The past few days, I’ve been celebrating learning how to run again after about a month off, including surgery on January 21st. I have had a series of short, barefoot, giddy runs that have left me wondering why some people don’t run. And on the other hand, I saw a runner that have left me wondering why some do. During my brief, restorative runs, I have felt so completely free that I theorized that perhaps I am actually becoming more bound. More bound to the sport, more bound to the love of running, more bound to the earth and its healing qualities, and most importantly, more bound to myself.
Admittedly, I struggle with resting and allowing my body to heal. The thing is, while I was sitting around doing all that healing stuff, my mind was lacking its usual outlet, which of course, is running. All that sitting around can do funny things to a person, and that’s why I decided to head out the door and try to find some peace and quiet for my mind, which was consequently running amok.
So, I started with walking, which I did for a couple of days. The next day, I walked again with Mike and was able to run four times for about 1 minute each time. Now, I don’t mean really running exactly, more of a funny little skip/waddle combo that felt just perfect with the healing incisions in my belly. Not to mention, I looked good, which is what really matters. A few days later, I was up to my gentle skip/waddle for up to a half mile, which I did a couple of times, and I was starting to resemble a wannabe runner. Two days ago however, I had a real breakthrough. I put on real running clothes, including my brand new huaraches, courtesy of www.earthrunners.com. Thank you Earth Runners! I will do a review of these guys once I’ve had more experience with them, but in the meantime, check out their website and what they have to offer. I had a great first impression.
Anyway, I went out for a run, and decided to start out very slowly, go until it felt right, then go back. I gently plugged along for about a mile, then decided to turn around. I took off the Earth Runners because I wanted to really feel the ground, and continued along barefoot. I was going REALLY slow. And I felt REALLY good. Nothing hurt, and my body felt like it was drinking in the gentle movement and energy I was collecting along the way. Afterall, that’s what healing is all about! Collecting energy vs. expending energy. Whether I was barefoot or wearing the Earth Runners, I really felt connected, or bound to my surroundings. This is good, Earth Runners nailed that part of it!
Last night, I decided to try that same 2 mile jaunt again, with the same choice in footwear. Half in Earth Runners, half barefoot. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was meant to be running and finding happiness again. Now, I know that recovering from ectopic pregnancy and surgery takes a toll on the whole person. While the people around me have been instrumental in my recovery, it was as if I was in need of an old friend in the way of running outdoors. So on I went last night, again slower than heck, but happy. I was even whistling my new jam, Justin Timberlake’s “Suit and Tie.” Don’t judge me, you know you love that song!
Anyway, I was whistling and shuffling along when I heard chaos behind me. What the… I turned around, and I was about to get passed by another runner! She was stomping towards me, with a look on her face that read, “GET OUT THE WAY!” and she had headphones on, but there wasn’t much point because I could hear her music blasting. It was something I didn’t recognize, but I remember thinking it was hilarious because it was a bubbly, poppy tune with a fast beat. It was a funny paradox because the girl attached to the tunes looked like she would sooner die than try to have a bubbly conversation with me. She actually looked like she might die if she had to take one step around me, so I decided to give her some leeway and hop onto the grass next to the sidewalk so she could charge by. As she passed, I turned and gave her a lopsided smile and a cheerful wave, but she just glared and stampeded on. I wanted to ask her if she was enjoying herself, but I figured she a) couldn’t hear me b) might kill me and c)I already knew the answer.
So, while I was pondering why some people don’t run, I found my answer through Miss I’d Sooner Die. Unfortunately, instead of enjoying ourselves, feeling the chill in the air, experiencing the ground beneath our feet, and drinking in our surroundings, we blast music in our ears, lock our feet up, put on an “eat shit” face and try to barrel through a 3 mile run and hope to experience none of it. Other times, maybe we hop on the treadmill to avoid the elements and put on a TV show and let the machine think for us. My intent is not to criticize these runners, because I have absolute respect for anyone who is getting out there and putting their health first. But, I do think that we’ve become a society that is much more bound to technology and distraction than bound to ourselves and relationships. Relationships involving each other as well as relationships with our surroundings. I’m guilty of this as well, when I’m networking on social media or sitting here on this blog instead of talking with my husband. But taking the time to escape those vices is valuable, and well worth the time.
