Monday, June 28, 2010

Pics from the Ken Bob workshop

Ken Bob talking to the group

Me and the legendary Barefoot Ken Bob!

Ken Bob talking to the group

Ken Bob talking, Sidetracks owner on far left

The lovely Jen and Ken Bob

Jen, Ken Bob, and I

Pics courtesy of Jen!

Ken Bob workshop, Okemos MI: a review

Barefoot Ken Bob's Barefoot Running Workshop
June 25th, 2010 Okemos, MI
A Review

My friend Jen and I drove up from Ann Arbor, and we got caught in a mysterious and vague traffic jam, causing us to be a little late, twenty minutes or so, but we weren't even the last to arrive. After pulling into the parking lot, we followed the first barefoot people we saw, around the side of the building where, voilĂ , there was a whole gaggle of barefoot people. That in itself was nice to see.

There seemed to be around thirty people, a good mix of men and women. Almost everybody over thirty, more around my age (early 40s), and, I'm happy to say, a few older gentlemen. Old dogs learning new tricks!

And there was the legendary Barefoot Ken Bob! He would stand out in any crowd with his long salt and pepper hair pulled back in a ponytail (he and I were the only longhairs) and his signature beard down to his chest. He was already into his spiel, though later when he re-capped what he'd gone over, it seemed we hadn't missed anything. The whole time he was there he never stopped smiling, and was so enthusiastic about barefoot running he seemed to want to talk as fast as possible to share everything he could. As he spoke, he used lots of little side-anecdotes to help illustrate points, and occasionally started running around the little parking lot area we were in to give physical demonstrations.

Unfortunately, the owner of Playmakers, perhaps trying to sincerely help Ken Bob stay focused, kept interrupting more and more, until finally he was running around trying to demonstrate his technique as well. After a while, he was interrupting Ken Bob mid-sentence, which I found aggravating. Apparently though, this talk from Ken Bob was part of a series of workshops on barefoot running that the owner had been hosting, and other people there seemed ok with him kind of taking charge, though after a while he was actually contradicting Ken Bob on running technique, particularly on how much a runner should bend their knees. I finally figured out his intention, or agenda, when he said, and I quote, that “barefoot running is a tool” to help people run better in shoes. He doesn't want people to run barefoot, he wants them to buy his VFFs and/or regular shoes.

Ken Bob for the most part was very deferential, perhaps too much, and he kept smiling, and listening patiently while the owner spoke, though at the end, while still smiling, Ken Bob seemed to start disagreeing with some of the owner's statements. For example, the owner brought up how his company donates shoes to people in Kenya, saying that when he had asked them if they wanted shoes, they said yes. Ken bob pointed out, correctly in my opinion, that often people from underprivileged countries want whatever people from rich countries have, if only as a status symbol, meaning that they may have wanted those just because they saw all the rich Americans wearing them. But, as soon as Ken bob started to make that argument, the owner cut him off.

Another moment where Ken Bob seemed to grow frustrated was when the owner started having us do some short running exercises on the side street we were on, which, also in my opinion, didn't seem to do much, mainly because we were only “running” about 100 feet. But it was the fact that the owner kind of took over the workshop at that point, and started giving instructions, while Ken Bob kind of stood off to the side and watched. After one little 'run,' Ken Bob offered up that he had some exercises of his won we might try, but he was ignored.

I'd actually expected that we would all take a longer run together, based on descriptions of other Ken Bob workshops I'd read, but no. And, after the 'exercises,' the question about injuries came up. One of the things Ken Bob said was about how how he'd helped a friend of his cure his plantar fasciitus just by bending his knees more at work. The owner of Playmakers then told a doozie: That “going barefoot can actually aggravate plantar fasciitus.” That's where I wanted to say, 'you don't know what you're talking about,' but I held my tongue, merely shaking my head and mouthing 'No.' He saw me and quickly changed the subject.

One final weirdness: the first part of the workshop took place outside the store, from 6:30-8:00, then there was a “Q&A” session scheduled for in the store, after it was officially closed. Jen and I were some of the first inside, since many of the groups went to their cars to put on shoes (?!). When we walked inside, an older male employee (of course), saw us come in, saw our barefoot, and started to freak out, beginning to tell us we couldn't be in the store without shoes, until another woman that came in with us gently chastised him: “Oh come now, you're not really going to have a barefoot running workshop then tell us we need shoes, are you?”

