Thursday, 29 November 2012

Running shoes for a desert marathon

The terrain of the Sahara marathon is going to be a mix of loose sand, packed dirt and rock, and I had it under good authority (a previous Sahara marathon finisher) that normal running trainers aren't going to cut it in this trail environment.

Fortunately, Vivobarefoot are sponsoring me in the footwear department so, after discussing the options with their team, we decided that the Breatho Trail were the pair to use as they'll be light and airy and have serious tread that should deal with the varied terrain without any problems.

First Impressions

Today, my training pair arrived through the post and, as this is the first time I've been sponsored in such a way, it was with a mix of excitement and the weight of responsibility that I opened the package and took in the sight and smell of my new pair of trail running shoes :-)

The Vivobarefoot Breatho Trail shoes in the box

I don't know what it is about equipment and sport but there is, for me at least, a strong link between motivation and new gadgets/equipment. Be it a new pair of shoes, a GPS watch or something as simple as an LED light, my desire to go for a super long and awesome run is never greater than when I've just got some new stuff to go running with.

Anyway, I was surprised at the size of the shoes when I opened the box and I was a little worried we'd ordered too big. The advice from the Vivo team (and also printed on their website) is to go a size up because the shoes come in a little small.

Much to my relief, they actually fit perfectly and I now understand why they say go up a size. I don't think it's because the shoes come in small, but rather they're designed to give your feet room and, rather than hold them in and "support" (aka weaken) your feet like other modern shoes, these allow your feet and toes to spread. It also gives them room to grow as your feet get bigger by becoming stronger (or swell... as in from the heat of the Sahara desert).

Wearing the Breatho Trails is extremely comfortable.

I know all about the foot-expansion side effects of transitioning to barefoot running; having had to chuck out all my existing trainers and shoes earlier in the year after I discovered that my feet no longer fitted into them at all.

I swear barefooting should come with a wallet warning - it might be cheaper to wear no shoes, but be warned that you'll have to buy a whole new shoe wardrobe for those events when bare feet are not appropriate.

The Breatho Trails felt very smooth and comfortable to wear, not to mention light so I'm really looking forward to getting out for a run in them (but not before I've given my foot a couple more days rest)!

Taking them off to take a photo or two, I noticed that they're actually a single piece of material on the inside which will make keeping the sand out a little easier, though I think I'll still have to find or sew on some gaiters to keep as much out as possible. Advice from people doing the Marathon Des Sables was to avoid getting sand into shoes at all costs because it'll basically be like having sand paper for socks for 26 miles...


Yet another reason to donate a little something on my JustGiving page eh? ;-)

The grips on the bottom look awesome and the trademark hexagonal lugs look as though they were made especially to be little sand scoops to give me loads of grip in the loose sand and dirt of the desert.

Serious off-road lugs on the Breatho Trail from Vivobarefoot
Yes that is my cat trying to get into the box in the background.
She goes potty for cardboard boxes. Weirdo.

They'll also be fantastic on the mud and gravel on the Saxon Shore - an awesome trail run along the banks of the Thames estuary and down to Rochester.

Can't wait to go running!

Friday, 23 November 2012

Metatarsal Stress Fracture Scare


Monday night I was just about to complete my long run for the week (a mere 13km but hey, I'm transitioning to barefoot, so had to start my distances again) and after running down a hill in Gravesend, I had a sudden pain in the top of my left foot. After limping a little I tried running again but it was hurting still, so I limped a little more until it stopped. I was then able to carefully run the rest of the way home and while it was sore, it wasn't excruciating.

I was immediately onto the internet to find out what it might be and to my horror, I came across this video about metatarsal stress fractures that describes exactly the pain and inflammation I was experiencing on my foot.

As I said: Horror! 

Actually this doesn't begin to express just how down I was about it and I have to thank my girlfriend for being amazing and supporting me through a very depressed day by making me lemon pie and giving me a calf and foot massage (gently). Thanks babe!

I left it a couple of days (mostly because I was doing my day job and running a business intelligence project with CapricornVentis for one of our insurance clients) and while my foot isn't as painful as it was, it was still a bit swollen and making me limp a little.

