“Where do we go –
Where do we go now?”
- Guns ‘N’ Roses, “Sweet Child O’ Mine” (video after post)
After being humbled at my most recent attempt at barefoot trail running, I mentioned that there were some big picture questions that would be addressed. Or, to quote an exchange between a friend and me during a recent trail run while I was wearing Vibram FiveFingers:
Friend: So how does this all end for you?
Me: You mean, like … the barefoot thing? Or life in general?
Friend: Let’s start with the first one. Worry about the other one later.
So I guess in that context, even though I’m saying “big picture” here, what I actually mean is “infinitesimally small picture that currently wields illogically disproportionate importance”. It’s always good to be reminded of that.
On to the question at hand: how does the barefoot experiment end? I stated at the outset that my intention was never to become a 100% barefoot runner; what went unspoken was any sort of secondary goal or accomplishment to indicate that I had “made it” as a barefooter.
The end point was purposely kept vague, in that I want barefoot and minimalist running to be an ongoing aspect of my training, just like hill workouts and tempo runs and the swimming and mountain biking I do for cross-training. I want the freedom to say, “You know what? I don’t feel like wearing shoes today,” and take off on a 7-mile trail run anyway. Conversely, I want to be able to decide - as I did one day last week – “My feet are pretty fried; I need to wear regular shoes today,” without feeling like I’ve fallen off the wagon or broken some sort of covenant. Simply put, I want barefoot running to be just another part of my repertoire. I’ll go through phases when I practice it frequently, and others (primarily during the winter) when I drift away for a bit.
Although I’m ambiguous about the destination, I’m absolutely certain about a handful of lessons I’ve learned along the way – and those are the items I’ll share here. With that in mind, here are some main talking points:
Barefoot running is fun: Above all else, this is the overriding factor in my continued dedication to barefoot running. Some runners come become barefooters to escape nagging injuries, others do it as a statement against materialism and “shoe industry cartels”, but I did it simply as a curiosity. I can give it up at anytime – but I know that I won’t, because I enjoy it too darn much.
There’s really no sensation that compares with feeling the ground against the soles of your feet, or the air between your toes with each stride, or the lightness of being unrestrained by shoes. You see and feel all of your surroundings in an entirely different way. It’s liberating and empowering, but also restrictive and humbling. When I’m scampering around like a ragamuffin in public, I feel simultaneously like a meager child of the Earth and a hardcore tough guy. And I realize that's all contradictory and doesn’t make any sense, so you’ll just have to take my word for it - or better yet, give it a try sometime to see what I mean.
Barefoot running hurts: This seems incongruous with what I just said above, but believe me, it’s true. Although I became (and remain) pretty comfortable running on asphalt surfaces, all it takes is one stretch of rocky gravel or chip and seal roadway – not to mention any sub-40 degree morning - to make me wince in pain. And even though I can get to the point where some trails are tolerable, my soles haven't grown comfortable enough to where I can forget about them for even a second, or take my eyes off the ground to enjoy the sights around me. Therefore, I’ve concluded that …
Minimalist footwear is awesome: I mentioned this in a previous installment, but it’s worth repeating: even the mythical Tarahumara Indians wear protection for their feet. And while traditional running shoes are clearly unnecessary, there’s definitely a lot to be said for having a basic layer of protection between your naked feet and the potential hazards of the ground below.
Thankfully, there are some outstanding options out there: Vibram’s FiveFingers – either the KSO model, or the newly-released KSO Trek - will remain my gold standard for trail running until something better is invented, which I honestly can’t even imagine happening. The Feelmax Osma is an ideal solution for road running (and unlike when I reviewed it, it’s now available in the United States), and Sockwas give you the most barefoot feel imaginable. Vivo Barefoot’s about to jump in the game as well, with the release of its Evo performance shoe in 2010. Each of these brands offers nearly all the benefits of barefoot running, with almost none of the risks. I’ve logged fairly high mileage in minimal trainers over the past 6 months, and will continue to do so permanently. On the other hand …
I want shoes during an ultra: An unspoken consideration throughout almost all of my trail runs has been whether the VFFs or other minimal footwear would be a feasible option for running ultras. It has been done before, even at the 100 mile distance, so it’s not like I’m venturing into uncharted waters. Even so, the longest trail run I’ve done in VFFs is about 15 miles, but my overall comfort level during long runs isn’t where I’d want it to be if I’m someday approaching 50M or 100K again. If I slowed down enough, the discomfort wouldn’t be an issue - but knowing myself, I don’t think I could completely abandon my competitive nature or any attention to the clock when I’ve got a bib number pinned to my shorts.
Someday, perhaps after a few thousand more training miles, my speed in VFFs may approach my shod speed on steep and rugged trails, in which case, the whole premise I just described would be moot. Until then, I’ll be wearing shoes for trail racing. However …
I need much less shoe than I thought: This has been the happiest revelation of the whole process: I don’t really need the super-cushioned, extra-supportive, heavy duty SUV-style shoes that I’d been trending toward in recent years. Getting rid of them requires an adjustment period, for sure, but the transformation took place much quicker than I thought.
In fact, my whole philosophy about trail shoes has undergone a seismic shift. All I’m really looking for now is a measure of traction for tricky terrain, a token amount of cushioning for comfort, and a covering to keep my toes warm. Other than that, I’m completely a “less is more” guy: less weight, less structure, less heel, and a lower profile to allow natural foot and ankle function.
Best of all, I’m not the only one who feels this way; a handful of companies have been designing trail running shoes with just this idea in mind. And yes, I’ll present you with reviews for some of them in the near future.
And the final lesson I’ve learned …
Barefoot isn’t just for running: An underlying question at the heart of the whole barefoot running movement is this: if barefoot running is so great for you, why don’t we spend more time barefoot walking? So you can understand my delight in discovering so many natural footwear options lately.
Just as it has for running footwear, my whole philosophy regarding everyday footwear has been turned on its head in the past 6 months. Minimalist shoes extend the benefits of the barefoot lifestyle, feel great to wear, and come in a variety of options for almost every possible circumstance. Vivo Barefoot has to be considered the leader in offering the most stylish barefoot options, but many other companies are recognizing that high fashion and natural foot function don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
I guess all this is a long-winded way of saying that there really isn’t an end point to any of this - just an ongoing activity and underlying philosophy that have shaped my overall running experience in more positive ways than I can possibly describe. This Great Barefoot Experiment of mine may never reach a definite conclusion; hopefully it’s destined to be a continual work in progress.
*See previous installments of this series on sidebar at right.
As for the band … technically, they never reached a definite conclusion either, since the name “Guns ‘N’ Roses” is still currently owned and exploited by Axl Rose and whichever 4 flunkies he’s persuaded to play with him lately. For 99.9% of hard rock fans, however, GNR was a shooting star that rose meteorically before burning out in a brilliant fury in the mid 1990s. When the original lineup was together, there wasn’t another rock band around who held a candle to them.
This song is noteworthy for two reasons: 1) it’s the only GNR song my wife would ever listen to with me, and 2) the guitar intro still stands as one of the most distinctive melodies ever written. Don’t ask me which reason is more significant.
Guns ‘N’ Roses, “Sweet Child O’ Mine” (click to play):