Adventures in Barefoot Running

After marathon number six in February, Death Valley, I decided I wanted to step back for awhile and run less, just to give my body and mind a rest from the grind of long distance running.  I wasn’t enjoying putting in the miles as much as I had in previous years and knew it was time for a break, a pause, if you will.  I needed to regroup and figure out what my next plan of action would be with my running.

I toyed with the idea of barefoot running.  I’m very picky about my shoes–all shoes, not just running–and have a difficult time finding shoes that fit just right.  I have narrow heels, a long second toe, and a bunion on my right foot, so finding the perfect fitting shoe has been a lifelong quest of mine.  When I started running five years ago I must have tried every brand out there.  After an extended episode of plantar fasciitis two years ago, I eventually settled on Nike Free shoes.  I wear them for both training and racing and couldn’t be happier.  They fit me perfectly, are comfortable and light, and have just the right amount of support for my feet.  I wondered, however, just how minimal I could go.

I had a pair of Vibram Five Fingers that I often wore when I walked the dogs, but because of that long toe they never felt comfortable.  I loved running short distances in them, but knew they weren’t the shoe for me for long distances or races.  I still like to wear them, but I also think they are ugly.  I look like I have monkey feet.

Next I tried the new Merrell Trail Gloves.  I loved the feel and look of them, but they were too wide when I wore them without socks.  When I ordered the next half size smaller, they fit better across the top of my foot, but that long toe just grazed the end of the shoe.   By the end of a 6 miler my toe was pretty sore, and I knew it wouldn’t take much more before I started getting a black toenail (horrors!).  I really loved the look of the shoes, though.  They looked like track shoes, and I felt kind of cool wearing them.  (I always wished I had run track in high school.)

Like most of my running friends, I read Born to Run and was intrigued with the idea of running barefoot.  I ran behind a barefoot runner most of one marathon, and he seemed to be doing just fine sans shoes.  I liked the idea of running barefoot every once in awhile, for short distances, and I downloaded Barefooot Running:  How to Run Light and Free by Getting in Touch with the Earth on my Kindle and read it on the Death Valley trip.

Running barefoot would go right along with my new, simpler life.  I had started a vegetable garden, quit my job, and cut my hair all in the past two months.  I have friends who might call me “granola” because of my tree-hugging ways, so trying out barefoot running wasn’t really that much of a stretch for me.  I  truly believe the human body is made to run, so why not keep it as natural as possible?  I decided to try it.

My friend Hari had also wanted to try barefoot running, so one day we decided to run barefoot the last mile of a run at the lake.  It was AWESOME!  I couldn’t run on the rough sidewalk or road like Hari, however, and had to stay on the ultra-smooth white edge of the somewhat newly paved running path.  We tried it a few more times and I loved it more and more.

Running barefoot was fun, and I felt like a kid again every single time we tried it, which was usually at the end of a longer run.  It always felt so freeing to take off our shoes and socks and, shoes in hand, run that last mile back to the car completely unfettered and unshod.  I felt free and without a care in the world, much like I had felt when I was a kid.  Back then I practically lived outside, and rarely wore shoes.  Grass was cool and smooth, and the tar would stick to the soles of our feet when we played in the street.  Running barefoot as an adult brought that all back.  All I focused on was the path in front of me, and pace never crossed my mind.

Alas, when I tried to run around my busy inner city neighborhood barefoot it was as if I had grown two heads and six legs.  People stared, cars honked, and mouths dropped.  I know I shouldn’t have let it get to me, but it was disconcerting and did mess with my runner’s zen.  Plus, the sidewalks are in bad shape in my area and it was sometimes a painful run.  Even worse, Hari went a little too far too fast with his minimalist running and developed terrible plantars, which he hasn’t been able to shake for over a month.  Turns out he has a bone spur and won’t be running for a few more weeks, and no marathons until the end of the year.

For the time being I think I’ll stick with the Nike Free’s.  I would like to try the New Balance Minimus shoes at some point, but right now there’s no hurry.  I don’t think I’ll ever be a completely barefoot runner, but I still reserve the right to ditch the shoes and socks whenever the mood catches me.  The days are getting much warmer now, and the pavement will be as hot as sin soon, so shoes sound like a good idea–for the time being, at least.

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