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November 10, 2009

The Barefoot Files: Fort Ord Trail Run

“Take only pictures, leave only footprints.”
- Popular outdoor expression

I’ve mentioned several times how trail running is something of a final frontier for my progression as a barefoot runner. As recently as a couple of weeks ago, I turned around less than two minutes into an attempted trail run, because the terrain was too painful for my tender soles to bear. I figured it would be months or years until I could build up enough toughness to tolerate trails.

Turns out, I didn’t need to get tougher – only smarter.

When it comes to trails, there’s a wide variety of terrain available, and Monterey County happens to have several options to choose from. So I spent some time thinking about where I’d have the most success ditching the Vibrams for a purely barefoot trail run, and finally settled on one of the areas I know best: the Fort Ord open space between Salinas and Monterey.

Much of this particular section of Fort Ord is elevated above the Salinas Valley, which gives you nice views of the agricultural lands below. However, that’s not why I chose this place …

… I picked it because of the long, frequent stretches of sandy trail interspersed with the otherwise firm soil. In some places the sand is so thick, it’s like running on the beach. I figured if I can’t make it through sections like this, there’s probably no hope for me.

Typically, the trails are some hybrid of sand and stone – and unlike the probably 2,000 other times I’ve run out here, on this occasion, I actually sought out the sand instead of avoiding it.

Of course, there are some sections you just want to stay away from entirely – but luckily, there aren’t too many of them here.

The cool thing about running in shallow sand is how you can look over your shoulder at almost any point and see your own tracks. Of course, I nearly tripped over myself about 10 different times while craning my neck to look behind me while running, which isn’t exactly the safest practice in the world.

There are enough rolling hills out here to make it an honest trail run …

… for example, this is the elevation gained during the first mile and a half away from the parking area, which is visible below.

The top of the ridge is also a good spot to goof around with some self-portraits.

Along the ridgeline, the trail remains wide and relatively smooth …

… and there a lot of nice vantage points for a rest break if you’re not in a big hurry.

You know what’s almost as cool as seeing your bare footprint? Seeing your barefoot shadow. Whenever the sun hits me at the proper angle, I like to spread my toes apart a bit in the swing phase of my stride, just to catch a brief glimpse of the individual toe outlines on the ground below. I never get tired of silly games like this.

Further down the trail, here’s the trickiest part of the run: a single track featuring large gravel sprinkled among some larger pointed rocks. Luckily, this section of this particular trail is relatively short, and the rest of it is manageable – but I slowed to nearly a walk while navigating through this stuff.

It’s worth noting that these “toes in the bottom of the frame” pictures are WAY harder than they should be for me. I have to lean backwards, lift one foot up past my knee, and hold both the airborne foot and the camera steady while balancing on one leg. I know it doesn’t sound that complicated, but my flexibility is absolutely terrible; whenever I try pictures like this, I always feel like I’m auditioning for Cirque du Soleil or something.

It may not seem like it, but stretches like this are the worst for a barefoot runner: an irregular distribution of various sized rocks spread across a very firmly packed surface. The larger gravel is impossible to avoid, and the underlying earth is completely unyielding – you may as well be stabbing me with nails underneath.

Fortunately the trail soon returns to the normal sandstone paths I’m comfortable with, and I’m on my way back to the start.

One of the coolest things about retracing my steps on the return trip is literally retracing my steps. I pass these impressions in the ground and think to myself, “Hey – I left those there!”

This might sound silly – but the bare footprints are also kind of a distinctive mark to leave on the trail for others who will pass this way later on. I like to believe that in the same way that I sometimes get a charge from seeing bobcat or coyote tracks in the soil, maybe some hikers will see these later on and wonder at what kind of crazy animal left them there.

Back at the trailhead after a 5-mile run, I’m content that I’m finally making headway into that last frontier. It’s time for another rest and another snapshot – but this time, the picture isn’t of the frustrated tenderfoot I was before the run; it’s one of an evolving barefoot runner who is happily playing in the dirt again.

All that’s left is to wash my feet, and I’m merrily on my way.

*See other Barefoot Files reports on sidebar at right


Darrell 11/11/09, 8:15 AM  

Very cool. It is funny to think that you probably put shoes on to drive back home.

Anne 11/11/09, 9:00 AM  

I thought of you yesterday when I saw a group of men running in Vibrams. I guess the seclusion of the trails makes it less intimidating to contort your body for the sake of some foot photos.

Barefoot Josh Snellink 11/15/09, 9:47 AM  

Wow, those trails look so comfortable!

Don't be too shy of the rough patches, because those are some of the best teachers. Once you know how to move on the gravel, you can fly through any other terrain.

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