How To Run A Marathon Barefoot (And Not Die)

Running a Marathon – Not Impossible

It’s been almost 6 months since my last official race.  That’s a long layover between athletic competitions for me, but that’s what happens in the Midwest. It gets cold, snowy and you don’t want to step foot outside, much less run in it.

Anyways, a few months back after being cooped up all winter, I decided I was going to run a marathon. The weather started to warm up and I’ve been training quietly for a marathon for the last three months. I’ve slowly been working my way up Hal Higdon’s marathon coaching guide. I had some setbacks every now and then, but just three weeks ago I was able to run 21 miles – the longest run I had ever done before Sunday. I spent the last two weeks tapering off and preparing myself for the big race.

Oddly enough, as I started tapering and resting up, my foot decided to start acting up. After talking to a few people, a few people mentioned it could be a stress fracture. After hearing that, I told them to shutup, stopped asking for their advice, stopped all of my running and began to religiously ice my foot. I didn’t run this hard for 3 months to have a stress fracture the week before my race.

One way or another I was going to run this thing*.

[blackbirdpie url=”!/joelrunyon/status/67987998469406720″]

*This is probably not a medically safe thing to do. Remember, I’m not a doctor, I’m just stubborn.

I usually run these races by myself, but thankfully, James, one of my buddies from high school, was reading BIT and decided to run it with me. I met up James in Chicago on Saturday night and checked into our luxurious resort, The Red Roof Inn in the wonderful city of Rockford. After scouting out the race and carbo-loading on a Subway sandwich [not sure if this was in the training regimen or not], I took an ice bath to wind down for the night and went to bed.

The Race

Sunday morning, we got up at 5am and got our gear together. The ground was wet with the rain from the night before and it was about 50 degrees outside with a pretty strong wind. After getting to the race and trying to warm up by stretching and jogging, we got into the shoot with about a thousand other people [the race was a lot smaller than I had expected]. I said goodbye to James [he’s much faster than me], I found my spot near the 10 minute milers. They played the national anthem, shot the gun and I prayed to God that my foot would hold out for the whole race. That lasted a whole 4 miles.

Rockford Marathon

As I passed mile 4, I started to feel my foot throbbing. “Oh great, I have to run 22 miles with a bum foot. Awesome.” I took my mind off the pain by talking to a few runners  around me and I found a pacing buddy (Annette) running a half marathon at my ten-minute clip. The next nine miles or so went pretty quick as I pretended to not hear the whispers of people behind me as they talked about my Vibrams and I answered a few direct questions about them. The rain held off for the race, but the wind wouldn’t give us a break. Throughout the course, timing clocks and road barriers were getting blown over as we ran on by, trying to not get hit by them. As we got to mile 12-13, the half-marathoners split off to head to the finish line, so and they sent us full-marathoners up the steepest hill of the entire course, all by ourselves.

One thing you realize at the 13 mile mark, is that there’s a huge camaraderie in running. Dealing with pain is a lot easier when you have 500 people around you going through the same thing. That all changes though, when you split off from them and end up running by yourself. All of a sudden, the closest person to me was at least 100 yards in front of me and 100 yards in back of me. As I headed up the hill, I just began to grumble to myself. I crossed the half-marathon at about 2:10:15, right on target with my 10 minute mile pace I was looking to hold. I still felt good, but I hit a few series of hills, this time without the comfort of a group, and my pace to started to slow. In my mind, I was killing it, but looking at my actual times, I slowed down about 45 seconds per mile. Fortunately, at this point, my whole body was beginning to hurt so much that I wasn’t paying much attention to my bum foot from earlier in the race.

At about mile 18, I realized I only had 8 miles left [yippee!] and I started to pick up the pace [again, I picked up the pace in  my mind. According to my times, aka reality, my pace stayed almost exactly the same].

At mile 20, I realized I only had a 10k left and I decided right there that one way or another, I was going to finish this thing. Estimating ten minute miles at each pace, I ignored the pain by telling myself “This will all be over in less than an hour”, “This will all be over in less than 50 minutes”, and counting down each mile in ten minute increments..

