Reflections on a Year of Barefoot Running

It has been a year of changes regarding my running. A year ago, at this time, the thought of barefoot running had not occurred to me. Reflecting on the previous year, I feel like I was starting to get burnt out on running – like there were no more challenges to surmount. I felt that I had peaked on my speed and my knees definitely weren’t getting any better which would allow me to keep running, even just for fun. Sure, I could run maintenance running of 3 miles a day, but I was not interested in that. I love distance running. There is something that happens out there when I run. It’s like peeling back layers and every long run is different. Sometimes, there are more layers than others. Sometimes, runs are very one-dimensional with no layers at all. But, sometimes, they are multi-dimensional which is what I seek – the mystery of the run. Running, more often than not, had become “flat” before barefooting. I was quickly losing interest because it seemed that it was too much of the same.

Then came that day last October when I was reading on the Runner’s World Marathon Forum about someone who was a Jesus look-alike that was running the Long Beach Marathon. I don’t remember specifically what she wrote about but I do remember being intrigued that someone could run a marathon barefoot. I immediately personalized it. Hadn’t I always loved going barefoot? What a novel approach to running, I thought! I thought of some of my previous thinking (if there really was any) regarding barefoot running. Not sure I really remember ever considering it either for myself or others. I guess the thought came into my mind that barefoot running would flatten out the feet. That if a person did not have fallen arches, they certainly would after running that way for long.

Through the post, I identified the runner as Ken Saxton. He had a website called RunningBarefoot.org. Going to his website, I was amazed at all the information regarding barefoot running. Even more amazed was I of how many who had ran barefoot in the past and excelled at it. Abibe Bikila, Soro Basirima, and many others who had not only ran marathons but had excelled and won.

I can’t remember if it was that day or the day after, but I decided that I needed to experiment with the possibility that I too could run barefoot. It was a coolish October day at lunch that I decided to take off my shoes on the wood chip trail at work and give it a try. I believe it was a 5 mile run that day so I decided to try 3 miles of it barefoot. The first thing I noticed was how cushy the wood chips felt under my feet. The chips were a couple of inches deep so they provided a good bounce. I felt free! I remember running about an 8 minute pace for the 3 miles. Upon inspection after the run, I had blisters on the balls and toes of each foot. In all, the blisters were not that bad on the balls and I only had blisters on one or two toes of each foot. I was a little disappointed, thinking that my feet were tougher than this.

My next thought was isn’t this great! I need to find a way to continue my experiment without totally wrecking my feet. That same day, I was off to the running store to look for racing flats because I heard they simulated barefoot running better than most running shoes. I found a pair of Nike Katanas and went out the next day to try them out since my feet were still recovering from the blisters. I had the shoes fitted to where I would not have to wear socks, because I was now intent on “feeling” my feet as much as possible on the surface that I was running on. The new shoes felt great on the wood chip trail I had run the day before. I knew now that I could subsidize my running with these racing flats while easing in to running barefoot.

The days went by and began adding more barefoot miles to my weekly routine. At first, I would try to run every other day barefoot, and alternate with racing flats. Soon I wanted to run barefoot all the time because it just felt better. Mostly, I was running on the wood chip trail, however, I was doing an occasional run on asphalt and concrete. I remember one Saturday running the asphalt loop around the campus buildings at work. I believe I was trying to get in 15 miles. At that time, I would use Dr. Scholl's foot pads, the kind that have the sticky back, on areas of my feet that felt like they were getting too worn. I remember in the middle of that 15 miler that my pads fell off but I decided to continue to run. When I was done, I had created a massive blood blister on the ball of my left foot. It took several days to heal. During this time, I would still run shorter distances barefoot with bandaged feet. I tried everything to bandage my feet to try to get as much feeling as possible without putting on shoes. I even tried wrapping the ball area of my feet with duct tape – anything to keep running as barefooted as I could.

By this time, it was wintertime in Kansas City. The November temps and precipitation were cold at this time of the year. When it rained, it was a cold rain and the winds would usually blow stoutly. I continued with my experiment even in freezing temperatures. The first half mile or so would be cold on my feet, but then it was like any part of the body that you are constantly moving, the feet warmed up to where I could not feel the cold. Then, came the first snow! I knew it was possible to run in snow, I just didn’t know if my feet were conditioned enough (I’m thinking this year should be different). I attempted a 5 mile run on the wood chip trail in approximately 5 inches of snow. After the first couple of miles, my left foot began getting numb. I could not feel that I was creating blisters on my toes. When complete, it took a while for my feet to thaw out. For the next 3 days I experienced residual shooting nerve pain in my feet. Thankfully, it eventually went away. The body has an amazing ability to heal itself.

