Sunday, May 30, 2010

First Marathon

[Note: This is an old essay, from when I ran 'shod' but I haven't ever published it anywhere else, and I thought folks might enjoy]

I didn’t sleep very well the night before, though I went to bed early. Getting up while it is still dark, and cold, I’m not hungry, though I know I’ll need some energy later, so I gnaw on a bagel as my mom drives us into town. At first there aren’t a lot of cars, but then gradually more and more appear, and I start to get an idea of just how many people are running in this thing: Traffic gets clogged. I check my watch and make a back-up plan with my mom that if we can’t park in time I’ll just get out and meet up with her later. But we make it into a designated lot and get out, joining the lines heading north to Grant Park. People everywhere. No cars. The whole city of Chicago shut down to traffic for this Sunday morning, and just that alone makes the entrance fee for the race worth it.

I say goodbye to my mom so she can get going over to a good spot along the course. Unfortunately, we don’t plan a specific spot or time along the course to meet, so I don’t ever see her, though she will see me run by briefly, but with no time to take a picture. I sit in the grass in the park, trying to stay warm until people start to line up. Including my running shoes, I’m just wearing a long sleeve shirt and cut-off camouflage shorts, cotton by the way, and the temperature is in the low 50s at most. When a crowd starts to form at the starting area, I join them, if only for the radiant body heat, though we’ll wait there at least a half-hour standing up. I’m back in the ‘open’ section, with the folks who have no hope or desire to do anything but finish. There are time markers posted every twenty-five feet or so, that say 10:00 or 8:00, referring to how fast of an average minute mile people think they’ll run. Since this is my first marathon, and I basically just train by running times units (as in run for an hour, or run for two hours) I have no idea where I should be, so I decide to hang out with the ten minute folks.

I feel very out of place, which I like: Everyone is wearing their running shorts and wicking shirts, with their ‘bat utility belts’ full of sports gels and other goodies. I have long hair, and have decided to not pull it back, in order to feel more wild, but that, plus my cotton clothes, are things I will regret pretty soon, and mark me as an amateur. Still, I kind of like the idea of being oddball. I’m just spent a summer as a wildland firefighter, where getting dirty and suffering physically is a regular day. I want to show people you don’t need all that fancy stuff to run a marathon. Famous last words.

It’s never clear when the race officially starts. Some guy gives a speech we can’t really hear through the loudspeakers from the PA. We just hear cheers from up front as the wheelchair guys start off first, then a few minutes later a louder cheer, a roar, as the competition class runners, the insane Kenyans and all those guys, start their twenty-six mile sprint. A Van Halen song starts blaring, why Van Halen I don’t know, and it ends and we still haven’t started moving! Then the roar spreads to our area, we roar ourselves, starting to move, and Pink Floyd’s “Run Like Hell” begins to play, sending shivers up my spine: The lyrics are actually about running out of fear of getting killed, and I’m not sure the organizers know that, but it does bring out the primalness of the race, of running in general. That first Greek guy didn’t run those 26.2 miles for fun, he ran to warn a city about an invading army.

After that brief moment of creepiness, the fun begins. Finally, we are moving. Everyone is smiling, looking around at the people cheering us on, full of energy. I’m running fast, pumped on adrenaline, passing most people, dodging in and around them. I probably should have started farther up, in the 8:00 minute mile group maybe. People on the sidelines are screaming and waving. For us? Crazy. And yet, 35,000+ people starting out on a 26.2 miles race in the middle of Chicago does lend itself to an infectious energy to anybody there. It is kind of amazing that that many people have come together to challenge each other, and to help each other fulfill that challenge.
It’s not until mile 10 that I think to think about whether I should be tired or not, and even then I tell myself I’m not and keep going for a couple more miles. At mile 12 or 13 though, I do start to feel it. That’s about the farthest I’ve ever run regularly. As part of my training, I did run 17 miles once, a month before the race, to push myself a little, but 12 miles is a lot and I’m usually exhausted afterwards. I’m slowing down, the tide is changing. Instead of passing people, people are passing me. Here is where the mental stuff starts to get to me, the doubt, knowing I am not even halfway. But around this time, two hours in, a buzz starts to go through the runners: The first runners have finished! What?! In two hours?! That’s insane! That’s like...under a seven minute mile for 26 miles I think. It hurts my head to calculate it. It hurts my body to think about it. I am a pathetic wimp to even think about stopping! Onward!