Running has to be one of the purest forms of exercise, because you really don’t need any equipment. We could even run nude if we weren’t risking getting arrested! Now that would be entertaining… anyway,what was I talking about? Oh, right, running is pure. Yes, so the question is, are you running free? Or are you running bound? Both? And if you’re running bound, what are you bound to? Maybe the best answer is to run free to find yourself bound to your heart, the earth, and your surroundings.
I am currently reading Barefoot Ken Bob’s Book, Barefoot Running, Step by Step, and I highly recommend it. Barefoot Ken Bob was one of the first people that I’d heard of as a barefoot runner, and that he was the master, the guru, THE MAN. I’d checked out his website several times, and all I really remember from that was that every other line he was saying, “Bend your knees!” I didn’t really appreciate this though, until I started reading his book.
Ken Bob has been running barefoot his entire life, mostly out of necessity, due to his sensitivities running in shoes. Because he has been running for so long barefoot, and because he is THE MAN, he really has some of the best words of wisdom on barefoot running out there. If you haven’t checked out his website or his book, PLEASE do it.
This weekend, I went for a long run on the Wildwood Trail, my home away from home. I went solo because Mike went surfing, and decided I would try some COLD barefoot trail running. It was about 37 degrees when I started, so I knew I would have some cold feet if I didn’t warm up first. I was wearing my VFF Spyridons for the first 9 miles, then took them off for the last 5+ miles for some sweet sole time on the trail. During the time that I was wearing my Spyridons, I really tried to think about this bent knee deal. I know that I always bend my knees when I land, but I get the feeling that it’s not ENOUGH. So I really got into this, and even thought about the image that Ken Bob uses with his landing, which is this: Your forefoot should swoop into the ground like an airplane coming in for landing. What? Yes, that’s right, turn your foot into an airplane. The point is, if the knee is bent enough, this is quite easy to do. Sure enough, I was really exaggerating this knee bend on landing, and I started feeling like an airplane. And my legs started spinning underneath me like I was riding a bicycle. It was nearly effortless! It’s funny that I’m using all these other forms of transportation to describe how it felt to run, but honestly, it still shocks me that running can be this easy. That it can be this rewarding and feel this good.
Going downhill, on level ground and slight uphill did actually feel effortless. Going up steep hills on the other hand, I don’t think I’ve quite mastered the bent knee there. Since I used to be a booty runner, I still have that tendency to bend at the waist when going uphill. I’m constantly reminding myself to tuck my butt and lean my whole body into the hill, not just my upper half. Going downhills, I was FLYING. I decided to relax into the downhill more than ever and really let the knees bend, giving into gravity instead of resisting it. It was fantastic, and I felt more confident than I ever have. I didn’t slip as much in the mud either, because I wasn’t resisting, I was just going with it.
I ran the last 5+ miles barefoot on the trail, which was wildly entertaining. That is my longest barefoot trail run so far, and you can bet I’ll be doing a lot more of it. There is simply no other feeling or connection like barefoot trail running. The pine cones, sticks, leaves, and mud that come in contact with the feet is something that you never feel otherwise. I never realized how much I was depriving myself by keeping my feet cast away in sloppy, soggy, wet shoes and socks before.
However, I forget that I am still very much the minority among runners and hikers, especially when I run into people like the Tracksuit Poodle Man. Tracksuit Poodle Man is a regular on WW Trail, but this was the first time I’ve seen him when I was totally barefoot. In case you’re wondering, TPM has two standard white poodles that he dresses head to toe in shiny track suits. I’m laughing out loud just thinking about them!! They’re always perfectly groomed little boogers, so they stick out quite a bit in the muddy wilderness with their prim and proper outfits. He’s one of my favorite characters though, so as I was running towards him, I said my usual, “Hi, how are you?” while trying not to crack up.
He looked like he might be sick as he was staring at my bare feet. “Looks like you forgot something at home,” he growled, still looking vomitous. Well, I suppose not everyone is a fan of us barefooters. But then again, when looking at me versus TPM, an outsider would probably say we are both a little odd.
