Most everything you read about barefoot running is wrong except for what I’m about to tell you

Barefoot running’s in the news again, this time with some anecdotal evidence claiming now that it is bad for you or at least maybe not that natural.

First is an article which appeared on ESPN, called Born to run barefoot? Some end up getting injured. It starts off with this:

Swept by the barefoot running craze, ultramarathoner Ryan Carter ditched his sneakers for footwear that mimics the experience of striding unshod.

The first time he tried it two years ago, he ran a third of a mile on grass. Within three weeks of switching over, he was clocking six miles on the road.

During a training run with a friend along a picturesque bike path near downtown Minneapolis, Carter suddenly stopped, unable to take another step. His right foot seared in pain.

Am I the only one to notice certain odd details? Let’s start with “ultramarathoner.” I mean no offense, but ultramarathoners run races over thirty miles at a time. So barefoot running is more dangerous than running thirty miles straight, okay, totally, I totally see that, not really.

Next, notice how he started: on grass, and within three weeks he was up to six miles.

Call me a wimp, but it took me months before I could get up to five miles, and nearly a year later, I’m only up to six. (I’m talking completely barefoot.) I’ve had no injuries in that time, and this is running about three times a week.

Is there any possibility that this is a highly motivated person? Like maybe it’s not the barefoot running, but that this is a guy who just feels compelled to push himself beyond his limits? Like most athletes?

Maybe athletes shouldn’t run barefoot. I heard once that the only three animals on the planet to suffer from stress fractures are race horses, greyhounds, and humans athletes.

Moving right along, the Huffington Post has published some semi-decent barefiit running tips  in an article called How to Start Barefoot Running.

Most of this advice here is good, minus two of the most horrible pieces of advice of all time: running on soft, bouncy tracks, and “minimalist shoes.” Geeawd.

With that, I shall now debunk all much of the bad advice or commentary ever dished out about barefoot running.

  1. You should run on grass. Maybe an advantage to this is that grass is soft and might feel good under your feet, but this isn’t necessarily a great idea because a lot of times, grassy fields are uneven. Unless you’re watching carefully where you’re going, you could twist your ankle in an unseen hole, step on a bee, step in dog poop, and so on. Yes, you can do these things on pavement, too, but they’re at least visible.  And the big lesson of barefoot running is to run with good posture, which is really hard to do watching your feet.
  2. You should run on a treadmill. I wouldn’t even run on a treadmill with shoes, so why would I do that barefoot?
  3. You should run on a soft, cushy high school track.Yes, you should do this if you are totally interested in getting hurt. Any surface that absorbs impact, and this includes shoes, is preventing you from learning how to do this with your legs.
  4. Running barefoot isn’t natural. Like, we weren’t born to run on concrete. We were born to run on tons of surfaces, including tough slabs of rock. Smooth concrete is one of the best surfaces for running barefoot. You don’t need to watch your step as much, it’s cooler than asphalt, and its stiffness teaches you to run with good posture and to relax.
  5. You might step on a syringe. Totally, because these are, like, everywhere. And they’re also known for sneaking up behind you, and suddenly throwing themselves into your path. Be careful!
  6. You could step on glass. This is actually the one legimate concern, and so to that I would recommend keeping your eyes open and watching out for this type of hazard. I have yet to have glass embed itself into my foot.
  7. Dog poop? You avoid this already!
  8. This only works if you are six years old. I think maybe, possibly, this could be true, but if this is, then we shouldn’t try anything new for the rest of our lives, ever.

And now, for the worst piece of barefoot running advice of all time:

You should run in minimalist shoes.

No. No! You should not run in minimalist shoes, not at least until you can run barefoot, confidently, for about an hour or so. (Walking around, that’s a different story. Huge Vibram Five Finger fan here.)

I don’t know why I say an hour; that’s arbitrary. Barefoot Ken Bob Saxton advises that you should build up for about three months before going back to shoes, but it took me even longer. The reasons for this adaptation period are simple yet so vast, I could write a book on it. Barefoot Ken Bob Saxton has. So has Michael Sandler. So have a ton of people. I don’t know what to say about barefoot running that hasn’t been said.

