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Barefoot runner feels the freedom of the road

Kansas City man will run Fall River Road

By Mike Oatley

Rick Roeber runs barefoot and the question he gets most often is why. The Kansas City area man has his rhetoric lined up: there were the leg and knee injuries he attributed to years of running “shod,” or with shoes on; there was the desire to learn to run properly.

But it goes deeper than that.

“When I was a kid I was always barefoot,” he said by phone this week. “I really enjoy the freedom of it.”

He has a ready-made joke for those who wonder what running barefoot is all about.

“I say I’m just a little more stupid than most,” he laughed. “I can’t run with shoes on.”

Roeber is doing what he can to raise the profile of barefoot running. Since he began transitioning away from running in shoes in October, 2003, he has put nearly 9,000 miles on the soles of his feet rather than on the soles of a pair of running shoes — his website,, pegged his mileage at 8,897.42 as of Thursday morning. He’s been a 100 percent shoeless runner since April, 2004.

“I was fascinated by the idea that one could run without shoes. I have always loved going barefoot, so this seemed very logical to me,” he writes on his website.

While he does run trails, he admits that barefoot running is easier on asphalt, and though trail runs like the Lawn Lake one are substantial, he generally is geared for running marathons. He has a full slate of them this summer and fall, in Kansas and Nebraska and culminating with the New York City Marathon in November.

Barefoot running is a very small subculture within the sport, but Roeber’s doing his part to elevate awareness of it, and he puts the marathons he barefoot runs to dual purposes, raising money for the Kansas City Rescue Mission in the process.

Yes, you read that correctly. Roeber extends his barefoot running to full, 26.2-mile marathons. He had already qualified for the Boston Marathon when he went shoeless.

“Then I’ve run 27 more barefoot —just to prove it wasn’t a fluke,” he said.

Roeber and his family have been visiting Estes Park off and on during the summers for a some years but the way it has always worked out, he’s missed the Estes Park Marathon every time. He’s done a few long runs here though, including to Lawn Lake and back. This summer he was trying to think of something with a higher profile to run while in town. He considered running Trail Ridge Road but decided against it, given the volume of traffic on the road.

Old Fall River Road, on the other hand, seemed perfect – light, one-way traffic and a good surface for a barefoot run. So sometime next week he’ll pull on, er, off his shoes and make the run up the Alpine Visitors Center in Rocky Mountain National Park by way of Fall River. It may be, he says, the first ever barefoot run the length of Fall River Road. He’s probably right.

You might be surprised to learn barefoot runners generate their share of negative feedback but after a feature on the subject ran in a Kansas City newspaper, agitated readers piped up. “I hope kids aren’t reading this,” one reader wrote. Another claimed barefoot running is a good way to get hookworms, and argument that may once have held water in the U.S. but less so now. Hookworms were once a major problem in the rural south.

But Roeber says the potential risks are slight while the rewards are great. He says running barefoot runs is a more natural way, with a shorter stride, a quicker cadence and quicker turnover.

“Overstriding equals bad knee,” he said. He attributes that to the heel strike caused by the raised heel of running shoes. Running with shoes, Roeber ended up with bad knees, a stress fracture in one and clicking in the other. Since he switched to barefoot running, he’s had no reoccurrence of the problems, he said.

Of course, one can hardly expect to pull off the “foot coffins,” as Roeber calls them, and hit the road. It takes some time to transition. Roeber used sandals to help him make the change. Now, though, he dismisses the worries that some have. Yes, you might get bruised by a stone here and there but Roeber says that a barefoot runner quickly learns to run with focus and concentration and develops good foot-eye coordination.

“You learn to make instantaneous judgments constantly, especially when you are running everyday, as I do” he said. “You might get a stone bruise but you learn to avoid the big stuff.”

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