Saturday, April 17, 2010

Why/How I Started Running Barefoot, Part Two

When I returned to Michigan, I continued to run short ‘four-thirties’ three days a week. I found a perfect size loop, down by the Huron River, that took me about a half hour. Gradually, through the Fall, I worked on taking less walking breaks, which brought the run down to twenty-five minutes. But afterwards, every time, my feet were sore. I continued to ice, but gave up hope of working up to the Detroit Marathon that year too. I also got really tired of buying athletic tape. It might be cheap if you’re a podiatrist and earn a six figure salary, and can buy medical supplies bulk, but for a poor grad student, spending at least $40 a month was a lot, and that was at my university pharmacy at a discount. I became know by the employees there as the Tape Guy. Being the only person on a campus of 20,000 people who needed that much tape, at least for that extended amount of time, wasn’t right. If I was getting ‘better’, or ‘healing,’ then I could see it. But for the rest of my life? Something was wrong.

At the end of that next Spring, about a year and a half after my first plantar fasciitus diagnosis, a couple things happened. First, an old friend mentioned barefoot running. I, of course, immediately dismissed the idea as something I might have wanted to try when I was younger and my feet weren’t injured. There was no possible way I could run without super arch support shoes, additional super arch support insoles, and taping my foot. If I ended up getting injured while wearing shoes, imagine how badly I’d hurt myself if I ran without shoes.

Then I heard a radio interview with Chris McDougall, a writer for the magazine Men’s Journal, who had just come out with a book called Born To Run, about, in part, a tribe of super-runner Indians who live in Copper Canyon, Mexico. They have never lost the ability to run, like the rest of us, because they live in isolation from civilization, and things like roads. And shoes. I went to my local Border’s and looked through the book, and was blown away by McDougall’s basic point, that humans are literally born to run: We evolved as long distance runners because that’s how we hunted for a million and a half years before we invented the spear and bow and arrow: We would run animals to death, just following them until they collapsed from exhaustion.

I also read a little about the Tarahumara, and their running style. Though for longer runs they’ll wear huaraches, a type of sandal which they make out of leather or old tires, they normally go around barefoot. Either way, they’re not getting arch support, and one of McDougal’s points is that the Tarahumara don’t get injuries. With all the running they do, they don’t get plantar fasciitis. In fact, they don’t really get sick either. No cancer, no diabetes, no nothing. That part made sense. Everyone would agree that if we all were more physically active here in the US, we’d be much better off for it. But the no running injuries part seemed bizarre. Was it because they just don’t have roads? It’s walking on hard surfaces that gives us plantar fasciitus, right? But even then, barefoot? Didn’t that hurt? And yet, it also made sense that, as McDougal makes the case for, if humans had been going barefoot for two million years, our bodies would be pretty well built for it by now. I didn’t read the whole book right then, since it was in hardcover and I was poor, but I put an order for it with the library, and I had to wait a long time: There were about 25 people before me who wanted to read it.

In the meantime, I went to “teh Internet” and Googled “barefoot running” to see what came up, which got me to runningbarefoot dot org, run by Barefoot Ken Bob, a mountain man-looking bearded guy from San Diego, and proponent of barefoot running. And he was not alone. On the site there were testimonies and pics from other barefoot runners. Still skeptical, but curious, I joined their Yahoo Group, where both veteran and beginner barefoot runners were talking and exchanging info. There were more than a couple mentions of running barefoot actually helping injuries go away, which just seemed crazy to me. And yet, also not crazy. I remembered a guy I worked with who had a hairline fracture in his hip bone, and the doctors had him walking around as soon as possible to keep his muscles strong. Our bodies don’t heal unless we use them. Sitting around watching tv is not enough.

So I decided to dive right into the convo and write my own post, explaining my plantar fasciitus history and asking if people thought running barefoot would help. Within a day I had at least fifteen replies, both on the group site and emailed to me personally, from people urging me to try it, and telling me how they too had gone through the same frustration with plantar fasciitus, and with doctors. One guy said he’d been “put out to pasture” by his doctor, who told him he would never be able to run again. After going barefoot, the guy was now running, playing soccer with his kids, and active again. What struck me was that most of the people who wrote to me were either my age, or older. These people were talking like they’d gained a new life.