What is up with the gravel though? I suppose they’re trying to prevent erosion, so they lay down gravel along sections of the trail. This does not help the barefooters’ image (we all know image is the most important thing right?) because as I was running past the fellow hikers on the trail, I would frequently get the question, “Barefoot eh? How’s that?”
If it happened to be on a gravel section, which happened a few times, I would grit my teeth and say a little too loudly, “It’s GREAT! BEST DAY OF MY LIFE!” Under my breath, I was cursing the gravel. I have to admit though, the gravel was serving a purpose other than supposedly preventing erosion. It was preparing my feet for this weekend, The Jingle Bell Run in downtown Portland!! In case you haven’t seen the roads in downtown Portland, they appear to be eaten, chewed up, spit out and pooped on. Hopefully not pooped on. But seriously, those are the roughest asphalt roads I have ever seen/felt in my life. During the Portland Marathon, the rough roads taunted me when my mental strength started to waver. And I was wearing my VFFs. This weekend though, no sir, I’ll be barefoot!
This race benefits the Arthritis Foundation. I happen to firmly believe that my barefoot running prevents me from having early onset osteoarthritis, so I will definitely be barefoot. I will also be Mrs. Claus and Mike will be Santa! I did lots of thrift store shopping today, here is a sneak peek of my costume. Full body Mrs. Claus shots to come, but only after the race. She’s killer. One thing’s for sure, this Mrs. Claus will be bent knee barefootin’ through the streets of Portland this weekend!
A few months ago, my sister innocently posted a link on my Facebook page that talked about sustainable living and an eco-village in Costa Rica where the kind folks live in tree houses. With one click to that page, my sister had created a monster. Mike has been talking about moving to Costa Rica ever since I met him, so one mention of this place, and he was in the other room packing. Here is a link to the photo gallery of the original village we liked, called Finca Bella Vista. How can you resist? A sustainable eco-village where we can raise our kids off the land and have fresh fruits and vegetables year round? A simpler, more fulfilling existence where we can tread lightly on the earth and possibly play with monkeys? Yes please!
Then, we found another village that seemed to be a bit closer to the ocean, which is necessary for Mike to be able to surf. This village was called Osa Mountain Village, and the entire property is a giant, living, growing salad. Want a mango? Walk out your door and eat it. Just one problem: After researching for a few weeks, I discovered that it would take up to four years to obtain a physical therapy license in Costa Rica, and maybe longer to obtain citizenship to work there. Crap. Then, I had another glimmer of hope when I saw that you can start a business at Osa Mountain Village, and they needed a Pilates studio. Great! I’ve taken a handful of classes at my gym, I like Pilates! I could just own a Pilates studio. Again, unfortunately, Costa Rican law makes it nearly impossible to work as a foreigner in their country, so we reluctantly gave up our Costa Rican dream.
This ridiculous story does have a point. As crazy as it sounds, this was the beginning of my journey to Pilates. The Costa Rican dream made me realize that while I probably can’t and shouldn’t move to Costa Rica, perhaps I should do something for myself here in the ol’ US of A to enrich my life. I began researching Pilates, and I found the STOTT method of Pilates, which happens to have a rehab certification for physical therapists. Of course, I live in Portland, which happens to be the home of Pacific NW Pilates, the Harvard of STOTT Pilates training. I decided that before I embark upon the journey to rehab certification, I should probably start actually practicing Pilates. I remembered driving by Poise Studio in Beaverton and began checking out the website. Poise is a boutique studio located in a funky, old house in Beaverton where they have Pilates, yoga, belly dancing, and other special series. I discovered they actually practiced the STOTT method there, and so I quickly signed up for my first “Intro” class the following week.
My “Intro” class was enlightening. Jacki was my instructor, and I was actually the only person taking the class that day, which was to be followed by the regular evening Mat Pilates class. What I immediately noticed was how small the classrooms are, creating an intimate and focused atmosphere. Jacki and I got to talking and I found out that she is actually a physical therapy student at Pacific University, what are the chances? I was excited to find out this information, because I realized that this person has a strong background in anatomy and the way the body moves. The evening class followed with about 4 other people that night, and Jacki made sure that I was comfortable and she provided necessary tactile cues when I flopped awkwardly into different positions. Jacki is a wonderful instructor, evidenced by the group of folks that show up to her evening classes religiously. She is soft spoken, has a familiar order to her classes that make them seem homey, and yet she still manages to teach me something new each class I take with her.
