In the upcoming weeks and months, I hope to expand on my barefoot running experiences, a habit I started maybe six or seven months ago, and for all the reasons you might suspect. Yes, I read Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run, and just like everyone else, I purchased a pair of Vibram Five Fingers, and became convinced, as everyone does, that these foot gloves, with their zero support and flexible rubber soles, would force me to transform into a natural runner, like the Tarahumara Indians in Mexico.
This turned out to be a terrible idea and it’s not just because the shoes lack any cushioning or support. They also block your feet from feeling the ground, so you can’t tell if you’re feet are slamming into the ground or not. Even if you forefoot strike, which I was, you can still forefoot strike too hard, and I did. I think I gave myself a stress fracture. (My doctor at Kaiser said it was a Morton’s Neuroma, and perscribed a steroid injection and maybe even surgery. I thought that seemed excessive for a stress fracture, so I waited 12 weeks, and it healed on its own. So I don’t know what it was. It hurt.)
Now I run barefoot, and I don’t get hurt, at least not in the traditional way that runners get hurt. I haven’t had the knee tendinitis, or the plantar fasciitis, two issues that have plagued me in the past. I did get some Achilles pain, but when I cut out running on the track, that quickly disappeared.
Barefoot running made me start with a new approach. Unlike all my other running forays, where before I knew it, I’d gone too far, barefoot, I could only run around the block, before my feet screamed at me to knock it off.
See, there’s this problem we athletes have. We are notorious for not listening to our bodies. I thought perhaps this is what separates athletes from “normal” people, this ability to turn our minds off to the pain, but I’ve come to think it’s something else, and that is how can you listen to your body, when you can’t even hear it?
Your feet are very easy to listen to you, if you don’t muffle them with shoes. You’ve got 200,000 nerve endings down there, and when they’ve had enough, you’ll listen, with little discussion, even if it’s just a couple of minutes.
This is also why there is nothing glamorous about barefoot running. As five minutes turns into five miles, still, tiny pebbles will get stuck to your feet, you may flinch, and you will not look attractive. You’ll take itty bitty steps through broken asphalt sections. That’s always when your friends will see you, and they will tell you, in all sincerity, that you look awful.
This is a far cry from McDougall’s image of the Tarahumara Indians, gracefully galloping across mountain tops for 50 miles at a time, barefoot, or with tire rubber strapped to their feet.
It’s not what I envisioned at all. No one’s told me I run like Zola Budd, or Abebe Bikila, or even Emil Zapotek (Czech Olympian known for his flailing form), and I’ve been stopped by the police because I matched the description of an escapee from a mental hospital.
But I know what fallen leaves feel like (smooth and absorbant), as well as the warm caress of moss. Good enough.