I’ve been running the Bay To Breakers 12K barefoot since 2011 and the tradition will continue for 2013 (it is called a footrace after all — not a “shoe race” ;)). So I thought I’d post a few tips for those curious about giving it a try.
First things first: DON’T decide to run this or any other road race barefoot on a whim! Running barefoot on hard surfaces like the streets of San Francisco might look and feel natural and easy, but it is in fact highly technical, especially if you want to go fast like I do. Think of it as the running equivalent of free climbing. It’s not merely a matter of foot/leg strength and sole conditioning — there’s also lots of neuromuscular adaptation necessary which takes time to acquire. Adaptation of your feet, legs, and brain in processing all the new signals from your feet takes time. Rush that process and you’re inviting all manner of injury (bruises, nerve damage, stress fractures, tendonitis, etc.). Progress requires pushing the limits of your capabilities, but always ease back when you feel pain. You can still be friends with shoes. Rewards are great for the patient.
If you are new to minimalist/barefoot running or are a big-time heel striker, you should get yourself a pair of minimalist shoes to help you transition to a barefoot style. Running barefoot on super-soft surfaces is great (sand, astroturf, smooth grass). Just be very careful to NOT do too much too soon — the shoes can permit you to go beyond what your feet are ready to handle, and this is the leading cause of injury for minimalist shoe newbies. Ideally, find an experienced coach or a barefoot running group in your area that can provide feedback and tips about your running form. The Barefoot Runners Society has some good resources. Also, check out some tips and links provided in previous blog posts here at barefootr.com and peruse the links in the blogroll further down on the right.
If you’re already well-adapted to running in minimalist footwear such as lightweight trainers, track shoes, or VFF’s and you can run a 10k in them, your lower body musculature is good to go. All you need to do now is to condition the soles of your feet to get them adapted to direct contact with the world. Part of this is about toughening, but it’s actually more about neural recalibration and learning how to step lightly and react more quickly to the unexpected.
For a 12k (7.5 mile) race like the B2B, you should be able to run ~3-4 miles barefoot at your target pace on a flat, smooth-ish surfaces such as a rubberized running track or a packed-dirt, near-rock-free trail. To adapt to asphalt, start walking and easy jogging around the block barefoot on the sidewalk on a near-daily basis. Experiment with slow running on different streets (notice how different two seemingly identical streets can feel, even different parts of the same street). Go extremely EASY initially. Allow at least 3 months for the toughening/neural adaptation to occur. Six months is even better.
To prime your feet for the event, bump up your barefoot time outdoors starting 4 weeks prior to the race, with a long-ish day of barefoot running/walking on varied paved surfaces 1 week before. Then go easy in the week leading up to the event, but maintain a minimal amount of daily barefoot time on paved surfaces.
Bay To Breakers step-by-step tips for the unshod
Always be able to see the upcoming road in front of you. This is quite important. You don’t want to find yourself jam-packed behind a set of runners because they will obscure your view of the road and what you are about to step on. A key rule of barefoot running is that you can almost always avoid stepping on something if you can see it coming.
Getting a clear view of the road can be a challenge at this often crowded race. It’s doable but be prepared to do some jockeying around. When you get distracted by interesting sights and costumes, just slow down your pace, walk or stop to take in the views.
Run on the lines
If you can run on the painted street lines, your feet will have a much happier time and will last longer before “going tender”. These street lines can be smooth as satin, especially in Golden Gate park, so jockey yourself onto them when you can.
First two miles
The asphalt on Howard Street is usually in good shape though it can be wet. In 2012 the entire length of Howard was quite wet even though there had been no rain, so it must have been sprayed in advance of the race. I was worried about the water softening my feet, but found that to not be a problem. Prolonged water exposure could be an issue depending on the conditioning of your feet, so try to minimize water exposure when you can.
The asphalt can get a little choppier in the approach to the Hayes Street hill. Generally keep an eye out for rough spots and run on the lines when you can. You’ll really appreciate the lightness of being barefoot as you climb up Hayes Street, just try not to get stuck behind local clusters of runners. Keep it moving.
You’ve finally crested Hayes Street — but don’t relax just yet! The backside (downhill) section of Hayes Street has one of the roughest section of road on the course. Keep your speed under control and steer clear of nasty ruts in the asphalt. Thankfully, this section is quite short.
After Hayes, there’s about 1 mile of flat road leading you into Golden Gate park.
Golden Gate Park – Lovely lines
The last 3.5 miles of the race are mostly downhill going through Golden Gate Park. There are ample painted street lines in the park so it’s easy to run on these soft lines to give your soles a break if you need it. Staying on the lines may require some crowd battling, however.
Downhill can be a big challenge for barefooters as heel striking tends to come into play to help control speed and alleviate the pounding as gravity pulls you faster. The down slope is quite gradual in GG park with frequent flat sections, so it’s not too challenging to maintain a good midfoot/forefoot strike.
Towards the end of the race, the endorphins have kicked in and with the smell of sea air and sight of the finish line, you may not notice changes in the road, but do your best to stay alert.
The finish line has been changed for 2013. The course now heads left instead of right off of JFK drive at the Western end of the park, putting you onto MLK Jr. Drive. The road surface in this last half mile of the race before the Great Highway is very rough so be very careful here. There are no nice painted lines to run on 😦 — I had to back off my pace several times in this section as the road became more shark-toothed. It was hard to track the smoother portions of the road, especially with the crowd of runners limiting my options. Running on the grass is an option in some stretches here, but look out for hard-to-see things like eucalyptus ‘buttons’.
The final quarter mile of the race along the Great Highway was a dream to run on after exiting GG park — smooth dark asphalt, with painted lines too. It’s a good demonstration of another key point for barefoot running: the roughness and unevenness of a running surface matters WAY more than its material hardness. I would pick flat, smooth, rock-hard marble over lumpy astroturf any day (though flat astroturf or groomed real turf beats everything). This leads to an important barefooting corollary, which works well as good advice for life in general: do the best you can to deal with whatever surface the real world throws at you.
Best of luck in your Bay To Breakers experience, however you choose to adorn your feet! 🙂
No Bay2Breakers experience is complete without a walk in the sands of Ocean Beach to sample the surf — the actual breakers that give the race its name. I’m always astounded at how many participants forgo this trip (90-95% I’d estimate). The cool sand and sea water rejuvenates your feet like nothing else. Keep an eye out for nasties in the sand (sharp shells, cans, glass). Fortunately, the sand is typically very nice and such objects are quite rare. Sand dollars can be quite abundant.
To give my feet a break after the race, I usually carry a pair of minimal shoes to don after I cool down — VFF’s or Luna Sandals or Xero Shoes. This year I brought along my 2-year old Traditional Luna’s. A nice thing about minimalist footwear is that it’s highly portable. I ran the race with these sandals tucked into my gear belt (single water bottle holder) around the small of my back and hardly noticed them.
So how did I do results-wise? My official finish time was just under 1 hour, finishing 1,165 out of 22,469 runners (203 out of 2,226 among my 40-49M age group). I started in the C wave, so this time includes a good mile’s worth of crowd jockeying plus some stops for photo ops. Here’s the official results site – search for bib # 24381 (sorry, they don’t provide a direct link). Next year, I intend to make a serious bid for the sub-seeded wave.
Note that this post was updated on 15 July 2013 with additional photos and info added from this year’s event.