I absolutely love running barefoot on the beach, so the USA Beach Running Championship has been on my radar for several years. Today it served as the perfect capstone to a month of meaningful races – Boston, OKC Memorial and now this! It has certainly been a fantastic month, and I’m more than happy with my overall performances.
Today I intended to win. When I first heard that there was a barefoot beach half marathon division a few years back, I knew I had to go there and win it! That had my name written all over it. So this morning, when I unsurprisingly woke just a few minutes before my alarm… I was ready! I jogged the three miles to the start of the race, checked in quickly and immediately slipped off my shoes and went out to the beach. It was beautiful! The sun was about to rise, and the dawn glow lit the horizon. Runners were milling about, and volunteers and race staff were scuffling with last minute preparations: You can’t exactly leave the timing mat out on the sand overnight, especially with the race designed to be at the lowest tide! That low tide meant the sand was hard packed, making it much more suitable for fast times, but the wind over the past few days had washed in lots of seaweed and shells. As we prepared for the start, barefoot runners were advised to tread carefully lest we step on something we’d regret. I wasn’t too worried as I’m used to running barefoot.
We lined up to start the race. My friend David, who dominated last year, wasn’t here this year. Maybe, just maybe, I could win the barefoot division and be the first overall finisher. That would be pretty sweet. From previous race results, I knew it was a possibility. But the stars would have to be perfectly aligned. I’d need to run one of my best races ever. Unlikely, but certainly possible. You know I don’t mind the long odds!
I toed the line right near the front and took off. The competition quickly spread out. Running on the sand is a very different workout than road racing, so I wasn’t at all surprised. Two young guys immediately took a comfortable lead, and I was not too far behind in third. There was a bit of a gap behind me. “Not too bad” I thought… 3rd overall and first barefoot. I could live with that! And if I got lucky, as the pain hopefully dulled a few miles in, I could try to work my way up and catch the leaders. Unlikely, but still possible. All the more fun!
We raced down the sand as the sun rose to the east. Those with shoes tended to stay a little further west. I welcomed the water splashing against my feet! The sand here was a bit more challenging than what I’m used to at home, but what I was most concerned with was those shells. As I ran, I tried to avoid them a bit. But I had no concerns about stepping on them when I needed to. With all my beach miles, I’ve toughened up my soles quite a bit! It was worth it to feel the sand between my toes.
The first two miles I was right where I wanted to be, and I felt good. Far from pain free, but I was moving well and definitely enjoying the moment. As I approached the third mile I got a side stitch on my right. Bummer! I tried the breathe out when that foot lands trick, but it wouldn’t go away. I’d have to run through it. I kept breathing out on the right hand side, but that cramp just got worse and I slowed considerably. I heard the crunch of shells as a runner gradually approached. There goes my overall podium, but whew… he had shoes! At this point, I knew I wasn’t going to catch the first two runners unless they completely burnt out. But I WOULD still win the barefoot division!
As he passed me, I tried to hang behind him for a bit but that cramp was too much. My feet were mostly OK, but those shells made things a bit rougher. I knew I’d likely have a blister or two to show for this effort… but not on the main running surfaces. Instead, it was the joints of the toes I worried about. They weren’t used to racing through slightly protruding hard objects.
I had to be careful running at the water line, as every once in a while I was running through ankle deep water as a wave came in. I had also missed an aid station earlier because the table couldn’t be set up that close to the waterline. It was hot, hydration was necessary. I moved a tad inland as I approached the third water station, grabbed a cup, took it down quickly and attempted to throw the empty in the nearby trash can. Littering a beautiful beach is a very bad thing! Not sure if I made that basket, but at least I was close enough to make the volunteers job easier. Shortly after another runner passed me: I was hurting.
But the pain was meaningless. It was discomfort. It would pass: I would make it! I passed mile six. The halfway turn-around wasn’t too far off. The lead runner, now on his way back flew by! He was a mile ahead, and we were only halfway in. I needed to up my game! The runner up had fallen back a bit, but still seemed out of reach. As I approached the turn, the two who had passed me looped back. Both were in striking distance. I took the turn myself, and made a conscious effort to push the pace. Another barefoot runner was only a couple minutes behind me: If I faltered, I would fail. That barefoot division was mine to lose.
So I stepped it up. I pulled myself back to seven minute range. I knew I could hold that pace. Yes… I’d never raced this distance on the sand or barefoot before, but barefoot beach running and the positive energy of a foot race… how could I not celebrate this fusion of two of my favorite things?! On the bright side, the stitch made it a lot easier not to notice the normal back and leg pain. Left foot, right foot, breathe in, breathe out. Simple. The stitch subsided a bit. My pace increased proportionately. I’m at a solid pace again for a bit and then… revenge of the stitch! My right side was in agony! Left foot, right foot, breathe in, breathe out. I reminded myself that the barefoot division was still mine to lose. Left foot, right foot, breathe in, breathe out. Left foot, right foot, breathe in, breathe out. The stitch subsided just enough… one of the runners who had passed me was in sight.
Now I had a target. I’d catch the two who passed me, and minimize the gap between number two as much as possible. I ran through another patch of shells… so be it. I was gonna have a few blisters anyway. Now I was doing a little bit of weaving as well… the 10K runners had started a bit after the half, and many of them were still out on the course. For the most part it was easy to move around them, but it did make it hard to see how far ahead runner number three was. I caught up to number four. I knew I’d catch that other guy: I still had a few miles to go, and despite the pain I was on a roll. I skipped the last few water stops. Too many people around, and it would have slowed me too much. Gradually my next target came into view. No hesitation! I raced right on by. I hugged the water line, just running right over the shells at this point (I knew I’d have a few blisters either way).
Finally the finish was in sight, with a chute lined with beautiful conch shells. I moved up from the water line just a bit and sprinted through! Mission accomplished: First barefoot AND third overall! Now time for the afterparty! Chilling on the beach, with a backdrop of a Hawaiian band and even some hula dancing… now this is my kind of party. Plenty of food, and some creative drinks. I’m used to seeing post race beer, but mimosas and screwdrivers? Now thats a party!
Now the dilemma for the day: third overall, or first barefoot? Since the results are treated as different races, it had to be one or the other. On international barefoot running day, it was an easy choice for me: Barefoot Beach Running Champion! I even got a bottle of bubbly to celebrate, along with my seahorse finishers medal and conch shell trophy! Next year, perhaps I can earn a tougher choice: first overall, or first barefoot…