Four summers ago I was staying in in the same eccentric roadside motel in Maine where I am now, and I’d brought Chris McDougall’s Born to Run as my vacation reading material. I loved everything about the book—the colorful characters who take part in ultra-marathons , the Tarahumara runners, the settings from Leadville CO to the depths of Copper Canyon in Mexico, and of course I was fascinated by the research. Having spent much of my working life in either the fitness industry or in various colleges’ departments of Health Sciences, I paid close attention to the information on the development of the modern running shoe and on the mechanics of barefoot running. I had to try it.
I’ve never run on pavement except in my few races, even when I wore conventional shoes. I always ran trails and parks. This motel has a huge lawn all around it, a green perimeter bigger than quarter-mile track. One day I ran in my conventional, cushioned running shoes, and the next day I ran barefoot. Born to run? Born again! I didn’t want to stop. This lawn was the perfect place to run with no shoes at all. Most places have too much in the way of thorns, rocks, sticks or dog poop for me to want to run skin-to-earth, but this was a cool green carpet all the way. I knew better than to do my usual distance with this new technique, but my soul wanted to. Flying on the rebound from that soft landing reminded me of the way I felt back when I was a ballet dancer, taking off in a soaring leap or a springy allegro, wearing only those pliable slippers.
When I got home I invested in Vibram five fingers, and I soon felt like I’d gotten a new right knee. After running in the old cushioned shoes with a heel strike, my right kneecap used to stick so badly for thirty minutes or so that I could hardly go upstairs. Barefoot, no sticking. Because of that I couldn’t bring myself to transition as slowly as I should have, so I earned sore calf muscles and a cramp in my flexor hallucis longus (a big toe muscle) that I could feel all the way up the back of my lower leg. The scene in Shaman’s Blues where Mae overdoes her first two barefoot runs, with a cascade of consequences, was informed by that experience. I didn’t cramp my legs as severely as she does, but then I didn’t go to Santa Fe Bandstand and dance for hours afterward. The worst thing that’s happened to me running in my barefoot shoes has been stepping a big thorn that reminded me to update my tetanus shot. Compared to the sticky patella or the sprained ankles from falling off those old high-heeled marshmallows, an occasional thorn isn’t bad at all.
I celebrated my barefoot running anniversary today with four miles of mindlessly blissful laps around the grass. I did go dancing afterward, but with four years of training my legs and feet are up to it. Cap’n Frank Bedell and the Torpedoes were playing at Schooner Landing in Damariscotta. People of all ages, locals and tourists, partied to great old rock’n’roll on the pier with a view of the Damariscotta river and the boats on the blue water. I danced with happy feet.