Back in December 2016, I reported on the completion of my first 1,000 miles barefoot, and now, a little more than a year later, here’s the 2,000 mile marker. The biggest surprise is how much fun it’s been running, hiking, and walking without shoes. The biggest challenge has been injuries, and whether these were caused or exacerbated by barefoot running, or simply the result of getting older and/or trying to do too much, it’s hard to know. Either way, I’m looking forward to the next thousand miles on this interesting and unexpected journey. Here’s my report.
To summarize, the second thousand miles of barefoot training consisted of 27% running, 44% hiking, and 29% walking. The relatively low percentage of running is due to injuries which caught up with me in May 2017 and resulted in a seven-month running hiatus during which most of the activity was hiking. To put these stats in a broader context, barefoot training accounted for 44% of the roughly 2,100 miles logged in 2017, with sandals and Vibrams accounting for another 11%, and all my shoes of ultra-minimalist or “barefoot” style construction, meaning thin soles and no heels, cushion, or support.
Looking back on the year, there were so many memorable moments. The tail end of 2016 saw some notable barefoot runs, including an exhilarating 10-miler on a snowy, windy, chilly (34 F) day, in which I ran shirtless, finishing at a sub-8 minute mile pace and averaging under 8:45. But I paid a price for the enthusiasm, discovering afterwards cuts on the feet that I hadn’t felt while running. This led to a new procedure: when running in cold and wet conditions, I now stop every mile to check the bottoms of my feet, especially the toes. The next run was a brisk 7-miler at the local track with a temperature of 29 F, and I did check frequently, but my feet were fine, probably because the surface was dry.
Back in Chicago for the holidays, I took advantage of mild conditions to get in an easy-paced barefoot jog, and it was so much fun to cruise through the quiet residential neighborhood where I’d grown up, enjoying the wide, clean, smooth sidewalks: I didn’t want to stop. (I don’t run barefoot in New York City because of the crowds, trash, and rough pavement.)
Unfortunately, this was also the time when injuries began to catch up. I’d strained the left posterior tibialis tendon (which runs underneath the ankle on the inside of the foot) back in May 2016, during a period when I switched goals and pushed up training volume very aggressively. For some historical perspective, both 2014 and 2015 saw around 3,000 miles in total training mileage, but 2016 was up by 23% to 3,600 as I pursued ambitious goals, and perhaps that was my downfall. Perhaps, too, this tendon was my “weak link,” that part of the body destined to fail under a great enough load, because I’d experienced some pain and swelling here as far back as 2011. In any case, the tendon got more seriously strained in November 2016 during a set of moderate-weight calf-raises, the purpose of which was to strengthen the calf and thus reduce the risk of further injury — or maybe it was already injured at this point and the calf raises only revealed the damage that’d been done. Now I could feel the strain when stretching, and the tendon began aching on and off almost all the time. Additionally, a ligament in my my right foot started hurting, and this brought me to a complete halt. There wasn’t a whole lot of running, with or without shoes, for the next couple of months.
Finally in March the ligament was feeling better, and the ankle tendon seemed manageable, so when business travel took me to Pasadena, California, I ventured out on a 4.5-mile twilight barefoot jog, and what a cool feeling to explore the neighborhoods around the hotel and then discover a mysterious road snaking down into a dark tree-shaded ravine. The next business trip took me to Coral Gables, where I ventured out in the early morning hours onto sidewalks dotted with prickly dried leaves and then found a smooth grassy dew-soaked trail circling a municipal golf course.
April temperatures warmed back up enough for me to get out in Central Park, but just like the year before, reduced barefoot activity during the winter months had left me with tender feet, and the gritty hard-packed trails were very aggravating. I’d jog along at a discouraging slow pace, wincing with every step, and sometimes I gave up and put on sandals.
April also marked my return to barefoot hiking in the Catskills, although there was still plenty of snow at higher elevations. Walking barefoot in snow can be unbelievably painful, not to mention imprudent if conditions are cold enough — but on a warm spring day when the sun’s shining, walking in snow becomes a refreshing treat! One pleasant afternoon I encountered a couple of hikers coming along the trail, and they seemed very surprised to see someone stepping barefoot across a hard-packed snowy trail (but they hadn’t seen me wearing sandals during the cool morning).
As far as running, however, April brought more bad news. With the 50-mile Rock The Ridge race looming in early May, the ankle tendon had finally healed to the point where I could get in one or two long training runs, hopefully enough to complete the event (with no thought of racing). But then ten days out, I strained the posterior tibialis tendon once again, and this time worse than before. Somehow I survived the race, but a trip to the doctor revealed a minor stress fracture, and while the prognosis was better than it would’ve been for a torn tendon, the tendon was stressed, too, and running would be out of the question for a number of weeks.
But at least hiking was allowed, as long as pace and distance weren’t too aggressive, and this made barefoot hiking the perfect activity because it is by necessity so slow. Over the course of the summer and fall, I ended up doing a lot of barefoot hiking, in fact I completed almost sixty barefoot ascents of Catskill high peaks, and these hikes included both following trails and “bushwhacking” (going straight through the forests off trail). I also made two trips to the Adirondacks, and while in Lake Placid, met Wynde Kate Reese, proprietress of Green Goddess Natural Foods, who holds the distinction of having climbed all 46 of the High Peaks barefoot. Not surprisingly, now I want to do this too (I’m currently at 17).
