Freet minimalist footwear at the World’s longest race 2018

Freet minimalist footwear at the World’s longest race 2018

With this year’s edition of this remarkable event kicking off in a week’s time, I wanted to write in a bit more detail about my experiences last year wearing Freet footwear at the world’s longest certified footrace – the Sri Chinmoy 3100 mile race – 5649 laps around a city block in Queens, New York.

This was my second attempt at the race having successfully completed the full distance, well within the 52 day cut-off, in 2014.

My history with barefoot shoes is that I have long experience of finding it difficult to find shoes that fit properly. I have very wide feet and they seem to have got wider with more and longer ultras.  As a result of this I decided, in early 2014, to turn to foot-shaped shoes as by then I believed that this course of action might be more fruitful and so it proved to be.

Since early 2014 I have been wearing barefoot shoes for everyday life and since June 2016 I have been wearing them for all my running and racing too. This is quite a change considering I had transitioned from the mega-cushioned Hoka shoes.  Indeed, my 2014, 3100 race was run in Hoka footwear, but not without issues!

Clearly the Sri Chinmoy Self-Transcendence 3,100 mile race, now in its 23rd year, is a phenomenal test by any standards and to run it in minimalistic shoes isn’t a decision I took lightly.

In addition the organisers, the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team, always stress the toughness of the course, quoting that it is all concrete pavements, no asphalt or ‘black-top’ as they call it.  It should also be noted that parts of the busy 0.5 mile lap in downtown Queens, are uneven, tilting and requiring keen observation especially at night, to avoid tripping.

I wasn’t trying to prove anything and always had a bag full of various insoles, cushioning footbeds and so on to give me the greatest number of options when choosing exactly how much additional cushioning I needed at any one time.

I also had shoes in both my usual size and also one size larger to allow for additional inserts as required.  If it had come to it I would have switched to a zero-drop, cushioned shoe – something like the Altra shoes came to mind – but this was never needed.

The race comprises an invited field of usually 10-14 athletes, the majority of whom are disciples of the late Indian guru, Sri Chinmoy who settled in Queens in 1963 and went on to found the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team who now organise races in over 40 countries around the world, ranging in length from 2 miles to 3100 miles!

Runners are expected to be on the start line every morning at 0600 hours and must finish at midnight. Athletes can leave early if they want but obviously that means that they have less time in which to log the required average of 60 miles a day to achieve the full distance within the 52 day cut-off.

An army of volunteers from the Sri Chinmoy organisation keep the race going, 18 hours a day for 52 days. A team of cooks keep the runners fed and watered, another small team keep the camper vans secure overnight and get everything ready for the 6am start everyday. Every runner is accommodated in a simple apartment nearby and volunteer drivers chauffeur the runners home every night.  Walking or cycling home are also options.

Every lap is timed and recorded manually and because the course has been officially measured and certificated by US Track and Field, records for multiple, ultra long distances can be claimed and authenticated there.

I have been pursuing my project Journey to 750 records for some years now and my initial interest in the 3100 was sparked by the opportunity it presented to set records beyond the 1000 mile point, which up to 2010, was the longest distance i had ever covered.

I started the race using a 2mm flat footbed under a pair of insoles in both the Freet Respond and Freet Connect shoes.  To accommodate these I used a size larger than normal for me. My typical routine was to run/walk for approximately 4 hour periods after which I would rest in the roadside camper van allocated to me for about 20 minutes.  Usually using the time to eat and sleep before staggering back out onto the busy pavement to resume the task of covering at least 109 laps before mid-night.

I was keen to use both the Respond and Connect shoes as I believe in a bit of variety in this type of race, feeling that it is beneficial both physically and mentally. For no particular reason I tended to use the Respond until about tea time and then switch to the Connect until the end of the day.

The summers in New York are notorious for their heat and humidity.  In fact, if they can arrange it, New Yorkers try to be elsewhere over the summer period!  Last year the heat and humidity were of record proportions with multiple days on which the mercury passed 35deg C and the morning and evening humidity levels made walking, let alone running, a severe trial.

On the whole I run well in the heat. I arrived at the race very well heat acclimatised – thanks to my DIY heat chamber in Orkney – however this year’s conditions, especially during the afternoons, were beyond my ability to adapt – especially with regard to the fierceness of the sun which slowed me to a walk during the day and then when I was able to start running again in the evening I simply couldn’t catchup with the required daily mileages and gradually slipped behind my schedule.

I found the breathable uppers on the Respond shoes excellent in those conditions, keeping my feet as cool as possible given the excessive heat.

It became apparent in the early stages of the race that I was experiencing fewer foot issues than other runners.  One walker had to abandon the race after about 14 days with her feet looking like raw meat!

Through long experience I have come to understand that having ‘foot-shaped’ shoes is a pre-requisite to achieving foot comfort and performance when walking and running.

I only got my first, superficial blister after over 2200 miles of running!  This obviously says a lot about the success of my footwear strategy.

As my race progressed I became aware, after about two thirds of the race duration, that I no longer needed the 2mm footbeds in my shoes ie I needed less cushioning as the race progressed!

By midnight on August 8th – 52 days into the race – my time had run out and I had to stop. I had covered 2,904 miles a little shy of the targeted 3,100.

I had gone through 5 pairs of Freet shoes.  As I had used a mix of running and walking the main area of wear was on the heels, with one heel wearing down first. Other parts of the shoe showed little wear.

Yes, my feet were tired and aching at the finish but I sustained no injuries at all and had a tiny handful of small blisters during the 52 days – none of which had to be treated in any way – as my souvenirs of the race.

William Sichel