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September 23, 2011

Barefoot in Switzerland: Guest Post by Mary Parlange

Our final guest post of the week brings an international flavor to Running and Rambling.

The topics are familiar ones around here – barefoot running, experimentation with minimalist footwear, and being a disciple of Christopher McDougall and Barefoot Ken Bob. However, her geographic location provides an interesting perspective, perhaps not in the way you might guess.

The post that follows below is the introduction to an ongoing series that will document her progression toward becoming (or possibly not becoming) a barefoot runner. Read her post below – and remember to leave her some comments – then check out the next part of the story on her website, called Gydle (I have no idea what it means, either).

Barefoot in Switzerland by Mary Parlange

Last summer I read Christopher McDougall’s book, Born to Run. For the ten runners out there who haven’t read it yet, it’s about the Tarahumara Indians, an elusive group of Yoda-like people running vast distances around the Mexican desert in huaraches. McDougall, a journalist, picks up some colorful characters along the way and they challenge the Tarahumara to their own homespun ultra out there in the Mexican outback.

The book inspired me. I’m always a sucker for a well-crafted sentence, and McDougall has a really engaging style. He also interviewed researchers about running form and barefoot running; the science seemed sound and intrigued me. Most of all, I liked the people he was hanging around with in the book. They didn’t seem like the type who worried about their 10K split times. They didn’t run to “get a workout” or lose weight, or because studies show that if you run for 40 minutes every day your risk of heart attack decreases by 23.6%. These were my kind of people. They ran because if they didn’t, they’d go nuts. I dreamed of joining the “ultra” brother(sister?)hood. Switzerland is full of gorgeous trails and crazy ultra races.

I also dreamed of running barefoot, or at least barely shod, like the Tarahumara. True, in my seven years here, I’ve never seen a single person running barefoot. I do see a lot of women walking around in heels, but no one wears Vibram Five-Fingers or huaraches, much less runs in them.

Unable to find a “minimalist” shoe in the local stores, I turned to the Internet and ordered a pair from London. They didn’t fit; even worse, inaddition to a 14-franc VAT charge and a 30-franc customs processing fee, I had to shell out for the return postage. Fail. Fifty francs for absolutely nothing – now that’s minimal!

Like a spurned lover on the rebound, I succumbed to the softness of a new pair of Nikes. I started to run longer distances, taking them off occasionally to run barefoot on the beach or the soccer fields, the Born to Run nirvana shining like a beacon in my head as the sun set over Lake Geneva.

The pain in my right heel started slowly. I kept training, aiming for an upcoming half marathon. Then one day my heel hurt so badly I had to stop mid-run. I could hardly walk home. The extent of my folly began to sink in. I had taken a perfectly functional foot and cushioned it like an egg! Hadn’t I paid any attention to what McDougall was saying? Combined with the sporadic soft-surface barefooting, my foot was thoroughly confused.

I decided the Nikes were to blame. A minimalist shoe would solve the problem. I found a specialized running store and mentioned Born to Run. Never heard of it. “Pieds nus?” (naked feet?) Ah, yes, they’d heard about the “American craze,” but this was a serious shop for serious runners. I left with a pair of expensive trail shoes that resembled a couple of oversized bees. They had the lowest-profile heel in the shop. My foot still hurt, I hobbled out of bed every morning like a 90-year-old, but gradually I began to run again, moderate distances, every other day or so.

But the dream wouldn’t die. I just knew, deep down inside, that I was a crazy barefoot ultra-runner.

While in New Mexico this past July, I bought a pair of New Balance minimalist trail shoes. I hesitated to wear them, though. They sat in the closet while we went hiking in the Alps in August. And they sat in the closet while I ran along the lake, hardly feeling my heel any more. Maybe I should leave well enough alone.

“Guess what your crazy brother has done this time,” my mom said one day. “He ran barefoot for a half a mile, and now he has blisters all over his feet.”

I took it as a sign.

I Skyped him. Turns out he, too, had read Born to Run, and then he’d gone one further and borrowed a copy of Barefoot Ken Bob’s book, Barefoot Running Step by Step, from a friend. The day before, he’d run barefoot for nine minutes on a gravel road in Montana. The blisters were just a little setback. He held his foot proudly up to the camera; the quarter-sized blood-red souvenirs were truly formidable. Maybe I shouldn’t have picked such a steep hill. Um, ya think?

I quickly downloaded Barefoot Ken Bob’s book onto my iPad.

Don’t give up, I urged my brother. I’m joining you!  Let’s Go Barefoot!  Despite the 5,000 miles of ocean and continent separating us, we can run this road together.

To see Mary’s journal and follow her progression to barefoot running, visit Gydle.

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Xavier 9/23/11, 1:08 AM  

@Mary There's a bunch of minimalist runners along the lake. You will even occasionally spot a pair or two of Vibram Five Fingers between Vidy & Ouchy.

Today, the most enjoyable things to me is to walk along the alpine trails in a minimalist setting. Grass, gravel and snow are such a wonder to feel under its feet.

Mary Parlange 9/23/11, 9:11 AM  

@Xavier - Oh WOW! thanks! I usually run in the other direction, towards Morges. One of these days I'll venture east, eyes on other people's footwear, in hopes of finding them. My current goal is to run the Morat-Fribourg race in the minimalist footwear on October 3.

mweston 9/23/11, 5:33 PM  

"my foot was thoroughly confused"

I hope you're wrong on this point, since I do shorter runs, usually once or twice a week, in Vibrams, but wear "regular" trail shoes on long runs and ultras. My hope is that the form enforced by the Vibrams at least improves my form in shoes.

I have worn New Balance MT 101s (which are semi-minimalist) up to 50K without issue, but trying to wear them at HURT last year (my first attempt) was not pretty.

Anonymous,  9/24/11, 12:57 AM  

Rock on! (preferably smooth, flat rocks...)

Dizzy 9/24/11, 12:58 AM  

@Mary - Great post and I cannot wait to hear how the story unfolds on Gydle!

Craig Smith 9/24/11, 7:40 AM  

I recommend La Venoge. At the bridge across it outside St Sulpice turn upstream on the Western side, you'll have to cross a road in a km but its not hard to follow once you've done it before. There are plenty of tree roots to keep it interesting. Vidy area has nice bark chips, but the loop is short and a bit boring.

Andy 9/25/11, 3:32 PM  

Hi Mary,

Nice post!

Have fun with the barefoot adventure!

Also, check out Barefoot Todd's website for more inspiration. He recently completed his 100th barefoot Marathon!

Peace and Love,


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