Another thing that helps me keep running is the other people, both the runners and the spectators. The runners for the most part are your standard-looking people in pain, but some of them have gone out of their way to do something unique, like the guy who runs the whole race holding a Green Party sign. You have to admit a Republican or Democratic voter wouldn’t have done that. Then there was the guy dressed as a fancy waiter, in a tuxedo, carrying a tray with a full drink. I only saw him at the beginning so don’t know if he made it the whole way. He passed me though. I also like that a few people, actually they are all women, are wearing white t-shirts with their names on them. It’s ingenious really, because it gives people on the sidelines, who don’t even know them, a chance to shout specific encouragement. I wonder if there’s a certain point where that becomes annoying, like ‘Just let me run in my own private pain,’ but so far it seems to help.

Speaking of the spectators, it’s surprising how excited and encouraging they are. They probably came to cheer on someone they knew, but something happens, you can see it in their faces, they’re kind of amazed, and they start cheering everybody. Many are holding cool signs that say stuff like RUNNERS ARE HOT!! or YOU ARE ALL KENYANS!! Then there are some who go farther than that, like the group of guys dressed in cheerleader outfits, with purple wigs and matching pom-poms. Or the weird girl, who seems on drugs but who is probably like that all the time, standing right in the middle of the oncoming runners picking out people and saying stuff like, “Good job guy with a crew-cut. Good job girl with red shorts. Good job long-haired guy.” (That last is me.) Plus the person in the alien costume holding the sign saying, YOU EARTHLINGS ARE CRAZY! At least, I think it’s a person in an alien costume....

And the music. All the bands playing along the course that unfortunately we runners only hear about one minute of. But the fact that they volunteered to come out and play on a Sunday morning, probably for free, is amazing. And it’s all styles: The mariachi band, the traditional Chinese drummers (along with a New Year’s dragon!), Scottish bagpipers, an Elvis impersonator, plus lots o’ rock bands. Even one heavy metal band, who seem a little out of their element, but I catch the lead singer’s eye and give him the devil horn sign to let him know there are some old metalheads in the crowd.

Also let us not forget the volunteers at the drink station who help pass out drinks and offer words of encouragement. There are cub scouts, girl scouts, school groups, church groups, and just tons of individuals standing there holding out plastic cups of water and Gatorade, or orange slices and bananas to anyone stumbling by. If they ever thought it was a thankless job, let me assure them it is not. We may just be too dead to take the time to say thank you. They are so encouraging, and put in so much time and effort, that I would feel guilty for stopping and disappointing them.

But, despite all that, eventually I do start to consider quitting. I had heard about “The Wall” at mile 20, and it’s true, it happens, though my personal Wall seems to be at mile 19 for some reason, perhaps in anticipation of Mile 20. But whatever, it hits me. I think to yourself, ‘Why the hell am I doing this? I don’t need to prove anything. Not to myself and especially not to anybody else. Who cares about some dumb medal at the end?’ My body is in pain, I’m penguin-shuffling along not much faster than a walk, and it seems so easy to do just that, to walk, to walk back to my car and go home and take a nice warm bath. At that point in the race we get into the south side, where there are less people. No more bands, us runners are more spread out, though we’re still a fairly constant stream. Some local people, dressed up for church, have to scurry across the raceway to get to their churches, looking at us like we are crazy. And the race brings us partly up on the highways, where everything is more open and I can see more space, and I just feel more on my own. Which is maybe how it should be somehow. But it’s hard. It’s damn hard. I keep going though, because another part of my brain is rationalizing: “It’s only six more miles, five really. You can run five miles in your sleep. Five miles is nothing! And you have everything to prove to yourself!”

We head back north and enter a long tunnel, which is fitting, because by then I am getting tunnel vision anyways. Here is where I hear maybe the weirdest but coolest music, just one lone guy standing there with his guitar, strumming out a slow minor key tune. I don’t know why, but it seemed the most appropriate somehow, and it gives me some kind of calm energy boost.

Out of the tunnel, we’ve got maybe a mile to go. Other people are different, but I always keep a reserve, and normally, when I know that the end of a run is in sight, I give everything I have left. I’m not sure if I have anything left physically, but mentally I tell myself to go for it, speeding up out of my trudge-shuffle to a regular run, starting to pass people again. The mile markers get more specific. One kilometer to go! A quarter mile! I can see the park now, and stands full of people, there’s music and cheering. This is it! Only a quarter mile? Let’s go out strong!

