He’s got no shoes on! AND HE’S WEARING DENIM HOTPANTS!
“It seemed like a good idea at the time,” I called out with a shrug to a couple of tourists, in answer to the silent question floating between them. Their giggles followed me over the top and down the other side of what felt like No. 30 of the Seven Sisters. I responded with screams of my own.
I’m not sure that they believed me.
I’m not sure that it did seem like a good idea at the time either. In fact, looking back, it probably seemed like a terrible idea, signing up and deciding to do it barefoot, but back then it was one I wouldn’t have to deal with for several months. ‘Past me’ is a real tool sometimes. The Beachy Head Marathon is widely considered to be one of the toughest in the country. There are hills, there is exposure, there are steps, gates, stiles, there is the autumn weather, there is the uneven surface (I believe one person finished with a black eye, and one with a fractured hip(!) due to falls this year), and there are cows.
But I knew this when I signed up for it. This year was my fourth running of the Beachy Head. I have run part of it barefoot before. I knew it was going to hurt and I knew how bad it was going to hurt. So why did I do it? It wasn’t a bet, as someone suggested, when they thought I was out of earshot. It wasn’t to prove anything, or even out of curiosity – as I told another runner – because I knew that I could do it. I knew, barring any injuries, there was nothing stopping me from crossing the finish line.
I don’t have a reason. Well, other than that I wanted to, and even that wouldn’t hold up to too much scrutiny. I did it because it was there, and I did it barefoot because that’s what I do. I honestly can’t give you any deeper reason than that.
I completed a notoriously challenging marathon wearing denim hotpants and no shoes, and I’m not sure why. I don’t expect to be any wiser by the time I finish writing this, so I’ve got no idea what you expect to get out of reading it.
I suppose at least I can/should explain the denim hotpants. I wore them so that my FuelBelt wasn’t sitting across the osteotomy scar on my right hip, as it would have in running shorts. The last thing I wanted was to have to sling my pocketful of Skittles and the two tiny water bottles that were leaking nuun Cherry Limeade down my legs half way around the course because it was irritating my op site. I knew the risk of chafing was real – and other runners didn’t hesitate to point this out to me – but it came down to where I
wanted was prepared to risk chafing. And after liberally anointing my at-risk regions with a Grand Tour’s-worth of Udderly Smooth chamois cream, I felt better about the whole idea.
And hella fabulous, too.
I quite liked the effect it had on the other runners, spectators, and marshals, actually. It was as shocking as my lack of shoes. Cheer, cheer, clap, cla… “He’s got no shoes on! AND HE’S WEARING DENIM HOTPANTS! ROAR!” and then questions about whether I was chafing yet. I’d be fine, I thought, as long as it doesn’t rain. The forecast looked as good as you could hope for, blue skies and 16 degrees, it was a mild morning, and the ground was dry. Perfect conditions.
And then it rained.
Once we got up onto the tops, the fog settled and brought with it some of that fine rain that soaks you through. Luckily it passed without giving me too much cause for concern – running in denim shorts is one thing, running in wet denim shorts should not be a thing. Not that the rain would have affected the items I was wearing too much anyway – I was sweating so much my t-shirt had gone a uniformly darker shade of blue, and my cup-to-mouth coordination was so bad that at one point I actually debated deliberately pouring water on the rest of my shorts so it didn’t look like I had peed myself. There’s a marked difference between “Look at that crazy guy with no shoes on!” and “Look at that crazy guy who’s just whizzed in his shorts…” Who let this shoeless hobo onto the course?
No, the rain hardly caused any issues underfoot either, really. I slid once or twice, but stayed upright, soles intact. My real concern was the stony downhill sections, even once I made it through the shower. I knew which ones would cause me grief, and sure enough, they did. Starting as far back in the pack as I did, I made up several places in the first half of the course. The other runners were very gracious and supportive when I passed them. They seemed a little bit more cheerful when they passed me because “OH FOR THE LOVE OF PETE WHAT DID I JUST STAND ON?! Yes, I am very much looking forward to getting back onto the grass, thank you very mu…MERLINSBEARDWHATWASTHAT?!” Some of them even seemed a little scared, and almost a touch sympathetic (almost) when I in turn passed them again because “IVEGOTNOBRAKESIVEGOTNOBRAKESIVEGOTNOBRAKESICANTSTOPICANTSTOP *breathe* OH****OH****OH****IMGOINGTODIE!”, but I’m pretty sure they weren’t as scared as I was. It hurt to run fast, but it hurt even more to slow down. Basically, once you pick up any semblance of speed on a stony descent, it’s a lose-lose situation… Flats and climbs were bad, but going downhill was a veritable descent into the bowels of hell. Still, I made it through the first half relatively unscathed. It was virgin territory for me, as far as barefooting went, and I was trying very hard not to pop anything. I knew that if I could survive the first half, I was as good as home and dry. Well, home and sweaty. It was very much a cliché of two halves. The first was a very technical (lit. torturous) section, while the second contained more foot-friendly surfaces – although it still had an unfair share of gnarly stretches, and was going to be a question of how much I had left in the tank (only fumes, as it turned out…)
My feet actually held up fairly well over the whole course, in spite of the stones, tarmac, gravel, chalk, thorns, tree roots, and anything else the South Downs could put in my path. I mean, there was pain. A lot of pain. So much pain. Possibly even all the pain. But if you don’t count the bruising, the only injury I picked up was fairly minor and, well, somewhat embarrassing.
