In my 30’s, I was training hard and getting results: faster race times … and severely beat-up knees. I may have been fleet of foot while running, but during "civilian life" I felt like an old man hobbling around, my knees were so stiff and sore. Ice and NSAID anti-inflammatories became a constant in my life, as they had for legions of other runners. Then, during at mile 16 of an 18-mile marathon training run on the concrete bike path that ran along the beach near our Marina del Rey home, my heels finally said "No mas!!" There arose a dull pain in my right heel that persisted for the remaining two miles ... and for weeks afterwards.
Running hard on hard surfaces can be brutal. Maybe you've noticed too?
Then the obvious occurred to me: unlike concrete or asphalt, soft dirt trails are ... soft! When we lived in Southern California, my wife and I loved hiking the trails of the Santa Monica Mountains … so why not RUN on them?
Man, that made a big difference. It was also challenging & infinitely more interesting to navigate over uneven ground. Sensing the ground is a very important component of trail running. Recall, I was still wearing running shoes at the time.
So then I thought – if I really want to feel the ground, why not wear moccasins instead of running shoes? Just like the Deerslayer or the Last of the Mohicans! Native Americans knew how to move through the woods.
Alas, walking in moccasins was fine, but it was a tricky proposition keeping them on while running. So I went back to my New Balance running shoes for a while.
Then, in 2000, we moved to Sherwood, a small town on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon where there is a lot more earth than concrete. Yea! Harking back to my boyhood barefootedness in the Hollywood Hills and the semi-wilderness of nearby Griffith Park, recalling my enchantment with barefoot characters like Huckleberry Finn (still a role model!) and fascination with a photo I saw in a Time-Life book showing a barefoot Sherpa’s heavily callused foot, I decided to live out my youthful dreams of going barefoot anywhere and everywhere.
I began by working in the backyard without shoes and noticed my feet regaining some of their old durability, not to mention strength. Cool! During summer walks around the neighborhood with my wife, Gail, I started going shoeless. Neighbors working in their front yards took note and weren’t sure what to make of it, assuming it was a show-off stunt or something. But after a few weeks, I noticed the same individuals working in their front yards … barefoot! Barefooting is its own reward, that’s all I can say!
With so many parks and wooded areas near us, I began experimenting again with my idea of trail running with only minimal foot covering. But this time I took the minimalist concept all the way to its logical max: remove the foot covering altogether!
The first time I ran barefoot on a trail, in nearby Champoeg Park, it was exhilarating to feel the earth under my feet, to spread my toes and fly over the dirt trails under an arched canopy of oaks and alders. It felt both familiar and strange -- and even faintly illicit: I kept looking around to make sure no else was around to see what I was doing!
Our local Magness Tree Farm (not a flat “farm” like you’d imagine, but a rugged wooded valley with shady trails threading up and down mountainsides of douglas fir, hemlock and cedar) was another favorite. In the Photo Gallery, there’s a picture of me running those trails back then.
One thing that I discovered right away was a whole passel of sore “micro-muscles” – the tiny stabilization muscles in the feet – that were getting their first workout in decades. (I’d be sore too, if I’d been neglected for so long!) ;-)
My calves were the sorest of all though. They were fatigued from the unaccustomed work of holding my heel off the ground while I did a forefoot landing (good) instead of the standard heel-strike landing (bad). Lots more about that distinction under "Barefoot Biomechanics" and "Technique". But after a week or two, all those muscles got toned up and the soreness departed.
It was marvelous, all the new things I was observing and learning about!
Yet despite this new realm of running experience, I still felt compelled to lace up my New Balances for organized races like 5K's, 10K's and half-marathons. I was frankly a little nervous about running a full-out race pace on hard pavement for so many miles without shoes to “protect” my feet. Nevertheless, the idea of running races barefoot lingered in my mind as an intriguing possibility, so I cruised around the “Inter-Webs” ;-) to see if anyone else was doing this kind of thing. Not surprisingly, there were indeed! There were other barefooters out in cyberspace.
In particular, I found a fellow who’d pioneered a lot of ground already … running not just 10K’s, but full-up marathons sans shoes! Wow, I was blown away! Not only was it possible to run races barefoot, but someone had done it on a far more ambitious scale than I had even considered! His name: Ken Bob Saxton. His website: www.runningbarefoot.com. I found a wealth of information about barefoot running there – tips, technique and above all the reassurance that someone else had tried it and survived! In fact the soles of his feet looked fine. Wow.
Armed now with this new knowledge & confidence, I ran my first barefoot race in February of 2005. It was 5.1 mile trail race at West Linn’s Mary S. Young State Park on the left bank of the Willamette River. It was raining that day and it turned into a bit of a mudfest, but when I finished I was ecstatic! It was a heck of a lot of fun!
Next, I set my sights on marathons. The first was the “Haulin’ Aspen” trail marathon in the Cascade foothills above Bend, Oregon, in September of the same year. That was a fairly grueling course, climbing 2500’ over 13.1 miles followed by an unbroken descent the whole way back, albeit through the dappled shade of a lovely woodland of lodgepole pines, pinion pines and junipers.
Aside from very stiff & sore calves at the finish, as wells as some big blisters and a toe injury suffered when I stupidly kicked a "pine cone" out the way that turned out to be a tree root (yeoww!!!), I was in pretty good shape. I savored a delicious wade into the cold clear water of the nearby Deschutes River, then I ran a mile back to where my car was parked. (Photos)
This was very encouraging!
One month later, I finished the 2005 Portland Marathon. More blisters. But I was delighted that I’d finally conquered my fear of pavement! (Photos)
Since then, I’ve not done barefoot 5K's, 10K’s, a couple of half-marathons and one more marathon, the beautiful Biz Johnson trail marathon outside of Susanville, CA -- where my wife Gail completed her all-time first and (the following year) second full marathons!
I’ve also started experimenting with barefoot hiking in the mountains.
The rest, as they say, is history. Maybe it will be yourstory too!