There was no Q&A session. In fact, that would have been impossible with a group since the store has a huge river/waterfall burbling away in back. When I saw that the employees behind the register weren't leaving, I realized we weren't supposed to have a Q&A—The thirty of us were supposed to shop. Oddly, most of the people in the group seemed into that, and dispersed around the store, though maybe they were just waiting for instructions that never came. But a handful of us hung around Ken Bob, who graciously listened to questions and continued to chat, until the owner took him aside and (seemingly) tried to keep him from everyone. Jen and I went after him anyway and got our pics taken with Ken Bob, and left.

The most informative part of the workshop was just watching Ken Bob actually run. I wish there had been a way for him to run for a longer period of time, like in a long circle, to be able to observe him even more, but here are my impressions: First, the guy is fast. His legs pump fast, but the rest of his body, upper torso and arms, just stays steady and level. Second, he keeps his legs bent, like really super bent. Third, his feet stay right under him, and lift up and behind, bending from the knee. He does not take long strides at all. His strides are super short. Just quick.

Here's what I remember about he said, with some commentary:
Keep your legs bent. The rougher the terrain, the more you should bend them.
Do NOT run on the balls of your feet. This causes stress on the heel and calves. Likewise, do NOT 'push off' with the balls of the feet or toes. BF running is all about just lifting the feet up.
Land, for the most part, with the whole foot. In fact, bending the knees makes running on the balls of the feet almost impossible
The metronome pace you should shoot for is 180. (In his book, The Barefoot Running Handbook, Jason Robillard gives the helpful advice that the song “Turning Japanese” is at a 180 pace. Now I sing that chorus to myself all the time)
When running to a cadence, LIFT your feet on the 'downbeat.' If we 'strike' on the downbeat, we have a tendency to strike harder.
In fact, he emphasized over and over how important LIFTING the feet is, to always be thinking of lifting the feet rather thinking of bringing them down.
Take faster steps (ie the 180 two-step), but to make them shorter. He quoted Caballo Blanco: “When given the choice between taking one step or two, take three.”
He also discussed the idea of “falling forward” and letting our weight work for us. But, to lean from the hips rather than farther up the torso. Keep the head level. Easier to do going downhill, but the same principle applies running on level ground.

Personal reflection
The big revelation for me was the bending of the knees. I'd actually originally done this when I first started running barefoot, but then read a couple posts on Ken Bob's Yahoo! Group that said this wasn't necessary, so, like a doofus, because not bending the knees seemed easier (and it's on the Internet! It must be true!) I believed them.

Also, again because of a few posts I read, I started to run on the balls of my feet last Fall, and developed some kind of fasciitus pain in the Winter and Spring. So, now I'm going back to bent knees, as bent as I can get them. Seeing Barefoot Ken Bob, the Guru of Barefoot Running, in action, was way more informative than any discussion group or book. I highly recommend seeing a real BF runner in action.

The highlight of the night as actually after the workshop, when Jen suggested we go for an evening run around the MSU campus, our old stomping grounds. Perfect weather, the campus mostly deserted and quiet on a Friday night. We got to try out Ken Bob's techniques immediately. I concentrated on keeping my knees bent, and keeping the “Turning Japanese” cadence, with small steps. We ran about 45 minutes, and felt like we could've kept going, but opted to go get Sir Pizza. I was worried I might have 'TMTSed' with that funny pain I've been having, but the next day my foot felt fine. Thank you Barefoot Ken Bob!

Link to Barefoot Ken Bob's website,

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Barefoot Running Book: A Review

The Barefoot Running Book: a practical guide to the art & science of barefoot & minimalist shoe running
by Jason Robillard
61 pages
ISBN 978-0-615-35444

When I started reading Jason Robillard's The Barefoot Running Book, I wished I could have had it last year when I started running barefoot. It's not that I couldn't, and didn't, find most of the information contained in the book elsewhere, but it was all haphazard, primarily through discussions on Barefoot Ken Bob's Yahoo! Barefoot Running Forum. This book puts all that information together, in an orderly manner, and with some humor!

The Barefoot Running Book walks a potential beginner through the basics, including, in the opening essay, why to run barefoot, but also the basic terminology, and philosophy, of barefoot running. In addition, and breaking with barefoot running purists, he includes some recommendations about minimalist shoe running, and shoes. Someone like me, who tends to be a little stubborn and more willing to jump right into things, might skip his “Pre-running” section. All I needed to know was that barefoot running was possible, then I just started going out and trying it, with initial success, but I have had my TMFS (too much too soon) injury troubles. Curious folks might appreciate Robillard's more careful advice, to build confidence and foot strength.

