“Success isn't how far you got, but the distance you traveled from where you started.”-Steve Prefontaine
You know who they are. You have seen at least one. The oddballs that show up for races-barefoot. I saw one running The Mercedes Marathon in Birmingham this past February when the starting temperature, if memory serves, was about 19 degrees. I just rolled my eyes.
Back in the 80’s barefoot placekickers in football were all the rage, even in the snow. People were astounded that they could generate enough force to kick the ball powerfully without hurting themselves. It didn’t seem unusual to me at the time because I had been involved in martial arts for years. We broke boards with our bare feet all the time. We never wore shoes to work out. It was more concerning to me that the kicker had to run and tackle opposing players with one shoe on and one shoe off. That seemed infinitely more awkward than merely kicking the ball barefooted. That was a long time, lots of miles and many pairs of running shoes ago.
Now, thanks to Born to Run, Christopher McDougal’s runaway best seller (pun intended) more and more of those unshod oddballs seem to keep appearing.
I must admit, when I read the book back in 2010 I enjoyed it immensely. It was a fantastic and motivating story that has spawned a new school of thought in the running industry-Minimalism. Well maybe it isn’t new but had been drowned out by all of the technologies screaming for our attention. I thought that the minimalist perspective made so much sense and appealed to the paleobiologist side of my brain. I came to the realization that it probably explained much of the pain and difficulty I was experiencing that had caused me to nearly give up running. I will also confess that the moment I finished the book, I was so hyped about it that I immediately ran out the door and down the street barefoot to test out the theories. It was incredibly liberating-for about 20 seconds. And then along came reality. The book also does mention that those of us that were raised with shoes on our feet are not ready to shed our shoes quite so quickly and completely. I must have glossed over that part. It was 95 degrees outside and the blacktop on our street was probably hot enough to fry eggs, not to mention my tender tootsies. I hot footed it to the curb and tiptoed through the crabgrass in order to limp back to the safety of our driveway.
I was mildly distraught.
Had I devolved? Was I not “born to run” like the author described? Well, to quote Lady Gaga, I probably was “born this way” but after years and years of wearing shoes I no longer was, “that way”. If my enthusiasm for the concept of barefoot running hadn’t overwhelmed my good sense I would have also realized that my feet were not ready to take the full plunge and that returning my feet to their original state needed to be a more gradual process.
As I stood there picking gravel out of my rapidly blistering feet, I thought about what sort of transition I’d need to make.
I decided to start by purchasing a pair of Vibram Five Fingers (most folks refer to them as the “toe shoes”) whose development had also been described in the book. After all, we may have evolved to run barefoot, but our Paleolithic ancestors didn’t have to deal with all of the urban hazards that we do. Broken glass, hot asphalt, harsh chemicals and especially that unidentifiable sticky stuff in the road were not part of their equation. Christopher McDougal described at length, the type of leather sandal that was developed by the tribe of Tarahumara people to use for protection between the bottoms of their feet and the punishing terrain of Copper Canyon. I considered the Vibrams to be my modern, urban adaption of the same.
I couldn’t help but note that the notion of spending a bunch of money on something “minimalist” was more than just a touch ironic. Caught up in the pursuit of running pain free, less shoe, was supposed to be more beneficial, though just as expensive. In addition to Vibram, other companies have since jumped on the trend and have managed to flood the market in such a way as to ensure that you may now maximize your credit card usage in pursuit of minimalist nirvana.
Brushing away any conception I might have had about becoming some kind of financial hypocrite I pulled them (can I call them shoes?) out of the box and attempted to put them on. I thought they would slide on like a pair of gloves for my feet. That is what they look like, right?
After nearly 10 minutes of struggling, sweating and cursing I finally managed to get each of my toes into their designated slots. After a workout like that a run seemed almost anticlimactic.
I walked out the door, down the driveway and hit the road running. I should explain that I had always been somewhat of a shuffling runner, a bad heel striker and all the other negative habits about modern runners that I’d read about in “the book”.
According to Christopher McDougal, running barefoot (or as close as reasonably possible) would encourage proper mid foot striking and all my problems would magically dissolve. Well he didn’t exactly say that but it’s what I read into it. I can honestly say that there was no magic on that first run. There was no great change in my running motion and as I heel-toed hard through my stride I heard the thud/slap, thud/slap, thud/slap of my heel rapidly followed by my fore foot hitting the pavement more loudly than it had with regular shoes. In typical runner fashion I carefully heeded the instructions to “start gradually” and I ran a mile that first day. I felt ok so the next time out I ran about 6 miles on a local dirt trail with a small group of runners. The next morning I could barely move. My calves had seized up so badly from too much too soon. It took several days before I could consider any type of running again, shod or unshod. From then on, I could not go very far before the calf tightness reached out and grabbed me. McDougal does mention the part about starting VERY gradually, but I couldn’t imagine running less than a mile each time out. It would take me longer to put the damn things on than I would spend running in them.
Eventually, I lost patience with the entire process and the Vibrams ended up somewhere in the back of the closet where they remained, until….
Stay tuned. Part 2 will coincide with its release in the August edition of the Birmingham Track Club Newsletter...
Author’s note-The Barefoot Contestant-A Long, Running Series will document my long running experiment, so to speak, with running in Vibrams. My current goal is the Talladega Half Marathon.
Also-if anyone can provide some grammatical guidance regarding why/how/where I should use the word barefooted vs. barefoot I would greatly appreciate it.