I’ll try it anyway: you have 200,000 nerve endings on the bottoms of your feet. They scream at you when they step on sharp objects. Your tender footsies are also prone to developing blisters. Don’t fight nature’s way of telling you something’s wrong.

Every blister, every time you scream Ow!, those are your feet saying, “Hey, I think you need to do this a little differently.” So you make little changes here and there. You learn how to relax, to bend your knees, to lift your feet instead of pushing off.

If you go barefoot over an extended period of time, regularly, whilesincerely not over-doing it (which is impossible for most people), your feet will actually teach you how to run.

Over time, you may think you’d like to try shoes. What you look for in a shoe will evolve. It might be minimalist shoes, it might be sandals, it might be army boots. Or you may discover you love running barefoot.

Shoes aren’t the problem. You don’t just kick them off  all your problems disappear. You have to be mindful about it. At least read up about it, especially on how to do it. If you get hurt, ask yourself, Is it really because I went barefoot? Could maybe running more than I should have have anything to do with it? Could it be, maybe, gasp, my running form?!

But as for this barefoot “craze,” maybe that is what it is. I question the motives of anyone who tries it, especially those who claim to run barefoot but really run in minimalist shoes, because I wonder how much thought they put into it. What is it that they’re looking for?

For me, it wasn’t my dream to run barefoot. It was simply my dream to run. Now I can’t imagine running any other way.

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50 Shades of Grating

I’ve invented a new genre of literature. It’s called neurotica. I’m working on my first piece. I share excerpts of it now.

Zane eyes me with a look that can only spelll suspicion. “Those aren’t tweezers, are they?” he asks in a tone indicating his lust.

“Maybe,” I giggle.

That’s just just build up, but if you’re at all neurotic, you should find that arousing.

Here’s a good juicy bit.

But I cannot look him directly in the eye, lest he see I need a tissue. Damn these allergies! I sniffle as seductively as I can, slyly moving my left sleeve to my nose, but alas, it cannot reach, not with him pinning me against the wall like this.

“Loretta, my girl, you are behaving differently. Why won’t you look at me?” he pants.

“It’s simply, that (sniff) I’m so (sniff) overwhelmed. You’re so experienced, and I’m so (sniff) young and innocent.” I again delicately lift my arm, and thanks to a subtle shift in position, I am able to yank my arm to my nose and wipe it clean. My sigh is really one of relief, but I add a breathiness to it, so he knows that I want him and all of his manhood.

“Now now, dear! There really is nothing to it.” As he speaks, his body shifts in such a way to upset my lower abdomen and I fart.

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Why I Haven’t Been Blogging

I haven’t been blogging because I’ve joined a creative writing group. I wish I could say this has increased my productivity, but although I’ve brought in a couple of pieces, mostly I go once a week to sit mesmerized by how amazing everyone is.

It’s at the Redwoods Rest Home in Mill Valley, which I’m sure has a more official name, but that’s where it is. It’s at the end of Camino Alto, right across the street from Safeway. If by chance you’re reading this and live there, tenants can sign up for this course for free, FYI.

My Great Grandma Myrtle lived and died there. I can’t say that’s the best of plugs for the facility, but she was 98 years old, after all. She died on Christmas Day. Remind me to tell you about the time she came back to play one note on the very piano she had bequeathed to me the year before. I was serenading the Christmas tree, singing Christmas carols as I was wont to do, when one note resonated from the piano, in its lower register. She’d already been dead by several days at that point, by the way. True story.

Our teacher is Tom Centolella. He is a world famous poet who gives back sharp feedback, and still, everyone keeps coming back. Most of his critiques I agree with, except that he told one writer in our group, who is reliving her days as an understudy in Beach Blanket Babylon on paper, that she spelled Baryshnikov wrong, Well, I fact checked on my iPhone, and no, she was actually spot on. And I hope that’s not the reason why she hasn’t returned, because her stories are some of my favorites. But I just really think, not like he’d ever read this, that if you’re going to critique someone in front of the whole group, dammit, you’d better be right about it. You can’t be all, “No, no, your spelling of Baryshnikov is way wrong.”

“But that’s how it was spelled in the paper yester-“

“No. Not even close.”

But that’s why I haven’t been writing here. I sit there in class and fact check on my iPhone, thinking I’d probably get more bang for my buck if I actually brought something in.

