Category: Barefoot

Trail running in Langdale

Today is Summer Solstice, one of four fundamental marker points in our solar cycle and a favourite time to review the important things in life. Solstice and Equinox are beats in the rhythm of our solar system, a rhythm that has been pulsing for about 4.6 billion years. This year’s Summer Solstice is particularly special as it coincides with Full Moon. The last time this happened was the ‘Summer of Love’ in 1967 and the next time will be in 2062. That’s a once in a lifetime occurrence for many in my generation.

Yesterday evening, I enjoyed my first run after bruising my gluteus maximus and tail bone two weeks ago. When riding a small child’s bicycle down a steep slope, standing on the pedals with one’s rear positioned far behind the saddle and releasing the brakes to roll quickly onto the flat ground below, it’s important to move said rear above the saddle as the slope angle changes. Otherwise, the high speed slam into the ground as the tiny bicycle escapes from underneath one’s feet, results in a bruise the size of a water melon, considerable pain when sitting down and much mirth amongst one’s friends.

Back to the run. It felt great to be running again. Wearing Vivobarefoot Primus Trail shoes with a 7mm sole between the ground and my feet, I could feel every stone I touched. Breathing the words ‘Light, easy, soft and smooth’ in time with the rhythm of my stride, it felt like I was flowing gently over the rocky path. Thanks to Caballo Blanco in Christopher McDougall’s ‘Born To Run’ for the brilliant tip. You can choose any words you like to neuro-linguistically programme yourself for the kind of run that you want and you can adapt the words as your run unfolds.

It was raining hard and the many varied angles of the slippery stones called for careful management of momentum. In order to avoid a slip, the force applied to a rock needed to be almost perpendicular to its surface. With any surface you walk, run, or climb on, can you imagine a large ice cream cone spreading outwards from every point of contact you have with that surface? The point of the cone will always touch the surface exactly where you do and the centre of the cone will always be perpendicular to the surface. So long as the force you apply to the surface is working inside the cone, you will have enough friction. The more polished, wet and slippery the surface, the more narrow your cone will be in order to maintain the friction you need. At the other end of the spectrum, rough, dry and grippy rock will give you wonderfully fat ice cream cones that look more like upside down Chinese douli hats. Yesterday evening, the instinctive process of reading the trail and dancing over the rocks was pure pleasure in flow.

Further down the trail, a herd of cows with calves stopped me in my tracks. Inexperienced with cows and wary of their protective nature over their young, I looked at an alternative route through thick bracken. Wearing shorts and increasingly wary of ticks in such places, I opted for a knee deep wade through the now fast flowing Great Langdale Beck. Making a wide, triangular base on the loose stones with my legs and moving sideways-on to the current, it was just possible to cross without fear of slipping or being swept off my feet.

Earlier in the day, just a little up-stream, the river bed was completely dry. It’s amazing how quickly it fills up with a forceful flow of water. Great Langdale has a water catchment area larger 12,000 acres. In heavy rain, that’s a lot of water to flow into one river that’s just a few metres wide. A little further downstream from my crossing, a 1.5 metre high man-made bank is needed to save the flat valley floor from flooding. Running along the gravel track that’s been made easy for bicycles, you can see a short stretch where a recent storm has washed part of this protective bank away.

Scientists at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in Bangor have found that woodland absorbs rainfall 60 times faster than grazing land. According to environmental scientists I’ve spoken to, trees once covered the whole of the Lake District up to a height between 300 and 600 metres above sea level. Over the last 10,000 years, humans have removed most of these trees. Today, just 12% of the Lake District is covered by woodland. If we could rewild much of the land with trees, how much could we reduce the risk of flooding for towns like Kendal and Keswick, hit so hard by Storm Desmond in December last year?

Running through some remaining woodland near Chapel Stile, my whole body was beginning to feel a little weak after a larger than usual dose of sugar from three flapjacks in one day. This was more confirmation that sugar really is ‘The Devil’s Dandruff’ and more motivation to cut it out of my diet completely. I’m a sugar junkie once I get started on it and I find it really hard to regulate my consumption.

Slipping a little on a rock in my slightly wobbly state, I thought it best to turn around and run back to the van on the easy bicycle trail to the National Trust campsite. They kindly let me use their showers in exchange for a donation to the Langdale/Ambleside Mountain Rescue team and I was looking forward to drenching myself in hot water, especially now that I was soaked to the skin and the lively wind was getting rather chilly.