I try to vaguely sprint, but it’s like my body almost doesn’t know how anymore. My legs will just not lift up. I concentrate on the fact that I can normally always sprint a short distance like that, so I do. I pass rows of bleachers and a roar goes up. For me? Not sure, maybe. It’s for everybody. Whatever, it pumps me even more.
And there’s the finish line!

I cross!

I did it! I’m not even a Christian but Holy Mother of God I did it!

I slow to a walk, but we don’t stop. The crowd is gone and walls on both sides keep us shuttling forward. A man, a doctor or EMT, is standing in the middle of the flood of runners, checking faces for signs of exhaustion maybe, to make sure nobody keels over and/or has a heart attack. Embarrassingly, he stops me and asks me if I’m alright. I say yes, but I realize maybe I’m not: I really just want to lie down on the pavement right there. Surely people would respect that and step over me. But I can’t, we’re still being funneled along, down a narrower chute, which gets backed up even more by race employees on wooden boxes handing out medals to everyone. People surround them, jumping and grabbing for them, it’s kind of embarrassing, so I don’t even take one. This day was for me, I don’t need to show others I did it.

More funneling. A beer stand (Ugh, why would someone want to drink a beer now?) then back out into Grant Park, where the alphabetical meeting areas are, so the people dragging your corpse home can find you. I just want to sit down, but I’m scared if I do that my muscles will tighten and I won’t be able to straighten my legs again. At the same time I’m trembling, hobbling, starting to feel even more pain. Never did I suspect I used so many different muscles in running. My legs, my back, my arms (!?), everything stiff. And all those places where my soaking wet cotton clothes rubbed against my skin for four hours? Raw. Even, Jeezuz God!, my nipples and other embarrassing places! Listen to me now and believe me later guys, lube up before the race! The one surprising thing is that I have no blisters on my feet. They are about the only places on my body that feel alright. How is that possible?

My time is four hours and seven minutes, which is more than fine with me. I’m just happy to have finished. My mom finds me. I was worried she would be bored waiting around for me, but she had a great time walking around with all the people. We walk back to her car and I can see the race from the parking lot still going on: Still a continual line of people showing no sign of stopping. The streets are officially opened up after six hours and there will be people finishing even after then. In a way, I admire those folks more than the crazy Kenyans.

Then home. I can barely get out of the car. All my muscles have now frozen. It’s a painful effort just to step up on the curb, and thankfully there’s an elevator in my mom’s apartment building.

And a long hot bath.

And maybe not the next day, but soon, after my body starts to forget how much pain it has been in, I start thinking about doing it again.

Vibram Five Fingers: A Review

Vibram Five Fingers, or 'VFFs' as they're known in online running circles are the first, and most popular, of the 'barefoot' alternative footwear available. Although they have been around for more than a few years, they got a boost in popularity when Time Magazine named them one of the best inventions of 2009 (or 2008? I can find the link, sorry). They were also mentioned in the book Born To Run by Christopher McDougall, which came out in 2009. Without going into a full-blown review of that book, which is good, and which you should read, McDougall, a writer for Men's Health magazine, investigated human beings' relationship with running. Part of his explorations led him to a group of Native Americans living in Copper Canyon, Mexico, who are legendary long distance runners. McDougall's narrative also follows a white American with the name of Caballo Blanco who lives, and runs, with them. Caballo Blanco holds an ultra marathon and invites some of the best runners from the United States down to run it. McDougall runs it, along with a guy named Barefoot Ted, who wears the VFFs.

VFFs are like gloves for the feet, with a minimal rubber-ish layer for the soles, to protect against dirt and smaller, grittier, particles. They're light weight, and best of all they look, really, really odd, because they have individual toe sockets (Follow the link above, if you haven't seen them before). If you want to look like a ninja, these shoes are for you! They come in different colors, and styles, with full covering of the whole foot or not. I bought black 'KSOs' (Keep 'Stuff' Out) that cover the whole foot. (Cost: $85)

The argument is that the humans are natural runners, and that our feet have evolved over a million and a half years to work perfectly as they are. Since the 70s, shoe companies like Nike have manufactured a demand for shoes with bells and whistles like arch support and cushioning that actually weaken our feet. For example: if you put your arm in a sling, it would feel ok, it would even make things 'easier,' but in the long run (excuse the pun) you'd have muscle-less flab on bones.