Robillard makes sure to emphasize experimentation, and the principle that “there is no single right answer” to barefoot running, and he does include advice from different perspectives. For example, in discussing proper running posture, he describes both the “Fall Forward” and “Keep Feet Under Body” methods. Since I've recently been working through a minor pain in my left heel, this section in particular made me re-think my own posture. I've been in the latter camp, but now I've been experimenting with the former. So, even after a year of running barefoot, I find things in this book that keep me experimenting.

Two quibbles: One, the $15 price, which seems a bit much for a 60 page handbook. Two, there is no real discussion of the difference between barefoot running and minimalist shoe running. Robillard recommends going primarily barefoot, but suggests minimalist shoes for extreme temperatures. Maybe I'm betraying my purist leanings, but there really does seem to be a difference between running barefoot and running in minimalist shoes. My Vibram Five Fingers served me well when I first started, but as I grew more used to running barefoot, I started noticing that my feet tended to hurt when I used them, so I just stopped wearing them altogether. My VFFs, and moccasins, felt almost too protective, causing me to strike harder with my feet, though his may just be a personal idiosyncrasy. I would like to see more 'science' about the differences between barefoot and minimalist running styles, which is perhaps too far out of Robillard's range of expertise. Still, he does discuss the VFFs in more detail on his blog. In the next edition of the book, maybe he could include a separate section or chapter on minimalist running.

A nice personal touch in the book is Robillard's encouragement of barefoot runners to be “ambassadors” out in the shod running world, arguing that, if we barefoot runners agree that running barefoot is good for us, we're helping other people by encouraging their curiosity. In his “Other topics” section he gives some humorous examples of people's responses to seeing someone running barefoot, many of which I've heard myself, but he urges that we barefoot runners always be polite and, if possible, funny, in talking with people, with the hope that they'll 'take the plunge' and try barefoot running themselves.

For someone who is curious about barefoot running, I would recommend this book as a handy guide to start with, saving much time navigating online discussion groups. As an intermediate to advanced barefoot runner (I've run two half-marathons and two full marathons in the past year), with nagging minor injury, I found the book a good review, and source of reflection. For all levels of barefoot runners, going with Robillard's 'ambassador' idea, this book would make a great gift to someone you know who's expressed interest in the lifestyle. Might be nice to have a copy handy nearby so that when (and not if) someone asks about barefoot running, you can immediately hand it to them and say, “Here, read this!”

Order this book through here.

For more info on Jason Robillard, visit:
his website, The Barefoot Running University
his blog, The Barefoot Chronicles

Also, you might run into Jason, and me, at the Runner's World Barefoot Running Forum

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Dexter Ann Arbor Half-Marathon: Race Report

It's early. Again. These early races are killing me. Even though this race it right in my home town, Ann Arbor, and the finish line is three blocks from my house, I still had to get up at 5:30. Since the race starts in Dexter, a small town northwest-ish from Ann Arbor, and follows the Huron River all the way back, the organizers have, thoughtfully, provided buses from Ann Arbor. To make sure I arrive in time for a bus, I decided to get there early, which is an example of how being the good boy gets you nowhere, since we were dropped off at an elementary school in Dexter and waited around an hour, watching later buses come in.

This is sort of a goodbye race for me, since I'll be leaving Ann Arbor by the end of the summer, in a few months. And, it's a fitting route, both because it was my regular bike route when I first moved here three years ago, and because it's a gorgeous scenic road going back and forth to the to the different sides of the river, which itself is huge and wide and quiet. The leaves are out on the trees, everything lush. A little sunlight would be nice, but even with the cloudy sky, should be a quiet tranquil run. Ok, not tranquil with 2600 people, but there won't be a lot of spectators until we hit Ann Arbor proper.

The weather is colder and rainier than predicted. I am only wearing short and a t-shirt, and my plan was to take the t-shirt off for the race, but I don't think that will be necessary.

I am barefoot. Again. I feel ok about this half-marathon, since I ran the Pinckney Trail Marathon only six weeks ago. A half marathon is my normal Sunday morning run, though at a slightly faster pace. I am interested in the pace I can keep while barefoot. I ran the Sumerset Stampede Half Marathon last summer, in my Vibram Five Fingers (VFFs), my first competitive race ever since I'd started running barefoot and was able to run again after two years off due to the dreaded plantar fasciitus, and I was pleasantly surprised at my time: 1:42, about an eight minute mile. I'm wondering if I can sustain/duplicate that.

Since there was a huge thunderstorm last night, right when we're living up to start, the race is delayed a half hour, due to there being a tree down across the road. Which doesn't seem like a big deal to me—we're not in cars after all. Climbing over a tree sounds like fun. Primal. But that gives everyone a chance to run back to the porta-potties and pee one more time.

