The barefoot runner: A marathon quest for 26.2

Tarahumara Raramuri

My ongoing relationship with running has, pardon the pun, run the gamut from hate, to love, to unrequited love, and back again (see Sole of a Runner and A Reborn Runner?).  This past year, however, this relationship has taken a new twist.  By ditching my Nike's, I validated a nagging suspicion that conventional running shoes themselves were to blame for my "bad" knee.

The "bad" knee began while training for the 2007 Chicago Marathon.  I had built my mileage up to the point where my LSR's (long slow runs) were in the high teens and low twenties, but my right knee was not as optimistic as I was.  After some soul-searching, I decided to bail out, and although I basically quit running altogether, the pain persisted for several years.  My lowest point occurred this past year when I went out for an easy jog with my wife and had to quit after less than 100 yards.

Deciding that I had nothing to lose, I bought a pair of Vibram Five Finger KSO Treks.  At my previous job, as a Personal Trainer at Gainesville Health & Fitness, I noticed that some of my fellow trainers were wearing toe-shoes called Vibram Five Fingers.  I swore that I would never dream of wearing such things.  But there I was, wearing them to work, while working out, and while walking around; enduring the comments and strange looks from the "normal" people.

Thankfully, after just a few months, the pain in my knee gradually faded away.  My eyes were further opened after reading the book "Born to Run" by Christopher McDougall.  "In Born to Run", McDougall describes Mexico's Tarahumara tribe.  They call themselves "the running people" and for good reason.  Their their epic feats of endurance have only recently been matched by Western ultra-runners. 

"Born to Run" also exposed the truth about the modern running shoe.  Appearing in the 1970's, the first running shoe reflected an arbitrary decision by Nike's first designer that the way human beings ran for the previous 2 million years was wrong.  Instead of a natural stride that starts at the forefoot and gradually propels us forward with a smooth low-impact motion, he thought we should lengthen our stride.  The result is that most runners are now "heel strikers", with each stride sending a shock wave through the entire body in spite of (and maybe because of) the shoe's "cushioning". 

The idea that human bodies are not meant for running is also disputed.  Thanks to the persistence of scientists who sought to reconcile basic facts about our evolution with conventional ideas about our bodies, it was revealed that we are the penultimate long-distance animal.  Our hairless skin and ability to sweat (air cooled engine), our Achilles tendons (spring loaded shocks), and our upright breathing posture (variable timing emission control) allowed us to run down new species of grazing animals that emerged as African forests gave way to savanna at the end of the last ice age.  This new method of acquiring prey, dubbed "persistence hunting" provided a reliable source of meat that fueled our rapid brain development and subsequent global domination.

Newly inspired, I started slowly at first, not by choice, but by necessity.  After a lifetime of slacking off, my calves were trashed and they refused to go more than a mile.  After wards, my muscles were sore for almost a week, but more tellingly, my joints felt great.  Since those first runs, I've become more aware of my stride and with gradual increases in time and distance, I am now running 5k's with relative ease. 

With increased distance and use, however, I am starting to realize the limitations of the Vibram Five Fingers.  Shoe stinkiness notwithstanding, I have been getting blisters on the tips of my toes and, more importantly, the shoe itself has started to break down.  Since I paid $125 (plus $12 for each pair of special socks), it doesn't make economic sense for me to destroy what are, in essence, my work shoes.

Luckily, I stumbled upon some information about huaraches (pronounced wa-ra-chez), the running sandals worn by the Tarahumara.  A website called Invisibleshoe.com sells kits that allow you to custom-make your own pair, albeit with modern materials.  I ordered a "large" kit today and will hopefully be receiving my order soon.

Stay posted for the unboxing, the assembly, and the test runs!

Until then, check out this video from Invisibleshoe.com...


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About Tony Fed

Tony is the host of the Paleo Magazine Radio podcast, author of "Paleo Grilling: A Modern Caveman's Guide to Cooking with Fire", and Cofounder of Powerful PT, an innovative information resource for Fitness Professionals. He has appeared on numerous local and national television and radio broadcasts and regularly hosts healthy cooking workshops and informational lectures. He is also a full-time Personal Trainer and Wellness Consultant who lives in Jacksonville Florida with his wife Jamie.
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