In December 2018, I’d run the BMW Dallas 1/2 marathon without shoes. A year later, it was time to take on the full distance, which if successful would be my first barefoot marathon….
….This being a serious goal, the countdown started three weeks out with a taper in training volume and intensity. Ten days out, I started checking the forecast, sometimes twice a day, hoping for nice weather, since cold pavement feels extra prickly without shoes. The night before I skipped dinner so as to run the race in a fasted state, which is standard procedure for me, the goal being to train the body to burn fat efficiently (think of it as the opposite of “carb-loading”). The morning of race day I arrived 90 minutes early to make sure there wouldn’t be a problem with parking. The temperature was a balmy 57 F, with the latest forecast calling for clear skies and a high in the 70s — perfect conditions for barefooting.
Like any runner, I’m always curious about what people have on their feet. While hanging out near the start, I conducted a casual survey of the prevalent footwear, interested in the proportion of runners wearing so-called “minimalist” shoes, that is, shoes without the padded heels, arch support, and cushion of traditional trainers. Chris MacDougall’s 2009 bestseller, “Born to Run,” sparked huge interest in minimalist footwear and barefoot running. For a brief time, sales of minimalist shoes surged, to perhaps 10% of the market. But people found the transition to minimalism took longer and was more painful than expected, and the enthusiasm for minimalism began to wane. The conventional minded clucked to themselves that minimalism was a fad, which now was fading. Meanwhile, sales of super-cushioned shoes (sometimes called “maximalist”) were taking off. People were voting with their feet.
So what did my survey find at the 2019 BMW Dallas Marathon? Out of 100 runners who were randomly milling around me, I counted a total of 0 (zero) in minimalist shoes. This was surprising. In conducting surveys at other events, I’d typically found at least a handful of minimalists.
I didn’t count myself, however, and I was wearing a pair of Fitkicks, which are basically slippers, and thus as minimalist as it gets. On this basis, the minimalist population could be estimated at approximately 1 out of 101 runners, or 0.99%.
It was time to walk over to the starting coral. Along the way I passed through Pioneer Plaza, which is home to a herd of forty-nine longhorn steers cast in bronze. At six feet tall, they’re slightly larger than life, and the collection is thought to represent the largest bronze cow sculpture in the world. The steers were meant to cement Dallas’ identity as a western metropolis with pioneer roots, although critics pointed out that cattle were big business in nearby Fort Worth, whereas Dallas’ economy had centered historically on commerce (someone suggested a bronze herd of lawyers, bankers, and insurance men stampeding through town would have been more appropriate).
A few steps later, I encountered a young man advocating for the vegan diet. He held aloft a sign that said that you could save 100 animals a year by not eating meat. Another runner gave him a thumbs-up. I kept my opinions to myself. Veganism is controversial in certain circles: some object to what they perceive as non-scientific arguments made by vegan activists, while others worry that the diet isn’t healthy. Since I avoid carbs, fat is my primary source of energy, and meat contains a lot of fat.
Five minutes until the start: someone walked up to me and asked how far I was going to run in “slippers” (referring to my Fitkicks). He was running a half-marathon for the first time, he explained, and he couldn’t imagine running it without “good shoes.” I admitted the slippers took some getting used to and wished him a successful race.
It was just about time to start. I removed my Fitkicks and tucked them into my waistband. A clock on a big video screen showed the 10-second countdown. The gun went off, a couple of fireworks were shot into the air, and the announcer exhorted us to “run like champions.” Because of the large crowd, however, it took a minute or two before anyone could move. I stood in place, finding it hard to feel like a champion while stationary.
But then the crowd surged forward, and a little while later I was jogging across the start on pavement that was quite cracked and rough. This was just as I’d remembered it from last year, so after a few tentative steps, I hopped onto the painted yellow line and padded along slowly as crowds of runners passed me by.
The pavement smoothed out after a little while and I moved somewhat more quickly, passing a few people here and there. Up ahead a runner was wearing a red shirt which said “Beef-loving Texans.” This seemed more representative of the typical Texas attitude than the lone vegan activist on Pioneer Plaza. Beef is a big deal in Dallas, as I’d discovered at a recent business dinner. The waiter told us this restaurant was one of a very small number of places in the U.S. serving authorized Kobe beef, at $75 per ounce. I resisted the temptation to order a $900 steak, although I toyed with the idea of sampling a single ounce just to see what made it so special — but decided this was a taste worth not developing.
By mile three, I realized I still hadn’t seen a single runner in minimalist shoes of any kind. There were plenty of super-cushioned Hoka’s as well as a handful of the new Nikes in hot pink or lime green, the ones with a special type of foam sandwiched between carbon plates. This technology is thought to create a spring-like effect, which experts estimate can improve running economy and speed by as much as 4%. And here I was, the only person around not wearing conventional shoes, or any shoes for that matter.
So you can imagine my surprise when another barefoot runner passed me by. He gave me a fist-bump in passing and then after a few steps came back to introduce himself: his name was Will Brand, he was a resident of Dallas, and also a pilot, and had been running barefoot for six years.
What an extraordinary ambassador for the sport! While I was taking short, cautious steps, he was dancing around from one side of the road to the other, giving people high-fives, explaining that barefoot running is a spiritual practice, and dismissing shoes as “so yesterday.”
Someone asked him about rocks – didn’t they hurt?
