Shoeless wonder: Manhattan Beach distance runner Patrick Sweeney’s road less travelled
“I have an anti-New Year resolution, which is basically to take life one day at a time and deal with what it presents me, hopefully with a smile on my face,” Manhattan Beach distance runner Patrick Sweeney said. “I don’t get caught up with what is six months or nine months down the road.”
For Sweeney, the start of the new year was just another 24 hours, during which he competed in the Across the Years 24-, 48-, 72-Hour Race at Camelback Ranch in Glendale, Arizona.
Sweeney, 33, is not your typical runner. The 1997 graduate of Mira Costa High School did not take up running until later in life and, while most novices cut their teeth on shorter races like a 5K, Sweeney started with a marathon.
“I didn’t run competitively in high school but when I was in junior college, a couple of buddies and I decided to run a marathon so we trained and got in shape for that and I ran my first marathon in 2000,” Sweeney recalled. “I did a couple after that but wasn’t all that into it and got away from running for about six years.
“Then, I think I was going through a breakup or something, I found myself running on the beach. It was a good way to vent and let my mind drift away. I tried a marathon again but wasn’t getting any faster. I was told about the ultramarathon (any race longer than a marathon) and I thought ‘Hey, that’s a good idea. Instead of going faster, go farther. It wasn’t until I ran a bunch of marathons and ultramarathons that I ran a 5K. In the last couple of years I’ve been signing up for anything and everything, many times competing in two races in the same day.”
Sweeney choice of footwear is also unconventional. Sweeney runs barefoot or in his trademark Luna sandals.
“I feel running barefoot connects me with the earth a little more and feel a little bit more grounded,” Sweeney explained. “If you’re wearing shoes and walking on cement all day long, I don’t think you’re connected to the planet as much as you could be.
“As far as athletic footwear is concerned, there’s a paradigm going on right now where less is more. The Luna sandal is a very staple type of footwear that has been around for thousands of years. It’s basically portable ground strapped to the bottom of my foot, which is all I need.”
Sweeney believes the benefit of running barefoot is the ability to strike the ground the way the body is intended to.
“When you wear shoes, you tend to strike more with your heel and not use your foot and your calf so your whole leg is not being used correctly,” Sweeney said. “When you strike with your heel, the impact is not being absorbed by the arch of your foot and shoots straight up into your knees and lower back and you will be prone to have problems.”
Sweeney has also run in Vibram Five Fingers and products from Manhattan Beach-based Skechers, to whom he has provided feedback.
“I think they (Skechers) are a good company and on the right track and I wish them all the luck in the world, but for me personally, I choose to run in a more natural fashion,” Sweeney said.
Sweeney has also been known to compete in a kilt for a Signal Hill-based company called Sport Kilts and even run nude in the Bare Burro 5K Race held in April at Olive Dell Nudist Ranch in Colton, where he is defending champion.
“It looks pretty silly with all these naked people wearing shoes and socks,” Sweeney said. “Last year, there I was at a nudist colony in the middle of nowhere and to my surprise, a friend of mine shows up. It was quite awkward.”
A unique training regimen
Sweeney is a strong proponent of physical fitness, believing a person should make exercise a daily routine.
“For my body to be at its best, I need to run at least two hours every day,” Sweeney said. “But running isn’t for everybody. You need to find something you enjoy doing so you keep at it. People are capable of doing a lot more than they think they can. Once they pass the mental barriers, the physical part comes easier. It’s never a battle for me to go running. It’s something I look forward to and miss if I can’t do it because of an injury. It’s part of my everyday well-being and psychologically I become dependent on it.”
Ironically, Sweeney is not advocate of the competitive side of running.
“I feel that racing is horrible for one’s body,” Sweeney stated. “Trying to push one’s body past what it is ready for just to beat the clock or your opponent is often the cause of injuries. The old adage “push through the pain” may get you a win but it can also put you on the sideline and giving a 110 percent, that’s just plain dumb. My advice is to listen to your body.
“It’s a weird feeling knowing that I can push my body past its limits but I often question if winning a race is worth hurting myself? In the past, I have withdrawn while in the lead after 60 miles of a 100-miler to prevent injury and I have also won an event where I broke my foot running recklessly down hill to achieve speed.”
Like many athletes in the Beach Cities, Sweeney prefers to do his training outdoors although he does possess a gym membership, which he primarily uses for the sauna, where he tries to spend one hour each day.
Eating no animal products, Sweeney has a low-protein vegan diet of 3,000-4,000 calories per day, increasing to 5,000 a day when training hard for competition. Along with fruits and vegetables, he enjoys using masa, a corn flour used to make tortillas.
