Thrill of Victory, Agony of the Feet

AJWs TaproomBack in 2009 when I finished Western States I spent about an hour in the medical tent talking to John Vonhof, foot expert and author of Fixing Your Feet. I had just finished what was my toughest Western States to date and my family and I were leaving the next morning for Silverton, CO where I would be starting the Hardrock 100 12 days later. My feet were totally trashed and I was justifiably nervous.

John gave me some great advice about foot toughening, lubricant, socks, tape, and shoe fit but the best advice he gave me was about the day-to-day needs that the feet require when running ultras. In short, he told me that foot care was not about race day or about training or even about individual differences but rather it was about an all-out effort to make sure your feet are ready to withstand the punishment that running 100 miles inflicts on them.

My ultimate takeaway from that conversation and subsequent races provide these five nuggets:

AJW Feet

AJW foot carnage

1. When you are racing don’t ever ignore that small, little irritation in your feet. That little pebble or that slightly creased sock will come back to haunt you tenfold if you don’t address the issue immediately and aggressively. It may sound trite but prevention is the key to avoiding foot problems late in the race.

2. Train your feet for what they will need to do on race day. If you are running a race with many creek crossings, train in wet shoes all the time. If your target race is in the desert, train in the desert and start your training runs with dust in your shoes. If you are the kind of person who doesn’t like discomfort in your feet, acknowledge it and learn to live with it. You cannot succeed in achieving your ultra goals if your feet fail you, plain and simple.

3. Prior to an event be sure to create a Plan B, C, and D that accounts for foot issues. Have a foot repair kit, train your crew on how to lance blisters, tape your feet, and deal with you when you are crying in pain. Expect the unexpected and know that there is always something you can do. Practice taping, lubing, lancing, and coating before you have to do it on Race Day. If I had a $100 for every person who told me, after succumbing to foot problems in a 100-miler, that they “never had foot problems in training!” I’d be a millionaire by now. It may sound counter-intuitive, but I strongly suggest you create foot problems in training to be able to solve them on race day.

4. Figure out how much intense foot pain you can withstand and plan a strategy to stay the course no matter what. Once a few of the blisters pop and the grit gets under the skin it is only a matter of time before it wears you down mentally, physically, and emotionally. Talk to anyone who’s been hobbling on stumps 90 miles into a 100-mile race and you’ll understand what I mean. It doesn’t happen to everyone all the time but it happens to everyone some of the time and somebody all of the time. Fail to prepare and prepare to fail.

5. As painful as it is in the moment, know that the skin on your feet always grows back. You can trust me on that.

Next week, following up on this three-part series of the Holy Trinity of Ultrarunning Hell (Part 1, Dreaded Stomach Issues, and Part 2, Avoiding Quadraphenia), it’s back to more philosophical musings as I consider the implications of Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 Hour Rule” on ultramarathon running and take a look ahead to the summer racing season.

Until then,

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

Founders Brewing All-Day IPAThis week’s Beer of the Week comes from Founders Brewing Company, one of the Taproom’s favorites. Their All-Day IPA is a new, truly sessionable beer that is pushing the envelope on over-hopped brews and seeking a middle ground in this crazy, ever-evolving medium. Next time it’s on tap at your local brewpub, give the All-Day IPA a try.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • As with the other two articles in the Holy Trinity of Ultrarunning Hell, AJW shares what’s worked (and not worked) for him, this time as it pertains to feet and running a long way. As ultrarunning remains an experiment of one, what among his recommendations resonates with you? Do you feel like you spend at least a portion of your training preparing your feet for race-day battle?
  • And, have you ever finished a race with feet looking a little like AJW’s in that photo?

There are 10 comments

  1. Marcus Schmidt

    Hey Andy & everyone,

    thanks for another great article. yours are my favourite ones to read and i am always looking forward to them.

    i will add:

    – don't do things in a race that you didn't in training. a small thing like wearing gaiters in a race will change the whole climate inside your shoe. it gets warmer and more moist than usually

    – blisters: i immediately open them with a needle, drain the fluid and put tape (plain tape, no cushioning) on them. never take the skin off a blister. it's hell.

    – i prefer thin socks, since they dry faster

    Best from Germany,

    Marcus

  2. Charlie M.

    Above all else, do NOT decide for your first 100 miler to duct tape each toe. Or you WILL pull all the skin off each toe in the bathtub after the race.

    1. Pete

      i am curious about this one as well. I am planning on fully changing socks and shoes half way through my first 100 this summer. Hoping that is a sound strategy. Plus it will be a good time to assess the current state of my feet.

      1. Greg

        I change socks at some point during a 100-miler. I'm not sure how much it helps my feet, but I do know that I always get a mental boost from suddenly having my feet feel better. Plus, it doesn't take but two minutes to do.

        1. Davide

          Me too, especially if it's wet. They're usually my "chair moments" during a 100.

          I reapply some zinc paste and a put new pair of socks… feel sooo good.

          I guess it's mostly in my mind because at WS my crew couldn't reach Green Gate due to broken bus, and I forced on with socks wet from the River and dusty from the Cal Loop: well, nothing bad happened.

          But As Greg said, it takes two mins and it might save you serious time later on.

  3. tom wilson

    I had similar foot problems at WS in 2009 and hobbled around for two weeks after. I found a half size bigger shoe and a better sock (DryMax) have eliminated day ending issues. There is no replacement for seasoned feet however.

  4. Seamus Foy

    Great column as always, but you might want to change the series name to The Unholy Trinity of Ultrarunning Hell. I'm looking forward to your next piece. You and I seem to read all the same books.

  5. Digga

    I did it. It never felt so refreshed. It was like getting a second life. Be sure to have someone help you, and if that isn't an option be sure take your time. Oh and also change into the same model shoe and sock. That what I did. Just some advise.

  6. Kevin Carr

    If lubricants are part of your foot health strategy, RunGoo might be something to try. It's a high endurance friction barrier that's sweat permeable and works in wet and dry environments. Happy to send anyone a sample who's interested. Just email me at: [email protected]

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