Natural running brings me lots of pleasure. Every moment spent outside in the fresh air, pushes all the right buttons. Natural running technique puts me in close contact with my surroundings, it trains me to adapt to the many different surfaces I encounter. It puts me in an alert state of mind. And by now distances mean nothing to me. When it came to tackling my first ultra trail-run, sufficient training and control over my mental state was everything I needed to cross the finish line. The stunning backdrop of Swiss mountains empowered my every move.
First question people ask is ‘why?’. Why would you run farther than a marathon distance? And why add elevation to make things even harder? I don’t consider myself a regular runner nor a trail runner. A year ago I ran 10k max on flat surface in minimal shoes. My focal point is on proper and efficient movement. That means natural running is the only way to go. My cadence is between 180-200 steps per minute, my stride length is short, I place my feet below my centre of gravity, my feet land forefoot first.
Now I’m not looking to beat anyone or to run a faster 10k. My only goal is to grow stronger so I can move more freely, without the need of expensive shoes or the latest branded gear. I like to challenge myself and experience what I’m truly capable of. An event like the Eiger ultra is a safe way to test just that, because the organization is superb. Stamina, breathing, will power are the sort of ingredients that will get you there. Of course proper preparation helps a lot too.
My problem with shoes
A few weeks before the start I did not have my shoes sorted yet. Most long-distance runners prefer a more cushioned ride and advised against minimal shoes for mountain running. It would be too much on the legs, especially going downhill. That’s why I bought normal almost zero-drop trail shoes for the event. But after around 80k of training in these shoes (Inov-8 Trailtalon 250), they still gave me blisters. 90 Percent of my training I’ve worn Vibrams. Wearing Five Fingers on raceday could mean wet feet all day in case of rain. By that time, not having run anything like the Eiger did make me a bit nervous. Worrying about gear is the last thing I wanted, so I packed both, enabling a last minute decision.
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The mountains are calling
Thank god the trip to Switzerland couldn’t be better. Five days before raceday I was welcome to stay at a friend’s house in Switzerland. Perfect for acclimatization, hiking and breathing in fresh mountain air. Weather forecast turned out very promising with mild temperatures and no rain. I was gonna run on my Five Fingers. My group started at 7:00 AM, race limit 14 hours. How did it go?
To be honest I felt great. There were 2 mental hiccups during the day. One during the toughest climb of the race from Feld going up to Faulhorn, a seemingly endless climb. Although it was tiring I did feel physically fit and able to handle it. Just take one step, then another, repeat… Reaching Faulhorn meant being half way with ‘only’ around 26k to go. The second mental hiccup I got was underestimating 6k in the mountains. When leaving the post Egg, there was a sign that said 6k until next refreshment zone. After a while I checked my watch because I expected to almost be there, turned out I was only 3k in! Decided to not look at my watch again, instead just run. Best note to self ever.
Going downhill was a blast. Totally focussed. Running, jumping, being in a pack of fellow runners tapped into some sort of primal warrior within. We were on the hunt. The choice for Vibrams completed that feeling. My feet did get a proper beating on longer mountain passes filled with rocks. Couldn’t run there and yes it was uncomfortable. But not the sort of uncomfortable that couldn’t be handled. In the moment I did question my choice shortly. But I knew the rocky road wouldn’t last forever, something new would appear, just like everyday life. The descent went through a steep forest, the final kilometers were even almost flat. Those last 10k I felt buzzing, I was still running where others were walking. I had the energy to finish strong.
Free your mind
My goal was to finish in one piece and enjoy running in the mountains. Done that. I finished the race well within the time limit with 10,5 hours spent on my feet including rest stops. I never ran an ‘ordinary marathon’, and after this experience I probably never will. A road event, pounding pavement, is so much less appealing. Nature not only provides clean air for you to breathe, it feeds your brain with clarity, belonging, pure joy, it relaxes the senses. The attitude amongst runners is different there too. The ultra and trail community is more connected to the earth we move on and are keen to keep it clean. No littering, no loud music at every stop. Beautiful.
Being a finisher I almost made the mistake of immediately jumping on to the next challenge, a longer distance, new mountain trails. I’m happy I didn’t. Contentment and appreciation for your achievement are quickly lost in wanting more, more, more. Let the monkey mind quiet down first, rest up, look back on a great experience, then follow up on new things to discover.
For me it’s improving my natural running form by ditching the minimal footwear altogether for a while. Now I’m confident my bones and ligaments are strong enough for an endurance race of 51k. As long as I’m not training for an ultra I won’t have to run up to 60k per week anymore. This saves me a lot of time which I’ll spend on revisiting my barefoot practice. Freeing my mind of footwear issues is definitely another giant step forward.
Read more about the benefits of barefoot running in this article.