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I Deleted My Last Post

I deleted my last post because it was all Zen-preachy and it annoyed me.

I’m going to go about this a different way. First of all, if I’ve never mentioned it here before, this is my swimteam.

I joined it a little less than two years ago. Unlike other swim masters teams, where the coach writes the workouts on a whiteboard and then leaves, all of our workouts are coached, on the deck, in “real time.”

Two days before the annual Valentine’s Day swim meet at the Koret Center, one of our coaches, Don Swartz, educated us on the importance of swimming super fast times.

“It’s not like you’re curing cancer,” he said, to a bunch of giggles. That’s not how coaches normally talk.

I’ve never had a coach so determined to get us to not care about our times. But Coach Don and his partner Ken DeMont are so adament about it, they even wrote a two-parter blog post about it. Here’s part one.

It’s not about the time, but putting the effort and focus  into the different components of a race. If you get them all right, you might even manage a fast time, but the fast time is only a result of all those other parts.

That’s a nice twist for some of us who grew up swimming, and remember when we were “fast.”  Who wants to go to a swim meet only to see how much worse you’ve become?

But focusing on starts and turns, or negative splitting? Holding your breath into the turns? All of these are building blocks of a “good swim.” These become tangeable goals, a new definition of success, separate from the time, which is pretty meaningless.

I wasn’t sure if I could go into this meet with that mindset. I tried last year, and though I enjoyed the team experience of it, I felt disappointed. I was seconds slower than what I predicted, and I thought my expectations were reasonable.

The only thing I knew about this swimmeet going in was that I was likely going to be just as slow as I was last year, but that it just doesn’t matter. It’d probably be better to have no expectations at all.

It hit me on the bleachers. Someone asked me how my 50 fly went, and I had to stop and think about it because I’d already moved on from it. I didn’t care.

A couple more swims went by, one a little slower, a couple a little bit faster, inluding one race that was .9 faster than last year.

“So how went the meet,” Coach Don asked me this morning at swim practice. 

I told him how much I didn’t care about my times.

He high-fived me.

I think I’ve arrived.

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The Hidden Lesson of Dodgeball

At dim sum the other night, the boys were lamenting the loss of kickball and dodgeball as traditional elementary school sports. According to child psychology experts, they are too competitive and foster low self-esteem. Now the kids practice running in place so no one wins. Everyone’s a champion. 

It was concluded that we’re turning into a nation of pansies.

As a counterpoint, I shared how much I hated those two sports, for a whole bunch of reasons.

First of all, I was always the last one picked, on any team, in any sport. Whichever team I ended up on groaned.

Second of all, I was always the first one out in dodgeball. I was always the one anyone aimed for, always with the same sinister sneer.

In kickball, whenever I was up, the entire outfield would move to inside of the bases, sending a message of what they thought of my capabilities. How I wanted to prove them wrong, to send that one ball over into the next school yard, to show them all who they were really dealing with. But I always choked. I never made it to first base, ever.

This other time after a brutal game of dodgeball, this girl Lisa came up to me and said, “Are you a virgin?”

I didn’t even know what a virgin was.

“Heck no, I’m not a virgin.”

“Oh, my Gawd! Katie Kelly isn’t a virgin!”

There were so many legitimate reasons not to like these sports. They made me mad, mainly.

This is me last summer.

Photo by Jim Sugar

Thank you, dodgeball.

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I Have a Little Something to Say about Closure

I have something to say about “closure.” It is a term that other people apply to other people’s pain, as a means to get them to shut up.

“Wow, you really sound like you’re in pain. I hope therapy helps you find the closure that you need,” sounds compassionate enough.

Now I’m going to translate this to what really means: “Wow, you’ve been upset about this for the past five months. I hope you find a therapist because I can’t listen to this anymore.”

Or maybe you seek closure because you think that one day, you’ll have some kind of happy ending, where this chapter closes, and you’ll never again feel that racing heartbeat, you’ll never break down sobbing, you’ll never have another nightmare, that from now on, you’ll be happily “moving on.” Cue the credits.

Isn’t that what people say? Movin’ on. Next.

You get pats on the back because you’re being so strong.