I still tried to resist, play Devil’s Advocate, and offer up my argument that it wasn’t shoes that caused plantar fasciitus, but paved roads, and I was gobstruck by a guy who said running barefoot on sidewalks was like running through butter. That was just the complete opposite of what I’d learned about running: I’d always avoided sidewalks because cement was the hardest surface. Another guy offered this explanation: Our feet don’t need ‘support,’ and in fact support actually weakens them. For example, if I put my arm in a cast for six weeks, it would get weaker. Like with my co-worker’s hip, the only way my arm would get strong would be to use it. Likewise our feet. He, and others, swore that my plantar fasciitus would vanish once I tried going barefoot.

As I said before, I’m a real man: I jumped right in. Almost two years of doctors, some of whom I didn’t even like, telling me to do stuff that didn’t seem to work, was enough. Here were real people, runners like myself, who had nothing to gain from lying to me, and were sincerely trying to help, a feeling I never quite got from most people I talked to in the medical profession. Plus, like Montaigne said, they’d ‘been there, suffered that.’ Or, and this was even more than my marathon running podiatrist, they’d ‘been there, cured that.’

I biked down to my river loop, near the train station, leaving my shoes tied to the bike. Then I stepped across the railroad tracks to the dirt road paralleling them. Standing there barefoot felt really really scary. Naked. If I weren’t a real man I would almost say, vulnerable, unprotected. And it wasn’t just the fear of slicing my feet open on rocks, it was the fear of making my plantar fasciitus worse by running without arch support, of ruining that year and a half I’d spent getting my feet back to where I could at least do short runs. I didn’t want to do anything that would force me to spend another year and a half not running. But, I also knew that was the doctors talking in my head, and what good had they done me so far?

So I started running.

I realize now that a dirt road is the worse place to try a first barefoot run, but I was still in shoe running mode, where dirt was my friend, because it was softer than pavement. What I noticed immediately was that I was paying attention, both to where I was stepping, and to my body. Focusing. I aimed for the sandy patches, and I went slow, barely what I would even call running. And yes, accidentally stepping on a rock hurt, but it wasn’t like every step I took that was happening, nor were the rocks ripping gashes in my skin. Not huge ones anyways. They just poked. What was weird was feeling anything down there at all, feeling sensation in the bottom of my feet. I don’t think I’d felt that since I was a kid, walking back to the car from the beach.

I was soon at the bike path, smooth flat pavement, and it was just like that one guy from the barefoot running Yahoo Group had said: after the pokey rocks, that pavement felt like butter. There was still sensation. I could feel dirt grit, flakes of grass, and yes I could feel my skin rubbing against the pavement, sort of sandpapery-like, but not in a bad way. I was barely trotting, doing the penguin-trudge, taking super small steps. But you know what? I was running. I had planned to just do a really short run, just up the bike path section and back, but when I got to the end of it, to the bridge crossing to the other side of the river, I decided ok, if I’m going to be a real man, I’m going to do this all or nothing. So I crossed over, a little bit more bike path, then a wood boardwalk, then I was on a trail. I crossed a small creek, and squished through a muddy section, which felt great! Squishy mud oozing through my toes! I was smiling!

And I hit a patch of rocks and they all poked me at once. I started cursing loudly. But I kept going. The path did have long smooth packed-down-sandy parts and I kept up a pretty good trot. And if I hit more rocky sections (and if I paid attention I could see them coming) I just slowed down and walked my way gingerly through them. What killed me was the dirt parking lot next to the canoe rental place, and the metal grates of the dam where I crossed back over. Oh, and then I had to go back over Pokey Rock Road back to the train station. When I got to my bike, my feet felt like hamburger, and I knew I’d been perhaps a little stupid to not work up to the whole loop. But you know what? Even if my feet felt raw, there were no real bad cuts, just a couple area were skin had been scraped off. No blood. Everything had changed: I had gone against the advice of all the medical professionals I’d talked to, and that was the first time in two years I had run and not felt the dreaded plantar fasciitus ache. I could take pokey rocks, and the sandpaper effect from pavement, that was just a question of building calluses. Suddenly I could picture myself becoming a runner again.