And then, I met Alli Breen. Alli can only be described as the most passionate and meticulous Pilates and fitness instructor I’ve ever come across. In addition to teaching Pilates, she is also a Pilates Fusion instructor and wellness expert. Her journey to health is an inspiring one, which can be seen on her new website, Today Is Your Tomorrow. She also has a podcast which is super fun to listen to! While I don’t know all the details, I know that she is a vegan and she has lost quite a bit of weight over the past couple of years. Here is a picture I found on her website that gives one an idea of just how far she’s come.
One of her star students, Jillian, said the other day during our advanced mat pilates course, “When people tell me Pilates is easy, I tell them they’re not doing it right and they’d better train with Alli.” This is true, you will never have an “easy” class if Alli’s teaching it. There are many a time when I have found myself zoning out and thinking about something else, only to be quickly snapped out of it by Alli’s wrath.
“LEIGH! FIX YOUR SHOULDERS! What are you doing with your ribs? Your knees! YOU KNOW BETTER!” Oops! Haha, I just laugh and fix my form. Afterall, I want to have near perfect form, if a long term goal of mine is to teach Pilates to my patients. I’ve learned that form, awareness, activation of core musculature, and breathing is key to one’s success in Pilates. Since balance is also a key concept in Pilates, it’s likely that you’ll fall on your face eventually if you make a habit of snoozing in class. Because we don’t typically use weights in Pilates, it is important that movements are purposeful to effectively use your own body weight to develop strength and grace during transitions.
In the 3 months that I’ve been taking Pilates at Poise, Alli and Jacki have really helped me with these concepts not only in class, but in life in general. Thanks to the mental focus and increased core strength, I’ve been able to carry my new body awareness over to running. One of my favorite things to do is take the 9:00 AM Pilates class with Alli and follow that with a long training run on a Saturday. I have had some of my best runs after this, because my core muscles and lateral hips are already activated, providing the perfect foundation for my running posture.
A common misconception about running is that movement is only occurring in the sagittal plane or forward and backward, but mostly forward of course :). However, running is truly a multidirectional movement, as the trunk must rotate as we jump from one leg to the other, and the pelvis needs to be stabilized to avoid too much rotation and lateral tilt. For these reasons, it is vitally important that runners have a strengthening program that focuses on core strength to include the lateral muscles of the hips.
I have known this for most of my life thanks to my marathon mama, so I have been regularly going to a gym ever since the dreaded gray sweatpants day. My gym routine has evolved greatly over the years however, going from using mostly machines, to free weights to mostly my own body weight. I used the Bosu, the stability ball, a decline ab bench, maybe one set of dumbbells, and an exercise mat at the gym and had a fantastic routine if I may say so myself. I was going to Bally’s in Beaverton, which had a giant core workout area, and I regularly had it to myself or shared it with the trainers. It was HUGE! Then, tragically, Bally’s was taken over by LA Fitness and they quickly closed our gym. We were shuffled over to a pre-existing LA Fitness in Beaverton, which became overcrowded with both the original LA Fitness members plus the Bally’s folks. The worst part about this new meat market, er, gym, aside from the excessive grunting, and talk of biceps and protein shakes was the “core” area. The “core” area was a narrow corridor with way too much equipment that might make you claustrophobic with a meer glance. As I walked up to the front desk on my first day there, I tried to ignore the stares and grunts from the meat gallery. What is it about certain gyms?? They all have a different vibe. Anyway, once at the front desk, I asked, “Is this your only area for core/body weight workouts?”