“Wow, you’re taking this so well.”

Translation: “I’m so glad to not have to be burdened with this.”

When I first started EMDR therapy over a year ago, it was to deal with some rage over some stuff. One of them was Tina’s death from more than two decades ago, but my list was long.

If you’re not familiar with EMDR, I think this website does a fantastic job of explaining it. In layman’s terms, you’re “processing” painful memories so that they no longer interfere with your daily thought processes. It’s apparently used with great success for sufferers of PTSD, especially war veterans. EMDR was recommended to me because two shrinks told me I suffered from it, which I thought was funny. I thought all that nervousness was my schtick. Seriously.

When we worked through Tina’s violent death, I was fourteen all over again. I screamed and cried. I hyperventilated and almost passed out.  “Why don’t you look out the window,” my therapist suggested, in a soothing voice. She assured me this was normal. I saw Tina in the backyard, sitting on a rock, laughing at me, just like she always did.

This didn’t close a wound. It cracked it wide open, exposing every nerve ending to what I’d been running away from all this time. I was back in Pleasanton, fighting off this invisible, unknown person who was killing my friend with a knife. I’ve been fighting all of these years, disguising it with jokes.

How many times have I talked about Tina in therapy, I don’t know. I wasn’t expecting this. I expected the same old, “You know it’s not your fault, right?” I know, I know: She’s not pissed off at me, I had nothing to do with it, I was just 14, grown ups let me down, I’m a good person, Tina’s at peace, yadda yadda. It made loads of sense. It never stopped the nightmares.

During an EMDR session, you hold these electronic probes, one in each hand, that alternate pulses. This is connected to gentle beeps that simultaneously sound from each side of the couch. It’s the reliving of the moment in conjunction with these alternating pulses that stimulates the brain into “processing” this memory so that it  moves from the right brain hemisphere to the left, the side that controls logic and reason.

It’s like massage therapy of the brain. You can keep pretending the knots aren’t there, or you can get to the core of them, and mash those suckers out.

It took three sessions to work through Tina’s death, and then we went through other items on my very long list. But you know a memory is processed when you can think of the event without an emotional charge. And even now, I don’t know if I’ll ever completely remove that charge. I wasn’t able to put this memory into a box, the way my therapist was trying to get me to visualize it. Maybe this blocked me from fulling putting this memory away, but I can’t put Tina away. She is too alive, she laughs too loud.  

But I was able to let her walk away from me. It took some coaxing. It was through a garden, with a dirt path, and oak trees, and flowers of every color, and bees. She smiled and waved, singing, “Tra la la la la la” in her pretend opera voice. Always the smart ass. Always getting the last laugh.

When I left this therapist’s office that afternoon, I noticed a couple of things. One was that I walked taller. I ran with my Wednesday running group that night, faster than I ever had. At the post-run dinner, I found myself engrossed in every word my table companions said. I wasn’t wrapped up in racing thoughts. I never even knew I had racing thoughts. I guess you never know you have them ’til they’re gone.

But when they’re gone, you’re left with your eyes and ears funtioning to full capacity, on call to absorb an abundance of information, including other people’s joy and pain. You will never again hear yourself say, “Wow, well, I hope you get closure.”

That was a year ago. My world since then has become enriched with the most amazing experiences and people. I’d like to say that EMDR provided some kind of happy ending, if there were such a thing.

Last August, we were at a Thai restaurant in Sausalito, rehashing how wonderful Renovo Wooden Bikes are, when my cell phone rang. It was Shirley. Tina’s mom.

“They caught him.”

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Barefoot and On The Run

I achieved a personal barefoot running record yesterday by turning up Spring Grove Avenue in San Anselmo instead of taking my usual way along Greenfield Avenue, which runs parallel to what’s known as the Miracle Mile. This, plus some other hillside streets past G Street, added up to six miles according to Google Maps.

Well. It turns out, unless your feet can handle broken rocky asphalt — the standard condition of Spring Grove —  this is not the best way to go barefoot. But if you insist, you can you employ psychological techniques to train your brain into believing that this is some sort of drill work.

Some would call these lies.

One aspect of such drill work is to avoid looking at the ground at all. This is because when you see how terrible the ground looks, you know the pain that’s about to jar through your entire body, so you tense up even more, wanting to cry. This is unavoidable.