Once I knew that barefoot running was not only doable, but even good for me, my next stop was to go try out a pair of “VFFs”: Vibram Five Fingers, that people on the Running Barefoot Yahoo Group kept mentioning. They look odd, like a gloves for the feet, with individual toes, and the concept is that they’re just a cover, with a flexible, though still tough, leather-like, bottom. No support, no cushion, just a barefoot experience but with just a little protection. I wanted to try a pair, since I knew toughening up the bottom of my feet would take time. I wondered if, like people in the Yahoo Group had said, wearing them would allow me to get out running with the barefoot experience (that is, with no arch support) as I also worked on running completely barefoot at times. Turns out there was a outdoors store, Bivouac, right in downtown Ann Arbor, about four blocks away from me, that sold them. I went in, found them, tried them on, and fell in love. As soon as I walked around in them, I knew I had to have them. It was just like walking barefoot, but I could immediately see, and more importantly feel, that I would be able to thwart my new nemeses, the pokey rocks, at least a little. Plus they had the added bonus of looking weird, so I could enjoy causing people to do double-takes walking around town.

I went home that afternoon and went for a run. And, instead of biking down to the train station, I just ran. I crossed the tracks, hit the dirt road, and yes, the pokey rocks did still manage to poke me a little, but only the bigger ones. The little ones I glided right over. At the trail section, my body took over. It had been waiting two years to run normal, and it took off. And I didn’t mind. It felt great.

The only minor problem was that, since the VFFs still felt ‘shoe-ish,’ in that they were a covering over my foot, I think I still wanted to run as if I were in shoes, so I took longer strides, hit heels first, and tended to hit the ground hard, harder than I needed to. By the time I got to the bike trail section, and Ken Bob and others on the Yahoo Group had mentioned this, I realized “running barefoot” required that I rein myself in a little and concentrate on taking shorter strides, with my legs bent. That would need work, but again, no soreness after the run. There was a little bit the next morning, when I first got up, which worried me, but people on the Group claimed this was normal, and that it would take a while to get my proper running stride and to stop extending my feet out. I proposed alternating going barefoot with still wearing arch support shoes, like my Birkenstocks, but one person in particular wrote me back personally urging me not to do that, and when I thought about it, she seemed right. For example, if I only put my arm in a cast half the time for six weeks, it would still end up weaker. Other people kept saying that the only thing the would really cure the plantar fasciitus was actually using the feet, using the arches, and that made sense, and it made sense that there would be some at least minor pain involved. If I broke my leg, I’d eventually have to start getting up and walking on it, even if it hurt some at first.

From then on, with my loop runs, for the bike path section I’d go barefoot, then when I hit trail or dirt road, I’d just slip on the VFFs real quick and keep going. As my feet got tougher (which by the way didn’t mean they got thicker—instead, they seemed to lose their fattyness and get smooth) I would sometimes run across the dirt parking lot for example, to make sure I was exposing my feet to tougher terrain. I also experimented with a longer route, all on the paved bike path. And, I started to run more than three times a week! My body was responding, it wanted to run. We were both just waiting for our feet to catch up. In fact, in the VFFs, I started running longer, and one day, maybe three weeks after I’d bought them, I just put on my VFFs and let my body go and run as much as it felt comfortable, telling myself I’d stop whenever I started to feel any pain or weariness. And I ran an hour and twenty minutes. Admittedly, I did feel a little of the plantar fasciitus soreness the next day, so took a couple days off, but I realized, after this happened again later, that it wasn’t the running so much as the running in the VFFs: I was still treating them like shoes, and extending my stride too much and coming down on my heels. That, combined with the fact that my fascia were still probably inflamed irritated my feet. For someone starting off with normal healthy feet and the VFFs, I don’t think this would have happened.

I also realized after a while that what someone had said on the Barefoot Running Yahoo Group seemed true: that actually running barefoot helped heal my feet. Something about the act of running, of exercising the feet, seemed to also soothe them. I can’t verify this scientifically, nor explain it medically, maybe someone else could, but I tried running barefoot a couple different times after feeling some plantar fasciitus soreness and felt great afterwards, so that after about three months, when my feet were getting tougher, I tending to avoid running in the VFFs for the regular pavement routes and reserve them for the trails, which is what they’re really designed for anyway. Though also, the more I ran barefoot, the more used to the stride I got, and the more I was able to duplicate it in the VFFs.

