In September 2021, I reported on my 8,000th mile of barefoot walking, hiking, and running, and this morning I logged my 9,029th mile, so it’s update time.
What started as an experiment morphed into a practice and then became philosophy — and from here on the journey points into mystery. Originally the thought had been to reach 10,000 miles, and now that I’m nearing that objective I can only wonder what lies beyond. Honestly, there was no rationale for 10,000 miles, besides it being a round number. That and the thought that 10,000 hours of training in a discipline is said to make you an “expert.” Although what I’ve found is that barefoot teaches simplicity. There’s nothing to be an expert of.
The following is my account of the last 1,000 miles walked, hiked, and run without shoes — including successful races and other projects, frustrations, and lessons learned….
The last 1,000 miles took eight months, which seemed like a very long time. As I opened my training log to review the stats, it didn’t feel like I’d done much, and of course I blamed all those pesky injuries. But the log showed 19 barefoot races completed, which was more than I remembered. Among other events, I ran seven 5k’s, three half-marathons, four marathons, and one race in which I covered 33 miles. I set barefoot personal records for the 5k, 1/2 marathon, and marathon distance, which was encouraging, and earned two age-group awards.
When we lived in New York City, I displayed my running memorabilia on the fireplace mantel in my third-floor study. There were medals stacked on medals, rows of decorative buckles from ultramarathons, a handful of trophies and plaques and completion certificates, some commemorative glassware, a couple of framed photographs, a patch or two, a special hat. I would have loved to show this collection to a friend or guest. During the 12 years we lived there, however, no-one ever visited my study. I must not have invited anyone, or maybe the stairs were too steep.
Today, we live in upstate New York, and my collection of memorabilia is housed in two cardboard boxes which sit on a shelf in the garage. Each new finisher medal goes straight into one of the boxes. To await the possibility of seeing the light of day again.
These races brought me to a lifetime total of 50 barefoot events complete, of which 13 were marathon distance or longer. As a track record, it’s not much compared to Ken Bob Saxton, who’s completed over 400 barefoot races including 79 barefoot marathons and one ultra. Or Eddie Vilbar Vega who ran 101 barefoot marathons in a single year. Or Dr. Sidy Diallo, who started running at age 55 and since then has run so many barefoot marathons, and continues to run them so frequently even in his late 60s, that the count is hard to track (surely past 200).
Regardless of the number of events, for each of my races, I can state with great satisfaction that I set out after a simple goal and accomplished it. Each time, when the effort was complete, I got to breathe a sigh of relief and say, “I did it.” Which is a good habit, in my opinion, to get into.
In a sense, each race was a measurement. I collapsed “the wave-form function,” as a quantum physicist might say — reduced a dream-like cloud of possibilities into a single, real-world outcome. And learned something about the world.
I do so love racing. I would have liked to do more, and I would’ve run faster if I could have. But about 15 months ago, I pulled on some shoes (it was February) and ran a hill workout. A little too hard. The proximal hamstring tendon, which connects the muscle to the pelvis, is notoriously slow to heal, according to Google. 15 months later, I can jog along at a slow pace all day, but the sore tendon limits me from running fast. And it aches when I sit on my butt (surely this kind of strain is the origin of the phrase “a pain in the butt”).
Shoes make it easy to injure yourself because they allow you to run faster and longer than you would in bare feet. I had never injured myself running barefoot, until last December. Coming downhill on a steep road, I strained my knees, especially the left one. No, barefoot won’t prevent all running injuries (nothing does). The fact is, in recent years I’ve had to be more careful with my knees. Ditto for ankles, elbow, and shoulder. I think this is what they call the aging process.
Of course there are some injury risks unique to the barefoot practice. At the Ft. Worth Cowtown Marathon in February 2022, I wanted to finish strong, but I couldn’t get my legs to turn over — I tried so hard I was practically shouting with frustration. Afterwards, I limped off the course, then found a place to lay down and rest. Someone asked if I was alright. So I stood up and limped off toward the car, with both feet smarting — especially the right one. Upon inspection, I discovered a large blister on the ball of my right foot. This was the first blister I’d suffered in 9,000 miles of barefoot walking, hiking, and running. It was difficult to lance and drain, since the skin on my soles was so thick and tough. A day or two later I was moving easily again.
And then in March, at the Grasslands Marathon outside Dallas, I landed on a stick. Instead of stepping directly upon it, my foot slid an inch or two, causing the stick to rotate underfoot and expose a point. Sloppy! I felt the sting, but instead of stopping to apply some tape, I gritted my teeth and kept going. It was only afterwards, after lounging at the finish and talking with another runner (she told me she was working on a project to complete a marathon in each of the 50 states), that I realized I had a problem. Once again I was limping. The next evening, while inspecting the wound, a thorn popped out. This was another first for me.
