Barefoot running in the news

The New York Marathon is this weekend, and barefoot running is this year’s “story of interest.”

Neil sent me David Willey’s HuffPo article “Barefoot Running: The Exercise Craze That’s Hit the Streets.” Mr. Willey is treading a very fine line. As Editor-In-Chief of Runner’s World magazine, he is intimately tied to the athletic shoe industry. A tsunami of minimalist shoes will arrive in spring 2011, but however popular the idea of barefooting becomes, Runner’s World would be slitting their throats if they advised their readers to stop buying shoes.

I’m glad to see him exploring minimalist/barefoot running, but I think he misunderstood some key ideas. He claims barefooters insist “the human foot supplies all the cushioning and shock absorption any runner needs.” This isn’t really true. The human foot is a spectacular mechanism, one that we’ve neglected and failed to appreciate for too long. Bare feet force us to land more softly and soft landings don’t require cushioning. Also, the idea of “shock absorption” is counter to running efficiently. Ideally, the muscles and tendons of our feet and legs don’t absorb shock so much as redirect impact forces into the next stride, Ken Meierke calls this elastic recoil “free speed”. Flat heels increase the peripheral heart effect of the soleus muscle on the deep veins in our calves.

Chris McDougall’s NYTimes article “Born to Run the Marathon?” talks about how he “got over himself” and decided to run the Marathon this year.

One of Chris’s persistent themes is how running can bring out the best in people, something I’ve personally found to be true. Runners tend to be fantastically optimistic people. Maybe that grows from realizing accomplishments that first seemed impossible, or perhaps it’s a shared strength found when humans move together. Chris included the incredible story of Derartu Tulu and Paula Radcliffe in the 2009 NYC Marathon, as well as one of my favorite bits of Native American lore:

The Hopi believed running was a form of prayer; before setting off on a long run from Arizona to the Pacific, they’d offer their effort on behalf of loved ones in need of help. “I’m offering my strength to them,” the runner would murmur to their god, the Great Mystery, “and in return I ask for some of yours.”

The comments on these articles have become predictable, though with more defenders than before. Several people rehash the dogma that our feet are weak, or that people are not designed to run. Others makes comments about the ground being gross, dangerous or “harder than the soft earth humans were meant for.” Then there’s always a physical therapist or podiatrist telling about injured patients.

I went to physical therapy before switching to minimal shoes. My knees were a mess, my feet hurt, my hip hurt and my back hurt. After running in my prescribed motion-control shoes I’d stretch and ice my knees, then wait 2-3 days before trying to run again. I thought that was normal. Now, I can run near-barefoot or barefoot every day without pain. The sports medicine doctors and physical therapists never once asked to see me run.

So many people are convinced of human mediocrity despite everything we’ve done.

Running with Chris McDougall and BarefootNYC

On Wedneday August 11th, I joined about 70 other people and ran from Harlem to Brooklyn with Chris McDougall, author of Born to Run. It was an awesome afternoon.

I wasn’t able to stay for Chris’s book reading at Word in Greenpoint, but the few minutes I got to talk with him confirmed what I’d suspected: When Chris said he was “infected with a spirit of camaraderie and fun” I’m certain he was talking about himself. He’s a genuine, kind and patient person who gave freely of his time and knowledge and who runs for the pure human joy of it. He’s also whip-smart. (and almost as tall as me)

I was really nervous beforehand, not even committing to my Vibram FiveFingers until I was walking out the door. My nerves were misplaced however, this was definitely not a race, and the people running were interesting, supportive and just generally wonderful. The pace was relaxed and comfortable enough that I spent a good deal of time talking to other runners. The group also stopped several times along the way to rest and gather everyone back up. Even though the distance was 3+ miles longer than I’d ever done near-barefoot, my muscles, bones and joints were fine. I did pick up a blister on the ball of my left foot, but nothing that will hamper me in the Bronx Half-Marathon on Sunday.

