Barefoot runners swarm to authorby Euan Kerr, Minnesota Public Radio
Wayzata, Minn. — A group of runners gathered recently in a Wayzata parking lot to share their passion for running barefoot. They were there to meet the man at the center of the new trend, Christopher McDougall, whose book, "Born to Run" has now been on the New York Times Bestseller list for six months.
McDougall is well over six feet tall, with the shoulders of a defensive lineman. He says he began running simply to burn off the odd slice of pizza. He enjoyed it, but in time, pain set in.
"Every few months I would get some blinding injury, something called cuboid syndrome," he said. "There is a cuboid in your foot, and apparently it gets really painful if you try to run. I had Achilles tendinitis, plantar fasciitis, all these 'itises' you never hear about until you try to run."
McDougall's doctor presented him with a few options: Buy better shoes, consider surgery, or just stop running. It's a situation familiar to many athletes. But since McDougall is a writer for various sports magazines, he used his research skills to find an answer to the question, "Why do I hurt?"
His quest took him to remote canyons in Mexico's Sierra Madre region, home to a reclusive tribe called the Tarahumara. They are a people who delight in running so much that many of their festivals involve runs of 50 or 60 miles, sometimes more. They do it without injury, wearing simple sandals cut from old tires.
It's not just the youngsters who run, he said, but people in their 70s and 80s running "not just marathons, but five marathons in a single day."
The Tarahumara have a running style that McDougal said he had never seen before.
"I was used to being told, 'Land on your heel and push off with the front of your foot,' this heel-toe, long stride, very muscular," McDougal said. "The Tarahumara were running very lightly and gently, landing on their forefoot and just sort of popping their foot up. It was almost like they were bouncing as opposed to running."
McDougall came back a convert to barefoot running.
"My approach to shoes is the same as my approach to clothing -- only apply as needed," he said. On smooth sidewalk cement, he said, he would go totally barefoot.
If you have ever listened to runners pass you in the street, their steps are quite loud. When McDougall runs, his feet make little noise. He stops at a curb to demonstrate the difference between what he does and the stride used by most runners.
"Running is a series of jumps. You are jumping from one foot to the other, to the other. That's all it is," he said. "And when you jump off this curb, imagine right now if I just extended my heel, locked my knee and landed. I don't even want to try it."
"That's what the majority of people do when they run, and only for one reason. Because running shoes with that thick heel cushion, you have to lift your toe up, or your heel would drag on the ground."
McDougall says he came away from his Mexican adventure having learned two things that changed his approach to running.
"The Tarahumara treat running as a physical joy," he said. "Secondly, they don't rely on artificial devices to cushion impact. They rely on their own legs."
It's McDougall's thesis that many runners in the U.S. live in fear of injury, and that the injuries are caused by their footwear.
"Running shoes are probably the most destructive force to touch the human foot," he said.
McDougall says the cushioning in modern shoes basically causes runners to pound harder, and that leads to damage. He says that since he stopped wearing running shoes, his injuries have vanished.
It's a startling claim, but as we head towards a bookstore in Wayzata, where he'll sign some books, we meet some of his fans. Small groups of runners stand around chatting about their barefoot conversion.
Some are barefoot, others wear Vibram five-finger shoes -- hugely popular footwear which are essentially gloves for your feet. They have a rubber sole which provides protection from rocks and other sharp objects, but absolutely no support.
Some three dozen people have come to do a four-mile loop with McDougall to Gear West, a local running store. He says he often runs at signings now.
"People ask question after question after question. And I'll say, 'Let's just go.' It's just so simple," he said. "Go outside, take your shoes off, and in five minutes you'll understand what I am talking about. You can do it in five minutes or we can talk about it for 40 minutes."
McDougall heads inside and meets Gear West owner Jan Gunther. She's excited to have McDougall in town, but she urges caution on the barefoot thing.
"It's really up to the person, and it's up to how large you are, too," she said. "We have had some people who all of a sudden say, 'I'm just going to grab some Vibrams,' and it's like, whoa! Build into it gradually, or you are going to hurt yourself."
Even as they head back on their run, many of the runners compare notes about barefoot running. Later in the evening, another 250 people joined the group at the bookstore to hear McDougall read.
Stephen Regenold, editor of Gearjunkie.com, which covers outdoor equipment, admits he is somewhat of a barefoot convert. He's changed his running style, and started wearing shoes with less padding.
Regenold also advises caution, saying runners should ease into barefoot running, particularly if they are already doing a lot of miles. When asked if he thinks barefooting is a flash in the pan, he says it's clear the big shoe companies are paying close attention.
"It's a huge flash right now," Regenold said. "But the long term is that the trend will turn into a mainstream thing."
As has happened before in tough economic times, Christopher McDougall says running is once again on the upsurge. But he sees it as a different kind of running -- barefoot, with less fear of injury. When asked if his style is like dancing he smiles.
"What we do with all our fine arts is we ritualize a necessity," he said. "That's what dancing is. It took the necessity of balance and poise and jumping, and we turned it into an art. But that first fine art of humans was long-distance running."
And for Christopher McDougall, that means simply running for joy.
- All Things Considered, 09/20/2010, 5:50 p.m.