Finally, the tree gets cleared apparently, and we line up for a 9:00 start. I decide to line up around the ten minute mile folks (we have some pacers holding signs) not all the way in back, but slower than I plan on running, in order to just warm up, and experiment with a strategy Barefoot Ken Bob shared with me, to start in back, so for most of the race I'll be passing people. A psychological boost.

The start is not too high tech. No bells or whistles, just someone up front with a cap gun, and everyone surges forward...and stops. And starts walking. Fortunately, but the time I actually cross the start line there's room to trot. I just want to warm up for a bit, so that's fine. My main concern is keeping a space in front of me so I can see the road and any rocks and pebbles I might step on, since right here in Dexter there seems to be a few.

We loop around through downtown Dexter. With the overcast sky, I'm actually not sure what in direction we started running, though we seem to be making a circle, until finally there's the corner store where Huron River Drive begins, and when I 'd usually turn around on my bike rides. And, there's the river. One of these days I should figure out where the Huron starts and end up, since I've spend a lot of time on its banks these past three years. Strange: I've met people in Ann Arbor who have never even been down to it at all.

And now that we're running, the comments begin: “Barefoot?!” “Hey, look at that guy, he's barefoot!” “Wow that's hardcore.” “Ouch!”

A young woman comes up to me, calling me “sir,” which both is hilarious and makes me feel old. She says she's seen me running around Kerry Town (a neighborhood near my apartment) lots of times. “I just want to say how much I admire you.”

I tell her thank you. She says a friend of hers tried running barefoot for about two months but hurt her hips some how, so stopped. That's a new one, and seems odd. I wonder why that would be, or if the running was really the cause, but I still suggest to her that she should try it herself, for three weeks, just to see. She says maybe, and then we don't have time to talk, she has to get back to her friends. This is where my friend Melissa would be like, 'did you get her number?' Well, no, we're running a race, just two human beings talking about a mutual interest. And then Melissa would shake her head. Well, she was cute. But, 'sir'?

I think I'm the only barefoot runner, though I've seen a couple VFFers. One guy and I, before the race, were comparing how we attached our race 'chips,' or 'bands,' since they're designed to loop through shoe laces. He had his hanging from one of the back heels. Me, I wrapped mine in duct tape, then taped it around my right ankle. I'm telling you, you can do anything with duct tape!

Have I said enough about the beauty and sexiness of female runners? Can enough ever be said? The firm sleek bodies, the disciplined personalities. But what's the deal with those skorts? Why have a skirt, when there are shorts underneath? Don't they realize that the skirt part covers up their asses so that us men can't stare at them? What fun is that?

Fortunately, there are others who take their job of pleasing men seriously, wearing tight black lycra things that just look....amazing. I pass one, and there's another, and so I pass the race, like life, going from one beautiful woman to another.

And, rain. A light drizzle. We pavement tends to tear up my feet more. Or, rather, the water cause my calluses to soften. Not sure how I'd do in a full marathon in the rain, on pavement, but I'm ok for this distance, though perhaps I'm running a little slower, a little more sensitive to the pebbles, though really, over all, the road is ok. No real rough spots, or if there are, we have both lanes and I can scoot over to the other side.

The rockier parts are at intersection, where cars tend to track in dirt and debris, and where the pavement breaks up a little more. Also, there are dirt roads feeding out onto Huron Drive, and with the rain last night, some of them have become mini-rivers.

I'm setting a fast pace for myself. Still finding myself wanting to do the long-legged shod shuffle, which would be very bad for my heels. Instead, I am taking shorter strides, faster, less action from the things (or so it feels) and more from the knees and calves, trying to keep my feet relaxed, which is hard when trying to force myself to go fast. but if my feet aren't relaxed, I feel myself stat to land more on the heel. If anything, my ideal stride feels more like I'm 'pulling' myself along with the front portion of my feet, the ball and toes.

But, I'm trying to keep a pace where I'm just slightly winded. I'm passing people chatting up a storm, thinking, if you can talk, you can run faster. But hey, it's all good. I like this pace. For a marathon, I'd be going slower, planning for the long haul. For a half, I know I can push myself. I'm not going to be physically exhausted at the end, so I can push myself harder right from the beginning. Ideally, if I were more serious, or took running seriously, instead of for fun, I'd love to be able to run this pace for a full marathon. Alas, no.

Another woman comes up to ask about barefoot running. I explain my history with it.

“Well, you must have amazing feet. I could never do that. My feet are too sensitive.”