This morning I took my foot (accompanied by the rest of me) to a local hospital to get it checked out. Amazingly, there was no queue and I was seen within about 10 minutes in the minor injuries clinic. The nurse who was helping me (who asked not to be named) agreed that an x-ray was needed to rule out the possibility of a metatarsal (or other) stress fracture.

I love how the way we phrase stuff can totally change how we think about things. The nurse wanted to "rule out the possibility of a stress fracture." She could have said "check and see..." or any number of other combinations, but for me, almost at once, I started feeling more positive about it and found myself focussing on ruling out the possibility.

Anyway, my foot was immediately x-rayed and the results poured over by myself and the nurse for a good 10 mins (and while I snuck the photo of the screen below).

An x-ray of my metatarsals after a suspected stress fracture through running

We both agreed that there doesn't appear to be anything wrong with the bones and that it's probably a ligament or tendon strain.


And despite the video saying that even if the x-ray is negative, stress fracture should still be suspected, I find myself feeling very buoyant and positive again :)

I'll still be taking a couple of weeks off (using the formula that I found on various forums: From pain stop + 1 week before running again) but so glad that I won't have to can the whole event. 

I'll definitely be taking my running easier and going to some barefoot training as soon as I'm able to run again.

One thing that is interesting to see is how much my little and big toes' bones have been pushed in by wearing modern, pointy shoes all my life. Really backs up what the Vivobarefoot team were saying on the barefoot freedom night the other week.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Barefoot Freedom Night

I have been transitioning to barefoot-style running since August this year and I had planned on talking about barefoot running and my experiences a bit later on this blog but I was unexpectedly given the opportunity to go to a "Barefoot Freedom Night" at Innovation Warehouse in London this week which I couldn't not write about.

John has also been transitioning to barefoot running though he's taking the more extreme route of just running in bare feet and the other night he did 7.5km about 5 of which was on tarmac. Now one of the best things about running barefoot and running on unforgiving and tough services like that is that you learn proper form very quickly.

John discovered, as you can see from the photo below, that he has a tendency to push off forward (rather than lifting) with his feet which created the mother of all blisters because of the rubbing doing so causes between foot and ground.

The results of poor form when barefoot running - a massive blister!

You'll have to ask him about it and I'm very proud of the fact that he didn't pop it but he did post a picture on Facebook which got a lot of comments and discussion and was how I found out about the barefoot freedom night.

Free barefoot training seminar? nearby in London? with a chance to win some minimalist shoes? £3 entry?

Very hard to say no to that, so I signed up straight away!

The evening was hosted by Ian Randolph in aid of Age UK and co-hosted by @StartUpFit (They have loads of other events happening on their meetup page as well which are totally worth checking out). Both Ian and the guys (Neil and Klaus) from @StartUpFit were keen runners and Ian regularly runs around London in nothing but his Birthday shoes. I have to take a moment to thank Ian, Klaus and Neil for putting on a great evening at Innovation Warehouse, arranging some seriously inspiring and passionate speakers and getting together an excellent group of barefooters.

On to the good stuff...

The evening speakers and indeed raffle sponsors were Vivobarefoot and wow did they deliver a high value evening. Right from the start I got talking Ben Le Vesconte who is training director at Vivobarefoot and we've subsequently agreed to set up a training session so I'm really excited to set that up and hopefully I'll be allowed to take some footage of my running before and after and see if I can get it up here so you can see the difference.

Anyway, once introductions were done, Ben proceeded to give us the facts about correct and incorrect running posture and style and literally within 5 minutes, I'd spotted the main reason my barefoot running has been causing me foot pain: I'm over striding!

Despite thinking I'm landing with my feet underneath me, the mere description that Ben gave of the injuries (Planter Faciitis, Achilles Tendinitis and Metatarsal stress fractures among others) along with a description of how you tell when someone's over striding: Their feet are making "slapping" noises made light bulbs go off and I had a big grin on my face because even if I learnt nothing else, that night, my running was going to improve.

Next up was Mark who, like myself when I'm working with my business consultancy clients, is very direct and open and while some can see that as confrontational, it's really provocative and he made a very compelling case!

