Things Runners Don’t Talk About #2: blisters on the trail

I first attempted a 100-miler back in 2010 in the Cotswolds. My brother-in-law was crewing me and I was doing well. Disaster struck around the 60-mile mark: blisters. Blisters soon graduated to blisters upon blisters. The pain was excruciating and I DNF’d 75 miles in.

I’m still kicking myself about it now. Until that race, I’d not really had blisters, and I hadn’t given much thought as to what to do if I needed to treat one mid-event.

Trail trial and error

I wasn’t about to let that happen again, so I attended a course run by Rory and Jen Coleman. I left feeling supremely confident, even to the point of pre-taping my most vulnerable toes at the start of each day of the 2011 Marathon Des Sables. (Side note: the taping worked a treat.)

Over the years my skin has hardened and I no longer pre-tape, but I have refined my approach to treating blisters. As a runner, you’re always learning. A real benefit of being a runner in my 50s is a love of simplicity and a sense of confidence that probably developed over the years, as I’ve experimented time and time again to see what works for me.

So now, I keep a small and light blister kit in my sack for every ultra. The kit contains: a sterile surgical blade, a pen knife, some pre-cut Hapla Band, two pieces of pre-folded Gaffer tape, and a small roll of Gaffer tape (wrapped around a short pencil).

Running through it

My approach is simple: I tend to ignore the odd hot-spot or blister in the hope (and expectation) that it will simply burst, relieving the pain and leaving me to carry on relatively pain-free.

This is not as masochistic as it sounds! I really don’t like taking off my shoes mid-way through an event unless I really have to. Feet usually swell during a race, so putting shoes back on can be uncomfortable. Worse still, taking your shoes off might disturb your feet and you’ll realise there are other potential problems looming. The running body has an amazing capacity for pain, often shutting out signals to the brain – so it really is a case of ignorance is bliss!

Blister first aid

If I do need to stop, I’ll use the sterile blade to lance the blister in at least two places, allowing air in and fluid out. As long as the top skin isn’t broken, I’ll cover it over with Hapla Band. (Important note: it’ll hurt when you eventually take it off!)

Sometimes I find I need something even more sticky to hold things in place – and that’s where the Gaffer tape comes in. If the blister is in an awkward position and tape won’t hold it, as a last resort I’ll use Gaffer tape on top of Hapla Band.

If the skin is broken or loose, I’ll place a pre-folded piece of Gaffer tape (a small 2x2cm piece, folded over itself so the sticky side is all inside) over the soft skin, and then tape with Hapla Band. The tape then acts as a protective barrier between the loose skin and the Hapla Band.

Let’s be honest here: removing the tape after the race – whatever you’ve used – takes care and is painful. So, it’s a question of risk and reward: how much do you want to get to the finish?

We ultra-runners are a tough bunch. I’d love to know what your methods are and what you pack in your blister kit. Leave me a comment or drop me a line on andy@lifeisasinecurve.comBonus points for epic blister stories.

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