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Teaching by Peter Hunter and blog in both Danish and English

Barfods Marathon #2

Blog (DK)

Barfods Marathon #2

Peter Hunter

I bought my ticket for this run after having run the 10k trail run in Hvalsø Skov - I felt that i now knew what to do with my body - run on trails. Time went by and I went running regularly, but without structure in my distances or times. I just ran and then waited a couple days until the

soreness disappeared.

Two days before the marathon I received an email with the following information: The distance of 42 km includes a total of 840 height meters. The race is held in Rold Skov (17th August, 2014), the most hilly forest in Denmark. Can't get much tougher in this country, I guess. It's so flat. Waterpoints are at km 7, 15, 21, 28, 35 and at the finish line. The route is a half-marathon loop.

It has to hurt at a least little bit for it to be fun - Det skal gøre lidt ondt før det er sjovt
— Anton, Sweeper

I knew that completing this marathon would be probably the most extreme thing I've ever pushed myself to do. I've run 42.125 km before with bare feet (see here)... But this time, that same distance would be nothing but trails and gravel roads inside the most hilly forest in Denmark, instead of a flat asphalt route. I knew that it would hurt. But that didn't push me away, it only added to the lure of the challenge.

Speed, which is a virtue, engenders a vice, which is haste
— Gregorio Marañón. Spanish writer

When I do things like this, I never hurry. To me, the degree to which I desperately yearn for the run to end is my barometer of failure. To mentally prepare myself for the race, I thought about the pain, and with a sense of fierce, but loving determination said to myself, "I will be with the pain, I will not escape it, but welcome it." In the days up to the run, I started imagining running with my dear friend, the pain, enjoying our intense relationship.

Having been rather numb to myself for most of my life, I know that refusing to feel pain causes more suffering than pain itself (although sometimes this numbing out is very necessary and is our friend, protecting us in the situation, although it allows numbness to harden further) Numbness can protect your mind, but ultimately pain demands to be felt. Allowing myself to feel physical pain, dealing with it without escaping it, is an exercise in feeling in general, and is as such a lesson of inner mastery. We all have a sense that life will continue to hurt... When is the time to slow down, stay around, and learn to be with that hurt, if not now? When it comes to sensitivity, speed is only a distraction. Slowness is the key. Slowness is limitless. Speed is not. Slow is smooth and soft. Speed is not. Slowness requires sensitivity. Speed does not, but ought to. 

UPDATE 28-10-2014: I have just watched a video that beautifully talks about pain and addiction. It talks to me directly and really fits with what I have written above.

Quoting the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying:

"Whatever you do, don't try and escape from your pain, but be with it."

Physical pain is simple and straight forward. Practice feeling on it. Start today, and melt your face next time you stub your toe! Can you allow the feeling?

Having never done it before, the run is beyond me, bigger than me. Therefore I must change my shape, I must grow or at least contort temporarily, to become someone who holds 42 km inside their mind. I'm not interested in "overcoming" it, like it was an obstacle I look away from as I pass it, because I'm so busy scanning the horizon for comfort and familiarity somewhere.

This whole focus on feeling versus escaping is also central to my commitment to and participation in the pedalian liberation. Sorry, I like long words - the revolution of going barefooted. Free, exposed feet. Oh, yeah.

I learned that the weather forecast didn't contain good news. It would be raining... This scared me quite a bit. I pictured my feet becoming soft from all the wetness and then getting cut to shreds from rocks and branches on the trails... Doubt crept into my mind, and I tried to reinforce my intention to attempt my very best. But the grey weather and wind blowing on the morning ride out to the location didn't help raise my spirits. I wrote in my diary to force myself to think correct thoughts, being tired of listening to incessant worry inside my head. Here is the weather forecast of the day: (note the 100% chance of rain...)

The Run

Once we arrived I started packing up my hip belt, sneakily having acquired two energy packets instead of one at the check-in. I lost myself in reading the nutrition guide from HIGH5 and mixing up my three small bottles with electrolyte drinks and what not. I taped in my big toes. I asked some guys for Vaseline, because i had forgotten mine. I ended up using moisturizing cream instead. Finally, I pinned my starting number to my left thigh. My number was 13...

Finally, inevitably, the run began. I set out wearing my tights, my t-shirt, my cap and my hip belt. I fell behind most people. As the trail narrowed the line spread out. I warmed up my eye-foot coordination on some pretty easy surfaces: dirt, grass, only few stones. I took note of the trail as I ran along, using it as motivation when the going was easy. The run was set in a half-marathon-distance loop, so I knew I had to take each step twice. Thus, the easy parts would make the second loop more comfortable.

Eventually though, we hit gravel roads. Those fucking gravel roads. Big rocks. No grass on the side. Each step was potentially painful in a sharp and nasty way. So I lost my conversation partner, an ultra runner who had completed runs up to 80 km in one stretch. He averaged 6 minutes pr. km on that run. Unfathomable. He was a comforting presence during the first 5 miles because he took me seriously and praised my barefoot running style. Also, he noted how few marathon runners there actually were, about 15 out of 100 runners. In that way I was grouped with him, I was one of his kind, on his kind of trip. For him this was just a training run, nothing special. His perspective normalized my otherwise unnerved and distraught thoughts about the extremity of my undertaking. Feeling normal felt really good, as I continued to run along the goddamn, unforgiving gravel road, watching my unknown friend disappear down the next turn with a plump, 35-year old woman who was running the 10k distance.

Oddly enough, I didn't feel humiliated by this. I was alone now, so I wasn't dusted publicly. Also, I realized that my feet were strong. Really strong. I tried to keep my pace up, swearing and wincing along the way, as my foot bent around stones and small rocks with each step. Finally, I got back on the trail again and put up my speed, still trailing the ultra runner and his temporary sidekick.

