There’s no shortage of fields in north Wales. They’re probably all much of a muchness if you’re a sheep. But when you have something very specific in mind – in Vic Owens’ case, the female world record for furthest distance run barefoot in 24 hours – finding the right one is very tricky indeed.
The local rugby club said no. A public park in her town, Denbigh, would likely be too disruptive for the locals. Even the gliding club said no, despite the fact that they would surely be above their field most of the time. Finally a local farmer who happened to follow her on Instagram provided one that would be perfect, before withdrawing it at the last minute because his rotation hadn’t gone to plan.
His B-field was less ideal. ‘It was not the underfooting I had planned for. It was cattle trod, the ground was hard, not flat, and tricky to barefoot on,’ says Owens. Nevertheless, on 2 June 2022, a day that ranged in true Welsh style from extreme heat to torrential rain, she ran around its 0.90-mile loop 106 times, hitting 24 hours midway through her 107th lap – a record distance of 96.32 miles.
Along the way there were issues with her left ankle, because the Guinness people insisted she do the whole thing without changing direction, and excruciating groin cramp in the later stages. ‘Every time I stopped, I couldn’t move. At one point I was literally on the floor crying. I had to start moving forward again for it to start releasing, and that was intensely painful.’
The next day, celebrations and a well-earned rest, right? Not quite. She went out to run the distance that would have taken her up to the magic 100 mile mark, at the same time hitting her one year run streak of running every day.
Her journey into the world of extreme challenges has been a relatively short one. Now 35 (at least she thinks she’s 35? Brought up as a Jevohah’s Witness, her parents never celebrated her birthday) she only took up running in 2016. Following a break in her relationship, she experienced a depression that left her unable to move her legs at times, which her doctor blamed on emotional stress. She got a dog and decided to train for a half marathon. ‘By the end of the following year I was doing a 200-mile ultra and never looked back.’
In the absence of official races during 2020, she joined the trend for chasing FKTs and achieved the Fastest Known Time, male or female, for the Monarch’s Way. That’s a 625-mile journey from Worcestershire to Sussex via Bristol that follows King Charles II’s retreat from defeat at the Battle of Worcester in 1651. It took her 13 days, 13 hours and 38 minutes. That sounds a lot more interesting that 106 laps of a wet Welsh field, if we’re honest, so why switch to such a repetitive challenge?
‘I’ve got to a stage in my running journey where I have a good idea of what my body is capable of. I know what my physical point is. I know how far I can go,’ she explains. ‘But what’s my mental point? We have a little field where we grow our own veg. It’s about 0.06 of a mile, and I’ll loop it, with no headphones in, nothing to see, nothing to do, for 30 miles. That’s my mental training, getting my mental strength up.’
Plenty of mental strength is required for her day to day life: homeschooling her two children, caring for (and running with) her younger brother, who has brain damage, working a day job in online marketing and building a fast-growing business producing colourful running clothing called We Run Bright. Meanwhile, she’s putting in the mileage that has led to her completing extraordinary challenges such as the 185-mile King Offa’s Dyke race (twice) and the 250-mile Lon Las route down the length of Wales.
It was after finishing as second female in the Chester 100 in 2018 that she threw her traditional shoes in the bin. ‘I was getting blisters, hotspots, sores. I thought, “I’m not doing this to myself any more.”’ She now helps to organise the virtual running group Barefoot Crew 5k and has evangelised about the method at the National Running Show in Birmingham.
‘There are a lot more barefoot runners than you realise,’ she says. ‘Having this online community has shown a lot of people that they’re not on their own. You’re not the town weirdo if you’re into this. It’s a really natural thing to do.’
Vic Owens is a sponsored athlete with Flanci Activewear.
VIC OWENS’ THREE TIPS FOR BAREFOOT BEGINNERS
FIND SOFT GROUND
‘It sounds obvious, but don’t pick the gravel cycle path that you speed along in your shoes for your first barefoot run. Do it in your garden, the park, a meadow, wherever there’s soft grass. It’s not cheating to do it somewhere nice and build up from there.’
PICK UP YOUR FEET
‘When you run in shoes, you push off, and that’s friction. Do that barefoot and you’re gonna lose some skin. You should be hitting the ground with the midfoot. Do not heel strike when you’re barefoot – you won’t like it!’
LEAVE YOUR EGO AT THE DOOR
‘You need to put aside all your expectations of yourself. You’re still running, but it’s completely different – your balance, your gait, how you land. Barefoot is a mental overload. Everything in your foot that talks to the brain has been blocked by a shoe. Now your brain will go, “Woah.”’