Embarrassing because it occurred about four metres into the race. I had literally only just crossed the start line when I failed to pick my left foot up high enough, scuffed the top of my big toe on the road surface, removed a centimetre of skin, and ran the rest of the race with a bloody toe. Yes, look at me, I’m going to run this with no shoes on, I’m already bleeding, and I’ve still got 26.199 miles to go…
No one mentioned it. Too busy admiring my shorts, I suppose. Or possibly even concentrating on their own running, who knows. Before long, the blood merged with the dirt, and eventually my drinking problem and the wet grass probably washed the worst of it off. Well, until I did the exact same thing a few miles from the end and opened it up again…
But, I mean, that was fairly minor. When I really got into barefoot running in Guildford, I’d get back to town some days leaving a trail of bloody footprints behind me, or I’d slip my VivoBarefoot Ultras on so I could call in at Tesco on the way back and by the time I got home I’d have to scrape congealed blood out of the bottom of the shoe. Back in the early days, my post-run shower often looked more like a scene out of Psycho. So, you know, on the whole I reckon I’ve made great leaps and bounds (albeit somewhat gingerly) in terms of progress.
Further progress was also made with my bovinopbobia, or taurophobia, as it is apparently also known (you know it’s a legit fear if it has two names…). I had to run through a field of cows, all grazing close to the path, and did so without too much trouble – hell, if you’re going to run the Beachy Head barefoot (and in denim hotpants), you forfeit your right to be anything other than a double-hard bar-steward. So I crossed myself, ritual usually reserved for the final sprint, and giving myself a small, quiet, and very private motivational pep-talk that went something like “OH****************INGCOWS!*********************PLEASEDONTLETTHEMKILLME******!”, I ran through the herd like whatever, bring it on, coo-beasties. I was congratulating myself on being the hard man and totally dominating my fear of cows that I obviously don’t have as a mature adult, when I looked up and saw, walking maliciously down the very narrow path I was about to run up, a big, brown, mooing omen of death. ****. Well, I couldn’t quit now, so I dodged the family fleeing for their lives (calmly walking in front of it), and whispering threats to it quietly, so neither it nor anyone else could hear me, I snuck past it.
I don’t think it was ever aware of my passage, not that a cow needs to know you are there to kill you. Still, I was about to face the Seven Sisters (a row of eight(!) small hills purpose-built to destroy you and everything you love), so I wasn’t going to waste any energy on being scared of a damn cow. I was too focused on the run.
It was the most focused I’ve felt in a long time. Obviously, a single lapse in concentration on some of the paths would result in punctured or broken feet, and even the shod runners were at a constant risk of rolling an ankle, or getting distracted, making a detour, and falling into the sea from a great height. But aside from the pain in my feet (and the right calf that was always just on the cusp of cramping to the size of a boiled egg, the chest-tightness that usually means you’re about to have a heart attack, the strange pain in my left ankle, a sore throat, incredibly tense shoulders, a bladder that was arguing with my stomach about who was going to get rid of their contents first (happily the half-packet of Imodium I had necked meant that there was no (Richard the) third part of my digestive tract involved in that argument), and all the other discomforts that accompany distance running), I actually felt good. In an indescribable kind of way.
I still had to walk up the Sisters, most people did, and by the time I was coming over the top of Beachy Head I wasn’t sure whether I was going to cramp up and die, collapse, puke, or pee myself. First, I mean. I was fairly convinced my immediate future was going to contain all four, I just didn’t know in what order it was all going to happen. The last mile might be all downhill, but it doesn’t feel like it. The first 24 miles are hard, no doubt, but the final two have always just kicked the absolute stuffing out of me. This time was no different. The .2, though (or whatever it actually is), that’s the fun bit. That’s the real downhill, where gravity trumps legs, and all you can do is try to stay hairy-side up, pick a person in front of you to beat, and completely and utterly turn yourself inside out trying to catch them.
Well, I saw my target – a lady running with her dog who had passed me a mile earlier – and once again felt that familiar surge of forgotten energy flowing into me. I scrambled down the almost sheer grassy slope, hoping upon hope my feet reached the bottom before my face did. I dodged a couple of people, and burst out onto the road. I crossed myself again, North, South, West, East, set my face into a rictus of pain that could almost pass for a smile in the right light, and opened the throttle. The turbo kicked in, and I kicked off. All I had to do now was reach the finish line before my legs realised they were in no position to be moving this fast, and my lungs got out and walked. My sprint was delicious. It always is, but this one was something else. You know you’re going to pay for it later, but you’ll pay it gladly. I felt for a brief moment like I was flying. Everything that was good and right and beautiful with the world was, for those few seconds, somehow part of me. It was like a religious experience and I was heralding in the celestialisation of our own planet. I could barely feel the coarse tarmac tearing at my feet, it was like treading on dreams. For a brief eternity, I was running in the clogs of heaven.
Right there, outside St Bede’s school, on that small strip of road that I had last seen 26.2 miles, four hours and 19 minutes earlier, I felt invincible. I could have carried on forever. I was God. I was the universe.
Then I crossed the line (two seconds in front of the lady and her dog, for anyone keeping score) and reality checked me at the gate, kicked me out of paradise, and sent me crashing (figuratively speaking) down to earth.
Twenty-six miles of pain came flooding back, and Noah had taken the day off. I stumbled past the water distributers, ploughed through a couple of chairs, and sank into the metallic embrace of the nearest bollard. And there I stayed, anchored to the spot, waiting for the world to stop spinning while wave after wave of pain and elation swept over me. Eventually, I regained enough control to untie the timing chip from around my ankle, mumble something to the medal distributors, hang the medal around my neck on the second attempt, collect my flip-flops from their hiding place under the dumpster, and hobble off in the direction of baked potatoes, tiny sausages, cold showers (and more tiny sausages), warm clothes, and ultimately the can of Coke and chocolate milkshake that would be the cosmos’ sign to my body that everything was going to be alright.
You hear of the Runner’s High. Well, they don’t come much higher than running barefoot over the hills of the Beachy Head Marathon. Just remember to tread softly.