Seven years ago I began integrating some barefoot training into my running practice in order to improve my form, thinking this might reduce the risk of injury, as Chris MacDougal suggested in his bestseller Born to Run. Initially this was an experiment. But it has morphed into a journey, and every so often I pause to reflect.
A year and a half ago, I reported on my 5,000th mile of barefoot running, hiking, and walking. Last summer I reached the 6,000th mile somewhere on the John Muir Trail. In March of this year, I passed mile 7,000 and as I write this, I’m at 7,108, having just completed my 6th barefoot race of marathon distance or longer. Along the way, barefoot has gone from experiment, to training technique, to my preferred way to run and hike, and now’s it become a part of my philosophy.
I’ll start by reporting on accomplishments in the eighteen months and 2,000 miles since my last report, and then I’ll share the failures.
Last winter I took advantage of business travel to Dallas, where the winters are milder than New York, to run a 10k, a 15k, and then the Fort Worth “Cowtown” Marathon, which was a milestone — my first successful barefoot marathon on paved roads. I’d already completed long trail races, but quickly discovered that pavement is less forgiving than dirt. Pavement requires you to place each foot upon the ground precisely, with no twisting or scuffing, which are bad habits developed in shoes. Three months earlier I’d made it 16 miles barefoot during the Dallas Marathon before a rough spot forced me to pull on shoes. The Cowtown Marathon was a great experience — not only a milestone, but also a beautiful day and an interesting cow-themed event.
Then the pandemic hit, and all the races I’d signed up for were canceled. I did some virtual races, including a 31-miler in the local Shawangunk Grasslands, which turned out to be a milestone for the conditions, with temperatures in the 30s, and the ground dusted with snow and wet with slush — in fact I ran through a snow squall, which for mid-April in New York was a little surprising, although not unheard of. I stopped a couple of times to warm my feet, but otherwise the snow and slush didn’t faze me. It was exhilarating to discover what the body is capable of — although one successful run in snow does not guarantee that the next one won’t cause problems.
I hit another milestone in June. There’s an adventurous 19-mile loop in the Catskill Mountains called “The Nine,” which gets its name from the nine peaks summitted along the way — Slide, Cornell, Wittenberg, Friday, Balsam Cap, Rocky, Lone, and Peekamoose. What’s especially challenging about The Nine is that four of these peaks lie off-trail, forcing you to navigate across rugged mountainous terrain cloaked in thick forest. In the spirit of my minimalist philosophy, I wanted to take on The Nine using as little technology as possible. I came up with a plan to go barefoot, without carrying food or water, and navigating without the use of compass, map, or GPS. Upon reflection, this seemed too hard ,and I forgot about the idea until my friend Kal Ghosh reminded me. It took us 24 hours including a chilly overnighter, but we completed the mission and called our adventure the Diogenes Challenge after the ancient Greek philosopher who advocated for a life of simplicity and self-discipline.
My biggest undertaking last year was spending three weeks on the John Muir Trail, a 211-mile footpath through the mountains of California’s Sierra Nevada. Certain sections of the JMT were covered in silky fine-grained sand, which couldn’t have been nicer walking on, but other parts consisted of piles of broken rocks, which weren’t much fun, especially with 30-pounds on my back. I successfully completed the trail, which counts as an accomplishment, but I was forced to wear shoes where the terrain was particularly rough (of the 211 miles, I completed 72% barefoot/28% in shoes) which to me was a partial defeat.
I’m surprised more people don’t hike barefoot, because there’s such a simple joy to moving naturally. The rocks and gravel may be aggravating, but the reward for perseverance is the exhilaration you feel on reaching sand or smooth dirt or flat rocks or grass or moss. Over the last eighteen months, I’ve bagged a dozen peaks in New Hampshire (the Pemigewhasset Loop, the Tripyramids and Tecumseh) and followed many new trails in New York’s Catskill Mountains in pursuit of the All Trails Challenge, all without shoes, and it’s been great fun, although sometimes by necessity quite slow. After decades of running in shoes, it’s sometimes difficult for me to mentally adapt to a slower pace, in fact, sometimes the frustration is intense. But I figure this is how one learns the art of patience.
December saw another successful barefoot road marathon, this one in Biloxi, Mississipi, and then a final milestone for the year — a 50-mile run on New Year’s eve at the Hainesport Hundred, which is the farthest barefoot distance I’ve gone so far. With hindsight, I lucked out at this race with temperatures in the 40s — mild conditions for winter.
So, these were the triumphs, but barefoot introduces variability, and so does age.
At a 1/2 marathon last fall, I made it 2.5 miles before giving up on barefoot, despite the fact I’d run the whole course in the spring (but since then the trails had dried out, making conditions much more difficult). I gave up after 2.5 miles at the Bucks County Marathon, in this case upon discovering that the canal towpath, which looked soft and smooth on the race video, was in real life full of grit and gravel. Then, even with shoes on I ran so slow I almost didn’t finish. This winter I ran five miles barefoot in snow, which I’ve done before, but this time it was a little colder (26 F) and afterwards my toes stung so badly I could barely walk for a full week. I waited for temperatures to rise into the 30s, and then a four-mile hike on snow turned into disaster — after punching through a crusty surface, I found I’d cut my feet. It took weeks (and an entire box of bandaids) before those wounds healed, and as a result I had to wear shoes for almost half of the Grasslands Marathon, which was disappointing. I made it half-way through the Chicago Lakefront 50k before giving up on barefoot, I was moving so slowly. Once in shoes I slowed down even more, felt hungry, stopped for food, and started taking walking breaks — it was my slowest race ever.
I recently made a new running friend named Dennis who’s 74 years old. By coincidence we were both signed up for the Gettysburg North-South Marathon. At dinner Dennis, who is a strong runner and often wins his age group, told me his goal was to qualify for Boston. But afterwards he texted me that this was his worst marathon ever and he didn’t know why. In response, I admitted that I now call them “Survivathons.”
As for me, I ran the Gettysburg Marathon at a quick pace where the pavement was smooth, and very slowly where it was rough. I enjoyed the beautiful spring weather, the trees in bloom, the open fields ringed with monuments and cannon, and shivered when a cold wind blew. I passed a first-time marathoner who said her goal was to finish strong, and I wanted to finish strong, too, but the last three miles were very difficult for me, as my feet were sore and muscles tired, and the day was starting to warm. By the time I reached the finish line, I was creeping.
When I can’t move fast, I sometimes feel disappointed, because I’d like to show people that barefoot is a form of natural strength. Loss of speed is a consequence of age which cannot be avoided, but then I raise the stakes by going barefoot, which turns every run, hike, or race into an adventure with wild and unpredictable results.
You could say that every race is now an experiment and that my barefoot practice has itself become a continuous long-running experiment. I will continue to study, reflect on, and report the results.
Each one of us is an experiment-of-one. Each is a unique, never-to-be-repeated event. Our talents vary. Our defeats are our own. Our environments offer special challenges. We evolve from a constant interaction between instinct and will, between emotions and reason, between environment and good fortune. Life, like it or not, is a handicap event, and the winner may finish deep in the pack.
— George Sheehan, “Did I Win?”