I can't stop laughing.
The salesman at REI looks at me skeptically, as if he and everyone he knows already own shoes that make them look like they have Muppet feet. But come on. These are ridiculous. These Vibram Five Fingers "barefoot" running shoes look like dorky rubber toe socks. It takes 10 minutes to sort my digits into each toe pocket.
Why am I puttering around in these crazy things? Flash back to 1970s Eugene, when University of Oregon track coach Bill Bowerman decided his athletes, including Steve Prefontaine, needed a more padded shoe than the flat-soled ones they were then wearing.
So he went into his basement and ruined his wife's waffle iron by pouring rubber on it. From those humble beginnings, Bowerman's "waffle sole" begat Nike and three decades of stylish, cushioned footwear.
Today, Nike is still one of only two Fortune 500 companies in Oregon. It's the seventh-biggest employer in the state and sponsors tons of athletes and events, including the celebrated 197-mile Hood to Coast race—the largest relay in North America.
But even here, in the shadow of the biggest running-shoe company in the world, some serious long-distance athletes are taking off their shoes. And say they're getting faster and stronger because of it.
"Oh, yeah," says Kevin Jeffers, the long-distance coach at Portland State University. "We do barefoot drills at least twice a week, and during easy cool-downs. I've been coaching barefoot training for seven or eight years."
"The more I run, the more I move to light performance shoes," says Heather Daniel, a Portland running blogger and sub-3:10 marathoner (that's an average 7:13 mile time, sustained over 26.2 miles. In other words, fast). "There are a lot of shoes out there that 'correct' our gait, and I'm just not sure that's the right way to go."
None of this is news to Christopher McDougall, who documents the growing national "barefoot" running phenomenon in his new book, Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen (Knopf, 304 pages, $24.95). McDougall, a Pennsylvania-based runner, journalist and three-time National Magazine Award finalist, is slated to talk at Powell's Books next Tuesday, within the shadow of his athletic-footwear devil. According to McDougall, that devil is Nike owner Phil Knight, whose expert marketing has doomed legions of American runners to constant injury and slowness.
"I'll be standing outside [Nike's] gates, yelling and waving my book," McDougall says, laughing, noting that the company stonewalled him while he gathered info for his book. (They didn't respond to WW's repeated calls for this story, either.) "We need to kill the running shoe. If any running shoe did anything to prevent injuries, you'd see an ad that says that."
It seems counterintuitive: After all, the ground is hard and feet are not. But, much like a foam cast, a cushioned shoe allows foot muscles to atrophy. According to Josh Kernan of Bridgetown Physical Therapy, that can make your arches collapse and weaken crucial ligaments. Cushioned shoes also allow you to strike the ground with your heel, a position that is natural for walking but places much greater force on the foot, hip and knee when running.
About 65 percent of all runners will be injured in the next year, with shin splints or plantar fasciitis, an inflammation of the ligament that runs through the arch of your foot. These, among other non-crippling problems—like my own permanently blackened pinkie toes—are part of a package of suffering most American distance runners have accepted as inescapable.
But as McDougall and other barefoot-running proponents—from ultramarathoners to recreational runners—contend, when you run without cushioning or with no shoes at all, your form automatically corrects itself. Your head comes up and your back straightens. You strike the ground on your forefoot, with a whisper impact that is gentle on your knees. Your arches flex, building muscle that can cure your flat feet.
In other words, barefoot running is distance running's magic bullet. Advocates say running barefoot makes you healthier and stronger, which in turn makes you faster. It's not all that farfetched. Ethiopian Abebe Bikila famously ran the 1960 Olympic marathon in Rome barefoot—and brought home a gold medal.
Portland, with its thrifty, anti-consumerist attitude and dozens of running clubs, seems ripe for the barefoot revolution. Blogger Daniel, who has completed seven marathons and the Hagg Lake 50K Ultra while remaining (gasp!) injury-free, says many trail runners in the Portland area run "barefoot" in flat racing shoes or Vibrams, which protect feet, but don't cushion them.
"Unfortunately for the barefoot-running movement, the people who take it up can be pretty easily identified as eccentrics," McDougall says with a sigh. "They're all 'Barefoot Someone.' Barefoot Ricky, Barefoot Ken Bob."
Indeed, when I talk to "Barefoot Ted," a prominent anti-cushion runner from Seattle, he seemed wary. "It's not for everyone," he kept cautioning me. "I have faith in the capitalist system. Sure, the current running shoe causes problems, but maybe someone will invent a shoe that fixes them." Ted is actually starting his own company, making "running huaraches" in his basement.
Actually, Nike has already tried to co-opt barefoot running. As the movement started gaining traction in the early 2000s, Nike introduced the lightweight Free ($80)—intended to simulate the sensation of running barefoot—with questionable success. Reactions are mixed on running boards like letsrun.com, and no running store in Portland currently carries it. Jay Schrotzberger of the Portland Running Company cheerfully admitted he had, at one point, sold the Free. "But people kept getting injured and returning them," he says.
"The problem with the Free is that it allows a kind of running that's not like barefoot running," McDougall says. "It has a heel, arch support, padding. If you try to run in a Free, you're going to run like you're in running shoes. With bare feet, you can't overstride...and you can't overtrain. Your feet will be tender."
No local running store carries Massachusetts-based Vibram's Five Fingers (around $80), either, although it was touted as one of the best inventions of 2007 by Time magazine. REI and other outdoor-sports stores carry it as a sort of glorified aqua sock.
Mainstream docs are not convinced of the benefits of bare feet, either. "There's been increasing interest in the past five years, but not a lot of conclusive studies [on barefoot training]," stresses Colin Hoobler, a Portland physical therapist and host of PBS' The Fitness Show. "I've seen about eight people come in with serious plantar fasciitis and shin splints from doing it. People try to do it too fast, too soon, and get injured."
The advice from PSU's Jeffers, Barefoot Ted and others is to take the transition very, very slowly. Hoobler and Jeffers suggest starting out by doing easy drills on grass for five minutes two times a week, and increase that by a few minutes each session over the course of a few months.
To most people, such progress would seem agonizingly slow. But the potential benefits are tremendous. To a distance runner, saying you've found a way to become injury-free—and faster—is like saying you've found the Lost City of Cíbola.
"It's like any relationship," McDougall says. "The trouble people have with barefoot running is that it doesn't coincide with their wants, like, 'I want to PR [set a personal record] today.' But anything that really lasts takes time, and patience and care and attention. And you have to let go of your expectations."
Last summer, I alternated my own marathon workouts with racing my dog barefoot along the trails of the Ocoee River in Tennessee. The first was a miserable slog, the other pure joy in movement. I have an inkling that barefoot running might be as much about attitude as technique.
Which brings me back to my peculiar footwear. I requested a pair of Five Fingers to try out a few weeks ago, and started wearing them to run errands in the afternoons. I can already feel the difference (and I've been getting a lot of thumbs-up in the street, too). I strike the ground with my fleshy forefoot as I instinctively try to lessen the impact on my bony heels. Even when carrying groceries, my steps are lighter and more delicate.
After a week of barefooting in the afternoons, I took my show into the backyard. The dog looked at me curiously as I ran through a few drills—grapevines, ladders and three sets of two-legged and one-legged hops. After five minutes, I kicked off the shoes and wriggled my liberated tootsies in the grass. The afternoon sun felt good on my shoulders, and the breeze smelled like honeysuckle.
I remember what McDougall said in his book: "If it feels like work, you're working too hard." If all running felt as good as this, I'd be blowing through 50 miles in no time.
Christopher McDougall reads from
at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Tuesday, May 26. Free.