I searched the mass of 1600 runners behind the start line for any other barefoot or minimalist runners. I was disappointed not to see any, as I usually at least spot someone in sandals or Vibrams. Then, I heard someone say, “Ah! There she is. Bare feet.” This made me smile, but though it was close enough to assume they were talking about me, it was too crowded to pick out the speaker after the fact. After a bit, one fellow came and stood beside me quite intentionally. In my peripheral vision, I saw him looking at me and I finally realized that I recognized him as the tall, middle aged deaf runner I had seen at a race two weeks before that I had volunteered at, so not the same person I had heard talking earlier. I greeted him and he pointed enthusiastically at my feet, saying, “Wow!” and bowing in great respect. Then, the race started.
The first few miles were filled with the usual comments and exclamations. It wasn’t constant, but it was frequent and regular. However, with everyone jockeying around in the crowd being squished into first a narrow road, then a bike path, no one had time for much conversation. It was just as well. It took all my concentration to navigate and keep a comfortable, yet progressive, pace. Nearly everyone was friendly, even careful, except for one lady that kept bumping into my right shoulder from behind. The third time, she apologized profusely, and I assured her that it was all fine. Of more concern to me were her loud clomping
feet shoes, and I wanted to get away from that. Not because I was afraid for my bare feet, but because the sound bothered me like a note out of key and a song with bad timing. My feet have never been even close to being hurt from the masses of runners around me, which surprised even me during my first barefoot race a few years ago. (click on any photo to enlarge)
When people see me run with bare feet, they have one of 3 basic reactions:
- Being in awe
- Wanting to understand
- Telling me it is stupid
Judging from what I end up hearing, most people fall into the first two categories. Not all comments are directed at me, many simply being spoken well within my hearing. Most of the time the comments are generated from a not unreasonable surprise, in a world where shoes are still the norm. Unfortunately, many of the comments come from too far away or I am not ready to interrupt my run to interject myself where I have not been invited. When people do take time to speak to me personally about how impressed they are, I really try to emphasize right away that I do it because it is much more fun than running with shoes on! If they hang around for a while more, I attempt to explain succinctly that it is healthier. I would never be running these distances in shoes, especially the modern “running” shoe.
My favorite “in awe” comment during this half marathon came from a tall, athletic college-age fellow. He was so tall that he could nearly bend his whole head around in front of me as he ran by. I know because this is what he did. He had obviously been planning what to say, and was speaking to me from behind before I could see him. He asked, “Is there a special name for running barefoot?”
Surprised, I gave him a quick quizzical smile, raised an eyebrow and answered in measured syllables, “Just. Barefoot.”
He laughed and quipped, “Not ‘commando’ or something?” I laughed. He proceeded to offer me effusive encouragement for such an, he implied with his tone, super human accomplishment.
As he began to pull ahead casually, I replied, “You, too! Running in shoes is hard!” And then he laughed.
I did come across one other lady running barefoot in the first half of the race. We gave each other high fives. At the first encounter, I passed her. She whizzed by me a few miles later, but then I passed her resting at a water station a couple miles from the finish. Still, no others in the minimalist category that I saw.
A few times during this particular race event, I was approached tentatively by other runners who wondered if they could bother me to ask how long it had taken me to work up to running a half marathon with bare feet. One was a lady in her 40’s. Another was an older high school age young man. The others are just a blur that I remember as representing all ages and both genders. These kinds of questions are fun to answer, as the people have given some thought to the subject. They like to run alongside a while and ask more detailed questions that come to mind from my initial answers. I can give a condensed timeline of my barefoot running journey, some insight into various running surfaces, and correct misconceptions, such as my soles are leathery, not “calloused” in they way most people think of. For them, I would like to add these things to think about:
- It depends on how old you are when you begin to run barefoot. The longer time your feet have been weakened by shoe wearing, the longer it may take to get foot strength back.
