An interesting irony regarding the popularity of barefoot running and the Tarahumara Indians - who have become patron saints of sorts for the whole barefoot movement – is that very few people actually use the Tarahumara's typical footwear. We either embrace the natural aspect and go completely barefoot, or spend a lot of money on highly-engineered minimalist shoes that strive to be “better than barefoot” by offering some basic protection to complement all the biomechanical benefits of going shoeless.
But what if you really want to get in touch with your inner Tarahumara? Or what if you want wear something that mimics the native footwear of these indigenous people more authentically? That’s when you get yourself a pair of Invisible Shoes.
Invisible Shoes are a 21st-Century spin on the traditional sandal worn by various tribes all over the world for thousands of years. They use modern materials to reproduce the look and feel of old-school huaraches, and they are so small and lightweight that it often seems like you’re not wearing anything at all.
The company was founded by Steven Sashen, a member of the very popular Boulder Barefoot Running Club (led by these guys), who started making his own huaraches with a Vibram outsole and thin rope cords. He set up shop on sidewalks near the University of Colorado (if you’ve ever been to Boulder, you know this is nothing unusual), and got a great response. Eventually most of the BBRC regulars were wearing Steven’s huaraches, and the business idea was born.
There’s a philanthropic side to the company as well: Invisible Shoes donates 10% of the profits from their custom made shoes to Norawas de Raramuri, a non-profit organization that was developed shortly after Caballo Blanco’s Copper Canyon Ultramarathon, whose origin was the centerpiece of Christopher McDougall’s best-selling Born to Run. Think of it as a way of paying tribute to the folks who inspired this whole craze, and of helping to support their culture’s long-term survivability.
Invisible Shoes are created by two methods: for $19.95, you can order a do-it-yourself kit consisting of a rectangular outsole and two 6’ laces, then follow the website instructions for assembly. You can also pay $49.95 to have Steven custom-make a pair for you. If you’re like me and are 1) way too busy, and 2) way too error-prone to try making your own huaraches, you should probably choose the custom-made option.
Here’s how the process works: you draw an outline of your foot, then round out the contour lines and add a few hashmarks for strap placement. Fax the paper to Invisible Shoes, or scan it into your computer and send it attached to an e-mail. (There are very easy-to-follow video instructions for this step, as well as every other part of the process, on the Invisible Shoes website.) Choose the color of laces you want, and your order is complete.
A few days later, your sandals come in the mail with the outsole cut and the laces threaded through the toe and ankle holes. Next comes the trickiest step: figuring out how to lace the sandals up. The video instructional on the website makes this part easy to learn as well, and it now only takes me a few seconds to lace my sandals in a couple of different styles.
There are two primary methods of lacing: toga style that goes high around the ankle - my daughter calls this Jesus-style - or huarache style that stays low around the foot. The advantage of the huarache style is that it can be knotted and then used as a slip-on/off, so you don’t have to re-lace it every time. The disadvantage is that you don’t look like Jesus.
The outsole is a 4mm Vibram Cherry professional-grade rubber. It is smooth on the foot side, and patterned on the bottom for traction. They provide great traction on roads, concrete, and gentle trails. Running in them, I initially found that the section underneath my outer toes would sometimes drag along the ground, causing me to have an exaggerated foot-lift during my first few runs. As I’ve logged more miles in them, the outsole sticks to the bottom of my toes a bit better, so this isn’t much of an issue anymore on roads – but it’s enough of a question mark that I haven’t tried my huaraches on technical trails yet.
Each sandal weighs only about 4.5 oz, so it barely feels like there’s anything on your feet at all. The biggest comfort issue comes from the center strap between your first two toes, which takes a few lacing trials to find the ideal position and tightness. Once I figured out my ideal lacing, the center strap was noticeable for the first mile or two, but then I forgot all about it. I haven’t had any irritation between my toes, but this is a potential hazard if the shoes aren’t built properly (another reason I’d recommend the custom-made method).
Overall, running in my Invisible Shoes is really enjoyable – they maintain almost all of the fun barefoot feel, and give me enough protection to take on more challenging terrain than I might try with naked feet. I don’t think they’ll replace my Vibrams for long-distance minimalist running – especially on rugged trails – but I’ve found them a great accessory to maintain my barefoot running form on easy neighborhood runs of 4-5 miles.
Besides, anything that makes me look a little more like a Tarahumara is going to score pretty high marks in my book.
*Product provided by Invisible Shoes.
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