful substance called slush. Not the good slush that you put in paper cones and pour grape syrup over. The bad slush that just ate your $300 Prada boots.
Running on the roads nowadays for me is the equivalent of rubbing lye on my skin. It's instant chemical burn. I've screwed up my feet on this stuff running less than a block. Afterwards my feet are so tender that I'm limping the whole next day.
BETTER, it takes an awful lot to make me cold:
On the bright side, at least in my neighborhood, the salt is easy enough to avoid. Just avoid the roads as much as possible. My city doesn't salt the trails after a bunch of folks complained that it was making Fido's feet look nasty.
What you can't avoid in Minnesota is the cold. Especially once the snow starts falling, it is straight up bitchin cold around here. Prior to last week, we didn't have a day above 20 degrees for two months.
I've been pleasantly surprised at how low the temperatures can drop before I need to put shoes on. So far, my coldest run has been a 6 miler in 10 degree weather. I've been outside for at least a few minutes in weather down to -20 degrees (I don't mess around much more than that...frostbite in that weather starts at around 10 minutes). I try to take a barefoot run outside every day, even if it's only to get the mail.
I'm not pointing this stuff out to compare the size of my gun or anything, or show you how crazy I am. There are a lot of folks who are running barefoot in even colder weather (I hear the Barefoot Runners Society record stands at -30 degrees F). Barefoot running shouldn't be a contest. Running in cold weather like this has reinvigorated my love for the sport, because it's something new and different. Just like when I first started barefooting, I feel like I'm doing something that I shouldn't be able to do. I shouldn't be able to run in weather like this without heavy shoes and socks. The fact that I can is pretty liberating. Cold...but liberating.
WORSE, just because I'm not cold doesn't mean I'm okay
But I'm not going to pretend that I've been running around this winter with no cares in the world. Well...I was, until I really screwed up my foot. The longest that I've run barefoot this winter was a 14 miler in 35 degree weather. It was all fun and games until I stopped. Then I realized that 14 miles worth of shoveling snow with my feet had dug a huge hole in my second toe. Gross pictures are available for viewing. It took me over a month before my foot fully healed.
Anyway, what I learned from that experience is that you can't rely only on how your feet feel to guide you as to whether you're good to go. When winter first started, I would rely mostly on the feedback my feet were giving me to tell me how they were faring. As long as they weren't completely numb, I figured they were okay.
I forgot the most important rule of winter barefoot running: "Numb feet are dumb feet." Your feet are stone-cold stupid a long time before they go completely numb. In 35 degree weather, my feet actually had excellent ground feel. So I figured I was all good. In fact, I didn't feel any discomfort until near the end of that 14 mile run. But I probably tore them up miles before and didn't feel a thing, despite the fact that my feet were still giving me feedback.
Running this winter has been a mixed bag for me. It's been great to get out there and run barefoot when everyone perceives that you can't. Kind of makes me feel like I'm running like I stole something. But that excitement has been tempered with a lot of fear. There's a lot to worry about during winter running...from frostbite, to icy roads, to salt burns. So it's been a real mixed bag.
Definitely something that I want to keep doing. If nothing else, for the sheer madness of it all. But also definitely not something I want to do all the time. Nothing wrong with a little crazy...