“You betcha they hurt” I interjected.
But Will said that he keeps his head up and trusts to the universe to guide his steps. Also, “I have strong feet,” he explained.
Whereas I thought to myself that I don’t particularly trust anything and therefore stay constantly vigilant with respect to rocks, always ready to take evasive action.
Will gave me another fist bump and disappeared into the distance.
After this excitement, the next few miles were pretty quiet. The course exited the downtown area and passed through an upscale neighborhood called Lakewood. Families were camped out on the sidewalk in front of large homes, cheering the runners, and sometimes handing out snacks and drinks. The people seemed very friendly. Someone noticed my hat and shouted “Go Yankee!”
I collected one or two more fist bumps from fellow runners who were impressed by my lack of footwear. A number of people shouted “did you forget your shoes?” One person said “respect!” I got called “insane,” “hardcore,” and “badass.” An older man said, “I wish I could do that” — to which I replied, “why don’t you give it a try!” Mostly people shouted “go barefoot runner!” and once I heard, “another barefoot runner!” as they must have seen Will go by.
The most important thing to do while running barefoot is to smile and wave at people when they cheer you on, otherwise they might think you were a demented crazy person or a masochist. So I smiled and waved, although the pavement continued to alternate between smooth and rough sections, and where it got cracked and pebbly this required some extra concentration.
At mile ten, the full marathon course separated from the ½ and headed out toward a lake. Two young ladies in front of me were wearing blue shirts which said “Dear legs: Shut up and keep running.” Well, that’s the right attitude, I reflected, as long as you don’t take it too far, recalling how my determination to keep setting personal records even as I got older had led to a cycle of injuries that took a long time to heal. Meanwhile, my legs were starting to feel tired, possibly due to the 24-hour fast, or probably because I wasn’t in the shape I used to be. “Dear legs,” I said to myself, “please keep running.”
The course took us to a large body of water called White Rock Lake, across which there were pleasant views under clear skies and a bright sun. But the paved trail we were running on began to deteriorate. I think this is what’s called a “chip-and-seal” surface, which refers to crushed aggregate poured over liquid asphalt, resulting in a hard, pebbly surface. It was so bad it brought me to a walk in a couple of spots, and frankly, it hurt to walk. I hopped off the trail onto a grassy shoulder and trotted along more happily.
At one point I passed a runner wearing Vibram Five Fingers, the minimalist shoes with separate toe pockets. Counting myself, Will, and this individual, there were three minimalists out of a total crowd, including the full marathon, 1/2 marathon, and relay and ultra divisions, of approximately ten thousand. Therefore, we could draw a lower bound for the minimalist population at 0.03%.
The grass shoulders were narrowing. The chip-and -seal paved trail was now flanked by patches of gravel. My options were becoming limited.
My transition to barefoot running was partly meant to deemphasize speed and time goals, since my aging body was no longer handling the intensity of going all out the way it used to. Now it occurred to me that having gotten in the habit of dropping goals when they no longer made sense, I might as well abandon the goal of completing this race barefoot. At mile seventeen, I pulled out the Fitkicks from my waistband and put them on my feet.
The course wound around the lake and headed south towards the tall buildings of downtown Dallas. The Fitkicks neutralized the rough pavement, but they also seemed to take some of the bounce out of my stride. Maybe I was just getting tired.
Once off the chip-and-seal trail, it was back onto paved roads. With four miles left to go, I took off the Fitkicks, and gingerly trotted off along the pavement, which was smooth in places, and then rough again, all the while trying to keep up a decent pace and smile a little.
There were a few more shouts of “go barefoot runner!” An older lady commented, “I’d like to give that a try.” At this point, with legs tired and feet starting to hurt, I made an effort to smile but kept my mouth shut.
The course passed into the grimy outskirts of downtown Dallas, replete with light industrial facilities, chain-linked fences, and signs advertising bail services. The pavement got rough again, and in some places there was a scattering of gravel. Once or twice I stepped on sharp little rocks which brought me to a halt.
I thought there was one mile to go, but there were still two miles. I hustled along at a slow pace, feeling spent. When the finish line was finally in sight, I made an extra effort to run tall and smile and look confident, although my pace remained quite slow. This act seemed to work: as I crossed the line, the announcer called out “Kenneth Posner from New York, running barefoot! He wanted to tell us that he found our roads were smooth and that shoes are for lightweights.”
Damn right! I thought to myself, for a moment feeling morally superior to all those thousands of runners who were dependent on so much cushion and protection.
A glance at the clock showed that my finishing time was a few seconds under five hours. As someone who used to routinely break three hours, I felt a little rueful. Shoes aren’t just for lightweights, I admitted to myself, but for those who run fast.
Later on, I’d check the results and find that Will had finished a half-hour in front of me. It cheered me to be in the same zip-code as him.
On the way out, as I was passing Pioneer Park once again and the herd of forty-nine larger-than-life bronze steers, I saw another runner wearing the red “Beef-loving Texans” shirt. I thought back to that lone vegan activist. Vegetarians make up 2% of the population, and vegans account for about one-quarter of vegetarians. That would put vegans at 0.5%. Suddenly I realized how big this population was, compared to the vanishingly small number of barefoot runners.
I wished that young activist success in promoting a cause that evidently he cares a lot about, and drove off in search of lunch and a cappuccino.