In April 2021, I reached my 7,000th mile of hiking, running, and walking barefoot, accumulated over roughly seven years. Now — five months later — the mileage stands at 8,034. I seem to be picking up the pace. Which supports the thesis that practice makes you stronger (at least until age catches up). The real thesis, though, is that life is better with more nature and less technology.
To start with, some notable experiences in the last thousand miles:
- Completing the Miles on the Mohawk Marathon, despite pouring rain (it was my 28th barefoot race and 7th of marathon distance or longer)
- Running 50 miles barefoot at the Hainesport Hundred, and witnessing a 64-year old set a national age group record in half my time (though he was wearing shoes)
- Completing 170 miles on the John Muir Trail barefoot — an intense experience in California’s High Sierra and an improvement from the year before (but still short of my goal of doing the entire 211-mile trail without shoes)
- A new PR (personal record) for the 5k distance without shoes (barefoot race #31)
The last five months also included training. Lots of it. I consider barefoot a “practice.” The purpose being ostensibly to become more adept at walking, hiking, and running without shoes. But the real goal is to become, at least in one regard, a more natural person.
Here’s a new part of my practice. I’ve started taking Odie the family Labradoodle on neighborhood walks (we both go barefoot). In days gone by, we used to run and hike together all the time. We’d go for hours in the Shawangunk Mountains, trotting along old carriage roads in Minnewaska State Park and the Mohonk Preserve, admiring the pitch pine barrens, the white cliffs and talus piles, the creeks, water falls, and sky lakes. We’d spend all day in the Catskills (and sometimes the night), climbing steep rocky trails through northern hardwoods and into the boreal forests of spruce and fir, climbing one, two, sometimes three peaks in a day. How he’d come alive outdoors! When I saw Odie romping through the woods, eyes wide, ears flapping, tongue lolling out one side, I realized the secret of life is so simple — get outside and run.
Since then, however, Odie has aged. He’s now 98 years old (in dog years). He spends most of the day asleep on the sofa. When I pull out the leash, he gives me a sideways glance. As we walk along, he sometimes slips and limps for a step or two (his front left leg is weak). When we reach the turn-around point, he’s eager to head back.
Typically we walk for 1 or 2 miles, along nearby roads. These are narrow country lanes. No yellow stripes or white lines. In some places the smooth gray asphalt has broken apart into gravel. Sometimes these breaks have been patched with a thick rough layer of fresh asphalt. Often there’s a scattering of grit, which is hard to see (I feel the pinpricks underfoot). To sum up, the surface is complex. It’s constantly changing from smooth to rough to smooth again, which forces you to shift from fast to slow to fast again. This kind of surface teaches the barefoot walker to be fluid.
On these walks, I’ll push the pace from 2 mph to 3 mph and sometimes as quick as 4 mph, while Odie trots along by my side. I tell him he needs his exercise, too, and he glances at me dutifully (but he would much prefer to stop and sniff around).
In contrast to the roads, the local college track is a controlled environment. It’s a blue oval, 400 meters long, the surface covered uniformly in small, hard, rubber particles, which feel a little prickly underfoot. After a workout, the bottoms of my feet are blue.
Over the years, I’ve run a lot of miles here. Much of this was high-intensity speed work, and what a thrill it was to push the throttle and whip around the track, for 1/4 mile repeats at full speed or 10 x 1/2 mile intervals (so-called “Yasso Splits”) or timed miles with my heart rate reaching/exceeding age-predicted max. As I’ve gotten a little older, my practice has changed. Now the focus is on “controlled intensity workouts,” a term I’ve coined to emphasize precision, rather than raw effort. The goal is to run at just the right pace — too slow and there’s no training benefit, while too fast risks injury. As I’m running, I glance down at my GPS watch every 50 meters or so (at 8 specific points along the oval), making minute adjustments to stride and effort, depending on the readout. Since there are no obstacles for my shoeless feet, the mental focus shifts from watching where I step to monitoring alignment, breathing, heart rate, and any signs of tightness.
A caveat is in order — sometimes there are obstacles for my feet. When it rains in the spring, worms emerge from the surrounding fields and spread across the track. When college students are practicing on the infield, I have to dodge field hockey balls. Once I found a katydid on the track.
I enjoy running on pavement, but not dodging cars. Last year I discovered the Walkway over the Hudson and the Hudson Valley Rail Trail, which is part of New York’s Empire State Trail running from New York City to Buffalo. This section was constructed a few years ago. The asphalt is smooth and slick. Nothing could be more comfortable than running barefoot on this surface.
The Rail Trail starts by a highway, passes some intriguing wetlands which lead to a small mountain, tunnels through forest, and four miles later emerges onto a restored railway bridge that stretches 1.5 miles across the Hudson River (this is the Walkway). Here a dramatic scene awaits, with wind-whipped waters reaching south to the Hudson Highlands and north to the Catskill Mountains, while large flags snap overhead. The Walkway is a popular spot. You’ll see crowds of people strolling back and forth and occasionally a cyclist or some runners. Once someone saw me and shouted, “What kind of running is that?” To which I replied, “it’s how everyone used to run!”