“What do you mean? We have a great core area with stability balls, mats and mirrors! And did you see all of our machines? I can give you a tutorial if you’d like!” While this guy was obviously enthusiastic about his job, he didn’t really get it. The trainers on the other hand, shared my exasperation with the limited amount of space to do body weight exercises. I heard them complain continuously about the space issue, which got worse as they put old equipment in the corridor, crowding it further. Needless to say, after I began Pilates, I quit going to the gym. I quit because I obviously was unhappy with the gym, but I wanted to do an experiment. Could Pilates be enough? Could I continue to run injury free with just Pilates?
The answer surprises me. Not only am I continuing to run injury free, I’d venture to say that I’m running stronger than ever. I’m practicing Pilates 2-3 times per week in addition to running and eating well, and my core and hips feel and look healthier than ever. Another bonus was that I lost the pesky 3-4 pounds that I couldn’t seem to shed, no matter how I altered my gym routine. I’m noticing the biggest difference in the way my legs look and feel. They’re much lighter as I’m running, and I’m starting to appreciate the way they look! I suppose we all have our trouble spots that we have a hard time accepting, but with Pilates and a new appreciation for the way my body moves, I have more confidence than I’ve ever had. A positive body image is so important for overall health and wellbeing, and I believe I have achieved that after searching since my awkward teen years. The body change is evident to me in the following photos. The first image is from Eugene Marathon in April 2012, when I was at least 4 pounds heavier. The second image is from Portland Marathon in October 2012, after I’d been practicing Pilates for a couple of months:
At least I was smiling!!
While running these days, I also notice my mental focus is unwavering. Today, my husband and I decided to go on a 12 mile trail run in Forest Park. It was a moody, Portland day, but markedly better weather than yesterday when it poured most of the day. There is a giant, long hill in Forest Park that my homegirl, Christy, and I are not a fan of. Mike, on the other hand, practically lusts after this hill. There’s something wrong with him, he really enjoys sprinting up hills. Ever since he was hit by a car in April, he has had this unbelievable zest for life and is on a quest to be a FAST runner and triathlete. We are running the Holiday Half Marathon on December 16th, and he has a goal time of 1:30, which I’m pretty sure he will destroy. It’s a beautiful thing, really. Anyway, today when running up the dreaded hill, I honestly felt great. Sometimes, I felt like I could even hear Alli, “Don’t you quit!” My focus was on point, and my form was precise and purposeful as I took each switchback up the beast. As I was applauding my mental stamina thanks to Pilates, I was simulataneously questioning my husband’s mental stability. A few minutes before, at the bottom of the hill, Mike flew past me foaming at the mouth.
“I’LL SEE YOU AT THE TOP!!!” he shrieked with his head thrown back and a wild ass look in his eyes. He was like a rabid dog being released from its cage, devouring the hill with a satisfaction of which no sane human would be capable. I got to the top of the first switchback, and he was gone. Already flying up beyond where I could see. What the hell? I got to the top of the hill, which was our designated meeting spot, and all I saw was Mike’s water bottle sitting on the picnic table. I calmly waited, unsure if Mike was going to pop out of the trees. Was he puking from sprinting up the hill? Peeing? Pooping? Anything is possible. Just when I was about to start searching, he tore up the fire lane where I was standing. Oh. Since he apparently didn’t get enough hill from tackling the beast, he decided to go run the firelane hill too, just for kicks. “THAT WAS GREAT!!” Oh good lord.
I truly do believe that Pilates and running go together like PB&J. Pilates is the perfect strengthening routine for runners because of the emphasis on mental awareness/focus and activating the core via flexion, extension,lateral, and rotatory movements. Poise Studio is a wonderful place that seems to embody the Pilates movement and teachings. The fantastic instructors there really make a difference. I would encourage others to seek out a Pilates studio with educated instructors who are certified in the STOTT method. I promise, if you have a great instructor, Pilates definitely could never be easy. And even if we never make it to Costa Rica, at least I found Pilates! But I still want to live in a treehouse…
It’s no secret who the better cook in this family is. If we want to eat a really good meal, Mike’s in the kitchen. I can also make a really good meal, but it will probably take twice as long (I’m a perfectionist, I can’t help it!) and I have to follow a recipe exactly. If we don’t have an ingredient in the recipe, I may or may not break out in hives. Ok, it’s not that bad! Maybe.
