Jun 17, 2010

The Hellfire of Barefoot Runners

The way True Believer stories begin is this. A person describes his skepticism about something and then converts from his disbelief and scorn to fundamentalist faith. Think C. S. Lewis’s return to Christianity. Or China’s embrace of capitalism, led by my favorite non-attributable quotation of Deng Xiaoping: “To be rich is glorious.” Or Jake Elway’s conversion for The Penguin.

I noticed a similar religious feeling about people’s embrace of barefoot running, another silly trend. There was such a hellfire of enthusiasm that I relegated Vibram Five Fingers to another toy with which so many people are besotted (“like a child at Christmas” to crib one writer). My wife took one look at a pair of Five Fingers and said, "They've found a way to charge money for nothing." Her friend’s comment: “There’s something not right there.”

I rightfully blamed Christopher McDougall’s book, Born To Run, for the passionate tone of barefooters. He writes of the Tarahumara, who “may be the healthiest and most serene people on earth, and the greatest runners of all time.”

McDougall describes a 57-year old man who lumbers out of his cave – a cave without running water – after a night of drinking booze made from dried rattlesnakes and eating ground corn with barbequed mouse to come “first in a prestigious 100-mile race wearing nothing but a toga and sandals.” The Tarahumara often smoke a combination of tobacco and dried bats' blood to help them run faster and keep away the other team's spirits. (This has actually been one of my non-puritanical goals: to be able to run and smoke a cigar at the same time).

This is mythmaking at its best. It is just the kind of symbol that the modern malaise conjures or unearths. The further people distance themselves from the cave with technology, the more they crave an earthy, organic, locally sourced touch. What could be more natural than a man running barefoot?

(My favorite symbol of our modern malaise is man – khakis or suit – walking on a moving sidewalk at an airport, staring down at an iPhone or Crackberry, oblivious to where he is going.)

The religious nature of barefooters versus high heelers reminds me of all the other religious wars. Apple versus Microsoft. iPod versus all those crummy MP3 players. The iPhone versus all those crummy mobile phones. (Here is the last word on that Apple-is-Great cult). Great taste, less filling.

Vibram Five Fingers are a case study in propaganda. They are not really Five Fingers, they are ten toes. It is not “barefooted running” if you are wearing them.

Here’s my take on “barefoot” running. I am a five to six day a week slow slow runner, not by choice, but by geography. For two years I have been plagued by running related injuries, first by long term overdevelopment of my outside leg muscles (i.e. Chondromalacia Patellae) and now by Piriformis Syndrome (a tiny muscle in the butt that I have overdeveloped and tightened to a point where it is painfully clamping my sciatica).

I kept reading that barefooters are injury free so I decided to give Five Fingers a try, although I was very skeptical. They do look ridiculous and are not fun to put on, similar to putting on climbing shoes. My little toes had been good soldiers of the brigade until the Five Fingers and now they did not like being shunted off by their solitary selves.

My first impression is that Five Fingers were useless on pavement, where I thought a cushioned running shoe would help protect against the hard monotony of concrete. They were very good but slow on trails. Because I mostly run trails, Five Fingers make me chose my path carefully as the hedges shed thorns and some of the bridleways have loose gravel.

I had been warned of beginner’s barefoot running injuries, blisters, soft tissue injuries, all those things, but I think I’ve been wearing such ugly yet healthy footwear (Birks and clogs) for so long, that my feet do fine running in Five Fingers. Running hills is supposed to ensure that you have good form and for years Little Cottonwood Canyon, that slice of Wasatch paradise in Utah, provided my running trails. Runs were often thirty minutes uphill, ten downhill. So I dove into Five Fingers runs five and six days a week and the only side effect was bottom of foot tightness, which I rolled out in about ten minutes with a foot roller.

I wanted to try them for a summer before passing judgement, but one day I wanted to run really fast, a relative term for me, so I went back to my trusted Sauconys. Much to my annoyance, I discovered I could barely run in normal running shoes. They were no longer stable enough. They felt squishy and awkward.

There you go, a reluctant convert if ever there was one. I’ll even buy a pair of the coldweather version when autumn arrives and might try going totally barefoot when the weather is warm enough, even though my Piriformis Syndrome continues to rage.