Saturday, June 26, 2010

Western States 100 runners battle agony of the feet

By Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer

Long runs like the Western States 100 mean lost toenails and painful blisters for the feet of participants.
Hamstrings may howl, glutes stab and stomachs churn. But the agony of the feet is perhaps the most nagging concern for Western States 100 runners this weekend.

In the world of ultra-endurance running, it’s not unusual to lose two or three toenails by the end of the run from Squaw Valley to Auburn.

That’s on top of painful blisters – the byproduct of all that rubbing and chafing over more than 100,000 footsteps for finishers.

Auburn runner Pete Korn has developed his own strategy to keep his feet from blowing out along the trail. Like most other runners, it’s evolved over time and hundreds of miles of training.

He’s packing a pair of Asics trail shoes and merino wool hiking socks from REI. Korn will be wearing his shoes loose on his feet – so loose that he’ll be able to pull them off like he would a pair of slippers.

On Saturday, Korn will be making multiple sock changes to keep his feet as dry as possible and avoid blisters.

Korn will also be packing Super Glue, duct tape and a needle for when those blisters crop up.

“I pop ‘em, glue ‘em shut and tape ‘em up,” Korn said. “Then I keep going.”

The course isn’t a flat one by any stretch of the imagination. Runners climb more than 18,000 feet and descend a bone-rattling 22,000 feet in total, crossing mountains along the way. This year, they’ll have the added torture of slipping through the snow the first few miles.

Runners have to also come to grips with the raw fact that their toenails will be lost.

Auburn’s Tim Twietmeyer, a five-time Western States 100 winner, said the big toe is particularly vulnerable as the top of the shoe rubs against it, forming a blister underneath.

“You can’t do much about it,” Twietmeyer said. “It’s not super painful until you go through the river.”

Twietmeyer said that Bag Balm – a lanoline-based cow-udder lubricant – helped ease his journeys. He slathered the lubricant over his feet during 25, under-24-hour finishes in the run.

“It’s like Vaseline but it doesn’t break down in the heat,” Twietmeyer said.

Nonetheless, runners along the route develop blisters but soldier on.

Eight-time Western States finisher John Trent said there’s a definite trial-and-error period associated with mastering foot-pain-prevention during a race like the Western States 100.

Body Glide – a lubricant sold at running stores that looks like stick deodorant – and Injinji brand socks (runner’s toe socks made to prevent blisters – are two of Trent’s blister preventatives.

Even so, Trent said the heat and the mileage can gang up on even the most protected toes.

“In 2003, we had a 100-degree day – I’ll always remember that year,” Trent said. “I ran 20 hours and 58 minutes but my feet took a terrible beating, even with all the Body Glide I could find. I ended up losing nine of 10 toenails that year.”

All that gluing, wrapping and general babying of feet seems to be paying off. Dr. Marty Hoffman, the race’s medical director, said a survey last year of Western States and Vermont 100 endurance run participants found that while they're an annoyance, blisters don’t generally keep runners from finishing.

Of those who finished either of the two runs, blisters or “hot spots” were reported by 40.1 percent to be an issue adversely affecting race performance.

For Korn, any blisters or foot pain will be on top of the heat, the hills and whatever else the Western States 100 can dish out.

“I’m contemplating agony,” Korn said. “I’m pretty well going to be dealing with at least 50 miles of pain.”