CalARA: On Foot

Trekking Gear

While trekking is often the most time intensive leg of an adventure race, it requires virtually no gear other than your standard shoes.  Nonetheless, a few bits of extra gear may well be worth their weight in gold (which is a good selection criterion if you are going to be lugging the stuff over a long distance!).

Socks and shoes are discussed in greater detail under foot care, but our key recommendation for new racers is to bring multiple pairs of shoes and socks.  Dry feet go along way to happy racing!

Gaiters can be a life saver if you are racing in brushy areas or scree fields or anytime you need some protection around the lower leg or want to keep dirt or rocks out of your shoes.  There are many varieties of gaiters, but racers will typically use the thin light-weight variety.  In a pinch, we have seen racers duct tape cardboard around their legs for extra protection.

Trekking poles can be a valuable addition to the gear list for 24 hour+ races.  (On rare occasion, we might consider using poles for shorter races on unusually demanding terrain.).  When using trekking poles it is important to have poles that are properly adjusted for your height and the use to which they are being put.  It’s also important to use proper technique.  The links below provide an overview of how to select and use poles.

Towing system.  In virtually any race, a towing system can be used to increase overall team time.  Trekking is the easiest place to first give towing a try.  Towing systems for the trekking leg can be very simple – as simple as a piece of shock cord that is tied to the leaders pack or waist and connected to the member being towed.  More complex systems can add additional functionality and also be used on kayaking and biking legs.

Going Long Distances on Foot

Racers contemplating their first 24+ hour race need to think about trekking in a very different way that sprint racers do.  There are obvious differences between sprints and long-hauls – the pace is slower and the navigation may be tricky.  But perhaps the most important difference is that little “problems” that can be overlooked in sprints and endurance length races can cause failure on longer races.  That untreated “hot spot” may just be forming into a serious blister by hour eight in a race.  By hour 72, serious damage may have been done to your feet, requiring months of healing.  One racer has noted that in an early Eco-Challenge he walked for 20+ miles with his legs slightly spread because his legs were badly chaffed and his normal gait was painful.  This minor issue resulted in significant long-term damage to his legs, taking literally years to fully heal.  Stories like these remind us that when going-long, racers must take actions to prevent any problem as soon as it arises.

Advanced foot care techniques, such as taping and “toughening” are covered under the foot care link.  Resources from the ultra-marathon community are useful as is information about “ultra-marathon walks” which may in some ways more closely approximate the experience of expedition adventure racing treks.

Towing and Sharing the Burden

Towing is a central concept to adventure racing – at its core, towing involves the team working together to increase its overall speed.  Towing can be tough on all involved – the “tow-er” must bear the burden of pulling extra weight.  The “tow-ee” must overcome the natural sensitivity that they aren’t pulling their own weight.  Nonetheless, as racers gain experience, the strength to ask for help and to accept it when offered is developed.  This type of communal thinking takes time but is critical.

Various techniques can help reluctant racers to accept assistance.  The key is to understand what type of communication will be most effective.  It is seldom useful to ask a newer racer is they need to have their pack lightened or given a tow – the answer will almost always be “no” until it’s too late.  Instead, simply informing the struggling team member that they are going to be given a tow, or that some weight is coming out of their pack may do the trick.  Promising the struggling racer that they will be called upon later in the race to take extra weight or provide a tow to another member may help overcome the ego (and often that promise will be fulfilled, when strength dynamics shift as they often do).

Tow systems for trekking can be very simple.  The most simple form of tow system, which is perfectly adequate for a sprint or endurance race, is some sort of shock cord, attached to the two racers, often via mini carabineer.  The length of the shock cord is a personal choice.  We have found it useful to use 10 foot long cord, but to have a portion of it (around half) static cord to reduce the overall elasticity of the tow system.  Note:  bike and kayak towing systems are typically more complex due to safety reasons.

Foot Care for Adventure Racers

Foot care can be the difference between a successful race and a painful disaster.  Unlike typical running events, adventure racers must be prepared to trek in soaking wet shoes through mud and uneven terrain. Avoiding Foot Problems

The first step in proper foot care is having appropriate shoes and insoles for adventure racing.  Most racers use a trail running shoe for races, which provide more support and are more durable than standard street running shoes.  Shoes must fit properly (see links below for fitting advice).  Your feet will swell during races.  For multi-day events, participants often have a second pair of shoes a half size (or more) larger than their standard shoes to accommodate this swelling.  (In one race a participant was observed cutting open the toe box of his shoes and repairing with duct tape to accommodate swollen feet – not an ideal solution, but it appeared to work.).  Some racers love moldable inserts, such as Sole Custom Footbeds, which you heat in your oven and then insert in your shoes while they cool, allowing them to mold to your foot shape.

Socks matter too.  Choosing a sock that works for you is an important consideration.  For shorter races, many participants simply use biking socks, but for longer events, a full length sock is required.  Some use socks with individual toes to reduce toe blisters, while other racers use standard running socks to compete.

Most long distance racers will use some type of foot lubricant to help avoid blisters.  While there are specific products like Body Glide on the market, many racers use a petroleum jelly like Vaseline (but be careful as it will discolor clothing and damage wetsuits!).  Racers in longer races often wrap their feet, using either Leukotape or duct tape.  Foot wrapping is a bit of an art form, and something that should never be tried for the first time at a race.  Each foot wraps a little differently, and the phrase “tape cuts” are not something you want to learn the meaning of in the middle of an outing.

In addition to race day preparation, some racers take more drastic measures to toughen their feet up for racing.  There are numerous techniques to expedite callous formation before race day, from running without socks, to soaking your feet in solutions that cause callous formation.  Only multi-day racers will likely consider these tactics!

Once Problems Start

Even if you do everything right, sometimes problems happen. The most common issue is blisters. Here’s what to do to treat blisters and hot spots.

Although blisters are by far the biggest foot care issue for adventure racers, it is also important to understand that for multi-day races, your feet will swell. Ideally, you will have larger shoes to change into in the transition area. In the rare race where you will be away from a TA for multiple days, you’ll likely want to start with larger shoes, but include an oversized insert, like the 3.2 mm versions available from Sole. As your feet swell, you switch to a thin foot bed, like these. If you are racing and you find your foot has swollen beyond your shoe size and you have not prepared for this all is not lost. You can cut the toe box of your shoe away from the sole and use duct take to re-seal leaving extra space. Although a crude solution, it is surprisingly effective.