Foot Care for the Ultra Crowd

In endurance sports like adventure racing and ultra running, keeping your feet happy and healthy for hours or days on the go has always been difficult. Lord knows I’ve learned the hard way: During Primal Quest, a 10-day adventure race in Utah last year, the freak combination of shoe-invading desert silt, 110-degree heat, and 40+ miles of trekking set off a reaction that dug deep 50-cent-piece-size blisters into the back of my heels. This took place on the first day of the race. I was then forced to trek, paddle, climb and bike for 9 days with raw, electrifyingly-painful feet, utilizing medical tents for aid when available, pain relieving drugs, duct tape, super glue, and sheer will to keep on.

(See my story on the race here.)


Since that race, I take foot care—and foot/shoe/sock preparation—quite seriously for any event. A case in point was this past weekend, when I competed on a two-person team in an 8-hour adventure race in central Minnesota, the annual MNOC Adventure Race. The race course would be venturing through deep woods and swamps. We’d wade and swim through rivers. We’d trail run and paddle a kayak. Bushwhacking was to be a large part of the ordeal as well.

As such, my footwear situation needed to be unique. Regular trail runners and synthetic socks would not cut it.

To prepare my feet, I started at home, trimming my toenails back. This is important to lessen the chance of contact with a nail pounding on the front of your shoe. Toenails may also rub neighboring toes, which can cause blisters.


Next, at the race, I applied Hydropel, a gooey salve made by Genesis Pharmaceutical Inc. that does a good job eliminating friction both between your foot and the sock as well as the skin-on-skin rub between toes. It repels water, an important trait for events like this. The product comes in small, 2-ounce squeeze bottles, which cost about $13 each. It’s not cheap, but used somewhat conservatively the bottle should last you for five to 10 lube-ups.

(See my full Hydropel review.)

Step No. 2 was socks, and for this I employed Inov-8’s ( new Debrisoc, which are essentially merino wool sport socks with a built-in flap that folds over the shoe’s opening to create a gaiter. These all-in-one innovations, which cost about $22, seal off your foot from sticks, rocks and mud. A small hook in front stretches the flap over the laces. Elastic bands loop underneath to keep it on tight.


The Debrisoc is a cool invention. It fits nice and solid, and the all-purpose miracle material of merino wool is hard to beat in any season, as it breathes, insulates, cool, wicks, and then dries somewhat quickly.

As promised, the Debrisoc kept all debris at bay during the race. I never once had to dump out my shoes, despite wading in mud, swimming, running through swamps, and bushwhacking a couple miles through thick woods, jumping logs, tangling in raspberry vines, and sometimes practically swimming through bush as thick as it comes.

(See my full Debrisoc review.)

For shoes, I also went with Inov-8, employing the company’s RocLite 285s. These aren’t trail runners. They aren’t shoes you’d wear for a jog on the street, either. U.K.-based Inov-8 Ltd. makes shoes for the oddball sport of mountain running. I love their minimalist design for orienteering and shorter races like this 8-hour event in central Minnesota.


The RocLite 285s have a low-profile midsole, which essentially means there is very little cushioning underfoot, and its upper is a thin synthetic mesh. They drain water well once submerged, they fit my feet perfectly, and they are fast and light little buggers.

Final note: For ultra events I recommend sizing up at least a 1/2-size increment from your normal shoe. During long events, when you’re on the go for hours and hours, your feet will swell. The extra area inside the shoe is mandatory for keeping things happy and healthy down there in the land of blisters and chafe.

Posted by Brendan G - 07/27/2007 11:24 AM

Great article, and timely too! With events like the Badwater ultramarathon this past week, there’s growing interest from customers and friends interested in participating in ultra-sports. The demands on feet under these conditions can take a well-trained athlete out of the game well before they’ve maxed out physically. Companies like Inov-8 and Injinji, who market performance toe socks, offer ultra-athletes the protection and support to make it possible to keep pushing even in the harshest conditions. These ‘next generation’ technical socks keep feet dry, reduce friction(avoiding blisters is key), and provide targeting cushioning. Some amazing tech out there these days, it’s good to have a resource like this where people get learn about it in real-life situations.

Posted by John Vonhof - 07/31/2007 10:08 PM

All good choices. Especially Hydropel. The Inov-8 Debrisoc is a nice addition to the gaiter line and looks like a winner. Shoes are always an individual choice. I’d add to the list three things: footwear fit, callus reduction, and a knowledge of how to patch blisters (or pretape). It is important for all athletes to know what their feet need and how to fix them.
~ John Vonhof, author of Fixing Your Feet.

Posted by Claire Thompson - 08/22/2007 10:17 AM

Good article Stephen. Although I think you forgot one essential piece – FOOTBEDS! A good pair of footbeds that fit you properly will help with pressure distribution which can reducing hot spots and blisters. They can also help with comfort [especially extra cushioning in those minimalist Inov shoes], alignment and balance – which will actually help reduce foot fatigue. A custom fitted arch support will stop your foot from sliding and can greatly reduce the number of black toes you get from your foot slamming into the front of your shoe. For a good custom insole check out The Gear Junkie’s review of SOLE Custom Footbeds [archives 2007 – Custom Footbeds]

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