Mark got us all to draw what we think a foot looks like on a piece of paper. I don't suggest you do this now, but do pause and have a think about it before reading onwards.

Our feet, when we're born look make a kind of V shape from the heel up to the toes. Google images for "Babies Feet" and you'll see what I mean.

So why then, do adults feet not look like that?

Obviously I'm going to say "the modern shoe", and you've bound to have heard the arguments for and against cushioned soles to shoes, but this isn't about that. This is about the fact that modern shoes, ALL modern shoes close to a point (be it sharp, like smart shoes, or rounded, like trainers) they all squeeze our toes into a nice, rounded toe box.

The problem here is that our feet aren't rounded at the end!

In 1905, a bunch of doctors did a study on the natural foot shape based on people who had been barefoot their whole lives.

Checkout the photo below to see what a normal foot looks like:

A barefoot person's feet are quite different to those of the modern day person

Looks pretty weird huh? Well that's because we've grown used to feet that look cramped together. Have a look at my feet in the photo below and compare.

My feet are not the "normal" human evolved feet. They're a product of a lifetime of wearing shoes.

What a difference!

[Edit: Also check out the x-ray of my left foot from my recent metatarsal fracture scare]

The most important thing to note is that my big toes are not in line with my heels (as per the 1905 photo). This means that my walking, running and indeed posture is compromised from how the "normal" evolved human's.

There was loads and loads of other really fascinating and mind blowing stuff from the Vivobarefoot guys but this foot shape was something I'd not come across before and completely blew my socks off.

Quite literally.

I'm no longer wearing socks and will be chucking out all my pointy, restrictive shoes in favour of wide toe boxed ones or no shoes at all. I'm also starting a "foot" diary and will be taking photos of my feet regularly to see (hopefully) how my toes start to realign towards their more normal positions, so apologies in advance of more foot photos up here.

I can recommend a read (or two) of their free ebook on barefoot running technique and if you're in London, check out their training clinics!

To cap an amazing evening off, not only did I meet loads of interesting people who I'm going to be keeping in touch with but I also won a pair of the Vivo's in the raffle! Mark at Vivo recommended that I grab a pair of their "lifestyle" shoes so I can wear them to work, and that's exactly what I've done and I can't wait for them to arrive!

I'll also be speaking to them about getting involved in my marathon which would be so exciting and I can't think of a bunch of people more dedicated to improving the health of people's feet (even if they don't buy their shoes). It really is inspiring, so expect more from me about Vivobarefoot and in the mean time, you should checkout their Pinterest board of press, reviews and blogs of their shoes.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Is the Sahara Marathon Dangerous

Is the Sahara Marathon dangerous and should I be scared?

There are one or two articles on websites around the sahara marathon that point out that the area isn't very safe.

I know that the Saharawi are refugees from a war and logically, if they're still refugees, it's because the war never really finished, but I'd not really considered that we might be going into an actively dangerous region...

I have already linked to an article about how the Moroccan government have forcibly removed the UN international observers from the Western Sahara, but I figured that that was in the Western Sahara, well away from  the camps we're going to be visiting, and besides - we're going to be in Algeria not the Western Sahara.


This rather worrying news article (in French, so you may want to Google Translate it) talks about a kidnapping of foreign aid workers from one of the camps by Al-Qaeda just this time last year! One positive is that they were taken from the one refugee camp we aren't going to be running through (Rabouni camp). But it still talks about (as do other articles about the incident) how it wouldn't have been possible if there hadn't been AL-Qaeda sympathisers in the camp security/organisation.

Now I'm starting to wonder, so I check out the UK government travel advisory website for Algeria:

"Avoid all by essential travel to part(s) of the country"

...and in particular...

"We advise against all but essential travel to areas within 450km of the Mali and Niger borders and within 100km of the Mauritania border. This is due to the increasing threat from terrorism in southern Algeria."

So how close is Tindouf to the Mauritanian border?
Tindouf and the refugee camps are well within the 100km danger zone. Eeek!

John, with whom I'm running, also kindly sent me the link to the US version of the travel advice centre which says:

"The Department of State urges U.S. citizens who travel to Algeria to evaluate carefully the risks posed to their personal safety. There is a high threat of terrorism and kidnappings in Algeria. "

Double Oh.

