It is one year I am running barefoot in Hong Kong. Last Sunday, I decided to join a competitive running 10 kilometers race. With this first 10K barefoot race, it was an occasion of pitting myself against other runners, although, of course, there was not much for me to put up against runners capable of completing 10 k in half an hour..
Shek Mun: a very nice running environment
Shek Mun, where the race took place, is located near Shatin. As such, the race course took us alongside the harbour for a lovely flat and easy race track. At the beginning, I was right at the back of the pack, so things did not get easier as the race began at a walking pace. Most people behind did not really expect to put up much of a performance, so the start was pretty slow. And so did start my first barefoot race, with about 1 minute passed getting to the start line…
With several hundreds participants, the race elongated itself nicely.
The big challenge in a race, is not wanting to go too fast too quick. My goal, in this respect, was to keep a reasonable rhythm during the first half of the race, then to gradually increase speed to finish fast(er).
My speed kept around 6.10 to 6.21 min/km for the first 5 kms, and my heart rate around 165/168 bpm (borderline to the intense range). After the fifth km, when we turned around, I started increasing my speed slowly and gradually, as some runners were starting to fall behind.
No sprint, but constant acceleration
I kept running at a regular rhythm, trying to avoid sudden rushes or boosts, in order to keep my heart rate within control. I however increased my cadence and my relative speed, my best speed being 5.33 min/km, at which point, I was already maxing out on my heart rate.
I finally arrived to the end, having pushed my running to the fastest I could, short of sprinting.
Over the last few kilometers, many volunteers gave me the thumbs up. Strangely enough, not one runner talked to me. You would think that as with the majority of the population, this would elicit curiosity, but apparently, no.
No, I did not make it to the podium…
Despite the picture above, no, I did not make it on the podium or anywhere near the 8th place… But it was a fun experience, not so much because of the “communal” experience, but rather because of the test for your own capacities. In a race, you must try and give your best and then some… And that’s what I tried to do.
I already registered for another 10k race in January, in order to keep the incentive for training. Hopefully, within the next six months, I can also run a 20 kms race…. But that’s another story!
Hiking home after the race…
After the barefoot race, I went back to Shatin to meet my local friend, Matthew. We had breakfast and then starting hiking back towards my home.
While it was initially dry, the rain intensified during our hike. Eventually, we got totally drenched, but being barefoot, we were as comfortable as ever. I ran some portions down on Jat’s incline, as it was also a way of keeping warm.
We kept encountering people commenting on how they knew that hiking barefoot was good for health, but that they were too scared to try it themselves… So, being out there, hiking barefoot also encourages people to try it (at least you can hope so).
The interesting part is that, at the end of the day, I did not feel sore at all. I was tired, but it was quite a “good” tiredness. Running/hiking barefoot seems way less tiring than with shoes (probably because of the “massage effect”).
So, after training, running and hiking barefoot, I decided to participate to one of Smartone’s (my mobile phone provider) fun races. The race seemed essentially geared around promoting the Apple Iwatch and its benefits for training. Nevertheless, it was a fun occasion of going out and running with Matthew, my HK friend. So, it was a first barefoot race, but “race” between brackets for it was not really a race.
The race took place at Diamond Hill, which is just one MTR station from my place. The fun thing is that I have a shortcut to get to the sports ground, which involves some forest trail near my condo. So, I took the trail, and managed to run all the way to Diamond Hill, by which time I was already sweating as hell.
Knowing the forest trails near your home is fun, as they give me a number of shortcuts. I have another shortcut on the same path taking me right up Jat’s Incline, towards Kowloon Peak. This time, it was just to get on time to the sports ground. As I am pretty confident now with going around barefoot, I just ran from my home without shoes or slippers. This allowed me to keep it light and easy.
The Smartone event
For a race organized by a mobile phone company, the facilities they provided were a bit on the spartan side. In the matters of drinks, just one 18 L bottle of water was available.
But then, of course, you could borrow an Iwatch and test it. I never saw something more unhandy for fitness. Both, the small screen, the lack of ergonomy and the erratic heart rate measurements were a total put-off.
Now, to the big elephant in the room: no issue at all with me running barefoot. People were just a bit astonished, but as most are runners, they understood the desire to be barefoot and to run barefoot. Some runners even came to enquire about my running barefoot. While on the tracks, I saw at least one other guy training barefoot. So, after the 2010 vogue and crash, now it seems barefoot running is either starting a comeback or keeping the true “believers”.
Anyway, we were not there for the watch, but for the race! Initially scheduled at 19.00, it finally started only at 19.30… Thankfully, our group was the first to depart, and contrary to our fears, it was not a free for all race, it was rather a slow, paced jog. We did a 3.5 kms loop and came back at the starting point. As we were a bit bored with the pace, Matthew and me, we both sprinted to the finish line.
All in all, a fun initiative and a perfect time together with a friend. Heat and discomfort due to the humidity can be taxing however when running. There was little to no breeze and most of the runners were in the same state as me, drenched with sweat.
While I often climb Kowloon peak and suicide cliff in particular, so far I always did it with hiking boots or trail running shoes. As a few weeks ago, I started running barefoot, I decided this time to run/hike to the top of Kowloon peak barefoot.
Why running barefoot?
Firstly a few words of explanation for what might seem an unconventional decision at first. I have had an ACL surgical reconstruction about one year ago (ruptured the ACL with karate). Rehabilitation has been overall good, except that I would continue having pain at the patella tendon when attempting to run with shoes. I had a period of barefoot running when I lived in Paris and was much younger (because shoes were hurting my toenails).