Barefoot hiking has been such a wild mix of experiences. It can be enormously aggravating to pick your way along washed-out rocky trails, or stumble though steep talus fields full of unstable rock piles cloaked in leaves, or hold things together at night during a rainstorm on a steep slippery trail with sharp rocks lurking in every puddle. But the aggravation is paid back with a wild sense of joy and exhilaration when the trail turns to soft dirt or cool mud or you find yourself stepping on smooth flat rocks or treading through deep layers of leaves or banks of moss. And as you flow through the forest, the mountains begin revealing some of their secrets: exotic butterflies flitting among summer flowers, patches of mysterious lichen and florescent fungi, majestic soaring trees in first growth forest, magical twilight vistas, or an unfamiliar bird that’s been calling from deep in the woods suddenly alights on a branch overhead.
There was also some irony here, for someone like me who loves to race all-out, for now I was reduced to the slowest imaginable pace. On rocky trails, everyone would pass me by, young and old, fit or out of shape, especially going downhill, where I practically crawled (it’s hard to jump down without shoes). But sometimes the tables would be turned. On the way to Fir Mountain, a group of hikers passed me on the trail, but when they turned into the forest for the steep bushwhack to the summit, their pace slowed. With the forest floor covered in a deep layer of fallen leaves, the playing field was now a little more level, and I caught back up, passed them one by and one, and then left the group behind. In the Adirondacks, the approach to the summit of Gothic Mountain is on a great slab of anorthosite that’s so steep they’ve bolted cables into the rock. Bare feet provide great traction on rough surfaces, though, and grabbing the cable I scooted up to the summit leaving everyone else in my group behind and then passed a few strangers. For a sidelined runner, it was a fleeting return to glory!
No running all summer, but even so the posterior tibialis tendon was slow to heal. At the gym I’d walk barefoot on the treadmill and sometimes couldn’t get above 3.0 MPH before the ankle started to twinge (gym staff caught me in the act and ordered me to put on socks!). Six months went by and sometimes the tendon felt better, but sometimes it didn’t, and my training log shows nothing but inconsistency. Hearing of my frustration, my friend Rik Scarce referred me to Dr. Rob Conenello of Orangetown Podiatry who recommended EPAT shockwave therapy. From late October through November, I underwent five sessions, and the ankle began to feel noticeably better. An experienced physical therapist gave me new exercises to strengthen the peroneal tendons and muscles, which work in concert with the posterior tibialis to stabilize the foot.
I finally returned to running in December 2017, and after a seven month hiatus, those first tentative jogs were short, slow, and painful! But gradually I’ve worked up to around 5 miles at a moderate pace. It’s a great joy to be back to running, but care is still warranted, because doing too much too quickly can lead to a flare-up. With hindsight it would have been better to have backed off last year, and now I’ve developed new procedures that limit running unless everything is feeling good. Meanwhile, every step is a great joy, even a four mile barefoot hike in the snow, and for the first time ever I raced up one of the Catskill high peaks (Wyndham) and jogged slowly all the way down, for some reason if I just picked up my feet quickly enough, all those rocks and roots didn’t seem to matter.
The original motivation for going barefoot was Chris MacDougall’s theory that more natural form would reduce the risk of injury. Well, with my track record over the last year, I’m not the right person to prove that point. It may very well be that after wearing shoes for 50-odd years, asking the body to remember its natural form is a risky proposition.
But even so, I don’t want to turn back. Running barefoot doesn’t give me the sensation of pounding or grinding that I’ve experienced in shoes, rather it feels like floating along, and but for the sensation on the bottom of my soles and getting short of breath, it seems practically effortless.
Additionally, with respect to injuries there’s a very simple argument in favor of barefoot running, namely that it reduces impact by slowing you down. Shoes do not “absorb” force, otherwise they’d act like brakes and you’d feel like you were running in quicksand (not to mention, they’d get really hot like the brakes on your car!). What shoes actually do is transform the shockwave into a different shape, much like a spring does. The shock still get absorbed somewhere in the body — but instead of the balls of the feet and calves, it might be in the knees, hips, and back. Is this good or bad? The answer might be different for different people. Regardless, if you run slower or shorter distances because the soles of your feet begin to complain, the cumulative impact on your body will be less.
Regardless of injuries, I’d rather run barefoot, even if it means slower and shorter distances, and the reason is it’s so much fun. Like the hands and the face, feet have a huge number of nerve endings, and the volume of sensory impressions becomes a new dimension to the experience of moving through nature.
Going barefoot turns every hike or run into an adventure. It requires a higher level of concentration, the kind of focus I used to put into high-intensity speed workouts, but now that I’m a little older, I’ve got to be more careful about placing such demands on muscles and tendons. Whereas if I ask too much of the soles of my feet, they may complain for a day or two, and sometimes require a bandaid or bit of tape, but they’re quick to heal.
Finally, there’s a feeling of freedom that comes from getting away with less. Technology does such wonderful things, but there’s a cost, too, which we sometimes forget until we wake up one day feeling burdened and out of touch. The cost is not just spending money to acquire gear, but also the time and energy that goes into leaning to use it. When you rely on technology, some of your natural capabilities may atrophy. Some of us feel enormous joy and exhilaration when we park the car at the trailhead and venture out into the woods, even though we move so slowly compared to vehicular traffic on the freeway — and just the same way, untying those laces might slow you down a little bit more, but if it’s a beautiful spring day and the soft dirt is basking in the sun, perhaps you’d see and feel a little bit more.