At the end, A handful of us were sitting with our bare feet in the playground sprinkler on Franklin and Noble. The sun was behind the buildings, and as we talked there was a wonderful, peaceful feeling of accomplishment and community.

Organizer John Durant posted a bunch of photos.

NY Post reporter Susannah Calahan did the run with us and the Post posted this video:

NBC Universal Sports reporter Matt Stroup also ran with us: Barefoot run NYC: The Christopher McDougall experience. Apparently no one warned him about how long it takes to strengthen the calves, I bet he isn’t able to walk down stairs for a week.

CBS News was there too:

Barefoot Fresca: Photos From the NYC “Born to Run” Barefoot Running Event

Barefoot Running with Chris McDougall – a set on Flickr

Born to Run: Chris McDougall’s journey

My follow-up research to Born to Run turned up bits and pieces of what would become the book scattered around the web, dating all the way back to 2005. These provide an unusual opportunity to see how author Chris McDougall crafted the book over almost five years. Great books often seem effortless, sprung whole from the author’s mind, but the reality of the writer’s craft is much different.

Chris McDougall spent years developing the book’s central stories; traveling to Mexico, meeting Caballo Blanco and the Tarahumara, training for and then completing Caballo’s 50 mile race in the Copper Canyons.

I found some of the first steps of his journey in this June 23, 2005 New York Times article, Kick Off Your Shoes and Run Awhile. A year later, a sizeable portion of what would become Chapter 3 of Born to Run first appeared, almost unchanged, in the July/August 2006 issue of Men’s health, titled “The Men who live forever.

As someone who makes things, I found it fascinating to glimpse how all the elements evolved and to see how years of development and struggle eventually produced such a wonderful book. Some might nitpick and point out discrepencies in the narrative, but discovering these details added another dimension and deepened my enjoyment.

In this interview Chris revealed additional details about the book. The Copper Canyons race took place in 2006 and Chris says he spent the following two and a half years “repeatedly messing up the book.”

In October 2009, Google twice invited Chris to speak as part of their Talks@Google series, first in Mountain View, then in New York City. The talks are about an hour each with some Q&A at the end. He doesn’t repeat much between the two and it’s great to hear some of Born To Run retold in his voice.

More recently, in July 2010, Chris gave a talk at the TEDxPennQuarter conference titled Reinventing Running. Many themes from the Google talks are here too, but reflect several months of refinement and are joined by some new ideas.

During the book’s initial publicity tour Chris appeared on the Daily Show and gave an hour-long interview with Philadelphia Public Radio’s Radio Times. He also took several intrepid reporters for “running” interviews–barefoot. These included the New York Times and ABCNews. There’s a great moment in the ABC interview (at about 2:30) where Chris casually rinses his feet in Central Park’s Bethesda fountain.

Chris often sounds like a big kid who somehow tricked everyone into paying him to talk about running around. In the running interviews, there’s no bravado or machismo in his demeanor, instead there’s an exuberant feeling of joy and of wanting to share that joy with everyone he meets.

When asked where he saw ultra-running in 10 years, Chris’s answer reflected his personal joy that colored so much of Born To Run:

The most exciting thing will be not the races so much as the ethos. Go to the Leadville Trail 100 some time, or even better, Caballo’s race with the Tarahumara down in the Copper Canyons. You’ll be infected with a spirit of camaraderie and fun that will change the way you run every mile afterward. I think the ultrarunning approach, if not the races, will come to dominate recreational running.

Born to Run: Something of an Epilogue

Born to Run is a true story and as such, the characters in the book are real people. This post is a sort of a Google-ey “Where are they now?” for many of those who played a part in the book.

  • Christopher McDougall
    Chris has been happily bouncing around the country promoting Born to Run. He’s got an affable goofiness and seems genuinely filled with joy when he talks about his journey in writing the book.

