My Journey to Becoming a Barefoot Runner, Part 1

Tonight, I had one of the top ten best runs of my life.  No, top five, for sure.  Fall weather has finally descended upon us here in Oregon, unpredictable and wild.  I got home from Pilates feeling energized and decided to go for a barefoot run.  Let me be clear: When I say barefoot, I mean naked feet, not running in Vibram Five Fingers or VFF’s for short.  Although I do run in VFF’s often, I’ve been venturing out more and more in my nudey feet.  The streets were wet, but it was only misting outside and the temperature was a perfect 60 degrees. 

Off I went, taking in the fresh evening air.  About half a  mile in, the rain came, exploding  from the sky with such focused energy that it literally startled me.  My first thought was, “Crap!”  My second thought was, “Sweet!! LET’S DO THIS!”  It took less than one second for my mind to switch gears and begin to feed off the strength of the rain that was quickly flooding the streets.  My feet were on sensory overload with the wet leaves, twigs and giant puddles that crossed my path and I took in all in with gratitude.  As the rains raged on in the darkness, I was running faster and faster, my clothes plastered to my body and smiling the whole way.  As I ran past the McDonald’s drive-thru, a lady sitting in her car stared at me like I was a total lunatic as I fist pumped my way through the monsoon.  I even got up the courage to wave to her to come join me, but she acted as if she was more interested in her Big Mac than joining me for a barefoot romp in the slanted rain.  Weird.  For five glorious miles, the rain poured and I was soaked and full of joy.  So how did I go from an injury ridden cushioned shoe heel striker to the loony neighborhood barefooter?  Great, I’m glad you asked.  Let me tell you:

In October, 2009 I encountered one of the nastiest injuries I’ve had to date.  I was running in St. Augustine, FL on the flattest beach you have ever seen.  I had just returned from an internship in Vermont, where I spent my weekends running a few miles on the beautiful paths of the Appalachian Trail, so I was feeling pretty confident of my footing on the beach.  I should note that I was also sporting custom orthotics, a heel lift in my left shoe, and the best stability shoes on the market with a huge built up heel and medial support.  All of the sudden, a giant sea shell rose up from beneath the sand and attacked my foot.  I didn’t really feel it with all that stuff under my soles, but the next thing I knew, I heard my ankle make a sickening SNAP and I fell flat on my face.  NOT GOOD.  Tried to get up.  Fell again.  NOT GOOD.  Finally, I made it to my feet and tried to “walk it off.”  It was terribly painful.

Being a physical therapist and a runner is a funny thing, really.  You see, the physical therapist sits on one shoulder and tells you, “Do the right thing and stop running because you’re obviously flat on your face and injured.”  The runner sits on the other shoulder and has no common sense at all, because she tells you, “Keep running you worthless turd, you’re fine!  Walk it off!”  Unfortunately, I listened to the runner on this occasion, and ran the two miles home.  I didn’t really see any other choice, I needed to get home!  My ankle was a pretty, purple softball when I got home.

As it turns out, I had a partially torn calcaneo-fibular ligament (CFL) and a completely torn anterior talo-fibular ligament (ATFL), two ligaments that are commonly involved in a lateral ankle sprain.  The podiatrist used ultrasound imaging to confirm this, although he said there may be a single string left in my ATFL.  If there was, it sure didn’t look or feel like it.  I was terrified to walk on my foot for fear it would give out again at any moment, so I resorted to wearing a beautiful orthopedic boot for a while.  I developed a complication with the healing process called Anterior Impingement Syndrome, which was likely my anterior capsule of the tibiotalar joint getting pinched every time I dorsiflexed or brought my toes up towards my nose.  This happened with every step as well as when trying to stretch my Achille’s tendon, which was painfully tight due to wearing the boot.

Over the next year, this improved slowly, but I was still battling chronic ankle pain on a daily basis.  My running was not going well, and I was only up to about 4-5 miles at a time with my huge shoes and equipment inside.  By this time, it was October, 2010 and I was living in Portland, OR working as a P.T.  Almost a year to the day of my first ankle sprain, I went out for a run on a rainy October evening.  I made it about 2 minutes down the road before I was flat on my face in the middle of the sidewalk. “NOOOO!!!” I shrieked to no one in particular, and followed that with a slew of profanities.  I had sprained the same ankle again on an unknown piece of uneven sidewalk that I never saw or felt coming.  A scared, elderly gentleman was in the nearby storage center and kindly asked if I needed an ambulance.  I told him I would survive (although I wasn’t sure) and hobbled back to my apartment where I knew my husband, Mike, was working out in the gym.  I burst into the gym soaking wet and panicked and asked Mike (also a physical therapist) to test my ankle and determine the damage.  The test confirmed my greatest fear, that my ligaments were totally incapable of supporting my ankle.  I had a full blown MELTDOWN.  It’s a good thing I have such a wonderful husband because he stood by while I rolled around on the floor like a wounded animal and decided that I would never run again. 

The next few weeks was filled with icing my ankle and brainstorming.  Let’s face it, I was a lousy runner.  I’d had nearly every running injury possible and hadn’t even come close to my longterm goal of running a marathon.  Sometime over the next month or two, I was on Facebook, when my friend Ryan (also a physical therapist) posted something about running in Vibrams.  That’s right, those goofy shoes with 5 toes.  Gorilla shoes.  I was intrigued.  Coincidentally, Ryan was also the person who showed me an article about barefoot running while we were in school that always stayed with me.  At the time, I thought I could never run barefoot, and anyone who did had probably lost their mind.  I also remembered the seed that Steve Vighetti, PT had planted in my brain when rehabbing the first ankle sprain.  He was convinced I didn’t need all the junk in my shoes, and maybe I should go back to the basics.

Then, a funny thing happened.  I started using my brain and thinking about all the knowledge I had acquired over the past few years.  I finally stopped listening to the people who told me for all those years that I needed support, custom orthotics, and a giant marshmallow shoe.  I donated my new cushy running shoes, and I went out and bought my first pair of Vibram Five Fingers, the Trek Sport model.  My friend Ryan had successfully inspired me to buy them along with my very own copy of the now famous book Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall.  I devoured Born to Run and breathed new life into my legs and feet by beginning to run and walk for very short distances in my TrekSports.  Much more about this in the next post, along with how to properly increase your running distance in your bare feet or minimalist shoes.  I will also provide much more insight into why bare is better and point you to some fascinating research studies that have confirmed this. 

In the meantime, if you see a crazy person running barefoot in a monsoon, I would love some company.  You don’t know what you’re missing!

2 Replies to “My Journey to Becoming a Barefoot Runner, Part 1”

    1. Jess, that’s great!! Congratulations on your first barefoot run. In my opinion, totally barefoot is the best way to start. Let your feet be your guide 🙂 I truly believe every one can be a runner! Can’t wait to check out your blog.

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