Still, even though people like the idea of actually using their feet, they don't feel comfortable going purely barefoot, for fear of broken glass, stray Lego pieces, fecal matter (human, canine or other), and/or just plain old dirt. Germs! VFFs offer the basic protection from small pokey things, and keep the feet clean, without giving any 'support' or cushion at all. Despite that, or maybe because, they feel really, really comfortable. In fact, I've seen more people just out walking around in them than actually running. No arch support, no raised heel, no hard sole, and the toe sockets insure that the toes are spread properly. No scrunching like in some women's shoes.

My history with VFFs
I bought my VFFs at the same time that I started to run barefoot. I had been plagued by plantar fasciitus and notable to run at all for about a year and a half (see my previous posts for the full story). Once I found I could run barefoot, and that my plantar fasciitus basically went away, my body wanted to run all the time. The problem was, the soles of my feet weren't exactly toughened up yet. The VFFs allowed me to keep running, even when my soles felt a little raw. Some people, like Barefoot Ken Bob, don't recommend this, saying that we should only run as much as our feet will allow, in order to get them used to going barefoot. Makes sense, except that, psychologically, I needed to run. Getting back out and running a lot was good for my mental health.

All summer I alternated between running full on barefoot with my VFFs, reserving the VFFs for trails and/or when my foot soles just felt too raw. By the end of the summer, I had signed up for a half-marathon, which I'd planned to run barefoot, but on checking out the course, I realized it was mostly dirt road, which is the roughest, nastiest, surface a barefoot runner can find. So, I put on the VFFs. And once I did that, my goal went from just finishing, to going fast. And, even though one section of road was so bad that I had to go down to a fast walk, I did well, running an eight minute mile, and freaking out a lot of people in the process.

Once I had started toughening up my feet running barefoot, I found myself leaving my VFFs at home more and more, except for trails and dirt roads, though now I even like running barefoot on most trails (see my “Pinkney Trail Marathon” post in April 2010). I found that, after being barefoot, running in the VFFs was like running in, well, gloves for the feet. That is, though I could breeze over smaller, grittier, terrain that would otherwise force me to walk, I was also losing my sensitivity, and therefore running a little harder, and paying a little bit less attention. I was fine through the first summer, up through that Half Marathon. In the Fall, though, with the colder weather, when I experimented with running more in the VFFs, I found my left foot aching a bit. I know this was partly my fault, ie my stubbornness and impatience, but my feet just felt more 'hammered' after runs. I eventually went back to running barefoot (See my previous post on Winter barefoot running in April 2010).

For someone switching to VFFs from shoes, I would recommend, just as I would for barefoot running, easing into it. With shoes, runners tend to have a longer stride, and to hit, hard, with their heels. Running barefoot, this just isn't possible, but VFFs are just shoe-like enough to deceive a person into thinking they can keep the same long, hard, stride. If you do this in VFFs, you will will hurt yourself (though in the long run, if you do this in shoes, you're increasing your chance of injury anyways). Go slow. Trot. Take small strides. I do not recommend switching back and forth between VFFs and shoes. Your body won't be able to get used to the new posture required and you might injure yourself. Give the VFFs three weeks, all in, before you decide. Unless you're a competitive runner, you have nothing to lose anyways.

Although I like the 'freak out effect' of the toe sockets, I'm not convinced they add much. They do keep the toes spread, or 'splayed,' out which feels good, but the positioning of the toes seems, or feels, arbitrary to me, since my little pinky toe doesn't even touch its corresponding socket. Plus, the toes seem susceptible to getting caught on roots or rocks, and I've stubbed my toes, badly, more than a few times.

The rubber soles section, including the toe sockets, is pretty tough, but I have heard about the top material, and the Velcro strap running over the top of the foot, can be easily torn. This happened to a friend of mine, and Vibram was fine with replacing them, but it took a few weeks (he lives in Arizona but bought them in Michigan; the retailer where I bought mine said they would replace mine no questions asked though. So far I haven't had any problems.)

Note: VFFs do NOT offer much protection from the cold, besides the rubber bottom. The covering in the KSO models does not hold heat at all (see my post on my First Barefoot Marathon in April 2010). I did buy a pair of custom socks (with toes) during this time, and they helped some. The socks aren't cotton, so they hold heat even they get wet, which will happen if you run in the snow. If you're a wimp in the cold, you might need to find something a little warmer for the Winter months.