- It depends on what type of footwear you have been or are in the habit of wearing. Some footwear is more deforming and/or limits appropriate stimulation of foot and lower leg muscles.
- It depends on how much of the rest of your day you can spend barefoot. The whole musculoskeletal structure of the feet needs time to adapt and regain function.
- It depends on how active you are: in the past, in general, and now. Sitting at a desk won’t do nearly as much to bring back foot health as walking.
It is always interesting to hear adults spectators answer their children’s questions about why I am running barefoot. There is something about a child’s questions that seems to stimulate a thoughtful, and frequently intuitive, response. Most of the adults say something about it probably being more healthy. Some even come up with potential, and often correct, reasons. This happened a few times during this race, too. One mom nearly gave an impromptu class on it, as she seemed to be recalling some things she might have read. I always hope that these children will subsequently be allowed to go barefoot more.
But there is always someone who has to be vocally negative. Around mile 9 of this race, I was subjected to my first experience of someone trying to publicly humiliate me for running barefoot. As I gradually passed a middle aged, grey haired man and his running partner, this cranky man felt the need to loudly and disdainfully proclaim directly behind me, “Barefoot. That’s stupid.” He is entitled to his opinion, but I have to think it was partly due to jealousy. I doubt he is the type to respond well to a discussion about it, but here are some things I would like to say about the situation:
1. I was rather gracefully passing him, compared to his heavy, apparently labored footfalls.
2. He commented I must “want to be done” since I was running on the white line some on a very rough street. I must guess that many people were interested in being done by then, judging by all their breathing and lack of spring in their step. Including him. I would still rather navigate some rough patches and develop my barefoot abilities than run in (this description from a friend) foot coffins.
3. If it is “stupid” to run barefoot, is it also stupid to run in shoes that give a person painful blisters and remove toenails? And often lead to knee and back pain? One of my friendlier questioners even brought up the toenail issue herself, saying being barefoot was such a good idea to avoid that!
4. Did I mention I passed him, and never saw him again? Did he make snide remarks about all the people who passed him? Or just about the barefoot 50 something ladies with curly pigtails?
Speaking of passing people, it is not that I am particularly speedy. I am pretty middle of the pack, compared to all the runners. I guess that’s not too bad for someone my age. More importantly, I am getting very good at pacing myself. There are many, many people who try too hard in the first few miles. Some of them I am sorely tempted to stop and counsel along the way, as I hear them suffering. My pacing allowed me to run a decent race after fighting a virus for a month before the race, culminating with a relapse of pleurisy just 2 weeks before the race. I knew pacing was absolutely crucial on race day. I finished 5 whole seconds faster than last year (2 hours 13 minutes 14 seconds THIS year), but feeling less spent. I could have done better by a small margin if my legs hadn’t threatened to do a little cramping at about mile 11. I hold out some hope that my rate of improvement will increase faster than age hinders me. I find my stats compared to last year to be kind of funny and fun:
627 of 1241 (.51) 865 of 1490 (.58)
324 of 781 women (.41) 416 of 891 women (.47)
15 of 46 women 50-54 (.32) 29 of 55 women 50-54 (.52)
It turned out that I had the last .3 miles or so totally to myself. I was able to work up a good final kick, having worked through the leg cramping. I did it more for fun than anything. I like to cross a finish line with some enthusiasm. This all meant that I was the only thing for the crowd to look at, and there I was. Barefoot, and stripped down to running shorts and a very minimalist running top (it was too warm for me to wear more), pigtails flying in the wind, and people gasping from the sidelines, “She’s barefoot!” One man rather academically stated, “Totally natural.” The lady next to my 24 year old daughter capturing my triumph on camera was one of those gasping, so my daughter added, “Yep. The whole way.” To which the onlooker said, “Oh, she’s one of your people!”
I wonder what it would be like if most of the runners were barefoot, and the gasps were for people trying to run in shoes. I would be just one of the naturally barefoot crowd. I’d have to find other things to talk about during the race, that’s for sure.