Rockford Marathon

While I thought I was moving quicker than before, I continued to maintain my slower pace. As I turned the corner at the 26 mile marker and began to run across the bridge towards the finish line, I was really, really, really happy. I thought there defintiely would have been a part of the race where my legs would fall off or my foot would break or something else equally terrible would have happened. It was almost surreal to actually cross the finish line. I know it’s kind of cheesy, but you really can’t help but raise your arms above your  head as you cross the finish line. After hours upon hours of running (not to mention the months of training beforehand), it’s a really unique feeling to be able to finally finish and be done. I crossed the line and saw the numbers on the clock.

Official Time: 4:33:40

I was 3 minutes off of what I wanted my time to be, but in the end, I didn’t really care. 3 minute difference over 26 miles didn’t really matter to me. I finished.

Full Race Results

The Aftermath

The aftermath has been much, much worse than I imagined. Once I crossed the finish line and stopped running, my knees began to lock up. After running 26.2 miles, my legs decided to stage a mutiny against me. In about 30 seconds, I transformed from a victorious marathoner into a someone with the mobility of an 80 year old arthritic man with a bad hip. In a futile effort to recover, I’ve spent the past few days sitting in a tub of ice and contemplating new language structures.

[blackbirdpie url=”!/joelrunyon/status/70170863974100992″]

I’ve conveniently posted the good videos here on the blog, but you can see some more of the unglamorous aftermath photos on facebook and on flickr. If you look closely, you’ll notice a silver strip on my big toe on my right foot. A week or two before the race, I ripped a hole in the bottom of the shoe and I never got around to buying a new pair of Vibrams so I duct-taped the thing and decided to run the race in it. While the duct-tape actually held up pretty well, it’s safe to say I’ll be retiring this pair of Vibrams and getting a new set for my races this summer.

Running A Marathon – It’s Not Impossible

I’m just a normal person. I’m not a runner. I was just talking to my roommate from college and he was laughing at me when I told him I was running a marathon. He told me “Joel, if someone had told me you would be running a marathon 2 years ago, I would have laughed in their face. You didn’t wan to run to practice, much less run 26 miles.” I’m not a runner. You might not be either. You might not want to run a marathon and that’s okay. But, if you do want to run a marathon, it’s not impossible. If I can do it, you can do it. Now excuse me, I’m going to go ice my legs…again.

More Race Photos On Flickr

A Big Thanks To

Rockford Marathon

James & Me (Trying to smile through the pain)

For every impossible thing I do, there’s a lot of people I need to thank for helping me do it.

James – For coming out and running it with me [and obliterating my time with a 4 hour marathon]

Jason – My brother for coming out and yelling at me and helping me walk to and from the car after the race.

Todd – For doing all the 5am Saturday training runs with me, even when I didn’t want to.

You Guys – For the crazy amount of encouragement before, during and after the race. Thanks.

One more thing off the impossible list. What’s next?

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  1. says

    hooray! you’re awesome! i made some goals today…will excitedly share milestones/the good things with you. big huge congrats for finishing!! (i remember when i walked my first marathon in 2000 (in cozumel) i talked way too much about all my fun fabulous travelling…lessons learned to just keep to yourself…good you aready learned that!)

  2. says

    Not a goddamned thing to be ashamed of. CONGRATS! Glad to see you accomplished your goal, bum foot and everything.

    I have to admit, I like you after the marathon, your comedic delivery jumped a few notches. Literally had me laughing out loud at your descriptions.

    Congrats again brother. Keep fucking killing it and one of us will have to buy you a walker for after your races 😉

  3. says

    Well done! Maybe you could try a lower impact challenge next time like biking a century? I’m riding my first one (the Denver Century) in a few weeks. I love cycling, but it’s sometimes hard to motivate myself to get out on the bike for 4-5 hours at a time. Each time I finish a long ride, I think that I can’t possibly ride 5 more miles the next week. Somehow, I’ve managed to increase my mileage every week. And I’m sure I’ll be very excited to cross the finish line in June!

