Barefoot Monologues

A Journey of the Sole


Notes from the bottom of a barrel

The last 35 minutes has been the lowest point of my entire running life.

I have run through pain before. Sore knees, sprained ankles, not much has ever kept me from running for very long, especially in the last year. But it’s been five weeks since my last run and my rebellious streak told me that I should try to run a little tonight while I was walking my dog. I made it only a few hundred feet before I had to stop. It hurt so badly. There was a bench on the side of the path. I sat down, I rubbed my achey foot. And then I cried a little.

I am at a point of utter despair. I try to tell myself that this is all temporary, and that if I am patient I will run again before it gets cold out and this will all be a lesson in my rearview. But while I’m limping back home with a dog pulling on his leash for me to move at the speed he is used to, nothing seems temporary. I feel like a caged animal. Like a loser. Weak. Un-athletic. Fat. I start to re-evaluate myself: maybe I shouldn’t be running barefoot. Maybe the people who tell me barefoot running is stupid are all right. Maybe having sore knees and sprained ankles in regular running shoes is preferable to this. Maybe I shouldn’t be trying to run fast. Maybe I shouldn’t be trying to run long.

Maybe I shouldn’t be running at all.

But how can that be? Running is one of the greater forms of happiness in my life. It just seems so unfair that it should be taken away from me. I trained all winter for the chance to meet so many new goals this summer. I am frustrated at this loss of time.

I realize this setback of mine is a satisfying opportunity for naysayers to dust off their I-told-you-so soapboxes. I’m tired of trying to explain that it’s not the shoes. The fact is that the shoes have given me so much, so much more freedom, so much more distance. The shoes have rekindled my love for the sport. But I squandered what the shoes gave me by demanding more than they could give me…more than my feet could deliver. It was a stupid move and I will pay for it with many I-told-you-so‘s.

I’m not sure where to go from here. Maybe next time my physical therapist tells me not to run I won’t. Maybe next week I’ll break down and start using the dreaded stationary bike at the gym so that I don’t completely undo all my endurance while I’m waiting this out. But either way, until I’m running again I don’t think I’ll be smiling very big.


Running as Art

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Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t like sports.

Despite having been raised by an athletic father who played softball in the summer and hockey all winter, despite having been a basketball and football cheerleader in high school, and despite the fact that I live right smack in the middle of Red Sox Nation, I have absolutely no interest in sports. It’s a lot like living in Nashville and not liking Country Music. While most of my coworkers are looking for tickets to the Yankees/Red Sox game during our next business trip to New York City, I’m mentally planning a quiet night at Shake Shack with the few who don’t give a hoot about which team wins.

No, I don’t like sports at all. But I am a runner. So what gives?

Last weekend I attended the Boston leg of Chris McDougall’s “Naked Run” tour. It was Marathon weekend, so there were tents, noise, streets blocked off and police everywhere. And the glorious finish line was all set up right next to the Boston Public Library, where about 60 barefoot and minimally-shod runners met up to run a 5-mile loop together. Regular Joes and Nancies all pounding the pavement with the likes of Scott Jurek, Dr. Daniel Leiberman, Lee Saxby, John Durant, and of course the man himself, Christopher McDougall. It was probably the coolest run I’ve ever done to date…yes, even cooler than that warm morning jog on Coronado Island last December. Kathy and I smiled until our faces hurt and she snapped a photo every 3 minutes. We ran behind McDougall most of the way, and at one point I was able to catch up to him for a quick chat. It was relaxed, laid-back and beautiful, exactly the things you want out of a run. With a half mile left we stripped off our shoes and ran “naked” across the Boston Marathon finish line and back to the library steps, still smiling like a couple of fools.

Running...ahem..."with" Chris McDougall.

What strikes me the most about that run, and about all of my running experiences since reading Born to Run, is that running represents nothing but joy to me. Unlike those who grunt out two miserable miles on the treadmill twice a week to fulfill their New Years resolutions, I’d rather be running than doing pretty much anything else. Could it be because I took my shoes off? Revamped my slacker running form? Could be. But I think the real difference is that now I see running less as a  sport and more as a practiced art.

