Monday, June 28, 2010

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,