If you keep your gaze straight ahead instead, you remain upright. The knee bend absorbs the shocks. You can relax.

This was the mental state I was working on, when I was confronted with the San Rafael Police squad car parked diagonally across the roadway, barring anyone, me, from passing.

Here we go again, I thought to myself.

Two Months Ago

It’s a balmy November day in San Rafael. I’m about to embark on my typical five-miler. I’ve just turned left onto the 4th Street sidewalk. I must pass shoppers carefully, as they cannot hear me, in part because barefoot, I am as quiet as a stalking leopard, and in part also because they’re on their cell phones and couldn’t hear me if I were screaming like Tarzan.

I weave in and out of the heavy 4th Street pedestrian traffic, using my stealth barefoot collision avoiding techniques. I’m getting primal.

To my right, on the road, a bicycle cop rides in the same direction as I.

Perfect, he is just the man I want to talk to, I think to myself. I have some questions for him about bicycle law. I wonder if I should flag him down.

It is precisely as I think these thoughts that he circles back towards my general direction, and I think how conveniently lucky I am. Before I can wave him down, I see that he is, in fact, hopping the curb and riding straight for me.

He stops his bike, and we exchange greetings.

“So where are you off to?” he asks me, slowly and loudly. No one has spoken to me this way since I was perhaps four years old.

“Just to San Anselmo and back,” I say.

“Really. Interesting. Barefoot,” he says, looking me up and down.

“Yeah, it’s great!”

“Do you mind if we ask you a few questions?” he asks. His partner has just arrived on his own bicycle.

“What’s going on, Officer?”

“We’ll get to that. Why don’t you take a seat right here.” They usher me to a cement stoop holding flowers outside a local shop.

His partner also notices out loud that I’m running barefoot. Have they read the literature, and are perhaps interested in this growing phenomenon?

“So. Where do you live?” the first cop asks.

Feeling flustered, I cannot remember my exact address. I’ve moved two months ago. It’s not at the tip of my tongue.

“Albert Park?” I say, giving the general neighborhood, immediately realizing that Albert Park is also a known homeless encampment.

“Where are you running to?” he asks me.

“To San Anselmo, like I just said.”

“Barefoot.”

“What’s going on?” I ask. I’m not liking how they’ve circled around me, making walking away impossible, were I to try to escape, which is a dominant thought. I’m not liking how pedestrians, some with faces I recognize after ten years of living downtown, avoid eye contact with me.

“We’ll get to that. What’s your name?”

“Katie Kelly.”

“Right. Katie Kelly.” They wink at each other, and the first cop reaches for his radio.

“What the?”

“Have you heard from your boyfriend lately, Katie Kelly?” says the second cop.

“No, has something happened? What the hell is going on!”

“Why don’t you tell us your boyfriend’s name.”

My breathing is rapid, and I can feel my heart pounding in my chest. I tell them his name, which actually sounds like a real name, apparently, unlike Katie Kelly.

“Oh. Well. Wait a minute,” one of them says. “That’s not adding up.”

“How old are you?” asks the other.

“I’m 42,” I say. They tell me to take off my sunglasses.

“Oh, yeah, I guess she does look 42,” one cop says to the other.

“I do not look 42!”

“Okay, you can go.”

“You just said I look 42!”

“It’s okay, you’re not who we thought you were.”

They said I matched the description of a woman who had escaped from the hospital, last seen running barefoot in a blue hospital gown. As I was wearing running shorts, and not a hospital gown, I am assuming that their only other connecting clue was that I was barefoot.

Yesterday

“Ma’am, it looks like you forgot your shoes,” said the officer on Spring Grove, walking towards me from his squad car.

Here we go.

“Listen, pal. This is for skill building, for improved running performance. I’m not the one you’re looking for,” I said, while still managing to employ my psychological pain awareness and absorption techniques with moderately believable results.

“Uh, okeedokey,” he said. “I’m looking for a lost dog. Have you seen him? You look miserable, by the way.”

Now. Miramar Avenue and Reservoir Road, up on the hillside just past G Street, that’s where the road is as plush as velvet, and you’ll want to run barefoot forever.

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