Mike’s been making these amazing vegan energy bars, and I snack on them obsessively. It’s a good thing they’re great for you! He’s eats them on long runs and never has any GI upset. This weekend, he did a 15 mile trail run fueled by these energy bars without any crashes or trots. You don’t want the trots. I personally have not tried this particular recipe out on the trail before, but I’ve tried other variations without any trouble. Here’s the recipe, I just have to share it! Sorry about the picture, this was actually the very last energy bar of the batch. I was able to snap a picture before devouring the delectable little guy.
Mike’s Vegan Energy Bar
1 can pinto beans, drained and rinsed
1/4 cup peanut butter
1/8 cup flax seed meal
1/4 cup honey (not vegan, please use raw agave nectar for vegan or real maple syrup)
a few shakes of cinnamon (again this is Mike, not me)
1 cup whole grain oats
a shake of nutmeg
3/4 cup veggie protein powder (we use chocolate MRM from Whole Foods)
1/4 cup dried cherries (we used Craisin cherry flavor this time)
1/4 cup sunflower seeds
Suggested add ins that he’s used before but not this time: chia seeds, pure cocoa, vanilla extract, instant coffee (Wheee!) coconut, other nuts, chocolate chips or carob chips. Carob is yum yum.
1. Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees, grease down a cookie sheet with coconut oil or other oil of your preference.
2. Toss the beans, peanut butter, flax seed, banana, honey (or agave/maple), cinnamon, nutmeg into a food processor. Process until smooth.
3. Add in the oats, veggie protein powder, cherries, sunflower seeds and other suggested add ins, pulse until it makes you happy. Mike would like you to feel the love.
4. Take out all that goodness from the processor, spread it on the cookie sheet using a spoon if you’d like, and even everything out.
5. Bake for about 25 minutes total. Mike suggests taking it out at 15 minutes, cutting it up a bit and flipping it to bake both sides. After it’s done, let it cool then cut into bite size pieces of your preference.
6. Congratulations, you have gooey goodness to fuel you for miles.
Portland fall/winter weather has officially arrived, bringing with it a sense of calm, stillness, and quiet solitude. Yes, it’s cold as hell, but with cozy cold weather running gear, lots of blinky things and a trusty head lamp, the exploring doesn’t stop when the darkness descends upon us. Just to be clear, the darkness descends upon us in this part of the country around 4:00 PM in the winter time.
It’s also that time of year when the running questions shift from, “What if you step on broken glass/needles/ebola virus/poop” to, “Don’t you get cold, what if your toes freeze off your foot, can you really wear VFF’s in snow?”
Earlier this year in March, Portland got a light dusting of snow, resulting in a couple of inches sticking to the ground at higher elevations. I decided to take the Prius up to Forest Park and run a nice 18 mile training run through the mud and snow in preparation for the Eugene Marathon. I bundled myself up, strapped on my Injinji socks and Vibram Bikilas, and set off down the Birch Trail to connect to Wildwood. I got about 30 seconds into the snow and muck, and decided this was a dumb idea. My toes were already numb and uncomfortable and I was COLD! While I was used to running in the cold mud in Forest Park, I’d never added snow to the equation.
Well, I take that back. There was one time when I was visiting my in-laws just outside of Boston in December, 2010 when I ran in the snow in my Vibram TrekSports. But that was when I was just starting this journey, and I could run only about 30 minutes at a time. The snow was just perfect there too, a cute, soft little squeak as I gently caressed the surface and sunk down just a little. It was more like running on hard packed sand, a perfect running surface.
Back to the slop fest in Forest Park last March. The running surface I was dealing with that day was nothing like the perfect, white, flawless festival beneath my feet in Boston. We’re talking muck and snow up to my ankles with every frosty step. Yep, 18 miles to go. Something told me to keep going, but I was honestly thinking that I might have black, frost-bitten nubs for feet by the end of this. Surprisingly, about 5 minutes after starting, my feet sprang to life. Hello again feet! They nearly felt alien, as I slowly became aware of each little appendage reaching out and gripping the rocks and roots as they normally do. “Don’t worry mom, we’re fine!” That’s what I imagined they were saying as they yawned back to life.