    • says

      I’ve been joking with a few people that I can’t wait till marathon training is over, so I can relax and get back to triathlons :). I haven’t done any super-long bike rides, but it looks like I need to start looking into them. Thanks for the suggestion Lindsay. Good luck on your race!

  4. Jackie says

    Way to Go Joel!! You are a marathoner!!! I hope u do another one! :) i’m addicted! Ya gotta do NY! The best!!

    • says

      Thanks Jackie. I will definitely be taking some time off before I go out and run another one of those. Who knows though…it is part of the Ironman after all =)

  5. Ryan says

    Congrats! I never saw myself as a runner when I started and even after putting myself through the rigors of a marathon 3 times now, I’m still amazed that I keep going out for more. Congrats and keep proving the impossible!

  6. says

    Sup Penguin,
    Joel you are amazing! Most of the spring I’ve been running like crazy but recently I’ve had to put it on hold because, well, I’m a tall skinny girl, and all this running, I was starting to look too skinny haha. Yet my appetite wasn’t really changing too much so the combo was just not working out haha.
    So, I’ve had to switch it up – going to be focusing more on strength training workouts and such. I’m still running b/c it relaxes me like no other, but not sure if the marathon will come soon unless I decide to add lots of fried chicken to my diet to counteract all the weight loss haha 😛

    I am going to walk 50 miles in 2 days next week all along the beach though!!! So, I think my feet will be killing me as much as yours after that haha. It’s a walk I’m organizing for charity!!

    Anyway, congrats Joel! You are the MAN!
    Your Impossible Doing Friend,
    Laur :)

    • says

      I’ve gotten a few comments lately about how much weight I’ve lost from running. Time to get back to eating and running some normal distances (like 13 miles instead of 26).

      Good luck on the 50 miler walk! You’ll kill it.

  7. says

    Joel, you’re my hero! YES!!!

    And I feel you on the Vibrams. Ran today in them (though not for an entire marathon) and people are curious about them creatures on our feet. My response: “Dude. They’re suh-weeeet! Huzzah!”

    Only thing is, I’m in Taiwan. And they don’t speak English. And there we have it!

  8. says

    Contemplating new language structures? You’re a funny man, Joel.

    When I did my first adventure race, I was so amped up on adrenaline that I didn’t realize how hard I was pushing my body. The next day, I could hardly walk. It took a full three days before I stopped cringing in pain with each step, and a couple of weeks before I felt comfortable jogging again. Keep chugging along, you’ll be fine before you know it.

    As for the camaraderie, it’s addicting! It’s so much easier to exert energy with other people around you. I’ve always wanted to run the Nashville Music City Marathon, as there’s live music every mile. You and Sean beat me to the challenge, so it looks like I’ll have to start training…

    BIG congratulations man. Really happy you got this one done.

    • says

      Adrenaline is an amazing drug, isn’t it? Funny how much we can block out pain just by focusing at the task at hand.

      When you running the Nashville marathon? Need a pacing buddy? If so, I know this guy Sean… :)

  9. says


    Congrats on finishing your first marathon.

    How you felt after the race was how I felt after the 10 miler I ran last year.

    Tons of fun to run with people around you (ran with a buddy for 4 miles before he took off on his faster pace) and awesome to end up close to where you want to (like you, my goal was a 10 minute mile pace and I ended up finishing in 1:43, so just missed).

    Enjoyed the post and I look forward to tons more.

    Keep on accomplishing the impossible!!

  10. says

    Awesome job bro! I can fully relate to so many moments you just had within the your first marathon experience! Ran my first one 4 years ago as an “impossible” event–ran the thing with a nasty calf problem–suffered immensely but glorified in finishing and knowing it would springboard me to more impossible things. Someday when we meet we can exchange new swear words. I think I have some good ones–it is amazing how the creative juices flow during miles 20-26.2!