I rather impatiently ran the major part of the loop with splits of 47 and 58 minutes between the two water points, which were supposedly 7 km apart. The last part, in which the majority of the height meters were all packed in, went up and down through the glorious Rebild Bakker.



As on the picture, the purple heather (in danish "lyng") was in full bloom as I climbed and descended the (very) steep hills. I was completely dazzled by the view, marveling at the mountainous curves and shapes covered in autumn colors. A plan immediately sprung up in my head: I just had to get through the second loop smoothly, and then, when I'd be nearly spent, I would have the splendor of the place to pull me through the last 5 km. I passed a couple of people during this part of the course, moving steadily up the hills on all fours without breaks. Full of power, I would start running as soon as things leveled out again. There was a long downhill part where I just let myself fall down, allowing my legs to jump, heelstrike and fly down the soft, grassy path.

I completed the first loop in 2:30... I spent a couple minutes restocking my water bottles, eating fruit and talking happily with the people around me, including the two guys I had hitched a ride with to get there. My goal became finishing in less than 5 hours (the ultrarunner had expressed that same goal, and therefore I liked the goal even more).

My strength was renewed by the clapping and the observing looks on peoples faces as I started running lightly across the open space, ready to tackle the second loop. I tried really hard to look effortless. Not that I was especially tired, but because I am vain after all. As I found myself alone on the trail again, retracing my steps, I steeled myself against a sudden feeling of isolation that came as soon as I left all the people behind me. On the second loop, I ran completely alone. I saw no fellow runners until km 35, where the sweeper picked me up, and ran the remainder with me. That was tough.

I met one guy, who scared the shit out of me by suddenly saying, "pretty cool you're running on bare feet"...  He had been quite and I had had my eyes on the trail, so when his voice hit me in the face just 3 meters away I nearly yelled, making some unpleasant sound in response. He added, as I stepped out on another gravel road, "Pretty slow, though.... The last runner passed over an hour ago..."

So - I was the slowest runner... The very last person, who would be at the bottom of the list and keep everybody waiting at the finish line. I'm not the slowest person very often. The thought of it made me smile, because I felt pretty good about not being able to remember being in that situation before. I reflected that it might be good for me to try it. Later on though, I found out that not a single person was waiting at the finish line except the Team Salomon Trail crew.

My hamstrings cramped for the first time at km 30... I shouted "SHIT" out into the empty forest, and started comparing my progress in this run compared to my last marathon to figure out if the signs were good. I stretched quickly, and continued. At this point, I had been whispering affirming words and instructions to myself as I ran along, something like "keep the pace up, this fucking gravel road will end soon, yeah, good, keep the pace, keep the pace, just get to the next trail..." My (rather negative) mantra was "This FUCKING gravelroad", which i repeated with varying intensity, depending on how painful the gravel road was. I looked like a person who didn't want to put his feet down on the ground.

At the last water point, I met a guy who was waiting to pack up the tables and water jugs. He was exceedingly kind to me, and my nausea and pain was temporarily gone just from meeting another person. I didn't even see any mountain bikes on the second loop, and rain had started to fall. The forest gave no echoes when I raised my voice to cheer myself on. "Come ON, man, your doing good!" When similar words finally came from another person, they went straight into me, like I could feel them on my skin.

Eventually, I became very quite. Speaking words suddenly seemed like an action too strenuous to will myself to do. I just ran. I felt a little bit sick. I hadn't drunk much water at that final point, but still it seemed like it was too much, because nausea had returned to my stomach. This was the point where I had to go beyond myself... I could no longer will myself forward. What I mean by this is that my thoughts were no longer backing me up or under my control. Instead I was as if in a state of desperation, in which I could only tolerate the present unbearable condition of my body because there seemed to be no other alternative.

The sweeper dude, a bald, hard cut man named Anton, was running with me now through Rebild Bakker. I could have stopped and said "no more". He could have taken me out of it. But even though it was now extremely heavy to move my legs and difficult to control my cramps, opting out wasn't going to happen. I was looking forward to finishing like a thirsty man nearing an oasis. I was desperate, breathing heavily, fighting, struggling. Anton was helping me with calm words of encouragement. The feeling of it all was indescribable. As with prolonged fasting, the gradual, but steady deterioration of the body brings with it an intensity of feeling that has no parallel. At least, that is my experience.

I believe that pushing one self "out there", where unrestrained desperation and all manners of uncontrollable thoughts and feelings come rushing in, is a valuable thing to attempt and experience. For one thing, a crystal clear and beautiful feeling of gratitude and longing for all things normal and comfortable fills you as you find yourself well on the other side of your limits. For another, your perspective on your own health will change after experiencing just a little bit of death - in everyday life, our stomachs are always full, our bodies are always more or less rested, we are always shielded from the elements and we always have other people around us. Most of the time our energy balance is positive, and this becomes very clear through experiencing one that is extremely negative.

This hill packed a substantial part of the 840m height-meter-punch...

This hill packed a substantial part of the 840m height-meter-punch...

Finally, I realized how close I was after the last uphill part, and I yelled out my victory cry. Done. As I crossed the finish line after five hours and eighteen minutes, I started crying. The Salomon crew was packing up, and clapped as I came in. The clapping really did it. My diaphragm started heaving although no tears came to my eyes. I ate a banana and showed them my feet. Then, I slowly got up, and walked to the tent where I had left my bag. There, I was overwhelmed by it all and lay crying for a couple of minutes. I was engulfed by relief and joy. My thoughts started coming back to me, and I knew I had never accomplished anything like this before.