There are other barefoot alternative types of running-wear out there. I only have experience with two, though there are also RunAmocs, which seem the most shoe-like, endorsed by Barefoot Ted. Nike (gag) has also reissued their original shoe from the 70s, back before they introduced arch support and super gel cushion and all those horrible things. I wouldn't recommend anything by Nike just on general principle, though I'd try the RunAmocs. But in either case, I'd be careful: Runners are so conditioned to being able to pound their feet hard because of all the bells and whistles on shoes today that doing the same with either of these alternatives seems like an invitation for injury. If you try these, go slow! Get used to them.

One alternative is the traditional moccasin. I have two pairs from the Minnetonka company, one more a dressier version, and the other with a double layered leather sole. These slip on easy, are very comfortable, and give good protection from the cold. I wear them all the time in cold weather for just walking around town. I did experiment briefly with running in them in the Fall, with about the same feel as the VFFs, only warmer (Note: you can wear regular old socks with them), but, like with the VFFs, my feet ended up aching a bit, like I was hitting harder because they desensitized my feet. Drawbacks would be that, if running on mostly pavement, I don't think the leather would last very long. But I've seen some people on Ken Bob's Running Barefoot Yahoo! Group that say they like them. For Michigan terrain, dirt/mud/sand/forest/grass, especially in the colder months, these seem like the a good option if one were concerned about the cold or getting one's feet dirty. The Chippewa and Huron natives used them! Cost: about $60.

Another alternative I've recently been experimenting with is huaraches, a type of sandal worn by native tribes down in Mexico, discussed in McDougall's Born To Run. Barefoot Ted makes an americanized version (ie with customized rubber rather than old car tires) that he sells through his website. Basically they're just a slab of rubber with one long leather lace wrapping over and around the foot and ankle holding it in place. Learning how to properly lace the things is key, so I practiced just walking around town in them for a few weeks. They provide about the same protection as VFFs, but I find that since they're a 'sandal' and don't cover the feet, that they don't feel 'shoe-like' like the VFFs, and therefore I'm less inclined to feel invulnerable when running, though I'm still in the experimental stages. If I were to recommend a barefoot alternative for warm weather, I'd say these would be the way to go. I have yet to run barefoot down in the Southwest, but based on when I've lived there before, especially Phoenix, there seems to be killer thorns everywhere. Cyclists have to buy super-extra-duty tires in order not to get a flat like every time they ride, so I've wondered if I would be forced to seek some kind of protection. If so, I would use huaraches. The drawbacks with them are that they don't work very well when wet. The rubber gets to slippery, and the leather laces loosen up faster. Cost: About $60 from Barefoot Ted, though he'll sell you a 'kit' for half that, with directions on how to make them yourself.

VFFs might actually be better for other activities than running. I know people that like just wearing them when walking around town. Climbers may like the toes. They would also be good for kayaking and having to get in and out of boats around rocky shores, and swimming in VFFs would be easier than Tevas. Also keep in mind that VFFs were originally designed for good traction on boats and yachts. I found them to be great footwear for backpacking. I recently did a backcountry camping trip in The Great Smokey Mountains. Some of the hike in I went barefoot, but with a 40 pound backpack on, it's hard to be light on my feet. My VFFs gave me protection when my feet started feeling a little raw, while still allowing me to feel light and elf-like. Also, they seem perfect for skateboarding.

I still recommend running barefoot, but I know that no matter how much I, or others, argue for going 'all natural,' some people don't like the thought of getting their feet dirty. In that case, then yes, I do, tentatively, recommend VFFs or one of the other barefoot alternatives. If you try them, give yourself at least three weeks. Your calves will be a little sore the first week or so, because you're using different muscles. Don't try and mix and match between VFFs and your shoes, I've know a couple people to screw themselves up that way. Three weeks. Go slow. Trot. Small strides. Keep in mind that Barefoot Ted mostly runs barefoot, and uses his VFFs on ultra-marathons. You might find your VFFs to be like training wheels, something you eventually take off, but either way, your feet will love you.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Going Barefoot

I’m on State Street, in downtown Ann Arbor, walking behind a tall young man with a green mohawk dressed all in black leather, but everyone is staring at me. I have on new jeans and a dress shirt, with my computer carrying case. It’s sunny, early summer, most people are dressed in less clothing than I, except I’m the only one with no shoes.

