mundane adventures in running
While there fairly indisputable benefits to barefoot running from a training perspective, what is the philosophical, spiritual cherry which makes it so appealing?
Recently, I was having a conversation with a client who happened to be a keen runner. He regularly runs ultra marathons, is passionate about running and a delight to chat with. We were talking about running, and he started talking about how he strongly he believed in the benefits of barefoot running for training. I chimed in, expecting to have very similar views, but it quickly became clear that we were approaching barefoot from different angles: his practical, mine slightly more peculiar.
Our motivations for running without shoes, or with minimal shoes, were at a base level pretty much identical. That is to say, barefoot running is just about about improving form, strengthening your feet and legs and avoiding injury. The guy I was chatting to, bought into it in this way, but it didn’t seem to go any further. He didn’t have the slightly crazed conspiratorial glint when he talked about it. He didn’t talk about the Nike scam, getting back to a Palaeolithic past, connecting with the planet, or letting the free radicals flow our of our feet into the raw earth.
He was smartly dressed in a polo shirt and Chinos, and was rocking a £500 Suunto tri watch. He wasn’t a hippy. He was into barefoot running because it is a sensible way to improve form and posture, get stronger feet and calves, avoid injury and run better. A pragmatic approach, and one which is definitely right for him. It’s probably a more sensible approach than mine, which leaves me wondering why I’m more evangelical about it than him.
Here’s the rub: the difference between the way he thinks about barefoot running and the way I think about it is that I tend to ascribe a whole other set of benefits to BF running, spiritual, political and philosophical; these benefits are probably only in my head, but they are there nonetheless.
I believe Barefoot running lets me opt out of the commercialisation of running. While others wear £100 Brooks trainers, when I am running barefoot, I am outside of that world, and free from the shackles of modern consumer capitalism. Even if I’m carrying my £100 Nike Free shoes in my £80 inov-8 rucksack, tracking my run on a the premium version of Runkeeper on £400 phone, I am somehow more free running barefoot: enjoying my own grain of Walden while out running. This is obviously nonsense; I’m as much of a sucker for shopping as anyone. Still, while I’m barefoot, I feel like an outsider, like a maverick, like an anti-capitalist warrior.
I believe Barefoot running puts me in touch with my ancestors and with the bare earth. This is true to an extent. Especially when I’m running trails, fields, mud and sand. But, if I’m really so into getting Palaeolithic and feeling the ground, why don’t I go everywhere barefoot? I mean I do sometimes walk round central London without shoes, but it’s not something I do with the relish and confidence I feel running barefoot. Again, it feels like nonsense: something I say to myself which is at the least overstated, and possible untrue.
So, beyond the training benefits, and these slightly spurious advantages of barefoot running, what makes it so appealing? Well something like this: it lets me inhabit a different world of running, one where I feel more comfortable, more at home.
I started barefoot getting back into training after repeated injury, and a longish break from running. I wanted to run again, but found the prospect daunting and demoralising. It felt to me like the world of running was all about competition and improvement, it was focused on pushing yourself, beating others, winning, perfection. This conception of running tallied with the advertising and sponsorship deals of shoe companies, the way that athletes are portrayed in TV and films, the way people talk about running. I felt like a beginner again, that I was starting running for the very first time. The thought of joining the race was alienating; I didn’t want to compete, I didn’t want to feel like I was at the bottom of a pyramid. I felt like I had too far to go, and I’d never achieve enough for the effort to be worth it.
As well as the hope of running injury free, barefoot seemed to provide an alternative to this scary world. Barefoot was all about running slowly, consciously, spiritually. It was about running for yourself and for the experience, not for beating people. Barefoot running let me say: I’m not running like other people, I’m not part of this race of performance and competition, I’m not doing this to beat you, or to improve, I’m just doing this for the experience, for me.
If conventional running felt like a race, or like a league (with Husain Bolt at the top, and me at the bottom), barefoot running felt like a team, like a family. Stars like Barefoot Ted or Christopher McDougall were more like distant compadres than competitors, friends not victors.
There’s something simple, bloody minded, and brave about barefoot running that makes it different to other running, that lets it be a thing in its own right, outside of the mainstream world of running. While Nike, Brooks and their kin are all realising the practical benefits of barefoot, and rightly building them into their shoes, the truly barefoot, sandal wearing clan of runners still abides: a separate club, gentler, more spiritual, weirder and more approachable. Long may it last.