Last week I read a report over at BirthdayShoes.com about a guy who completed the Jungle Marathon in the Amazon in Vibram FiveFingers. I was fascinated by what I read and contacted the race director who made the connection. Stuart Crispin sent me the article he submitted to Vibram.
“I recently completed the 2012 Jungle Marathon in Brazil, and in doing became the first person ever to take part in and finish this grueling event wearing a pair of Vibram FiveFingers (VFFs). With the help of a pair of VFF Spyridons men’s 43 I even managed to finish the worlds toughest endurance race, as listed by CNN, in 5th place overall. I did not wear toe socks at any time during the race. [Stuart’s overall time was 47 hours, 43 minutes.]
The race is a six-stage, seven-day self-supported foot race. Runners have to carry all of their food, clothing, hammock, sleeping bag/liner, medical kit and other mandatory kit, as well as 2.5 litres of water (picked up at every checkpoint). My rucksack at the start of day one weighed about 12.5kg. The longest stage on day five is a non-stop 108.5 km ultramarathon. The total seven-day distance covered was over 255km across swamps, dense jungle, mangroves, sandy beach, creeks, rivers and dirt roads. (Details at junglemarathon.com).
Before flying out to take part, I wrote to the race director who advised me not to wear VFFs suggesting they might not offer enough support for such a long distance race. I also emailed a previous competitor, who is also a physiotherapist for her advice on wearing VFF. Her response was ‘… FiveFingers will be a disaster… they will not offer your feet the support they need… they are not designed for such long distance running… and they won’t have enough grip to help you stay upright on the seriously wet and muddy terrain, particularly on the severe ascents and descents.’
Despite this advice I opted to go with my Spyridons. Thanks to the clever Kevlar lining in the sole I had every confidence they would give my feet enough support to avoid injury to the sole of my foot while running through the dense jungle, where the floor was covered in sharp spiky objects as well as spiky stinging insects like scorpions. I felt no impact at all underfoot and the Spyridons’ grip was more than adequate to cope with the muddy terrain. A week before going to Brazil for the race I wore my Spyridons to hike up Snowdon, the UK’s third highest mountain. They were great for that too, although while walking across large, wet slightly tilted rocks and boulders I could feel my feet slip slightly, but I think that may have happened in walking boots also. The hike up to the summit left me in no doubt that my Spyridons were the right choice for the Jungle Marathon.
The tough material used for the upper is still in exactly the same condition it was before the 255km race. There are no tears or cuts at all to the upper of both shoes, and the soles too are also damage free. The only minor sign of wear and tear is a very small section of the material on the outside of one of the big toe pockets, where it has very slightly come away from the sole. But in order to see it you have to look closely and after such a long way in some seriously aggressive and tough terrain, including deep bogs and swamps I think that is extremely impressive and shows how robust the Spyridons are.
I did have a concern about using the Velcro strap version as I wondered how it would hold up in the swamps and bogs. Some of the bogs were up to 1km long and over knee deep with mud. My concern was whether the strap would stay secure and tight when pulling my leg up out of the mud, as I did not fancy losing a shoe. However, the VFFs are designed to fit snugly to the foot so although on a couple of occasions the strap came undone the shoe remained firmly in place on my feet. But this did not happen during every swamp or bog, and there were many.
Every single day of the race I had several other competitors asking me about my choice of footwear, often questioning whether I would be able to finish the race. My reply was the same every day, that they were extremely comfortable and I felt no pain or any objects under foot at all. They looked amazed but also looked very impressed. Many of them said they were going to try using VFFs after the event. Perhaps even more impressive than the toughness of the shoe, is the comfortableness of the Spyridons for running and hiking. After running 255km I did not have a single blister on either of my feet, and that is dispite starting and finishing every day with wet soggy feet. The only sores I had on my feet were between a couple of my toes caused by sand getting between them during the 108.5km long stage. I had already run several miles on sand during the previous four stages without any problems with the sand at all. During the long stage I think it only happened due to having had wet feet since 4.30am at the very start of the stage when we started with a river crossing, and by the time I ran on sand I had been running with wet feet in 35 degree heat in almost 100% humidity for over 12 hours. Perhaps if I had put on a pair of toe socks I may have been able to prevent the sores at all but as they were only minor I opted to just carry on to the finish.
The race director, who advised against wearing VFF, saw me on day four at the first checkpoint and said she couldn’t believe I was still going wearing them, and going so well. She said every day she expected me to pull out with trashed feet and after the race told me how seriously impressed she was with me for finishing in 5th place and wearing VFFs for the entire race.
I had reservations myself about wearing VFFs and I don’t think my Bikilas, KSO’s or Classics FiveFingers would have been up to the task. But thanks to the Spyridons trail running qualities I was able to wear them. In my opinion the Spyridons are the most comfortable running shoe I have ever worn. I have run over 20 marathons on both road and off road, and several ultramarathons including multi-day events in the Sahara, the Atacama in Chile, the Himalayas and Scottish highlands, as well as 100km and 100 mile non-stop races. I have worn several different brands of running shoes, some of which have left me with horrendous blisters. Some have been ok when it comes to blisters, but even if I finished blister free I always felt ‘hot spots’ which is the start of a blister. I have never worn a running shoe that has left me with zero blisters and zero hotspots.
I would have no hesitation at all in recommending VFF to other runners and for trail/off road running at the moment in my mind there is no better option than the Spyridons.
I will definitely be using Spyridons for my future off road running and will continue to recommend them to other runners who always approach me at races and while I’m out training, asking about them and how they feel.
I would be happy for you to use this review if you wish, as I would like other people to know about my experience of using VFFs. I searched the web before the race looking for other reviews or advice on using VFFs in such extreme environments but the information out there was limited. No one has ever worn Fivefingers in such an event and I would be happy to share my experiences with others. I am also a qualified personal trainer, as well as a London based firefighter, and will recommend the sensible and safe use of VFFs to some of my clients where suitable.
I asked Stuart a few questions and here is what he wrote back, “The Jungle Marathon was my first multi-day race wearing Vibrams. Before that I ran the London Marathon in VFF Bakilas but since I hadn’t run further than 12 miles in them before the marathon the jump in distance was rather silly and I did get some minor pain in my left foot. But I didn’t get a single blister or hot spot and like in the jungle I ran with no socks. My longest run before the Jungle was 14 miles off road and I ran with wet feet and again had no blisters. I have run several multi-stage ultras and marathons and only the VFFs left me with no blisters. I know they probably won’t work for everyone but I won’t run in trainers ever again. Before wearing VFFs I used Injinji toe socks and they definitely helped reduce the amount and severity of blisters I got from running than when I wore normal socks (including two socks).”
Thank you Stuart for this great report and congratulations on your finish.
If you are interested in learning more about the Jungle Marathons, the links are below. Shirley Thompson, the race director, puts on challenging races, well run with a great safety record, and a professional staff. It is my hope to be at both these events next year.
In October 2010 I wrote a blog post about a runner at the six-day ThanksRockies who wore FiveFingers for the 115 mile race. If you want to check out the link, here’s the post: Vibram FiveFingers at the Gore-Tex TransRockies.