I wanted to truly understand him, to walk a mile in his shoes. But that’s no easy feat with Rick Roeber, who has been running barefoot for three years, 26 marathons and 8,000 miles.
Barefoot Rick, as he is known in the running world, didn’t always love to run. In fact, he hated it in high school. He says barefoot running doesn’t click for everybody, but eventually it did for him — and it stuck.
He caught my eye in last year’s Kansas City Marathon. He has been spotted on a wood-chip trail in south Overland Park. Maybe you’ve seen him on a high school track in Lee’s Summit. Then there are the miles that he racks up on his basement treadmill.
Shoeless, he treads with the perseverance of a postal carrier along rainy streets, snowy trails and sweltering asphalt. Every day, averaging 50 miles a week.
So I set out on a journey to understand what motivates the 51-year-old Lee’s Summit man, a project manager for an Overland Park-based telecommunications company. The trek would take me and my husband, Jake, a fellow journalist, from an ice-covered park in Wyandotte County to St. Patrick’s Day revelry in Westport, with plenty of questions sandwiched in between.
For starters, why?
Why would someone choose to run without shoes and socks?
“I think it’s kind of like a revelation,” says Roeber, who is married and has three grown children and two stepchildren. “I use the illustration that it’s somebody using gloves their whole life and working with something and then taking their gloves off. And the revelation of feeling … like, wow, this feels really good, actually.”
Though Roeber shed his shoes one October day in 2003, he thinks his predisposition to barefoot running goes back a few millennia to a primal genetic code.
“I think all of us were hunter-warriors at one time,” he says. “And I think that some of us are a little closer than others to that gene pool.”
As a kid, Roeber happily trampled through the grass and scampered up trees. He loved being barefoot, and it felt natural to him. But he knows not all families embrace the idea.
“Was your mother always harping at you to put your shoes on?” Roeber asks. If so, he says, “you probably wouldn’t be a good candidate” for barefoot running.
Taking a detour
In high school, he was the long-haired dude hanging out in the parking lot. Roeber and “running” would not have appeared together in his yearbook. He wasn’t interested in athletics, and it would take several wrong turns in life to finally find the right track and reconnect with that genetic code.
He smoked, drank and did drugs as a teen, but his dependency on alcohol was the biggest roadblock.
“I was a drunk that struggled with the demon alcohol and all the sundry effects of someone who was enslaved to his own desires,” Roeber says.
Struggling to change course, he started running (with shoes) in 1990 and “ran about a mile, kind of liked it.” He must have liked it, all right, because a few months later he was finishing his first marathon. But those 26.2 miles couldn’t compare with the step that he was about to take.
“On March 5, 1992,” Roeber recalls, “I put the ‘plug in the jug’ and recommitted my life to the Lord Jesus.”
Sober at age 36, he dedicated himself to earning his college degree in journalism and creative writing and helping make amends with his family.
“Without God in my life, I know I wouldn’t be running and taking care of myself or my family today,” Roeber says. “That is why I have a daily Bible verse on my Web site as well as other Scripture to remind me, and to tell others, that it is by the grace of God I can do what I do.”
Going the distance
It was Barefoot Ken Saxton who piqued Roeber’s interest (see story, facing page).
“I was online and on the Runner’s World marathon forum and reading about this guy who ran the Long Beach marathon barefoot,” Roeber says. “And I thought, ‘You could do that, couldn’t you?’ ”
Roeber searched for information online and decided to try it that very day on a wood-chip trail near his workplace.
“So I ran a couple of miles, got a little tiny blister, and I thought, ‘My God, this feels really good.’ ”
And Barefoot Rick was born.
In October 2003 Roeber was already qualified for Boston, the crown jewel of marathons. He had earned his way into the race wearing shoes. Now he wanted to finish it without.
“So through the next six months of Kansas City winter, I persevered and belonged to our local fitness center there.”
But public places have policies. No shirt, no shoes, no thanks. What was a barefoot purist to do?
“I cut the soles out of a pair of aqua shoes, and they just flop on top of my feet. I was doing that for the shoe police because it’s footwear. They gave me the proverbial wink, and everything was cool.”
He ran 21 of 26 miles of Boston barefoot but kept sandals strapped to his back.
“The concrete was 110 degrees, so it wasn’t the best marathon to do barefoot,” Roeber says. “The first 13 miles I did barefoot, then the pavement started getting hot, so I put sandals on for five miles. Then I thought, ‘My feet hurt anyway, I’ll just finish it up barefoot.’ ”
Form and function
Right away I wanted to see his feet. I expected to see calloused soles dyed dirt-brown and frostbite’s ugly aftermath.
