Running was a late discovery. I only embraced it fully in 2005 at age 41. Up until that point, I had managed sporadic endurance attempts in my mid and late thirties, but never went very far, literally.
So when jogging eventually turned into a pleasant routine, I settled for a bi-weekly 10 km distance which proved the most rewarding psychologically, fitted a rather busy schedule and would always let me find energy for an extra session if time allowed. I had tried shorter, more frequent runs but these left me unsatisfied and I figured happiness mattered more than training logic.
Then last year, well into my running ‘teens, my sister gave me a book she presented as the Into Thin Air of ultra-marathoners: Born to Run by Christopher McDougall. I pocketed it with pleasure, looking forward to high drama on the slopes of mountain trails and the accounts of extraordinary men driven by an inner force and ego sheerer than the obstacles they face.
I read the book on the train back from Montreal and as the pages flipped to the hypnotic song of Adirondack tracks, my feet got itchy and began to beg for some trail pounding.
A heal strike, cushioned by the expensive designs of a greedy running shoe industry, is a cruel distortion of the way humans were meant to runMcDougall’s true story was centred around the maybe-not-yet-but soon-to-be legendary Tarahumara Indians of Mexico for whom running is a way of life. They routinely cover distances equal to multiple marathons back-to-back, just for fun. And if that wasn’t enough, they run on thin, flat and open leather sandals.
So while the story indeed involved extraordinary men and drama, it was refreshingly void of megalomaniac egos. The Tarahumara had attracted the attention of a few people who studied their ways and began running and living like then, a colorful American character nicknamed Caballo Blanco among these.
Having analysed the tribe’s running style, most came to believe that our modern running technique, a heal strike cushioned by the expensive designs of a greedy running shoe industry, is a cruel distortion of the way humans were meant to run.
Hunting on foot, our ancestors had no cushioning and yet achieved speeds at which they could outlast most of their prey, because of humankind’s unique ability to pant while running. Animals cannot recover when fleeing, so they achieve top speed but eventually have to stop to pant and rest, and then they get killed.
The foot strike of our ancestors was thus very different from ours and more similar to that of modern sprinters. They hit the ground lightly, forefoot first, and the flexible arch worked together with tendons in the heel to cushion the impact, allowing the arch to compress and the heal to drop, absorbing the shock.
So in a proudly defiant and radical move away from common wisdom, some of our 21st century elite runners have adopted barefoot – or at least minimalist – running as their new religion and they officially condemn running shoe manufacturers for yielding and then nurturing generations of pampered and misguided runners whose style is so bad it has to be corrected, supervised, adjusted, stabilized, neutralized, de-pronated, cushioned and un-supinated.
They officially condemn running shoe manufacturers for yielding and then nurturing generations of pampered and misguided runners“Nike has been wrong to design its shoes the way it did, knows it, but has kept going on the wrong track in quest of greater profit,” say these minimalist advocates. “A heel strike would lead to greater injury risk,” they preach. “Which runner has not been injured multiple times even when running carefully in expensively cushioned running shoes?” they ask.
The questions are quite relevant, the sermons powerful. McDougall, as an ambassador, comes through loud and clear, convincingly so. So back then, I gave in. Actually, I jumped in. As soon as I got home from the train station that day, I began transitioning to my new gait. Gone were the years of blindness, I would now, having seen the light, use a barefoot technique. I knew better than to transition too fast, however, so I kept my cushioned Asics Nimbus but applied myself to moving my strike forward until I was hitting the ground with the outer forefoot.
My challenge was twofold. For one thing, I was spoiled. I had been running for years on what I consider to be the most beautiful route on earth, Vancouver’s Seawall around Stanley Park. The Seawall is a 10-kilometer long section of 30 kilometers worth of uninterrupted, beautiful urban waterfront paths for pedestrians and cyclists alike. On any given run, I could see harbour seals, bald eagles, enormous purple starfish, raccoon, great herons and entire flocks of – yes, Canadian – geese and their young. The marine air was be pristine and I would feel sandwiched between ocean and mountain.
Spoiled, again, I had also been on amazing trail runs near Cape Town, in and around Table Mountain and the Cape of Good Hope, with various species of antelopes running away as I approached and baboons standing their ground. These, of all runs, would be forever hard to match.
My other issue was that I am a conservative runner. One of the major ingredients of my success has always been what I call runhypnosis. Routine. I pick a path that suits me, as stunning as possible, and then I stick to it until I know it by heart and could run it with my eyes closed. Once under way, my feet recognize the ground and do their own thing, my brain stops worrying about the answer to life, the universe and everything, and I am just there, in the present, on autopilot.
I had been running for years on what I consider to be the most beautiful route on earth, Vancouver’s Seawall around Stanley ParkSo for these reasons, and while I normally welcome change into my life, breaking running habits has never been easy. For four months, I patiently paced myself but persevered in my effort to transition to a minimalist style. Adapting was not fun but I blamed the pain on wearing the wrong shoes – normal padded shoes with a significant drop – for a barefoot stride.
Eventually tough, I declared myself ready and splurged on a pair of Vibram Five Fingers. I was annihilated to discover, albeit too late, that they did not fit my foot shape and that two toes ended up in one pocket. They actually fit so poorly I returned them immediately. Then I chose a pair of New Balance Minimus Zero, a compromise between nothing and very little. These were real shoes without separate toes but they featured a minimalist zero drop, barely any cushioning, no stability control and they were meant for a barefoot style.
I ran with them for almost a month. For the entire month and later, I suffered more – the pain was not only in my feet and Achilles’s heels but in my lower legs, hips, back, neck and ego – than ever before. It was a catastrophe. I stopped running for a while. I had finally achieved a running injury.
In a flash of genius, I decided to drop the new shoes and my style-rebirth hopes, put on my Asics again, and went back to old running moves. The pain diminished immediately. However, the cramps lingered.
Caballo Blanco died recently trail running on an isolated Mexican sierra path. R.I.P. Caballo, you might have wished for no other death. And as for me, I intend to run well into my old age and live long and prosper. So I will for now strike the ground as distractedly as possible, however that might be, and welcome reasonable cushioning. Because it just works for me.
For all I know, barefoot running is no more credible than a flat Earth or astral voyage. Ironically, the ones who started the controversial epidemic of cushioning, for better and for worse, might still have had the last word(s). After all the means ultimately matter much less than the end: Just do it.