Your feet are flat - let's run them that way

Taking your sandals for a 246k spin

"I'm a minimalist - I like saying the most with the least"
- Bob Newhart 

"So tell me, how broken were you?" Ian Corless asked me in a Talk Ultra interview after finishing the 2014 Spartathlon in a pair of sandals.

This was pretty much in line with what I had been asked repeatedly in the preceding three weeks after kissing the statue of King Leonidas in Sparta.

Before the race, the main question to my sandal endeavor had been: "Why are you not wearing a pair of shoes?"

This one I answered so often I eventually wrote up an answer to avoid repeating myself.

During the first half of the race itself, people would nod their heads towards my footwear asking: "Are you planning on wearing those all the way?"

For the second half the nodding was accompanied by curled eyebrows and the question shifted to: "Have you been wearing those all the way?"

All in all there has just been a huge amount of confusion and misbelief, mixed with an awkward desire to see me fail miserably, allowing everyone to say I told you so.

But I finished it.

It was my first attempt at the race, I ran in a pair of sandals, I finished, and I came back in one piece.

Nothing to report, Sir

Had I worn a pair of regular running shoes I probably wouldn't have had a lot to report. Overall everything worked out really well on race day:

  • I had my nutrition dialed
  • The heat didn't turn out to be the problem I had feared
  • I didn't wear a watch, so no stress about pace
  • I had a comfortable buffer to the cut-off all through the race
  • And for once I took in as much of the race as possible - stopped to admire the Corinth Canal, high-fived kids along the way and walked my way into Sparta to suck up the atmosphere.

But wearing the thinnest pair of sandals sort of backgrounded all that and all of a sudden everyone was looking my way.

I had camera crews following me for extended stretches of the race, fellow runners having their picture taking with "that crazy guy in the sandals", and people riding their bikes next to me asking questions.

One guy in particular added to my day:

"I once had a friend like you - he ran in a pair of sandals all the time. In the end he died. But hey, I wish you the best of luck." he said from his bike next to me.

Well, thanks, I guess?

Anyway, the underlying question through it all seemed to be whether I really thought it was sane, let alone possible to run the entire race in my footwear of choice - the footwear of Pheidippides.

Which leads us back to Ian's question.

So how broken were you?

After running for almost 36 hours I'd challenge anyone to be square dancing just for the hell of it. And sure enough, despite a lot of joy at the finish line, there wasn't a lot of square dancing.

Of course I wasn't up for much after I crossed the finish line - no one was.

But I didn't need assistance climbing the five steps up to the statue of King Leonidas, and I walked without assistance to the cab taking me to the hotel afterwards. I wasn't the one passed out with an IV in the medical area and it wasn't my feet that looked like one big blister.

I also got out of the cab myself and checked in at the hotel. I did choose the elevator over the stairs, going to my room on the fifth floor, though.

All just to make it clear, that yes, I was severely worn, but I wasn't broken.

Worn down as anyone would be from running for 36 hours, but not broken.

Was I more worn down that the next guy wearing any ol' running shoe? I don't think so.

But your feet - weren't they a mess?

I popped one blister at the aid station at 80k, and that was it. It was sitting under my left big toe of all places, and I attribute it to the fact that it had been raining for the first four or five hours of the race. My feet had been gliding backwards on the leather when running uphill, creating friction.

Apart from that, my feet were probably the part of my body that was in the best shape after finishing. Some swelling did set in the day after the race - the shear pounding of the tarmac for 36 hours straight obviously wasn't what they were used to. But I've had swollen feet in much shorter races too, and most importantly: they weren't broken.

I'll be the first to admit that I was as surprised by the good condition of my feet as everyone else. It seemed that having the feet out in the open, eliminating moist, heat and a lot of unnecessary friction had really worked wonders.

Of course this came at the price of gravel entering between the soles of my feet and the sandal. I became quite proficient at pulling the sandal with one hand mid-stance to allow gravel and other debris to exit my vehicles of transportation.

But that was a reasonable trade off - I wasn't aiming for the podium anyway.

How about the rest - what's broken?

In lack of a better term, let's say that "conventional wisdom" dictates that the longer or harder you run, the more cushioning you need to absorb the impact and protect your frame.

And it is a compelling conclusion: More shock to the system requires more powerful shock absorbers, or you will break down.

Now this could be an entire article of its own, or maybe an entire series, but lets just say that I disagree.

I believe that the body contains all the shock absorbers you need and adding "external" shock absorbers between you and the ground will only confuse your system and potentially harm you more that it will protect you. Would I embark on a 246k jog in sandals if I didn't firmly believe this?

If you want more elaboration on this point, go grab my introduction to Running Injury Free.

Once again: I wasn't broken, I was worn.

Could you have run faster in a pair of shoes?

No doubt I could have finished faster. I spent quite some time removing gravel from my feet, and there were stretches of the race that had to walk due to my choice of footwear. Stretches that I could have run in a pair of shoes. Even in a pair of minimalist shoes, like the ones I had sitting in my support car.

I don't know what my potential is, but let's just randomly say that I could finish the race in 30 hours by wearing a shoe and pushing hard.

That would certainly move me up the ranks, but I know my limitations:

I'm 40 years old, I'm a recreational runner and I simply don't have enough raw talent to make it on the podium in a race like the Spartathlon (or any other major race, for that matter). 

So I find it way more interesting to run experiments. That's what I'm continuously doing by optimizing my running form and training effort, getting the most bang for the buck, and the best experiences without taking any risks.

Not by just adding more of the same (more shoe, more miles), but by getting better at what I do, getting the most out of the least, so to speak.

And that's why running in a pair of sandals made all the sense in the world, and why my longest training run for the Spartathlon was 23k (I'll cover the rationale for that in another article, but for the basic thinking, read "Wanna run long, forget about running".)

Would you do it again?

Now the race is three weeks behind, the main question folks ask me is shifting once again. Now it goes: "Would you do it again?"

I guess it's a final attempt to make me admit that this was a stupid thing to do :)

And my honest answer is this:

If I was to run the Spartathlon again I could certainly see myself opting for a pair of sandals. I would go for a pair with a thicker sole than the ones I used though.

The Equus that I wore has some 3-4mm of sole to it and is the most minimalistic sandal in the Luna arsenal. Something like the Camino might be a better choice (though I haven't actually tried that model). Simply because Greek tarmac isn't always as nice and smooth as you'd like it to be. Had the tarmac been of Danish standards, I would stick with the Equus.

The one thing that could possibly keep me from choosing a sandal was if I was running to place as high on the charts as possible. Running the sandals requires extra caution at certain stretches of the race - most noticeably the mountain stretch around the 100 mile mark where I had to walk the entire downhill because the surface was simply not sandal friendly.

There was also a stretch at around 130k where the tarmac had been partially chopped up - I guess in preparation for reconstruction - that was a nightmare in the super thin sandals. This would have been more manageable with a thicker sole though, but still offer the challenge of too much gravel creeping in between your feet and the sandal.

Should I give it a try?

I'm extremely happy with the choice I made - it made my race a memorable one.

But if you're contemplating running this long in sandals or any other minimalist type footwear yourself, please just take this one piece of advice:

It's not about the footwear, it's about your running form.

Without the running form to justify minimalist footwear, don't do it. As I tell my runners: You need a license to run minimalist.

But once you have that license and you're comfortable running very thin soles, there is absolutely no reason why you shouldn't give it a go.

It is a pretty unique experience to truly run in the footsteps of Pheidippides, and I'll certainly be cheering you along.

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