Two years ago I ‘acquired’ a running injury called plantar fasciitus, in which the fascia, kind of a sheath, or layer, of tissue running along the bottom of the foot, which aids in arch support, gets inflamed. I ended up seeing four different doctors and spending lots of money that my uninsured self couldn’t really afford, only to be told that I would never get ‘better,’ that since I was getting older, plantar fasciitus was something I’d have to learn to live with, so that every time I ran I would have to use super arch support shoes, with an extra added arch support insole, and tape my feet, every time. At the time, I was grateful. I just wanted to run again. After a while though, and after lots of tape, when I still couldn’t ever run more than twenty-five minutes at a time without feeling a throbbing pain in my heels, I started to re-think my problem: If a bone breaks, in general it heals. If a tendon gets torn, it heals. Why not a fascia?

Then a friend recommended barefoot running. Initially skeptical, after doing some informal research on the Internet, I became curious with the personal testimonies by folks on a barefoot running Yahoo! Group, who claimed their running injuries stopped after starting to run barefoot. Around the same time I came across Men’s Health and Fitness writer Chris McDougall’s book Born To Run, in part a great reflection/investigation about how we humans literally evolved as long-distance runner-hunters. McDougall also takes the running shoe companies, especially Nike, to task for pushing a product that is actually bad for the human foot. The argument goes: we humans went two million years barefoot, our feet are built for it. It’s not, like I believed for years, that we’re getting foot injuries like plantar fasciitus because we walk on paved surfaces now. To use Spike Lee out of context: “It’s the shoes!”
So I tried it, alternating running barefoot with these things made by the Vibram company called Five Fingers, basically gloves for the feet, just a rubber-like protective covering on the bottom, with no arch support or cushion. And, suddenly, immediately, I was running again, with no plantar fasciitus problems. In fact, the more I ran, the better my feet started to feel.

In order to toughen up the bottoms of my feet, I started going barefoot in my apartment, which may not seem radical, but the doctors had said I’d never be able to go barefoot again, ever. Then I moved outside, going barefoot around town. And, it felt good. Kind of naked, kind of taboo, kind of non-conformist. Sure, stepping on a pokey rock hurt, at little, and still does, but I liked the odd sensation of having sensation down there. I’d never realized how cut off my feet were in shoes. At first, especially after runs, my feet felt raw walking across cement sidewalks, and some sidewalks were rougher than others, but pretty soon my feet toughened up, and actually changed shape and size: when I had to wear shoes for whatever reason, rarely, they felt strange, small and constrictive. That was the worst part about going barefoot. The best part? Splashing through puddles and squishing mulberries.

And yes, one time after about four months with no incidents, I did cut myself on glass. I’d just walked out my front door and wasn’t paying attention, probably looking at an attractive woman across the street, so it was her fault, and I stepped on a piece of glass three houses down. I had even seen glass there before, because the kids that live there tended to have parties sometimes, so I should’ve been checking. It hurt, kinda. It bled, kinda. I put on my moccasins for the rest of the day and wore my VFFs on runs for the next two days and I was fine. I will take that kind of pain though over the plantar fasciitus kind, the kind where I can’t run for two years, any day.

The contrast between people’s reactions to me running barefoot and walking barefoot is huge. That is, everyone looks at me like I’m crazy, but when I’m running barefoot, some people actually smile, or say, “That’s so cool!” or a “Dude, that’s hardcore!” Hardcore crazy is more acceptable. Normal life? Not so. For example, I walk into my favorite cafe: The place is full, and as soon as I step in, everyone, everyone, immediately stares at my feet. It’s only for about one second, maybe two, and just as quickly they look away, though as I walk up to the counter, they look again out of the corners of their eyes.

Or, on another day, walking barefoot to the Post Office, a young couple stared at me across the street while we all waited for a light to change. The woman managed to wait until we were all crossing, and I was closer to them, to say to her husband, “That’s disgusting!” I’m not sure if the majority of people in America would agree with this woman, but I realized she meant two different things. First, by going barefoot, I am walking on disgusting things, because everybody knows the streets of Ann Arbor are strewn with dogshit, and you can die from dirty feet. Second, she wasn’t just saying that going barefoot was ‘disgusting,’ nor were the people in the cafĂ© worried for my well-being. No, I was forcing my disgustingness on them, spreading dogshit anthrax spores with every step.