The subject of barefoot running is filled with a ton of historical hypothesis, instructional information and biomechanical science. There are books, blogs, videos, forums, events and lectures all over the place about it. Anything you want to know about why you should run barefoot or with minimal footwear, it’s easy to find. There will be at least a few minimalist runners at every 5k and half marathon you’ll enter this year, and every running store worth its salt is carrying at least a few pairs of minimalist running shoes.

Running naked in Beantown.

I don’t believe that running should be thought of like a sport, or used as a workout that you do to get back into your high school jeans. Those jeans are out of style, anyway. I believe running should be approached as an art form, like dancing, singing, painting or writing. Things that we all do at some level all our lives, as a form of pleasure or social activity. For example anyone can sing, and it’s enjoyable even if you suck at it (think of all the times you’ve belted out “Happy Birthday” to your embarrassed friends and family at TGIFridays). And then there are people like Aretha Franklin, who sing too, just much, much better.

What I’m saying here is that some activities are part of who we are, part of our cultures, our societies. Why have we made running out to be anything different? Running is a default movement of our species. More specifically, it’s a default art form of our species. It’s inherent in all of us to run, just like bopping our heads to a great song on the radio, or drawing a stick figure of ourselves on our notepads during snooze-fest board meetings. We all have the tools to run; our bodies were built with parts meant to make us able to run, stuff that not all creatures have. We run constantly as children, and we do it without the aid of motion-control shoes or GPS watches. Certainly 99.999% of us will never win the Boston Marathon, we just don’t possess the talent. Still thousands show up every year to run it, just the same. It’s because these people know that running is a good thing, and that yes, it’s good for you. These people haven’t forgotten how to enjoy movement. Haven’t allowed themselves to become too distracted by their televisions, their careers or their iPads. They’re not members of the huge majority of Americans who have inexplicably convinced themselves that they can’t run. So let me take a moment here to remind everyone again, in the words of Chris McDougall:

  • You weren’t born broken.
  • Running isn’t a perilous punishment-for-pizza.
  • Everything you need [to run], you had the day you were born.
So yes, I believe that running is a form of art. Or at least that’s what it’s become for me (an artist by trade) since reading Born to Run last year. The book taught me that practicing my running form is cathartic on a level superior to deep breathing or antidepressants. That completing a difficult run is 90% mental. And that 10 miles is about so much more than just burning calories…it’s about the journey within myself. Learning these things has made my life happier, and in some ways it has even made me a better person.

Precisely the moment at which I choked. I thank my good friend Kathy for catching it on camera.

I wanted to thank Mr. McDougall for writing the book that would do such a thing for me, last weekend when I finally caught up to him on the bridge over the Charles River Basin. But instead I choked, and ended up asking him why he wasn’t running barefoot. It turned out okay anyway, and I even got a compliment on my running form. Maybe if I read the book again, I can learn to be zen enough to talk to celebrities without that residual “OMG I’m such a GEEK” side-effect. One can only hope.

I even geeked-out at the signing.

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Suck it up.

I hope this blog post doesn’t jinx the run I am planning for this afternoon, but I think I might be finally getting into the groove of the whole distance running thing. I’m starting to understand a little more about what my body can handle, what to do to keep it from hurting, and most importantly, I’m getting much better at figuring out what discomfort I’m supposed to stop for and what discomfort I’m supposed to suck up and stop whining about.

It has been quite a transition from shoes to barefoot/minimalist, as it has been quite a transition from “whatever” mileage to “holy crap I just did that” mileage. My legs hated it at first. They got sore, they made it hard for me to walk, and they even tried to feign just about every major running injury in the book, in turn, for at least several days. Since last July, on any given week I have been unwaveringly convinced that I was afflicted with:

  • TOFP (“top of foot pain,” can be anything from tendon damage to stress fracture)
  • achilles tendonitis
  • sprained ankle (I actually did have a sprained ankle)
  • permanently torn calf muscles
  • exercise-induced asthma (I actually do have that)
  • plantar fasciitis
  • peroneal tendonitis
  • stress fracture on my pinky toe metatarsal
  • pes cavis (abnormally high arch)
  • IT Band Syndrome
  • plantar fat pad atrophy
  • hamstring strain
  • infected blisters

Now I believe, or I hope rather, that for the most part my body has finished freaking out. Partly because my nervous system has run out of involved body parts to inflict, but also because I think the growing pains have helped me bang out most of the kinks in my running form and training methods. I know what it feels like when I’m overstriding; I can tell when I’m hunching over or when my cadence is too low. I know that I can’t run more than about 7 miles without bringing some form of fuel and water with me. I know that if I don’t stretch, massage and ice certain parts of my legs after long runs, I will pay for it later in the week. And I know that I can run 13.1 miles, even though the last 6 will be pretty uncomfortable.