Next, was my experiment with sandals. I thought sandals would give my feet a break from the cold elements and give my feet the ability to bend and breathe as they are intended. This was somewhat my experience, however, it’s not like barefoot running. The thing I missed most when wearing sandals was feeling the running surface under my feet. So far this year, I have only run a little over 60 miles with sandals. I guess if I thought it was a viable alternative to barefoot running, I would have continued running in sandals. It’s just not quite the same.

Throughout the winter, I continued to try to run barefoot as much as possible, concentrating on perfecting the ball/heel technique. Sometimes, I would run in racing flats (January, February) but most of the time, if I ran outside, I would try to run barefoot. One particular run I remember, we had freezing rain the night before. There was still a bit of snow from a previous storm on the ground, but the sidewalks and roads were pretty much clear. I remember running up by the high school on the sidewalk surrounding the school. It was about 15 degrees with sunny skies. I ended up running about 4 miles that day, occasionally slipping and sliding on patches of ice. A fellow church member recognized me and asked me about it a week later. He just shook his head in amazement!

Spring finally came and I was footloose without a concern for shoes or sandals. I continued to run and race, completing the Boston Marathon (mostly barefoot) and the next month running my first totally barefoot marathon at Olathe Kansas. I would run occasional races of shorter distances, for instance the Night Flight 5K and the Run For The Summit (which I took first place in my age category). I was enjoying the warmth of spring and summer months, building up my resistance by running on asphalt, concrete, trails, grass, whatever came my way.

At the end of summer, I ran the Heart of America Marathon successfully barefoot in under 4 hours. The course had 3 miles of gravel which was a true test of will to see if I could make it through. Finally, as a celebratory marathon, I traveled to Long Beach California to run with the Long Beach Marathon with Ken Saxton on October 10. I feel grateful to Ken and Runningbarefoot.org for the knowledge I have gained in the last year and I wanted to celebrate the year by running the marathon with him and other barefoot runners.

The Present and Future

I can say that the experiment I began a year ago has been a resounding success. (Since 10/21/03 I have ran over 1600 miles barefoot with no significant injuries that would keep me from daily running.) I knew there was something missing in my running and I believe I have found it. I am presently working on improving my technique. I have found that I can run faster and more effortlessly by “falling forward” in my stride, a concept taught in Chi running. Utilizing the ball/heel concept with a slight bend in the knees and a falling forward sensation allows my gravity to push forward at a faster pace.

Humankind is wonderfully and marvelously made. Our feet are no exception. Just as a weightlifter will utilize the necessary machines and free weights to build all muscles, both upper and lower body, runners do not often think about the need to exercise all the muscles, bones, and joints in their feet. What is so ironic, is that we of course use our feet as demonstrably as our legs when running. The following is an overview from podiatrychannel.com regarding the wonderful complexity of the foot:

The human foot combines mechanical complexity and structural strength. The ankle serves as foundation, shock absorber, and propulsion engine. The foot can sustain enormous pressure (several tons over the course of a one-mile run) and provides flexibility and resiliency.

The foot and ankle contain:

·        26 bones (one-quarter of the bones in the human body);

·        33 joints;

·        more than 100 muscles, tendons (fibrous tissues that connect muscles to bones), and ligaments (fibrous tissues that connect bones to other bones); and

·        a network of blood vessels, nerves, skin, and soft tissue.

These components work together to provide the body with support, balance, and mobility….

For me, to attempt to exercise and use all parts of my feet in order for them to perform their best seems like a reasonable goal. Personally, this means running barefoot all the time, because I like it. I have never been one for moderation, which might fit others lifestyles. I see a benefit in other runners subsidizing running with barefoot running to build foot character. Once the feet are strengthened, I believe it could only make shod runners that much better.

So, I will continue doing what I’m doing, expecting similar results of enjoyment from my new discovery. It is definitely nothing new – lots of people run barefoot all around the world. For me, it has beacome a re-discovery of something natural and primal that gives me a new found enjoyment for the sport of running.

 

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