About half way along the trail, some grit in my shoe caused a small and painful blister in the arch of my left foot. Socks would have been a good idea but the blister was a blessing. It made me remove my shoes and get back to a barefoot connection with the ground that I love so much. For a while, running on the sharp gravel felt really good and it made me soften my legs even more. It’s wonderful, how light we can be on our feet when we’re in direct contact with the earth. Eventually, my soft feet began to tire and I slowed to a walk. They’re still recovering from a winter in mountaineering boots but they’re improving slowly.

A lone walker I had passed earlier caught up with me and remarked upon my bare feet, saying how ‘strong’ they must be. I answered with a handful of my usual stock of responses, including how flexibly the soles of our feet adjust to the changing shapes on the ground and how quickly our bodies respond to messages sent from our sensitive soles. He went on to tell me about Abebe Bikila winning the Olympic marathon barefoot because Adidas couldn’t provide him with a pair of shoes to fit. It’s a wonderful story and a fine end to a memorable run.

A Barefoot Fell Run Over Clougha Pike & Grit…

Today I ran over Clougha Pike and Grit Fell just outside my hometown of Lancaster. The rocky gritstone trails that climb across these two heather covered hills give about 5km of technical and balancy running interspersed with occasional sections of wet bog and muddy peat. This can be followed by another 5km of winding gravel track that descends steeply down their northern flank to return to the starting point.

I have run or walked these trails several times before but it was only last week that I ventured out on a wonderful barefoot walk up Clougha Pike. I was inspired to try running down a short section that day and found that I had to wear my flat soled sandals to maintain any kind of speed on the irregular and jagged surface.

This time I ran barefoot on the way up and whilst it may have been slower than usual, I was pleased at how well my feet dealt with the rough ride. The slower speed and lighter impact of running uphill brought the trails to within the capacity of my gradually developing feet and encouraged me to feel the terrain much more than usual, keeping my knees and hips soft and ready to respond to the ever changing shapes and angles.

Best of all was the glimpse of what could come with enough practice: without the protection of my sandals, my feet needed to place themselves on the rocky ground with more precision, the rest of my body needed to exercise more careful control and my eyes needed to read and process the trail with more speed.

Whilst I felt slow and cumbersome, I had a brief sense of how much more there is to gain from running barefoot on difficult trails: a wider range of effective running movement, a greater connection to my body’s ability and a good deal more learning and fun. The sandals went back on for the grueling gravel track descent but they’ll certainly be off more in the future…

This outcrop gives a sense of how rocky the tricky sections of Clougha's trail can be.

Barefoot on Striding Edge and Helvellyn

An old friend once told me story of how she was crossing Striding Edge with Doug Scott. He was wearing trainers at the time and a passing woman berated him for wearing such inappropriate footwear in the mountains. She had no idea who she was talking to as the man who once descended the Ogre with two broken legs removed his trainers and continued in his bare feet without so much as a word in reply. This story has always brought a smile to my face and I was happy to find my own bare feet carefully feeling their way across the ridge on a cold and misty day.

I was walking with Lewis on his first mountain day since two knee operations after badly tearing his cruciate ligament. He was walking much faster than me on the sharp stones of the farm track that leads onto the fell side from Glenridding, so I put my trainers back on for a short section and removed them when we reached the smooth stones of the well-made footpath. It was good to feel the cold, wet rock under my feet, which stayed reasonably warm with all the hard work they were putting in.

Barefoot and still warm enough on a cold and windy day.

Reaching Striding Edge itself, barefoot progress became a game of concentration, precision and balance. Finding comfortable foot placements was tricky and once a foot settled into a workable place, I needed to keep the weight distribution just right so that the spiky protrusions underneath wouldn’t become too painful. It felt a little like slacklining and was completely absorbing when balancing across the most narrow parts of the ridge.

Balancing along the ridge with some help from the hands.

Negotiating a small, rounded snow cornice left over from earlier in the season was easy in the deep steps that had been cut by the passage of many boots and we were soon sitting in the lee of the wind on the chilly summit. With dusk approaching we felt the need to move a little faster so the trainers came back on for the journey home along Swirral Edge and back down to Glenridding.

Hurrying along the road for a pint in the Traveler’s Rest, I slipped on a wet and smooth section of tarmac in my trainers and landed with a bump. Come to think of it, the trainers had a down side as soon as they were back on my feet when we descended Swirral Edge: I noticed that the friction was much better in bare feet and my feet had been giving me an enormous amount of feedback as to how well they were sticking to the wet rock on Striding Edge. Once in trainers that feedback was removed completely.

There’s a lot to be said for connecting with the ground in your bare feet. Get out there an try it!

Thanks to Lewis for the photos!