mundane adventures in running
Since I first read Born to Run, I’ve been meaning to experiment with Huaraches. For those who haven’t read Christopher McDougall’s opus, Born to Run (variously celebrated as the bible of barefoot running, the populist introduction to ultramarathoning, The Book etc.), in it he describes the customs and habits of the Tarahumara ethnic group in Mexico, fabled for their long distance running prowess. He also describes their footwear: huaraches.
Huaraches are pretty much just a super flexible sole, secured to your foot with a strap running between your big toe and second toe, to the back of the shoe and tied round your ankle. Like this:
‘Proper’ huaraches are made from an old bit of car mat and a shoelace, some carpet underlay and bailer twine, last years’ flip flops and gaffer tape, a broken handbag and electrical wire, ocelot skin and cat gut.
If you’ve tried several of these methods, and given up trying to cut up bike tyres with kitchen scissors, or have fallen on your arse too many times because of the repurposed vinyl tiles underfoot, you can resort to just buying some. Thank you consumerism. My internet research lead me to two main suppliers, Luna and Xero. Both of these brands are headed up by charismatic gurus of the barefoot scene (for there is such a thing as the barefoot scene). Luna is run by Barefoot Ted. The sandals look pretty cool. In America they look reasonably priced, in the UK, they seemed a bit too expensive for my tastes…. £75. Xero, conversely, offered a DIY-so-easy-even-you-can’t-mess-it-up kit for £15. Given that the idea is that these shoes are super simple, super low tech, the super simple, super low tech price tag appealed to me.
With a family walking holiday coming up, I was anticipating long stretches of carrying children along the hot, dry, trails of central Spain. It felt like the right time to try Huaraches. True barefoot would have been horrendously painful, and racing flats (my normal choice for walking shoes) would have just been too disgustingly smelly after a week of hot and sweaty feet.
So starts the review. First thing is how, when I was online trying to buy some of these for myself, my 5 yr. old son started looking over my shoulder and insisted I get him some on the grounds that they look cool. Then my wife came and, similarly, insisted I get her some. Finally, I didn’t want to exclude my daughter from the whole “Our Family Wear Xero Shoes” thing, so I got her some as well. Like matching anoraks.
They do look cool, or at least interesting. Last year’s Navajo friend is in its final throes, but Xero shoes dress quite well with culturally misappropriated north american ethnic design t-shirts. They also fit with the whole tie die thing which seems to be big on ASOS right now. Their UK website ostensibly gives you loads of choice for different colour soles and parachute cord. Sadly, most had sold out, but the option is there. Anyway, yup, aesthetically they are interesting at the least, and even pretty cool if you swing that way.
Next, making the things: the instructions on the website are remarkably easy to follow. It took me about ten minutes to figure out how to trim, punch and tie them, and the only tools I needed apart from what they’d given me were a (huge) pair of (sharp) scissors, a lighter and a hammer. My only criticism of the instructions is every time Steve says “outsole.” Please Steve, at least slow down when you say “outsole”.
Finally wearing them: my first try was to just wear them walking around for a normal, workaday day. They take a bit of getting used to, and you do need to readjust them several times before you find the sweet spot between uselessly flapping about and cutting circulation in your foot. When you get them right, they’re pretty comfortable. The experience, walking, is like true barefoot, but without having to concentrate so much where you’re stepping and without people looking at you like your a freak.
After a day of walking around in them, I felt confident enough to try running in them. I’d planned to run home from town anyway. I decided to try doing it as a tempo run. It’s 6k, and while I had a backpack, it was fairly light, so I figured it was worth giving the shoes a go for running. My verdict: they are pretty cool. Anatomically, you feel as thought you’re running barefoot: they feel much closer to true barefoot than any other barefoot shoes I’ve tried (with the possible exception of moccasins). The main advantage is how liberating they are. You don’t have to worry about pebbles, glass, or sudden deceleration nearly as much as you do when truly barefoot. They also give better traction, and let you hug corners when you are going flat out. I managed to keep a 4.30ish minute per km pace for the whole of the 6k, which I could never do actually barefoot in London. At the end of it, I had a corker of a blood blister on my little toe, and the sensation of dust and sweat between skin and rubber was a little peculiar, but I felt really good. They will take a bit of getting used to before I can do much more than 20k in them, but first impressions suggest they are awesome running shoes.
They held up well for the walking holiday as well. They’re super light and cool. As with running, they are close to barefoot whilst walking. The main irritation is that the knot can dig into the bottom of your foot. weirdly, its more of a problem walking than running. A smaller knot helps with this: if you try them, one single, simple knot melted with a lighter seems to work best.
They drain well. Of course they drain well, there’s nothing to them, but it is worth mentioning, as it made it really easy to forge rivers and muck about in water with my kids when we stopped for siesta. I even swam in them.
On the downside, the cord does break: the knot has a tendency to sheer off on spikier rocks. You need to carry a knife, and make sure you have enough spare cord to retie them. I think this is a pretty minor concern, and probably wouldn’t be a problem in cities or on roads.
Oh yeah, we were walking with a donkey. I don’t think I mentioned that. Beasts don’t really like me that much, and the bastard thing trod on both of my feet. I really, really wish I’d been wearing Doc Martens when that happened. It really is excruciatingly painful to have a donkey tread on your toes. That said, I don’t think I can blame Xero shoes for this.
Over the coming days, I will be mostly swimming.
Stopping for a siesta with Ligoncite, our Donkey.