But instead he showed me what he calls “moccasin-type, leathery feet. Kinda like a supple leather.” There were no nicks, cuts or calluses.
“Calluses come from wearing shoes or work boots or cowboy boots,” Roeber reminded me.
“I think I could go six months without barefoot running and go right back out to it,” he says. “Because it wouldn’t matter because I’ve learned the proper technique. Once you learn that, it doesn’t matter so much about the toughness.”
So what is the proper technique?
Trade longer strides for quicker steps, and aim for the middle of the foot as a landing pad, not the heel. Your legs will adapt.
“Walk a mile or half a mile on a sidewalk,” says Scott Petry, a 42-year-old junior high teacher from Lawrence. He doesn’t recommend a treadmill for barefoot beginners because the constant pushing off can lead to blisters.
“Your calf muscles get bigger,” Petry says. “You’re stretching your muscles. Your foot structure as a whole is bigger and stronger.”
Irene Davis, a professor at the University of Delaware, encourages people to gradually train their feet.
“The function of the arch is to act like a spring, and when you take away the mega-shoes, you are forcing your feet to work harder,” says Davis, who is also the director of the Running Injury Clinic at the university. She suggests starting with “minimal” shoes. “They give you some ground protection, but your muscles are having to work harder,” she says. “We have taught our feet to be lazy. We have taken away the function of the foot.” (See story, Page 18.)
How could anyone focus on maintaining proper form over 10 miles of ice-covered hills on a 16-degree day? I thought my pinkies were goners, and I had layers of socks stuffed in my shoes! But Roeber was at his barefoot best at 8 a.m. on Feb. 10 in the Psycho WyCo “Run, Toto, Run” Trail Runs at Wyandotte County Lake Park.
By participating, Roeber broke one of his own rules: Don’t run barefoot on ice and snow when temperatures dip below 20. He learned this lesson the hard way in 2005, when too many consecutive days of cold running and not enough recovery time left his toes blackened by frostbite. See the effects for yourself at barefootrunner.org under the heading “Winter barefoot running.” You are in the right place when you see this disclaimer:
“Those that are squeamish regarding open wounds should not scroll down.”
On the Psycho WyCo Web site, race director Ben Holmes warned runners, “Trail running shoes are highly recommended for running on this course to avoid foot/toe trauma.”
And yet, as a nod to Roeber, Holmes created a barefoot division (complete with a medal and shirt) in a race where many entrants drilled screws into their shoes for extra traction.
Roeber should have more competition on Sept. 23 at the Omaha Marathon, where race director Susan Smisek has already had a few e-mails expressing interest in the newly created barefoot division.
The home stretch
Skip ahead a month (or 200.58 miles if you’re a self-described “bean counter” like Roeber) to the 4-mile St. Patrick’s Day Westport Run. A sunny day in the 50s felt like a tropical setting compared with our last outing. My pinkies were intact.
The day started a couple of hours earlier at Loose Park with a barefoot tutorial. Across the moist, squishy grass and the cool, smooth sidewalk, Jake and I fell into a natural gait. Of course, it was only 20 feet at a time! But, hey, we had orders to take it slowly, and we had to save our steam for the St. Pat’s race.
The grass was soft, but because it was uneven and unpredictable, we switched to the sidewalk. Just like the experts had been telling me, concrete offers a more consistent surface for perfecting form.
The experiment has tempted me to convert to barefoot running, but my pink toenails and summer sandals are begging me to cover up. Maybe the minimal shoes are more my cup of tea.
Once we laced up again and arrived in Westport, Jake lined up with the 6-minute milers while Roeber and I headed toward the 9’s. We were greeted with shouts of “It’s Barefoot Rick!” Roeber was never too busy either before or during the race to chat with fellow runners, some of whom may be part of his Yahoo discussion group of about 150 members.
I had run only two 5K road races prior to this event, but I exercise five days a week and had made it my goal to stick with Roeber. How could I let a shoeless guy beat me? Well, he soon outpaced me, then beat me, but, heck, the race wasn’t about speed but clearing my mind and embracing the day.
In February, Rick completed his 44th marathon. The last 26 have been without shoes, all within the last three years. He is slated to run his 45th Saturday at the Olathe Marathon.
Every time he hits the streets, he is bound to hear “Put some shoes on!” and “Why do you run without shoes?”
And he always has an answer.
“I say, because it’s groovy. It feels good. Why do you run with shoes?”★
So you want to liberate your feet and try barefooting it, but fears of embedded glass and stubbed toes have put the brakes on. Fear not, there are alternatives that bridge the benefits of barefoot running with the protection of footwear.