But the first place I got busted in, of all places, was the library. I admit to disappointment: I expected a confrontation at some point, perhaps with an irate restaurant manager, but not in one of my favorite bastions of democracy. I somehow thought the librarians would be on my side, since they’re supposedly rational, and open to new ideas, open to finding out stuff, finding out facts, the truth, that they instantly know what is right and wrong. Plus they don’t serve food in libraries. They wouldn’t have anything to freak out about, right?

I had actually been zipping in barefoot all summer to drop off books or pick up inter-library loans, definitely getting some weird looks from both the patrons and employees, but no one had ever said anything. On that particular day though, I walked up to the third floor to do some browsing and after a while an employee approached me. I actually felt sorry for him, he was very apologetic, and seemed like he really would have preferred to be doing anything else but stating to me that library policy required everyone to wear shoes. I couldn’t resist making him squirm a little by saying I hadn’t seen any signs saying I couldn’t, but he said that the library rules were posted around the building, and online. And I could’ve kept going and asked him to explain why there was a policy against bare feet, but I knew he didn’t know, and even more importantly didn’t care, so I put on my moccasins I’d had stashed in my bag for just such an emergency. But I did end up feeling a little humiliated somehow, and therefore actually somewhat angry, like I had been accused of being a criminal, and by a wimpy nerd librarian!

I couldn’t let it go without a least a small fight, and emailed the library director, asking her if there was indeed a shoe policy, and where I could find it, and to her credit she did write back the next day, informing me the that rules were posted around the building, and she gave me a link to them on the library website. I followed the link and yep, there it was, Rule #4:

Requires patrons to wear shirts and shoes, or other footwear, at all times in the Library for hygiene and safety purposes. (

Also in her email, the director politely addressed my feelings, saying she was sorry that I had felt singled out, but she did add (and I paraphrase here because I unfortunately didn’t save the email) that she was sure I would understand why there had to be a rule about footwear. I know she wasn’t talking about the safety issue, because what exactly would sandals save me from in a library that my bare feet wouldn’t? Instead, she meant that I would understand that going barefoot was unhygienic, and she was politely chastising me for doing something she thought I obviously knew to be wrong. So yes, I did understand something better: People think that someone going barefoot will spread disease to them.

To which I reply: Really?

How can a bare foot spread a disease, and/or make a public place unhygienic? How can it be that the bare foot is any more unhygienic than the sole of a shoe? Have you looked at the bottom of your shoes lately? I had plenty of recent sources demonstrating the benefits of going barefoot, starting with McDougall’s Born To Run, which cites some leading sports medicine experts, and after the book came out, articles in papers and on news websites popped up talking about the benefits of barefoot running, all of which also mentioned the benefits of going barefoot in general. But to be fair, I wanted to find something, somewhere, that would explain why/how going barefoot was unhygienic. Put another way: What was Library Rule #4 based on? Surely the librarians would base their rules on facts?

So where would I go to try to find the answers to these questions? The library! Oh, the irony. I made two separate visits to reference librarians to help point me in the right direction. First they helped me find the Ann City codes as a possible source, there’s actually a link to them from the library website, but you know what? There’s nothing about bare feet in public places. They also helped me navigate the available databases, both for popular magazines and newspapers, and peer-reviewed medical journals. They helped me get the right search words (like “hygiene” “foot care”) but neither with their help, nor on my own, could I for the life of me find anything that said going barefoot was unhygienic, though one really short article in Shape magazine articulated what most people probably feel is bad about going barefoot: "Your [____] pick up particles that contain lead from paint, pesticides from lawns, allergens from plants, and bacteria from animal feces.” That’s from John Roberts, an environmental engineer quoted in the article, who tested fifteen different houses for chemical exposures. Except, that blank space I’ve made in the text? It actually has the word “shoes,” not feet. Everything that people think bad about bare feet seems just as true for shoes, more so even, since feet get washed regularly.

The second reference librarian I talked with pointed me to an obvious source, one that I should have thought of on my own, since it’s the first place all my composition students head to: Wikipedia. The “Barefoot” entry on Wikipedia was obviously put together by pro-barefoot folks, and therefore a wee bit biased, but one important thing it does mention is a possible reason why going barefoot has become so taboo, something that I’d been wondering/suspecting myself: that various myths about, and regulations against, going barefoot “were perpetuated during the counterculture movement of the 1960s, as a way to keep hippies out of conventional business establishments.” I was born in 1968, and this fits with what I remember from the seventies: both seeing people going barefoot, and NO SHIRT NO SHOES NO SERVICE signs, which nowadays are rare.