“People say you can’t eat healthy on a budget, but I think that’s the easiest way to eat healthy,” Sweeney said. “I cook almost everything I eat and have found that the Farmers markets, the Asian markets and the Hispanics markets are great places to buy produce. I don’t add salt to anything. If you go to restaurants, you get way too much salt. It’s good to know what is going into your body.”
A staple of Sweeney’s diet is the avocado.
“I probably ate around 500 last year and hopefully I’ll surpass that number this year,” Sweeney said. “I also buy a case of young coconuts once a week at the local Asian market. For dinner, I like to make vegan pizza’s at least twice a week with no cheese but lots of garlic and veggies topped with raw avocado and doused with habanero hot sauce.”
Sweeney does have his vices, however. Part of his diet includes bourbon and beer – a strange choice of caloric intake for a long distance runner. His website, bourbonfeet.com, professes his fondness for the beverages with the headline “Testing the Mind, Body and Liver.”
“I’m one of the few athletes I know sponsored by a beer company (Stone Brewery in Escondido),” Sweeney said. “The only other one I know is Lance Armstrong, who is sponsored by Michelob Ultra. When I was younger, I was a home brewer and have always had a fondness for home-style, craft-brewed beer, which is a hoppier, stronger ale.
I’ve found that having a beer during a race can actually help me. Beer can provide valuable carbohydrates needed for a long run. Sometimes it’s a psychological thing that just puts a smile on my face when I know I have 20 more miles to run.”
Sweeney drinks his bourbon straight and at least 100 proof.
“I’m not going to recommend it to others and I don’t go out and over indulge a night before a race,” Sweeney said.
Sweeney finished the 2011 race season with a first-place finish in the Operation Jack Half-Marathon. It capped off a year in which he competed in 34 events and finished on top of his age group in eight of the 19 major races posted on his website.
In March, Sweeney finished a respectable 124th out of 19,979 runners at the Honda LA Marathon and in June, Sweeney became the Guinness World Records holder for Greatest Distance Run On Sand in 24 Hours. His 87.36 miles broke the record of 83.04 miles set last Labor Day weekend by his friend Christian Burke, who had shattered the previous record of 62.14 miles while using the attempt as a fundraiser for Hermosa Beach schools.
During 2010, Sweeney won six of the 15 events listed on his website with nine top finishes in his age group. He considers one of his victories to be the most rewarding of his career.
“Winning the Manhattan Beach10K was pretty exciting,” Sweeney said. “It’s not the biggest event I’ve won, but it’s where I’m from, which made it special, plus it was a personal record for me by two minutes.”
Sweeney’s victories in 2010 also included the Palos Verdes Marathon, Hills Are Alive 10K, Mt. Disappointment Endurance Run and Manhattan Beach 5K.
Up for any type of new challenge, Sweeney has ventured past the standard race schedule for distance runners. Running 24 hours straight or 100 miles over rough terrain is just another race day for Sweeney, who believes variety is the spice of life.
Sweeney is an annual participant in the Hermosa Beach Ironman competition held each Fourth of July in Hermosa Beach. Competitors run one mile on the beach, paddle a surfboard one mile and then finish by downing a six pack of beer.
“I’ve got my drinking down to under four and half minutes,” he boasts.
On Feb. 5, Sweeney plans to run both Redondo Beach Super Bowl Sunday 10K and 5K run, and drinking a six pack of beer between events.
“I’m not feeling that fast at shorter distances but that might be a good excuse to go out and have some fun,” Sweeney said. “My family is running the 5K so I think I could finish my six-pack and still have time to watch my sister and nephews cross the finish line.”
Last year Sweeney tried his hand – and feet and stomach – at the Beer Mile, a nation-wide test where participants drink a 12-ounce beer, run a one-quarter mile lap around a regulation track, continuing the process for four laps.
No competitor has broken the 5-minute mark and Sweeney’s time of 6:26 put him at approximately the 120th fastest time.
“I would like to improve to top 20,” Sweeney said. “Of course I had a friend there to drive me back home.”
In San Diego, Sweeney put his body through another test. Competing in the Krispy Kreme Challenge West, where runners run two miles, eat a dozen Krispy Kreme doughnuts and run another two miles, Sweeney was runner-up with a time of 25:30.
“That’s the one time I went off my vegan diet in the past year,” Sweeney admitted. “I took second place but the winner was great at eating. Being a former doughnut lover, I went into the competition in the wrong frame of mind. I thought I’d enjoy the first couple of doughnuts. But it isn’t about that. I learned to flatten many together like a Big Mac-shaped doughnut and get on my way. Nevertheless, I still ran a sub-6-minute mile for the last two miles.”