I was surprised by how much energy I had. More even than before my injury. Once my feet toughened up, I found myself running almost every day. And I was pushing times, from my initial half hour loop, I was extending to an hour, then and hour and fifteen. I was also going barefoot more and more. I even found myself, inspired by the crazy endurance runners, both American and Tarahumaran, in Born To Run, running twice a day. I’d do my usual morning run, and sometimes in the late afternoon, with an hour before dinner, I’d just go run my short loop real quick. One day I ran an hour and fifteen minutes, all barefoot, then later that day, ran the short loop in the VFFs. The next day I ran an hour and a half, all barefoot, then again later ran the loop, half-VFF, half barefoot again.

After those three months, I felt great. My feet were getting tough, and my runs were getting longer, so I took the next step and signed up for both a half-marathon in August, and the Detroit Marathon in October. I had no doubt I could run them in VFFs, but my goal was to go barefoot for both. If I could do the half-marathon barefoot, then I was pretty sure in two more months my feet would be even tougher. If not, either way I was doing the marathon again, after two years.

At the end of August, I ran the half-marathon, the “Somerset Stampede.” I’d planned on doing it barefoot, but since half the race was on gravel roads, I opted for my VFFs. Once I did that, my priority changed from just finishing, to finishing well, and I did great, with a time of 1:44, an eight minute mile. Five months before I would not have thought that possible. Even better: On October 18th, I ran the Detroit Marathon. Barefoot. I wasn’t sure if I could, so I’d carried my VFFs in hand the whole way, as a Plan B, but the roads were smooth, and I started out slow, to pace myself, and by halfway I knew I could do it. Not my best time, 4:42, but that was fine. When I crossed that finish line, I almost cried. Two years! Three since my last marathon! I was back! A runner once more.

So Montaigne was wrong. Sometimes the experts aren’t experts. It’s not enough that the doctor has experienced the malady/sickness he is treating. It helps. It helped the podiatrist be able to talk to me about plantar fasciitus. And yet, knowing about plantar fasciitus didn’t stop him from getting it, nor did it help him to heal it, nor to even think about healing it. He was still just treating the symptoms. In Born To Run, McDougall does a great job showing how Nike basically created a demand for running shoes in the early seventies, along with the idea that runners needed cushioning and support, etc. Those ideas didn’t exist fifty years ago, yet they’re now considered standard ‘knowledge’ in the medical profession, without, that I can tell, anyone even testing out the validity of the claim. Sometimes it takes laypeople, the so-called non-experts, like the people on the Yahoo Barefoot Running Group, to question authority, to question the status quo, when the status quo isn’t working. McDougall does this in his book, and Ken Bob Saxton and others did it on their own.

I teach college-level composition, and some kind of research type essay is considered important for all students to have experience with, meaning in part that students should gain experience in knowing how to determine what is a “reliable” source or not. In my case, that all got turned upside down. For a question about a medical condition, a running injury for example, most teachers would probably think of a traditional reliable source as a medical website, or a physician, or even a running magazine and/or its website. But none of those places would have recommended running barefoot. Not that these source want to intentionally harm people, but not coincidentally, their idea of ‘helping’ people is also tied in with whole industries (like insurance companies, and shoe companies) and even their own form of income. Fixing symptoms makes more money than curing something once and for all.

Things are changing, hopefully for the better. McDougall’s book has maybe showed many people/runners that the Emperor has no clothes, and even in the book he does find some trainers and people in the medical profession open to the idea of barefoot running. The book itself has made more converts to the forces of light: Every day Ken Bob Saxton’s Running Barefoot Yahoo Group gains new members, many mentioning Born To Run, and more online discussion groups like that are popping up. And, like me, those barefoot runners are not going to go back to shoes, ever.

Works Cited
McDougall, Christopher. Born To Run. New York: Knopf, 2009.
Montaigne, Michel de. The Complete Essays. New York: Penguin Classics, 2003.
Saxton, Ken Bob. 2009. Web. 24 October 2009.
Saxton, Ken Bob (Barefoot Ken Bob). BarefootRunning Yahoo! Group. Yahoo! Inc. 2009. Web. 24 October 2009.