Is she implying that I'm insensitive? But I just tell her she could do it, to try it for three weeks.

“Well, ok....”

I know. Two years ago I would've said it's crazy. In fact, I did. Out in Arizona, working at a wildland firefighter, I heard rumours of guys running barefoot and in moccasins, and I thought, wow, that's cool, they're hardcore, but never did I ever consider it until out of desperation, of of a sense of, 'it's either this, or never run again.' I wish I could convince people to try it before they get injured. And, I'm convinced that with today's running shoes, getting injured is a matter of when, not if.

Digital clocks are set up along the routes, and suddenly we're fifty minutes in, then an hour. Man, this goes quick. I'm over halfway done. I realize that there haven't been any mile markers at all, which I kind of like. No excuse to mentally psych myself out.

I'm still passing people, more slowly now, but it does feel good, I cannot tell a lie. Like I have an edge. So, starting at the back has it's benefits. But, the gasps of “Barefoot?!” get a little old. Can't blame them, I'd do the same. Some people though, just don't seem to realize that when I'm twenty feet in front of them I can still hear them talk about me, like the guy who goes into a long story to his friend: “I tried that back when I was in college and wanted to prove how tough I was. You know, looking in the National Geographic and seeing pictures of guys from Kenya running barefoot. So I tired it, until I stepped on a rock and it hurt. That was enough. My dad was a doctor, and when I came limping home, he didn't even have to say anything, just gave me that dad look, like I was a dumbass.”

He kept talking, but I finally sped up enough to get out of hearing range, though I wanted to run around and ask, “Are you calling me a dumbass? You're the sissy that couldn't take a rock. Did you continue to always do what your daddy approved of?”

And so on and so forth yadda yadda yadda. At least I can take satisfaction in knowing I'm going to beat him.

Ah, nothing like a little friendly competition to motivate folks. Well, really, I'm trying to see if I can beat myself, since my barefoot paces, in the two marathons I've run, have been slower than my previous shod paces. Though, there are other factors, like that I'm five years older. But no, never surrender!

Anyways, there are other folks who are kind enough to say things like, “Dude, good job.” Likewise, good job to them. Everyone out here came to do two things, kick ass and chew bubblegum, and they're all out of bubblegum.

There's actually a band for this race! Excellent. And they're rocking out to Johnny B. Goode. Ha! A good sign.

And have I mentioned the women? There have been a couple just wearing super short-shorts and just a sports bra. My god. Are those even real running shorts? Do they really make running shorts that short? it's a blessing, really. They have blessed me.

We reach the section of road that I've run before, and that really rough part, which yes, is still rough. But that's the worst. After this, there's brand new pavement on into town. And, since there was a 10K earlier, which started in Ann Arbor, came out here, then turned around, there are still orange cones running down the middle of the road, and for some reason, everyone is bunching up in the right lane, leaving the left one entirely open. All that space in front of me, calling me. Running with people is a good motivator, but when I'm tired, I can get tempted to just lock into the general pace of everyone around me. Plus, passing is easier, I don't have to duck and weave. Not that I'm passing that fast anymore. And, to be honest, I'm getting passed too. I wasn't the only lurker in the back.

We reach the turnoff onto Main Street, and one of the spectators yells that we only have a mile to go. Whew, I'm winded. I couldn't talk if I tried, and neither can anybody around me. But I keep up the pace, remembering biking down this road on Saturday mornings in the Fall, when cars filled with Wolverine fans were locked bumper to bumper. And how much of a pleasure it was to pass them.

And, I'd forgotten, Main Street goes uphill into town. Ugh. Well, hills are my specialty, and just by maintaining my pace, I'm passing people again because they're slowing down. Thank you Four Corner states for showing me what a hill really looks like!

Now we're getting more spectators, and as we get into downtown proper, the finish line in sight, the sidewalks are crowded, and for some reason, I'm really visible or something, because people are seeing me and yelling “Go barefoot runner!” and word seems to spread ahead of me. How embarrassing and weird. But right now I have locked in on 'finishing strong mode.' Once I can see the end, I try to push myself, deplete my reserves, feet scrambling, pumping my arms, jaw set, passing more folks, who seem if anything to be slowing down. Briefly, the thought comes that I might try smiling at this point, this is fun after all. But—


Whew. Catching my breath, but I feel good. Strong. I ran as strong as I could, consistently, the whole time. My time is around 1:50ish, I think, so, a little slower than last year, but ok. Still respectable. I filter down the chute, grab a bottle of water and my cheaply-made medal. The best part? I can now just walk three blocks back to my apartment and a hot shower.