And that’s where the sucking-it-up part comes in.

I can’t wait for the Great Bay Half Marathon on April 3rd. Whether I cross the finish line running, crawling or in an ambulance, it’s going to be a great time and a great accomplishment for me. And I do hope that I will have my dear friends there with me.


A Better Resolution

Well, well, well…here we are. The third day of January, in the year twenty-eleven. Half a week into those lofty, ever-looming New Year’s resolutions. You know, those well-intentioned promises we declare out loud, as if just by voicing them we are re-inventing ourselves for the next three hundred sixty-five days. It’s unfortunate that most of these promises are swiftly abandoned, leaving diet plans unrealized and fitness centers empty all over the country by mid-February.

I don’t typically make New Year’s resolutions. I avoid the expectations altogether by admitting to myself that a date on a calendar is just not enough to motivate me to lose 30 pounds or to clean my closet more often. I do, however, have some goals for the year 2011. One of them is to start a blog (done). And the other is to start training for a half marathon (done). It’s a win-win when all you have to do is promise to continue something you’ve already begun, right? To me, that’s better than making some stinkin’ resolution.

It feels good to have started a blog. I don’t know why I didn’t have one before – perhaps it was laziness, fear of failure or lack of motivation. Or maybe it was the realization that the internet doesn’t need another self-important, nameless American blathering on about their preference for wet-wipes over regular toilet paper. At any rate, I’m disappointed in myself at how little I’ve written over the past few years. I was born a writer. And by that I mean I had a deplorable, tragic childhood, which is the perfect canvas for a brilliant writing career. I’ve always planned to write at least one book in my lifetime. A seamstress in a school uniform store once told me, after having been briefed by my aunt on the events of my childhood, that I should write a memoir someday. I’m not sure many people would be interested in a memoir about me – maybe only about as many as I expect to read this blog, if that. And even if my life story were compelling enough to land on Oprah’s Book Club list, I still haven’t written it. I haven’t even decided whether to write it, or to write fiction instead, or something in between. “Write what you know,” mentors advise, “find your voice.” But maybe that’s just it: I haven’t yet found my voice. I guess my hope is that having a blog will tease that voice out of me. I have some ideas; but whether they work or not, at least I’m finally writing again.

The half-marathon (or “Pikermi,” as it’s been affectionately nick-named, after the city which falls mid-point between the Grecian cities of Marathon and Athens, in the historical 26.2 mile race) is a new ambition of mine, even though I have been a “runner” for several years. I put the term in parentheses because for about 8 years I only ran for the sake of punching out 30 minutes of cardio on the dreadmill twice a week, in an effort to aid my Weight Watchers diet plan. There was no attention to form, distance, footwear, no attempt at improvement or acquisition of skill. I didn’t love doing it, and I injured myself a lot. It wasn’t really running. It took me until last June to understand how much I do love to run. I won’t go into minute detail here, but one day I discovered the joy and freedom of running without “shoes” (i.e. heavily padded, rubberized, motion-controlled foot coffins known as the modern running sneaker). Since then I’ve learned how to be a runner. Now I run because I want to be a better runner, and being a better runner requires physical fitness and a healthy body weight. Which brings me to the core of my running goal: to train, and eat, in such a way that I can complete at least one half-marathon in the year 2011 (and, hopefully, beyond). My endeavor officially began on New Years morning with a 10 kilometer race, and I’m well on my way, as they say, with a stack of celery on my desk and a 9-mile long run planned for this weekend.

So there’s my introduction to this blog, and to the year 2011. Now let’s get down to work.