Please don't tell my mum.

What about other health risks?

According to the UK health guide, the list of possible health hazards that may need vaccination (if indeed a vaccination is possible) are:

  • Yellow Fever - no risk. 
Phew! good start to the list!
  • Hepatitis A -  low risk, no vaccination needed for "most travellers" unless you're staying in an area with low hygiene standards. 
Like a refugee camp for example...
  • Hepatitis B  - 2-7% of the population are carriers. 
Good thing I have no intention of swapping bodily fluids with any of them then.
  • Rabies - Transmission may occur following contact with the saliva from an infected wild or domestic animal (including bats), most often via a bite or lick to an open wound. Risk of exposure is increased by type of activity (e.g. running, cycling). Pre-exposure vaccination should be given to adults and children who are travelling to remote areas where medical care is not readily available.
Hmmm I'm fairly sure I'll be ok, but I might ask the doc before I go.
  • TB - The average annual incidence of TB from 2006 to 2008 was greater than or equal to 40 cases per 100,000 population.
I had the BCG jab as school. Does that mean I'm still covered?
  • Typhoid - low risk, no vaccination needed for "most travellers" unless you're staying in an area with low hygiene standard. 
Like a refugee camp for example... That sounds familiar...
  • Malaria - What!? In the desert!? Oh, wait... No the desert is ok. 
No malaria in the desert. Phew!
  • Schistosomiasis (no vaccine available) - (Schistosomiasis is a parasitic flatworm infection of the intestinal or urinary system caused by one of several species of Schistosoma) - Travellers should avoid wading, swimming, or bathing in fresh water
No danger of that happening in the desert.

Well, it seems that the greatest danger comes in the form abduction, shooting and possible beheading rather than parasitic or viral attack...

John and I were sh*#ing ourselves at this point, so I picked up the phone to have a chat with one of the people who ran the race this year, just a few months after the kidnappings to find out just how dangerous it is.

To my huge relief, he very quickly said that this is a militarised area and there is a military escort for the whole group at all times. It's unnerving, he said, but you quickly get used to and it's just the way things are out there.

At least that's something to be positive about but I tell you I'm very glad we only have to spend a week there!

If we don't come back, please can you all agree to at least get us up to our fundraising target?

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Politics of the Western Sahara

Politics of the Western Sahara

When John and I started talking about running a marathon and indeed when we'd decided to run this particular one, I don't think we had really understood just how contentious the whole Western Sahara issue is.

Thinking about it now, I guess it shows a huge level of naivety on my part not to have at least had an inkling about that when I first read about it:

  • People are killing for and dying over this.
  • Morocco has built a 1500km long sand wall manned by 100,000 soldiers and and filled it with unknown hundreds of thousands if not millions of land mines. 
  • We are visiting a refugee camp created by this conflict!
I didn't and I still don't want to make my trip a "political" statement.

I want to help people who can't help themselves but the more I read, the more I start to understand that staying neutral isn't really possible. Just by going there I'm effectively saying that I support the Sahrawi, but that makes me distinctly uncomfortable because I've always thought of Morocco as a friendly and relatively modern and civilised country that I'd like to go on holiday to some time.

Part of the Berm that separates Occupied and un-occupied Western Sahara
The 1500km long sand wall "Berm" as seen from a satellite via Google Maps

The fact that the UN and the African Union both say that Morocco's occupation of the region is unlawful - read about the UN's Mission for Referendum on Western Sahara (MINURSO) on the UN's website - makes me feel much better about supporting the people in the camps but it still makes me feel nervous that I'm getting involved in a political situation that I don't have any personal stake in.

[Edit: to balance the argument, here's a link to a pro-Morocco news blog which talks about why the UN is wrong and is even slightly critical of the Moroccan Ministry of Foreign Affairs. TBH, I'm not sure it does them any favours but that might just be a bit of confirmation bias on my part.]

That said, given that I have the ability to write a website, run a marathon and raise some money, don't I have a moral obligation to do what I can?

Now I think I start to understand why the West has a habit of sticking its nose into so many other countries' businesses...

