I’m still a relative newcomer to barefoot running, having started the practice four years ago, a short period of time when compared to forty years running in shoes.
Over the last twelve months I’ve started racing barefoot at distances ranging from 5k to 1/2 marathon, almost ten events, and each one a memorable experience not only on account of the variety of surfaces, but also because of the reactions of my fellow participants.
On March 17th, I woke up at 5:38 AM, a few minutes before the alarm was set to ring…
My wife Sue is already getting ready, this being a special day for her: running on behalf of Back on My Feet (a charitable group that combats homelessness through the power of running), it will be the first ½ marathon-distance race of her life.
For me the priority of work is to tape up the left ankle, pin bib to pants, drink a cup of coffee – the tape intended to provide some support for a sore tendon that has plagued me on and off for three years now, no doubt the result of age, poor form, and perhaps one or two ultramarathons too many.
Sue and I leave the house at 6:23 AM and head to the subway, where we meet Dale, her running partner from the local Back on My Feet chapter, with whom she plans to run the race together.
There are a number of fellow runners on the platform, and more in the subway car. We follow a crowd out of the station and into Prospect Park where everyone makes their way slowly through a gauntlet of metal detectors and stern-looking cops. Once on the far side I wave goodbye to Sue and Dale and wish them a successful race.
It’s a big race with thousands of participants starting in a succession of waves. It’s a long shuffle from the corral to the starting line, and then for me a tentative pace at first due to the rough pebbly pavement in Prospect Park and mid-30s temperatures which make the pavement feel extra prickly. Starting slow is nothing new, however; I lope along, focused on setting each foot precisely (without scuffing, dragging, or twisting), as a stream of runners flows past me on either side. A volunteer spots me rounding a corner and comments knowingly, “way to feel the course.”
Every now and then someone exclaims “barefoot!” People may have read Chris MacDougal’s book, Born to Run, but shoeless runners are a rare sight in New York City. A fellow passes me and shouts “respect!” while someone else cries out “That’s pretty extreme” and another yells “You’re nuts!”
The first mile passes underfoot, and I’m warmed up and moving a little easier. Near a turnaround, there’s someone in the other lane coming toward me wearing a shirt emblazoned with the crest of the U.S. Army Ranger Regiment. I shout the standard greeting, “Rangers lead the way!” I might’ve caught him off-guard, as the response is slow and muffled (“All the way!”)
It’s clouding over and a little breezy, and now I’m past the turnaround, and here come Sue and Dale – “Go Sue! Go Dale!”
Running through downtown Brooklyn, past a water station and a few crowds of spectators shouting encouragement when suddenly I notice an enormous quantity of hats and gloves discarded along the median (this must be the point where people start to feel warm). Then it’s through a cloud of crumpled paper cups. From here, a straight shot to the Manhattan bridge floating a mile off in the distance.
“How are you feeling?” a woman asks me, and I respond “fine, how about you?” “How long have you been doing this?” someone else wants to know. I make a point to smile, even when the comments are slightly inane (“keep going, there are shoes waiting for you at the finish!”). If you do something different from other people, you shouldn’t be surprised when they’re surprised.
It’s a long slow climb up and over the bridge. Metal grates cover joints in the pavement, and these I step on or hop over with care. From the top, expansive views of the East River and the tall glass towers of downtown Manhattan, while a subway car creeps across the Williamsburg Bridge to the north. This is the city that Walt Whitman proclaimed: “The beautiful city, the city of hurried and sparkling waters! the city of spires and masts! The city nested in bays! my city!”
A shout from behind: “Barefoot guy!” – but I don’t respond, there being no requirement of etiquette to turn around while racing and acknowledge someone to the rear.
The pavement curls down from the heights, descends into the city, passes a station where they’re handing out gels, and spent packets dot the pavement for the next quarter-mile. Another water stop, another cloud of crumpled cups, and metallic scraping as a volunteer rakes up the debris.
Heading toward the FDR Drive and here’s an overpass which I recall from the time two years ago when I ran thirty-six miles around the periphery of Manhattan, but since then it’s been freshly painted an intriguing plum color. This is my first time running on the FDR, and when I look up at the East River it seems almost eye-level, as if I were looking out at a giant infinity pool.
The pavement is smooth here, having been massaged by 150,000-175,000 cars a day for countless years on end. At one point I catch a small rock underfoot but roll over it without harm. Indeed, my feet feel fine, although legs are a little tired. Five miles to go…. A taxi whizzes past in the opposite lane, the driver honking and raising his left hand in a gesture – is he encouraging us? — or upset that we’ve taken over the roadway and snarled up northbound traffic? A few other cars honk, too, but mostly the drivers stay hidden behind their glass and metal, part of the anonymous urban flow.
A woman overtakes me, acknowledges that she’s just taken my photograph: “The kids in my class won’t believe that anyone can run barefoot” – to which I reply, “You should get them out of their shoes, they’d have a great time once they got used to it” but then I reflect that their parents probably wouldn’t approve. Their parents probably don’t know that Harvard evolutionary scientist Daniel Lieberman blames shoes for weakened feet, which is for him an example of “dysevolution,” i.e., an aspect of modern life that leave us sick or weak (“We might be able to avoid some foot problems by encouraging people—especially children—to go barefoot more often,” he writes).
Four miles to go: running down 42nd Street, familiar to me from the Abbott Dash to the Finish 5k, which I’d run last fall without shoes, and now turning onto 7th Avenue, familiar to me from twenty-five years living in the City, although it feels like the first time I’ve looked up and seen straight into the sunlit woodline of Central Park a mile away.
Nearing the finish, someone’s holding a big sign: “Your feet hurt…from kicking butt!” I’m expecting a special comment, but they don’t notice me. In any case, my feet still feel fine. One element of barefoot running form is the creation of a tiny stillness in the moment before impact: you hang in the air for a fraction of a second before settling down in a precise and controlled manner. Back in the days when I wore conventional shoes, running felt like pounding; then when I switched to lightweight minimalist shoes, I felt like I was “tapping” the ground. Now the sensation is simply feeling.
Here’s someone holding a big sign as if for me: “Born to Run!” But I pass unnoticed.
This finish is crowded, of course, and it takes a half-mile before I escape and begin jogging slowly toward home. The sun’s out, the day has warmed, I thread among pedestrians alongside Central Park, the sidewalk here consisting of ancient hexagonical pavers tilted in places and with large gaps between the stones where the surface has settled and bulged, so I pay attention and move slowly.
A cop asks: “Did you run the race barefoot?” — “Yessir” — “That’s impressive” – to which I respond, smiling: “I’m not sure about that, but it was fun.”
Back home, and a little while later Sue shows up and reports that she and Dale successfully completed the race.
And thus ends another day (another step along the way).
Walt Whitman, Manhatta, 1867.
Lieberman, Daniel. The Story of the Human Body. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.