That 18 mile training run is to date, one of the best runs I’ve ever had. The snow no longer strangled my foot with each step. Instead, it became a welcome houseguest in Forest Park, decorating the trees and logs, adding beauty and diversity to the normally green trail. Remember the joy of jumping in puddles? I came up with a new word that day, “smuddles” which is a snow and mud puddle. I know, I’m a total cheeseball. The people on the trail that day were few, but they were also some of the most fun, outrageous folks I’ve seen. “GREAT DAY FOR A RUN!!” one man shouted, throwing his head back and laughing hysterically. “It’s so beautiful!!” said a sweet lady with a dog that was covered in mud and snow as he bounded along.
That day was truly an awakening, because I realized that running barefoot or in VFF’s (or any other minimalist shoes) probably didn’t have many limits. If I can run in snow/slush for 18 miles and keep all 10 of my toes toasty warm, anything is possible.
Fast forward to the first cold snap this season. Now, I consider myself somewhat of an expert minimalist footwear runner, and an amateur barefoot runner. The best way I’ve found to ward off those feelings of anxiety about your feet hitting the cold ground is to start with the shoes on. Whatever your preferred footwear, (mine are my VFF SeeYas or my new Invisible Shoes) run with these on for about the first 0.5 mile, then go ahead and take them off and carry them along as “hand weights.” Your feet should be sufficiently warm by this time to go ahead and go bare. To date, I’m up to 7 barefoot miles on pavement without any discomfort. I still feel amateur however because I’m not great on rougher surfaces like trails, woodchip paths, and especially gravel. So my new goal is to build up the soles of my feet in order to be comfortable running barefoot on any surface. Sounds easy, right? Well, not so much when you live in the suburbs with lots of buttery smooth sidewalks to run on.
However, it just so happens that I live about one mile away from the World Nike Campus. That’s right, the nucleus, the brain, the empire of Nike is spittin’ distance from my doorstep. Nike’s campus is nothing short of beautiful, with it’s glittery, shiny buildings, duck ponds, waterfalls, and other man-made marvels. Fortunately for me, Nike has a beautiful woodchip trail winding through it that’s at least a couple of miles long. They also have a brand spankin’ new path that winds through the woods behind me that is a fine gravel surface. Unfortunately for Nike, they have a wannabe barefooter that frequently trespasses on their pretty little trails barefoot, wearing running sandals, or Vibram Five Fingers. Muahahahaha…. You see, they put these little signs up that nonchalantly say, “Use for Nike Employees Only.” So even though they have these wonderful trails, they are supposedly to be used only by Nike employees? Nah, seems like all of the community should be able to use them. Afterall, they’re so awesome! Right?
So the other day, on my second or third run out in my new Invisible Shoes huaraches, I decided that I was going to run over to Nike and try them out on the wood chip trail. I’ve never actually been stopped by a security guard on the campus, so I didn’t think anything of it when I turned into the waterfall entrance and ran past the barriers. “M’am? I need to see your Nike employee ID please?” Huh? A very serious looking security guard was looking me up and down, but mostly down at my naked feet in my Invisible Shoes.
“Um, I don’t have that.” I said, trying to keep a straight face although a smile was creeping up before I could stop it.
“What in the heck are you wearing?” He managed, before beginning to laugh himself.
“Huaraches!” I said proudly, working on my pronunciation. “They’re running sandals.” It was quite obvious at this point that I didn’t work for Nike.
“Well I’ve never seen those before! I’m sorry, but I can’t let you in.”
“Ok thanks anyway!!” I tried to say cheerfully.
“Be careful in those,” he said, sounding genuinely concerned for both my safety and my mental state.
I happily ran off back toward the road, and then proceeded to cut through the trees and onto the wood chip path that I knew was there. Woohoo! Success. While I don’t encourage trespassing, it’s sort of known that even though you’re supposed to be a Nike employee to run on the trail, many people in the community use it as a running trail, and I think it’s great that they’re usually pretty flexible. I suppose it was just pretty obvious that I wasn’t an employee on this particular day. I also have to admit, it’s a bit thrilling to run injury free and barefoot or almost barefoot in the lap of the running shoe giant. A giant which I consider to be the main creator and distributor of a thick, padded, heeled shoe and therefore the cause of many running injuries, including all of mine. That’s over a decade of running injured that I didn’t really need, but was manipulated by the ideals that Nike created for a profit. However, Nike probably also increased the popularity of running and fitness in general ten-fold, so you win some, you lose some. But now, as a physical therapist, I’m trying to undo a lot of the brainwashing that has been ingrained for so long. And people think I’m the nutty one! 🙂 Well, maybe I am, a little.