The most useful parts of the “Barefoot” entry were, like many Wikipedia entries, the References and Links sections. Most are recent magazine/newspaper articles, though none of them, of course, talk about any negative aspects of going barefoot. One of them, from The News and Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina, profiles three locals who choose to go barefoot, and this is the source the Wikipedia entry uses for the barefoot taboo coming from the anti-hippie movement in the 60s and 70s. The staff writer, Joe Miller, does a good job of giving some historical perspective on going barefoot, reminding his readers that “4 million years ago, going barefoot was all the rage,” and he has a couple claims that he presents as facts, and which sound correct, though I’m not sure where he’s getting them. The first is that we humans developed footwear as we moved to cooler areas of the globe. As a resident of Michigan, I can attest that this is probably basically true, though having walked over rocks myself, even with my new calloused feet, I’m betting protection was still a factor too.
The barefoot Wikipedia page also has a link to The Society for Barefoot Living website, and they’re the folks who I suspect wrote it. They’re a group of people in American and elsewhere, who, through the power of ‘teh Internet’ have banded together to offer support and advice to each other. Their website has even more sources about the benefits of going barefoot, and testimonials and some funny stories from members, but the most interesting and useful thing the group did was write letters to the Departments of Agriculture (which are responsible for healthy and safety codes for public businesses like restaurants) in each state asking specifically whether going barefoot was illegal or not. In every case (except for Utah, which didn’t write back, and somehow that doesn’t surprise me) the reply letters state that there are no regulations against going barefoot in public spaces. The ‘SBL’ has posted pdfs of the letters on their website. They also point out that there are no federal laws against going barefoot in public places, and only one, through The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), states that only employees of restaurants must wear footwear, for safety purposes.

I know, though, that proving logically that bare feet aren’t unhygienic, and that in fact going barefoot is good for feet, just isn’t good enough. I can present the evidence, and people still would not only not want to try it, but have an almost emotional reaction against anybody doing it, coming from some kind of currently accepted standard of cleanliness. I can’t expect everyone to lower their standard of cleanliness down to mine, not that mine are that different: I agree with washing hands as a way to stop the spread of germs and don’t think there’s anyone who wouldn’t. Thing is, we touch each other with our hands, we touch our noses and mouths with our hands, we touch silverware and doorknobs with our hands. With our feet? Not so much. They tend to stay on the ground, at least in the parts of the world I’ve visited. And if the counter argument is that someone going bare feet into a public place causes diseased germs to drift around and land on people’s food, why would that happen with feet and not shoes, or even sandals?

Other people having different standards of cleanliness would be fine, except that those standards affect me. That is, people’s personal tastes, and not facts, are forming policy that prevents me from doing some I want to do, when it’s not hurting anybody. So I’m left a little stumped: I wish the burden of proof were on the business to prove that I was being unhygienic, but that’s not how it works. Once someone at a restaurant asks you to do something, that’s it. Even arguing to prove one’s innocence is trouble, and nobody likes a troublemaker. I even understand that—I worked at a restaurant and I didn’t like the weirdoes that expected us to bend over backwards for their demands. And having an argument with a restaurant manager is a no-win situation for everybody:

“Excuse me sir, you need to have shoes on to be in the restaurant.”

“Really? According to what I know, there are neither federal, state, nor city laws against me being barefoot. What are you basing your statement on?”

“Listen pal, you want me to call the cops?”

Or something like that. Not fun for them, not fun for me. Both of our nights are ruined. I don’t want that. So, in order to just be treated like everyone else, if I just want to have a good dinner, without getting into a discussion about what is or is not legal to wear or not to wear in a restaurant, I have to be non-confrontational and put on shoes before I go in. Is this a big deal? I guess not. There’s bigger problems in the world. Does it make it fair? No, but a lot of things in this world aren’t fair. I’ll just have to consider my love of going barefoot as yet another in a long list of subversive things I have done in my life, like having long hair, playing heavy metal music, writing poetry, being a vegetarian, reading poetry, not owning a television, and voting my conscience.

Fortunately, living in Michigan makes getting too righteous about going barefoot hard, since it’s freezing-ass cold here six months of the year. As I wrote and revised this, the days got shorter and the air colder, and slipping on my moccasins has become necessary every time I go out. Which is not so unpleasant: they at least don’t have any arch support or padding, which feels good, and at home I still pleasantly pad around my apartment’s oak floors, waiting for Spring.