    P.S. You are probably too young to remember the TV series MacGyver, but the main character (MacGyver) was notorious for using duct tape to complete any task during his adventures. Your duct taped Five Finger would make him proud! Maybe you should keep that pair and team it up with a MacGyver t-shirt off Ebay?!

  11. says

    Congrats! I may have to get me some vibrams. Also, do you not listen to music when you run? I saw you wrote about talking to other runners. I don’t know if I could do that. :) BUT GREAT JOB!!!

    • says

      I don’t listen to music. You can’t run triathlons with ipods, so why bother training with them? Look into the Vibrams. They’re definitely worth a look.

  12. says

    Very cool! Well done. I really need to get my ass in gear and start training for a marathon. No reason I haven’t done one yet. I also wanna get my gf a pair of those vibrams. They seem to be the way to go!

    • says

      Go sign up for one then figure out how to do it. Check into the vibrams. Even if you’re not using them for running, there’s a lot of other activities you can do with them.

  13. says

    Congrats!! The aftermath sounds painful. Hope you’re feeling better now. I’ve done two halfs but one day want to try a full marathon.

  14. Wesley Ward says

    I’m glad you finished it. You have all of my respect for doing it in Vibrams. I have a pair and definitely wouldn’t have attempted it.
    I’m glad you enjoyed the experience. A great Olympia from England, David Bedford said, “When I talk to people about the marathon I say that, apart from having sex for the first time, running the marathon will be the most exciting thing they do in their entire lives.”
    Hope you can find more excitement to come.

  15. says

    Hiya Joel!

    Man you are nuts! those vibrams are pretty cool, but hard t orun 26.2 in. It didn’t see to bother you as much as i thought it might.

    If you ever need some recovery techniques so you don’t feel like you’re falling apart after a workout just let me know. I’ve got all sorts of little tricks for rebounding!

    take care man!

  16. Lucas says

    I just read this and couldn’t help thinking of my own first marathon May 15 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. I’d signed up with some friends but injuries and such severely hampered my training in late winter and early spring. My longest training run ended up being only 13 miles back in February, and a couple weeks before the race I strained my hamstring lifting weights. Needless to say I showed up on marathon day quite undertrained and honestly not thinking I had any chance of finishing.

    The plan was to run the first 12 or 13 miles with my friends who were doing the half marathon, then drop out. After they broke off for the finish however I decided to keep going. We’d been running about a 9-10 minute mile pace and I was feeling good besides some minor knee pain. At mile 13 I began to regret my decision as my hip flexor started acting up, something that has plagued me for a couple of years now. By mile 15 it was absolutely killing me. I thought I had torn it but was still determined to keep moving, so I tried walking for a mile or so. This felt much better, and at mile 16 I started to jog again. I still felt good so I slowly increased my pace. By mile 20 I was cruising under 8 minute mile pace and continued speeding up all the way to the end and wound up finishing in just under 4 hours. I seriously never would have thought the day before that I was physically capable of running the full 26.2 miles. Sometimes I think the human body is tougher than we believe it is. It just shows what you can do with the right planning, lots of determination, and a little bit of prayer.

    As for the “aftermath,” I couldn’t walk properly for about five days (every muscle from the hips down was completely cashed; I couldn’t even stand up without using my arms), but a week after the race I was up and running again.

    P.S. Nice patch job on the Vibrams. I love mine. I never wear them on pavement though, only grass and trails.

    • says

      Just got myself a new pair of VFFs after I wore a hole in the toe of mine. Congrats on your race man. It’s a huge deal, especially without all the training beforehand. Way to kill it. It’s amazing what your body can do “with the right planning, lots of determination, and a little bit of prayer.” Thanks Lucas!

  17. Tony says

    Joel, glad to see you made it and lived to tell the tale. I also completed my first marathon (South Downs Marathon here in the UK – 26 miles of off-road hills) on June 11th – two days after my 49th birthday. I managed 4:47 – damn you sir, you beat me! 😉 Now, what next?

    • says

      I was just trying to survive this round! Next race, I’m doing for time :). I got a half-ironman in Miami in the fall. Maybe do another Marathon next year at some point!


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