Although Sweeney does not set goals, he does make a tentative race schedule for the upcoming year, which includes numerous events that will dip into his travel budget.
In February, he has the opportunity to compete in the Fuego Y Aqua (Fire and Water) 100K race held on the volcanic island of Ometepein, Nicaragua. He also plans to run a half marathon in Escondido in February, sponsored by Stone Brewing Company.
In March, he hopes to run the Cooper Canyon Ultramarathon. He competed in the race for the first time in 2011, running with “Barefoot” Ted McDonald and his team of “LunaTics” who wore McDonald’s Luna sandals. The sandals are named after Manuel Luna, a Raramuri who inspired McDonald to begin to make huarache sandals. The Rarámuri, or Tarahumara, are a Native American people of northwestern Mexico who are renowned for their long-distance running ability and the basis of Christopher McDougall’s book “Born to Run.”
“I’m looking forward to going back to the Copper Canyon,” Sweeney said. “Last year I went out a little fast and took a nasty dive in mile four of the 50 mile race. I had blood coming out of more than two dozens spots on my body so it made for a long day. It was still a great experience and I want to do better this year.”
Sweeney still managed to complete the course in 10 hours, eight minutes, finishing 52nd out of 133 runners.
Three marathons are on this year’s agenda although the LA Marathon in March remains a question mark for Sweeney.
“I plan on going to Boston in April to run in the Boston Marathon for the first time and am striving to record a personal record at the event,” Sweeney said. “I’d also like to do well in the Palos Verdes Marathon in May. I missed the 2011 race because I was running in a friend’s event.”
Competing in a 100-mile race on Mt. Fujiin May is another possibility. He said he will definitely be in town June 2-3 to defend his title at the Hermosa 24 Ultramarathon, where he expects a number of elite runners to provide stiff competition.
“Setting the Guinness Book of World Records is right up there with winning the Manhattan Beach 10K,” Sweeney exclaimed. “However, if you’re going to attempt to set that world record, you should not choose to do it on the sands of Hermosa orManhattan Beach. Our sands are brutal. The event is really about raising money for the schools in Hermosa Beach. Christian Burke and I have a friendly rivalry and it was nice to beat his record and I look forward to going head-to-head against him this year. It’s an event that suits me. There are probably many ultra-marathoners out there that would have trouble competing in the sand. Even though the terrain is relentless, I still believe completing 100 miles is a possibility. I’m hoping my body will be in shape to make that happen.”
Sweeney will have the chance to run new terrain in September in either a 200-mile relay run in Turkey or the Spartathlon – or both.
Held Sept. 28-29, the Spartathlon is a 155-mile race that follows the footsteps of Pheidippides, the famous Greek runner who inspired the marathon race.
Sweeney’s longest race has been 100 miles, but he doesn’t believe his body is ideal for races of that length. Nevertheless, he stated that he hope to compete in the Badwater Ultramarathon some day either officially or unofficially (completing the course in a day in July or August).
Badwater is recognized as the world’s toughest foot race. Approximately 90 of the world’s toughest runners, triathletes, adventure racers and mountaineers attempt to cover 135 miles non-stop from Death Valley to Mt.Whitney in temperatures up to 130 F.
Sweeney enjoys running charity events. After being introduced to the 100-Mile Endurance Challenge, Sweeney discovered a new way to help kids in the South Bay.
“I was told a couple of years ago about a 100-mile race that went from Corona to the Santa Monica Pier and the course went through Manhattan Beach, my neck of the woods,” Sweeney explained. “I looked into it and discovered it was founded by Kara Lubin, who has become one of my favorite people in the world.”
The course runs through three counties and 20 cities with proceeds benefitting the 100 Mile Club charity, which Lubin started during the 1992-93 school year when she was teaching students in 4th, 5th and 6th grades.
The 100 Mile Club is a physical fitness and life skills project based on the goal of running (or walking) 100 miles at school or work during a single school year.
“I went to her school and talked to the kids in Corona,” Sweeney recalled. “Not only did I get to meet a lot of kids, but a lot of their parents, who told me how much their child’s self esteem had been raised and how excited they were to run and these were 7-8-9 year-old kids. When I was that age, I was athletic but if I was told to go run one or two miles, I wouldn’t have been very happy.”
Sweeney introduced the 100-mile Club to his nephew’s school, Beryl Heights Elementary in Redondo Beach.
“Then I told Christian Burke about it and he and Annie Seawright got it started at Hermosa Valley School,” Sweeney added. “Running is great for your body and should lead to a long life of good health. There’s no place I’d rather be than on the beach of the South Bay listening to some Reggae music feeling the warm soft sand on my feet as I run.”