Much of my training takes place at the Shawangunk Grasslands. In my opinion, no-one should wear shoes while walking on wide, flat, soft, freshly-mowed trails. Although in the spirit of full disclosure, I will point out there are a couple patches of hard-packed dirt with a scattering of gravel, remnants of a military airstrip that was closed long ago. And at one point, the trail crosses a pile of large rocks (a drainage wall, I think), and this requires stepping carefully and keeping balance. Otherwise I run as slow or fast as I please. Once I ran 31 miles here during a snow squall, stopping from time to time in one of four bird-watching blinds to warm my feet. These blinds are rarely occupied. For there is rarely anyone in the Grasslands. Not when I show up early in the morning. And certainly not during snowstorms. On occasion, a crowd converges, when words gets out that something unusual has been sighted. Otherwise, the 600 acres might as well be my personal preserve.
If I don’t see people, I do see lots of birds — blackbirds, sparrows, robins, blue birds, meadowlarks, and bobolinks, which Washington Irving described as “the happiest bird of our spring…he rises and sinks with the breeze, pours forth a succession of rich tinkling notes.” I see a lot of deer. The local herd keeps their distance — I spot them staring at me from afar, necks stretched and ears pricked, and then a moment later white tails flashing as they bound away. I’ve seen a bobcat, a coyote, and a turtle, and once turning a corner I looked up and there was a skunk, which did not look pleased to see me either.
One day I would like to write a book about the Grasslands. It would have twelve chapters, one for each month of the year, and the plot would center on the flowers I’ve seen. For example, I would write about the joy of running barefoot through the bright yellow cup-shaped flowers of birds’ foot trefoil, which spread across the grassy trails in April, while in September, it’s the deep purple petals of New England Aster that catch my eye, tightly closed against the cold dew, until the sun begins to warm them and then you see their yellow eyes. But I haven’t started writing. January seems a little bleak for an opening chapter, while December is too barren to end with.
Yesterday I showed up at the Grasslands after a night of heavy rain. I splashed along for a mile or two on the soggy surface, while the fog pressed up against a distant woodline and pushed through the trees, as if anxious to elude the sun. In the west the sky was clear, and gradually the remnants of the storm were sucked off to the east, and the sun climbed above the fog and lit up the the tawny stalks of Indian Grass and Eastern Gamma Grass until the fields were tinged red, like an ripening apple. The Northern Harrier is a large raptor with a flat face like an owl. I saw one floating a few feet above the ground, sharp-eyed and focused intently downward, then it banked and turned in a lazy arc and disappeared, while a companion perched motionless in a tree. The morning was still cool, and every blade of grass was adorned with dew, and when I turned east and faced into the rising sun I might have been running through clouds of diamonds — and then there was a prismatic flash of orange and green from a single drop that caught the light just right. And still no-one else was here.
The Catskill Mountains fascinate me. Two years ago, after completing a peak-bagging tradition know as “the Grid,” I started on the Catskills All Trails Challenge, which entails walking every single mile of official hiking trail in the park (there are 345 miles total). This spring the Catskills served an extra purpose — training for the John Muir Trail.
Catskill trails are atrocious (let’s be honest). They date back to 19th century logging roads, which were not designed with drainage in mind, and since then they have been steadily eroding, until the worst ones today are indistinguishable from stream beds. The other day I was hiking in the Western Catskills. And to be fair, some places were easy walking. But elsewhere the trail alternated between pools of water, pits of ankle-deep mud (you must step carefully because of rocks and sticks hiding underneath), and piles of rocks where you must place each step with as much care as if you were fitting pieces into a jigsaw puzzle. 15 miles took all day. But as compensation, I got to see a corner of Mongaup Pond reflecting a late summer sky full of bright cumulus. And later a hidden creek, with dark water rushing over smooth black rocks, curving through the shadows.
A day without shoes in the Catskills is a day of unremitting concentration and effort. The reward is that I feel more a part of the landscape, rather than passing through it distracted. This is how, I imagine, our distant ancestors felt as they moved through the forests. The other day, I was trying to run down from the summit of Windham — I recalled that Windham’s trails were more runnable — but found myself picking my way through piles of broken sandstone. “Ken!” someone called out. I looked back — it was my friend Barbara and her hiking partner Dan. They caught up. We paused to talk for a moment. They moved on, leaving me to negotiate the sandstone fragments. I toiled on. Then for a hundred yards, the trail leveled out and the surface turned to damp earth– and what a joy to stretch the legs and run! It was this short stretch that I’d remembered. A few minutes later I caught up to Barbara and Dan and we all tip-toed through a spruce plantation where the roots stick out in massive tangles with puddles and mud in between. Balancing on an exposed root, I explained to Dan that barefoot promotes agility — and that it keeps your shoes clean.
I hope this has given you a sense of my experiences over the last five months. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that “the good shall be wholly strange and new.” Onward to 9,000 miles.