These hazards notwithstanding, I love running barefoot. It’s such a special feeling of light-footedness. Whereas shoes turn running into a chore. They make it boring. In reviewing my training log, I found that over the last 1,000 miles, I’ve gone running in shoes exactly once.
The Delaware Running Festival was barefoot marathon #13 for me and overall marathon/ultra #100, a symbolic milestone. So what to do next? 50 marathons-in-50-states is an intriguing idea, because it would be interesting to see different places. And because it’s a meaningful goal for a lot of people. There’s even a special t-shirt for those who complete the task. But the travel logistics are daunting. For now, I’m not making any commitments. The other day I opened up an online calendar and started hunting for events in June, but couldn’t find anything nearby. Maybe I will have to travel. You see, to race is to be vibrantly alive. I want to do more.
When hiking barefoot, I feel connected to nature, instead of merely passing through it. I pause frequently to observe flowers. Trees. Mushrooms. Birds. Butterflies and other insects. Ponds and streams and waterfalls. The views from vantage points, the skyscapes, and especially the clouds.
I’m motivated by a variety of projects. Having completed the peak-bagging lists for New York’s Adirondacks and Catskills, I’m now working on New Hampshire, where last fall, I bagged another 7 of the 4,000-footers, bringing me to 28/48 complete. Sometimes I dream about taking on Colorado’s 14,000-footers (to get that done, I’d probably have to quit work). I also dream about thru-hiking long distance trails. During the summer, I walked 170 miles barefoot on the John Muir Trail (it took most of my vacation days). Hopefully, I will return one day to the 350-mile Long Path.
I’ve been working on the Catskills All Trails Challenge, which entails covering every mile of official hiking trail in the Catskill Park (roughly 350). About 85 miles out of the last 1,000 were devoted to this project. For what it’s worth, I expect to be the first person to complete the challenge without shoes. I look forward to receiving the All Trails patch, then slipping it into one of those cardboard boxes in the garage.
In 2018 I completed the Catskills Grid, which entails climbing each of the 35 high peaks in each month of the year (a total of 420 ascents). Since then, when I have nothing better to do, I return to the Catskills and knock off another peak or two. If I live long enough, these climbs may result eventually in completion of a second Grid. The last 1,000 miles included another eight barefoot Catskill ascents: Indian Head, Plateau, Panther Mountain (twice), Kaaterskill High Peak, Eagle, Balsam, and Blackhead. Hiking Panther in early April was an adventure — I encountered snow at elevation. I consider hiking barefoot in snow to be high risk. Because chilled skin loses sensitivity, which means you risk scraping and scratching your soles without realizing it. And because cold-weather injuries are terribly painful and take a long time to heal.
Going barefoot has taught me to use my body more naturally. I’ve learned to press off from the big toe, which activates the arch. And to dig in with the toe for extra grip when climbing. I’ve learned to engage the core to keep my body level and upright. To lean forward when going up steep slopes, so that my soles don’t slip. To lower myself carefully on the downhills, since hopping or jumping in bare feet is a delicate affair. To place each foot with care, sometimes landing on the ball, sometimes on the heel, always giving the foot a fraction of a second to feel the ground for obstacles before settling into full weight-bearing position.
Going barefoot has taught me to be more patient. Sometimes I get frustrated, when I mean to go quickly, but rocks or roots or acorn caps slow me to a crawl. Moving slowly is mentally difficult, since I was for so many years accustomed to a faster and more consistent pace in shoes. Frustration is an good teacher, though, because there is no quick and easy way to learn patience — how could there be? (think that over for a second if you need to).
Without shoes, covering 14 or 15 Catskill miles is typically an all-day affair. In some places, where the trail is smooth, I move along briskly. But mostly the trails are steep. Rugged. Covered in rock fragments. Interlaced with roots. Dripping wet and full of mud. Overgrown with ferns. Dotted not only with acorn caps, but also gravel, broken sticks, beech husks, spruce cones. When my form is right and I roll along over these obstacles, the rhythm feels just right.
Sometimes I pad along on cool dirt or slip across the smooth face of a sandstone slab or step upon a bed of moss as luxurious as carpet — and feel that finally my feet have toughened up and my form has improved and finally barefoot is easy, the way it’s supposed to be. Surely this is how my ancestors felt, although they were probably much more nimble and sure-footed than I.
Sometimes every step is a battle. Then I think — this must be how my ancestors felt when they had to cover long distances — surely their feet got tired, too, just like mine. Imagine the judgment calls they had to make — such as weighing hunger against the risk of going barefoot in snow. They must have been really tough and shrewd, or we probably wouldn’t be here today.
The combination of smooth and rough makes barefoot intense. And intensity is what I crave. A weekend in the Catskills gives me the energy to sit in front of computer and do my work (although I’m often thinking of the next weekend).
I wonder what will happen when I reach 10,000 miles. And what I will discover after that.