September 4, 2007 | 12:12 a.m. CST
COLUMBIA — Standing at the start line, waiting to begin the 47th Annual Heart of America Marathon, Oscar Chavez couldn’t stop looking at Rick Roeber’s feet.
“I wanted to see if they’re different,” Chavez said. “My daughter asked me if his feet looked different, and I wanted to see.”
And are they?
“They’re dirty,” Chavez said with a laugh.
The reason for Chavez and his daughter’s interest, and for the uncleanliness of Roeber’s feet, is that before Monday, Roeber has run in 28 marathons, totaling 9,218.91 miles, in bare feet. The HOA Marathon on Monday, which he finished in 3 hours, 58 minutes and 12 seconds, was No. 29. Of the five times he has participated in the Columbia Labor Day tradition, four have been barefoot.
“He’s a unique person,” race director Joe Duncan said. “Running this thing barefoot boggles the imagination.”
HOA Marathon participant Tom Kilbourn agrees.
“It’s incredible,” he said. “Most of us need all the padding we can get. I’d never run barefoot. I can barely do it with well-padded shoes.”
But it is the excessive padding in running shoes that made Roeber, 51, start running without them. According to him, the heavy padding in his soles, combined with his frequent running, “weighed” his heels down, making them hit the ground improperly and causing two knee injuries — a stress fracture in his tibial plateau of his left knee and severe clicking in his right knee. Wanting to continue competing without possibly further damaging his knees, Roeber, or “Barefoot Rick” as he has come to be called, looked into barefoot running, a technique he had heard would prevent injuries. Since switching from shod to unshod running, Roeber has not had any more injuries.
“I don’t get hurt as much without shoes,” he said. “I get instant feedback. There’s so much padding in running shoes, you don’t get feedback from your feet if you’re doing yourself harm.”
Not only has barefoot running been safer for Roeber (he claims items such as glass are not a danger unless you “scrape your foot on the ground as you run”), it hasn’t hindered his level of competition. His fastest time with shoes was 3:15:59 in the 2001 Quad-Cities Marathon in Moline, Ill.. His fastest time without shoes was 3:38:07 in the La Salle Bank Marathon in Chicago in 2006.
“I’ve run 47 marathons, 29 barefoot and 18 with shoes.” Roeber said. “I haven’t found one advantage of running with shoes.”
Injury prevention and competition aren’t the only reasons Barefoot Rick decided to run barefoot.
“It’s the way God wanted us to run,” he said. “I look at it as a return to the hunter-gatherer way of running.”
Chuck Engle, winner of Monday’s event in 2:42:50, made the same observation.
“Everybody used to run barefoot,” he said. “If you think about it, running shoes just came around. Nikes just came around. I don’t know how he does it.”
Roeber, a born-again Christian from Lee’s Summit, Mo., also said the novelty of running marathons barefoot attracts media attention, something that could help him raise $10,000 for the Kansas City Rescue Mission. He is asking for donations provided for his runs in the Omaha Marathon, the Kansas City Marathon and New York City Marathon this fall.
“This has turned into a ministry for me,” Roeber said. “Once I started getting attention, I told the Lord that I was going to turn the attention away from me and onto Him.”
The Omaha Marathon will be especially interesting for Roeber. Susan Smisek, the marathon director, added a barefoot division for the 2007 running . Smisek said the Omaha Marathon had five barefoot runners compete last year and hopes to have 10 this year. Only “three or four” have signed up so far.
“I first found out about barefoot running on a New Year’s Day run in ‘06,” Smisek said. “There was a guy ... who was running in snow and ice barefoot. It piqued my interest. Why not have a barefoot division? I like the uniqueness of the category.”
Roeber also likes to run in the snow and ice. In December 2005 he ran the Dallas White Rock Marathon four days after getting frostbite on his left foot, a result of running barefoot in snow and ice when the temperature, when the wind chill was 6 below.
“After Dallas my toes looked like bloody nubs,” Roeber said with a laugh. “I like running barefoot in the snow. It’s cool. It’s fun.”