I was very happy that my sandals held up wonderfully on the wood chips, and the sensation of the chips brushing my toes was uplifting. So much so, that I got the courage to take my shoes off and run barefoot along the wood chips which was even more exciting. Let’s just say, I still have work to do in this department.
Last night, I had another Nike encounter. I was just finishing up a delightful 7 mile run in my new Invisible Shoes, and turned on to my street to head home. I’m really beginning to like those shoes! Again, my toes were a little cold in the beginning of my run in the 38 degree weather, but quickly warmed up. I spied the fine gravel Nike path winding through the darkness into the woods, and couldn’t resist taking my shoes off and trying another go at it. The other night, I tried this and could only manage to walk gingerly over the gravel for about 3 minutes. That stuff’s no joke, sharp little boogers digging into all the spots on my feet that don’t normally hit the ground. So I whipped off my shoes and began carefully walking over the gravel. I decided to start channeling Jessica Lee from the Barefoot Runnning movie with Michael Sandler. They say that when running over a rough surface, try to bend your knees and get low, closer to the ground. Straighten out your arms and swing them like a monkey to try to land as light as possible, increasing the surface area that is hitting the ground to try to distribute the forces coming into your feet.
So, with a burst of confidence, I began swinging my arms like the best of apes and off I went, running lightly, low to the ground through the darkness with my headlamp switched on. It was pretty dark in there, but note that I was actually only about 10 feet away from the brightly lit sidewalk, an important safety consideration. I was doing pretty well actually! I let a couple of “ooh ouch eeks” slip out as a few gravel pieces were really hitting where it hurts. Running on gravel is supposed to be one of the best surfaces for pad development though, so I was determined. I was really starting to do my best monkey impression and might’ve let out a few “ooh ooh ah ahs” when one of the hazards of cold weather running hit me. You know what I’m talking about. Snot. Yep, when it’s cold outside, let’s face it y’all, we have to let the snot fly. My husband, Mike, taught me how to blow an expert snot rocket, so I wasn’t too worried. As I monkey waddled along, I turned my head to let the snot rocket fly. I must have really been into this moment, because I didn’t even hear the head to toe dressed Nike employee or perhaps sponsored runner flying towards me to pass by. I looked up just as the snot flew, mid monkey stance, mid “ooh ooh ah ah”. My headlamp shined across his face just in time to see his horrified, confused look. What? I wondered. Oh, right. I’m barefoot running on the Nike trail, like a monkey, blowing snot rockets, while this guy is dressed to a T in his neon Nike running jacket and neon Nike shoes as he blew past me. I listened to his jacket flapping as he ran off, then started cracking up as I began to put myself in his shoes. Well, at least I was having fun!! He looked a little too uptight for a Friday night run. I was actually quite pleased that I could run like this on the gravel! Thanks Jessica Lee, for your perfect monkey running demo in the movie. I was able to do a 3 minute gravel run versus a 3 minute gravel walk from the other night.
To sum up this post, cold weather barefoot and minimalist running is possible and quite enjoyable. If you’re not having fun, it’s not worth it! Be prepared to have some cold feet during your initial warm up, but realize that as your core temperature heats up, vasodilation occurs and you will enjoy warm blood coming into your toes and feet as they work hard to capture the ground. Additionally, try playing with varied surfaces including concrete, asphault, wood chips, gravel, and best of all, natural trails to encourage pad development. Even if you’re running in shoes, the different surfaces will help to prepare your muscles for anything. Trail running will encourage lateral movements which we don’t encounter very often running on pavement. In turn, we are stronger, happier runners by increasing our strength and changing the scene every so often. And light yourself up in the dark so you can be seen!