When I was training for my first half marathon last fall, Heather and I ran together on Sunday mornings. One cool morning, we saw two barefoot men running on the asphalt Cedar River Trail. I’d never seen anything like it before.
But Heather knew they were barefoot runners. I wanted to talk to them, but they looked so focused. I decided I would talk to them the next time we saw them, but I haven’t seen ’em since. Not that I need to talk to them anymore.
Barefoot running seems to be all the rage, and it’s even more amplified for me since I’m reading Born to Run right now. Amazon’s description:
“Full of incredible characters, amazing athletic achievements, cutting-edge science, and, most of all, pure inspiration, Born to Run is an epic adventure that began with one simple question: Why does my foot hurt? In search of an answer, Christopher McDougall sets off to find a tribe of the world’s greatest distance runners and learn their secrets, and in the process shows us that everything we thought we knew about running is wrong.
Isolated by the most savage terrain in North America, the reclusive Tarahumara Indians of Mexico’s deadly Copper Canyons are custodians of a lost art. For centuries they have practiced techniques that allow them to run hundreds of miles without rest and chase down anything from a deer to an Olympic marathoner while enjoying every mile of it. Their superhuman talent is matched by uncanny health and serenity, leaving the Tarahumara immune to the diseases and strife that plague modern existence. With the help of Caballo Blanco, a mysterious loner who lives among the tribe, the author was able not only to uncover the secrets of the Tarahumara but also to find his own inner ultra-athlete, as he trained for the challenge of a lifetime: a fifty-mile race through the heart of Tarahumara country pitting the tribe against an odd band of Americans, including a star ultramarathoner, a beautiful young surfer, and a barefoot wonder.
With a sharp wit and wild exuberance, McDougall takes us from the high-tech science labs at Harvard to the sun-baked valleys and freezing peaks across North America, where ever-growing numbers of ultrarunners are pushing their bodies to the limit, and, finally, to the climactic race in the Copper Canyons. Born to Run is that rare book that will not only engage your mind but inspire your body when you realize that the secret to happiness is right at your feet, and that you, indeed all of us, were born to run.”
McDougall (who is an excellent writer, by the way, visit his site here), makes an intriguing case for barefoot running. He implies that today’s high-tech running shoes may actually be destroying our feet and legs, and causing runners to get injured more frequently. It makes a lot of sense. And it’s especially timely for me since I am, in fact, injured with a stress fracture. It got me thinking about my shoes.
I never really felt fantastic in the shoes I have right now. They’re okay. I simply got tired of taking shoes back to the running store, and once I got Super Feet, the last pair I had fit just fine. It is interesting how I never had problems with my legs or feet until these particular shoes, though.
When I first started running again almost exactly a year ago, I used a grubby pair of New Balances that had been in my closet for at least a couple of years. When I proved to myself that I could stick with the running thing, I went to DSW and picked out a pair of nice feeling, basic New Balances for about $65. I didn’t run on a treadmill in front of a camera to pick them out or step on a computer screen. And, they were decent shoes. The only trouble I had with them was blisters. They weren’t perfect, but I knew they weren’t high-tech, so I was okay with that.
For Christmas, Mr. T spoiled me with all things running. We went to pick out new shoes. The ones I finally ended up with in February have stability control and arch lock and pronation something-or-others. Fancy.
After about a month in them, I had intense pain in my right foot and had to stop running. I went and got a cortisone shot to help a neuroma. A few months later, and I have a stress fracture.
I’m not blaming the shoes. Who knows if it was them? Most likely, my injury is from a combination of things: too much too soon, acetabular anteversion (inverted hips), running on concrete sidewalks, not stretching enough, not listening to my body…the list goes on.
On Friday, I asked my sports podiatrist what he thought about barefoot running. I was sort of expecting a quick answer, you know, like It’s bad or You should go barefoot, but I got a really long answer that involved topics like breeding, sand, horses and the film Hidalgo.
What he was talking about, though, is how the people in the tribe in McDougall’s book are, in fact, “born to run.” They grow up running barefoot or in sandals and on that surface (dirt). They start when they are very young — so they are conditioned that way, my doctor explained. And, unlike them, most of us (your everyday American athletes) do not participate in 60+-mile races by the time we are in elementary school. My doctor said the conditioning the average runner would need to do in order to be a great barefoot-only runner would take years and years.
This is where Hidalgo came in. I haven’t seen it the film, but he recapped it for me: an American and his horse, Hidalgo, go to the Saudi Arabian desert to compete in, and win, a 3,000-mile race. What made the story unbelievable (not just that it’s based on a tall tale from a former circus employee), is that the American horse was not bred and born in an area with sand. The horses in Saudi Arabia only ever run on sand. American horses — mostly hard-packed dirt, right? There’s no way the American horse could win. It would probably be injured and out of the race.
He added that there are people who can run barefoot and it’s great that it works for them, but he implied that most of them are elite athletes that are training all the time — putting in way more miles than your average mom who just wants to run one marathon.
Okay, I get it.
Of course, I’m the type of person that believes everyone has biases (whether conscious or not) — both my doctor and Christopher McDougall have them. Whatever barefoot is (good, bad, or something in between), it’s interesting. The idea certainly is intriguing. So where does this leave me?
I still want to try it. I’m just curious. What do you think? Would you ever run barefoot? Do you now? What’s your experience been like?