Here, as I was growing frustrated with being unable to revert to a more engaged fitness lifestyle, I decided to try running barefoot in the park in front of my apartment. Incredibly (but not astonishingly, given the biomechanics of barefoot running), I didn’t feel any pain in the knee. It is true that the running track in my park, is pretty absorbing and hence rather forgiving for the joints. It also helps that many parks in Hong Kong have reflexology paths.
After I started running barefoot, other areas of the body have improved too, from calves to ankles which have also been reinforced. I have, on average, covered around 5 kms per session, with about 1/2 hr running and feel much better physically. The feeling of freedom is also impressive. I added burpees and jumping jacks to my training routines, and, of course, do a lot of squats. On the other hand, the calves and ankles were extremely sollicited. As I took it nice and easy though, I did not suffer too much with those muscles.
The logical development was to attempt running on longer distances and a logical target was my favorite mountain, Kowloon Peak.
Kowloon Peak barefoot… but only on road!
The day before this hike, I took a stroll to the 10,000 Buddhas monastery with trail running shoes, and I emerged out of it, quite exhausted in my legs and feet. I was looking to release the tension.
Obviously, for a first time, I was not going to attempt suicide cliff barefoot, so I opted to take the road which climbs up to the Kowloon Peak observation point. Overall, the road is quite flat, but there are a lot of gravel in places, so it can be uncomfortable in places when running. As my cardio is not yet up to par, I walked on the steepest sections, but it was still lovely.
The level of sensory feedback from the feet is quite different. I am not a hippie and I am very far from the pseudo-naturalism of some barefoot running/hiking proponents or stories of “earthing”. Return to nature is not my cup of tea. Nevertheless, as far as I am concerned, it was a nice experience (try feeling the warm asphalt under your feet in autumn). Sometimes, you have to feel free to do things differently.
As for the impact on the body, strangely enough, the impact is much less than with shoes as long as you run with the forefront of your feet (and not landing on your heels). I must say I felt quite light on my feet (if you recall, had a pair of falls on my last hike, due to ankles buckling – but I was also carrying 15 kgs gear!).
Views along the way
Kowloon Peak offers a number of interesting view points, especially on Sai Kung. On this period of the year, silver grass start showing, so that makes a quite lovely foreground for pictures. As I was focused on running, I did not take much photographic gear with me, using only my Iphone for these pics.
At the Kowloon peak observation platform, you can sometimes take some nice nostalgic pictures of onlookers while they embrace the view before them.
Reactions from others
Of course, running/hiking barefoot is an activity a bit extreme/marginal, so you will inevitably elicit reactions from the people you cross (and God knows there are a LOT of hikers on Kowloon Peak on a Sunday!). Hongkongese are quite conservative re. footwear, but they are accustomed to walking barefoot at home. Some reactions are of surprise, others can inquire if you are ok (a lady asked me if I was ok, when she saw me walking barefoot). One older guy even gave me a thumbs up.
A smile and confident demeanor will solve those little situations. After all, you do what you like. Obviously, barefoot running is not for you if you cannot feel free to be “different”. It also requires quite some confidence in yourself.
I guess this passage will come across as cliché when it comes to running “close to nature”… But I did encounter some wild boars on Jat’s Incline. I stopped by to take a picture and then resumed running. While many accounts talk of the danger of these animals charging you, I left them alone and they didn’t care about me running past.
So, if you ever encounter wild boars, just give them a wild berth. In this case, it was three specimens with a juvenile. Trying to caress these animals, feeding them or getting too close might lead them to feel threatened and to charge, so please never try anything like that.
As I mentioned earlier, this time, I hiked/ran on a flat road. While there were inconveniences such as gravel and stones, it was not climbing up on suicide cliff in any way. I have not yet done something like that, as my main focus when hiking is safety.
However, from past hikes, I can confirm two points. Firstly, I did find that having hiking boots with a rigid sole was rather an inconvenience when hiking on a mountain. The lack of flexibility of the sole does not adapt well to climb on rough terrain. I do climb better with my trail running shoes which have a much more flexible sole, so I guess bare feet are even better. Secondly, I did see an older guy going down the suicide cliff route with flip-flops (which is more dangerous for tripping/slipping), so that seems feasible even if it sounds a bit crazy.
Finally, I live in a tropical country, where the floor is often populated by insects or other animals, and you certainly don’t want to be caught by a snake barefoot, but most of the time, snakes will just slither away, as long as you don’t walk on their tail.
So, the issue is still open to debate in my mind. I will certainly try hiking the Dragon’s back barefoot (I saw people tackling the trail in flip-flops) before taking on more challenging trails.
This brings me to my conclusion: never attempt to start hiking barefoot on trails that you don’t know! At the very least, you should have done a couple of reconnaissance hikes shod and should be aware of both, the terrain and the configuration of the hike. Finally, you MUST bring along some shoes/flip-flops and some first aid. This will help protect against mishaps or cross difficult passages.
Some more references on running/hiking barefoot:
For more about minimalistic running (no, I don’t advocate those Vibrams or other “minimalistic” shoes), here are a few resources:
Society for barefoot living And finally, to conclude this series a link to the website from the “Society for barefoot living” which features webinars with catchy titles such as “shoes: the silent killer”. Sorry, I couldn’t help but laugh at that one.