•Vibram FiveFingers: Think of them as gloves for your feet or aqua socks with toes. Acting as a second skin, the FiveFingers sole follows the shape of your foot but adds siping in the rubber to provide grip on wet surfaces, says Anne Tommasi from the Concord, Mass., headquarters of Vibram, based in Italy.
Suggested retail starts at $70, with details at vibram.com.
•Nike Free: As the less-is-more trend grows among runners, it’s ironic to hear footwear giants touting the benefits of going primal. But Nike is doing just that, using the Free to keep its foot in the door of the barefoot market with a shoe that provides an extremely flexible, minimalist sole that can still offer protection.
Suggested retail starts at $85, with details at NikeFree.com.
Professor Irene Davis, director of the Running Injury Clinic at the University of Delaware, says it is hard to say what is best when it comes to a runner’s form. Here are some of her thoughts on arch type and strike patterns.
Q. High arch or low arch — which is better for runners?
A. High-arch feet tend to be rigid and don’t attenuate shock well. Low-arch feet are overly flexible, bottom out and don’t attenuate shock well. Feet with normal or high arches that are flexible have more give to them. They attenuate shock, have some energy return and adapt well to uneven terrains.
Is there an ideal way for a runner’s foot to hit the ground?
Eighty percent of distance runners are rearfoot strikers (land heel first). The remaining 20 percent are midfoot (land flat) or forefoot (land on ball of foot).
Rearfoot strikers have larger impacts when landing and may be more prone to bony injuries — particularly in the tibia.
Forefoot strikers have softer impacts but have more force concentrated under the ball of the foot, placing them at risk for foot stress fractures. Also, forefoot strikers have greater demands on their calf muscles, which could put them at greater risk for Achilles tendonitis. So — pick your poison!
Having said that, I think that midfoot striking may be the safest strike pattern (though I have no data to support this — my opinion is based solely on the mechanics of the strike pattern).
Before Barefoot Rick, there was Barefoot Ken Bob Saxton, who has been dubbed the godfather of running barefoot.
“I actually was born barefoot,” the 51-year-old says from his home in Huntington Beach, Calif.
Growing up in Michigan, Saxton remembers many barefoot summers. His parents didn’t want him to get his shoes dirty because he didn’t have that many pairs.
He runs barefoot by choice now, with a variety of West Coast surfaces to choose from. When Saxton started barefoot running, he went a little too far too fast and ended up with blisters. Now he spends “less time thinking about distance, more about form.”
He took his knowledge to the masses with his Web site (runningbarefoot.org) and has gathered more than 1,100 people on a Yahoo! discussion group, many of whom have identified themselves on Saxton’s interactive map of barefoot runners around the world. His advice to runners seems simple enough:
“Like anything else, it’s a new activity,” Saxton says. “Start slow and gradual.”
His feet play hot potato with the ground. Quick little hops almost, each time touching down just long enough to keep him moving forward. That’s the best way that I can describe Barefoot Rick Roeber’s running style after studying him closely for 10 miles.
Of course, hot potato seems an odd description for a February day when ice covered much of the trail and the temperature struggled to hit 16 degrees by the start of the Psycho WyCo “Run, Toto, Run” Trail Runs. And the novelty of seeing someone navigate the frozen hills of Wyandotte County Lake Park wasn’t lost on his fellow competitors.
“You just redefined hard-core,” one bundled-up runner says.
Some of the athletes were doing the 10-mile loop two or three times. One lap was enough for me, as I spent two hours following Roeber’s footsteps up and down steep hills, across slick patches and around hairpin switchbacks that required latching onto the nearest sapling for balance.
Roeber had told us that he gets information from the ground — “feetback,” if you will — and that he has honed his foot-eye coordination to avoid injury. For example, in his 8,000 miles and three years of barefoot running, he has had to dig out glass only three times.
Not that there weren’t missteps on our course.
At one point Roeber misjudged a leap and splashed briefly into a trickling creek. He also hit the ground twice on sheets of ice and ended the race with a couple of cuts on his feet. Of course, I fell three times and still have a blackened toenail from the downhill jarring inside my shoes.
But fortunately we had a few long stretches of Roeber’s favorite winter surface — soft, cushiony snow, where he was able to regain the type of pace that would have him two weeks later finishing a marathon in 3 hours, 43 minutes. That’s 26.2 miles at 8 1/2 minutes each.
Of his 26 barefoot marathons — he has averaged one every five or six weeks — he says none compared to the frigid test we faced in February. Hard-core, indeed.