    Chris spoke at TEDxPennQuarter in July 2010:
    Christopher McDougall – REINVENTING Running

    In 2009 Google invited Chris to to speak, both in CA and NYC, as part of the Google Talks series:
    Chris McDougall @ Google California (October 16, 2009)
    Chris McDougall @ Google New York (October 22, 2009)

    Chris is also blogging.

  • Caballo Blanco (Micah True)
    Caballo organizes the Copper Canyons Ultra-Marathon and leads what can only be called adventure tours of the Copper Canyons at
  • Barefoot Ted McDonald
    Ted, of course, has a blog: Barefoot Ted’s Adventures. He also started the Minimalist Runner Google Group and is active on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook.

    In March 2010, Google invited Ted to speak as part of Talks@Google.

    As an aside, I loved how in the book Chris set Caballo Blanco and Barefoot Ted as the Yin and Yang of natural running.

  • Eric Orton
    Eric was one of Chris’s trainers from Chapter 27. He leads the online running community Running With Eric. The site has instructional videos and many well-informed discussions. Eric’s personal training and coaching business is at Train with Eric.
  • Ken Mierke
    Ken is the head coach at Fitness Concepts. The introduction to Ken’s Evolution Running video can be watched online.
  • Dr. Ruth Heidrich
    Dr. Ruth is the nutrionist, triathlete and cancer-survivor Chris spoke with in Chapter 27 (salad for breakfast? on page 210) and one seriously inspiring woman.
  • Scott Jurek
    Scott is active on Facebook and Twitter, he also has a promotional site and blog.
  • Luis Escobar
    Runner and photographer, Luis posts his running photos at All We Do is Run.
  • Joe Vigil
    Legendary Coach Vigil appears in a few short videos which are worth watching. The first, which Chris referenced on page 94, is his parable about The Goddess of Wisdom and Goddess of Wealth. Another inspirational clip is Great Coaches-Olympic Distance Coach Joe Vigil. That appears to be an outtake from the documentary The Long Green Line, which is well worth watching (it’s on Hulu).
  • Dennis Bramble and David R. Carrier
    Dr. Bramble and David R Carrier are professors of Biology at the University of Utah. Dr. Carrier’s research is focused on the interrelationship of animal movement and evolution. Dr. Bramble has recently been focused on human evolution and our human capacity for physical endurance.
  • Daniel Lieberman
    Dr. Lieberman is a Professor of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University where he leads the Harvard Skeletal Biology Lab. Together with co-author Dennis Bramble, he has published a number of scientific papers, the latest has been frequently cited as contributing to a scientific foundation for barefoot running. Since his 2010 paper was published, he’s become something of a “science rockstar,” including being dubbed The Barefoot Professor in a video by the Journal Nature.
  • Louis Liebenberg
    Dr. Liebenberg is the South African mathematician who ran down a kudu with the Kalahari Bushmen in Africa. His 1990 Book, The Art of Tracking, the Origin of Science is currently out of print (considering the only used copy I could find recently sold for $250, someone might want to consider reprinting this). In 2008 he published “The relevance of persistence hunting to human evolution” in The Journal of Human Evolution. Dr. Liebenberg is the Managing Director of CyberTracker and has a semi-public Facebook page.
  • Billy Barnett
    Billy’s living in Hawaii, here’s his personal blog.
  • Norawas De Rarámuri (Friends of the Tarahumara)
    This is a non-profit created to support the Rarámuri culture.

Several other people from the book are online, but I chose not to link them out of respect for their apparent desire to keep their private lives private. If someone mentioned in the book isn’t here, it’s because I guessed they wouldn’t have wanted to be here. (If that’s you and I’m wrong, let me know)

I also wanted to comment on an unintentionally poetic edit made to the book’s cover photo. In Louis Escobar’s original image, Billy “bonehead” Barnett is standing next to a seated Caballo Blanco. Somewhere along the book’s journey to print, Caballo was photoshopped out, vanishing, perhaps appropriately, into the sky above the Barrancas del Cobre. Barefoot Ted posted the original photo.

The Japanese release of Born to Run uses the original photo with a restored Caballo.