It's all getting a bit philosophical and political for my liking (and taking me out of my comfort zone, which is one of the reasons I do this kind of thing).

What got me thinking about this, and thus writing this post about my thinking, was an article Sandblast (with whom I'm running the marathon) posted on Facebook from Guardian newspaper written by a Sahrawi protester. The article is quite moving and speaks of all sorts of rights violations, but Sandblast also recommended reading the comments afterwards which really opened my eyes to the seriousness and passion of each side of the argument.

Along side the obvious, but extremely well written and somewhat convincing, propaganda from a Moroccan PR/gov person, there were arguments (some well made, backed up with evidential articles and some not) from both sides of the conflict and there were definitely moments I was thinking about changing my mind and finding something less contentious to get involved in.

There were also some interesting parallels drawn (by an obviously pro-Moroccan commenter) between the way the demolition of the Laayounne protest camps and the dispersal of the Occupy Wall Street protesters  were carried out and the violence that ensued (from both protesters and police). I think both sides of the argument agreed this was the case and perhaps one of the key reasons why the Western Sahara conflict hasn't really made main-stream news: A little too close to home?

It's quite frustrating in a way because I don't want to get involved in a political argument and risk confrontation with anyone let alone people potentially armed and dangerous. All I want to do is to run a marathon somewhere awesome and meet some amazing people who's quality of life I can improve.

Perhaps this is the first profound change in me that this journey has caused - an understanding that the only wrong thing to do would be to do nothing.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Why am I running a marathon?

Why am I running a marathon?

Hi, I'm Ben and over the last 12 months I have run a couple of the, now extremely popular, mud runs in the UK. Both were 10-12 miles long with umpteen obstacles and both were excellent fun. Having done them lots of my friends were up for signing up for the next one but I somehow felt that I'd "done" them and didn't need to do them again. 

They weren't challenging enough...

Me running Tough Mudder in the first TM race in the UK
Me in the middle of Tough Mudder
So talking with a friend of mine, John Morgan, who ran with me on one of the mud runs and was of the same opinion, we decided that perhaps something a little harder was in order.

We settled on a marathon, but we both agreed that we weren't particularly interested in doing a normal, run-of-the-mill marathon in the UK. We wanted this to be special and interesting, not that running any kind of marathon isn't interesting and special, we just wanted it to be especially challenging (and therefore rewarding).

John and I spent some time Googling and searching the internet and finally came across the Sahara Marathon. Being a bit of an organisation nut, I quickly tracked down the affiliated charity in the UK (Sandblast) and called them up to find out more.

From the initial conversation I was extremely excited. There seemed to me to be many many reasons to run choose this particular marathon:
  • Sahara Desert - sand, huge open spaces and nice weather. Check.
  • A marathon to run in a challenging environment and incredible scenery. Check
  • An interesting and not often visited country to see (Algeria). Check
  • A chance to raise a substantial amount of money and make a real difference to people who need it. Check.
  • Living and surviving with refugees in their family homes (huts and tents) for a week. Check
  • A holiday with a mate (not to be overlooked in its importance). Check

The more I read and watch about this marathon, the more excited I get about being there and enjoying it!

I'm really nervous about the running but I think overall I'm more nervous about staying in the refugee camp for a week. It's totally going to test my modern, western comfort levels. 

No showers! 

Bottled water only - which means I'm going to spend the whole week paranoid about getting the runs or worse.

Sharing endless cups of Sahrawi tea - is it safe or nice? What if it makes me sick!? Will they be offended?

Entertaining the kids - apparently we are recommended to bring lots of small gifts and bits to give to the families and the children which is going to be difficult with a very small luggage allowance and 250-300,000 people to share the stuff with... 

Worrying about security and our safety given that Morocco have a tendency of attacking the camps every now and then and that they've recently chucked the UN international observers out of the country.

I don't even know if there's going to be electricity to charge things like camera batteries and laptops.

It's going to be so awesome and I'm going to be so far outside my comfort zone! 

This is why I chose to run a  marathon in the Sahara.

Please think of the people who have to live in the refugee camp and if you can't think of them, please think of me and support me and them on my JustGiving page.

Thank You.