Dark Night of the Sole

Posted by on July 3rd, 2011

The new movement in endurance sports is as old as man himself. Runners convinced that if it was good enough for their ancestors, it’s good enough for them, are abandoning their cushioned shoes in favor of something less. Strapping on thin sandals, slipping into quirky foot-shaped shoes or ditching footwear altogether, these athletes believe less is more. On Saturday, a race in the Santa Ynez Valley gave them a chance to put their feet to the test.

The sun hasn’t crested the low-lying hills on the Chamberlin Ranch outside of Los Olivos and from the looks of the cloud cover; it won’t be out anytime soon. But more than a hundred men and women stand on a farm road that winds gently through an oak-lined valley.

A pot of hot water for coffee steams on a camp stove, spectators gather around a campfire, pulling coats tight against the morning air, and runners shift their weight between legs in anticipation of the starting gun.

Crack. A single shotgun cartridge breaks the collective breath of silence taken before the first strides of a run. In a few seconds, the racers have all crossed the starting line and are heading down the road that is little more than two tracks cut though high grass. In a minute, they crest a small rise, round a corner and are lost from view in a stand of oaks.

The fastest among them will have completed the 10-mile loop in a little more than an hour, but when they reach the starting line again, only a few will stop. Most will race on – into the night and some will even race on into the next morning. This is the Born to Run Ultra Marathon and it offers those with the skill, endurance and courage a chance to compete in 100-mile, 100-kilometer, 50-kilometer and 10-mile foot races.

There are no prizes and timekeeping is imprecise. The only official clock is affixed with duct tape to the starting-line tent. Across the face, written in black marker it reads: “Does it really matter?”

To most runners in this event, it’s unlikely that it does. When the miles stretch past the marathon mark, surviving the race becomes the real challenge. It’s no longer a race against the man in front of them; it’s a race against themselves, a race against nature and a race against the 30-hour cutoff limit.

Ultra-running is a small community and spawns its own culture that is hard to define. The men and women who challenge themselves at these events seem like some strange combination of extreme sports enthusiast and survivalist. Camping together, partying together but running on their own; surviving with little more than a few thin clothes and a light backpack.

The culture of self-reliance is evident from the moment the gate at the Chamberlin Ranch is opened. A warning in the form of a paper plate taped to the gate reads, “Are you sure you want to do this? No cry babies beyond this gate.”

At a pre-race briefing, organizer Luis Escobar told the racers, “Something bad is going to happen to you in the next 24 hours.” After laying out the challenges they could face along the course – including rattlesnakes – he added, “Still want to do this?”

The long lonely miles these runners log, and the limits they push their bodies to, might make them seem a little insane. But even a culture of freaks has freaks of its own. Dig deeper into the ultra crowd and there lies the minimalist. They forgo traditional running shoes in favor of something closer to the footwear of antiquity or nothing at all.

However, most don’t subject their feet to the sticks and stones of the trails because they are trying to push themselves further, but because they believe it makes them better runners and they have a growing body of evidence to support their claims.

Sacred Text

Ask anyone walking around the race camp without shoes about their minimalist lifestyle, and the majority will answer with, “Have you read Born to Run?” The book by Christopher McDougall rode a rising wave of interest in running naturally and allegations that the padded footwear of this modern age was the cause of more problems than it solved. He chronicled the story of the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico’s Copper Canyons.

These men could cover vast distances without injury but wore only the most rudimentary sandals. They also subsisted on carbohydrate and beer-heavy diets but had incredibly low rates of diseases such as diabetes and colorectal cancer.

In his book, McDougall pointed to researchers who were discovering the benefits of running without cushioned shoes. Minimalists seemed to be incurring fewer injuries and less impact than their counterparts.

McDougall’s book became part of a rapid expansion of minimalist running. The new/old approach to the sport received coverage in major media outlets and gained many new converts. The growth has been so profound that events like the Born to Run Ultra Marathon are now offering minimalists their own divisions.

Like any obsession, minimalist running has colorful characters that make up its cast. There is the seasoned sage, the passionate disciple and driven competitor, each there for their own reasons but all advocating the same technique.

The Competitor

For the role of the competitor, one need look no further than Ben Morgan, a Texan who is just as ready to talk about the sport as he is to put his words into action. It was more than just another race for him. On race day, Morgan was attempting something that no one had ever done on record: run 100 kilometers barefoot.

Morgan is a not a stranger to barefoot running or world record attempts. In 2005, he broke the mark for longest wheelie on an ATV, maintaining a two-wheeled ride on the four-wheeled vehicle for more than 30 minutes. Shortly after that, he got into barefoot running. “I had IT band problems and a friend from Kenya suggested it.” He said he started off using the popular Vibram Five Fingers shoe. A soft shoe with a flexible sole, shaped like a bare foot – toes and all.

He then graduated to sandals and put more than 3,000 miles on a single pair. Morgan said running minimalist changed the way he moves. “The biggest change probably was the form. You really can’t run with bad form barefoot very long. Your stride shortens up and you take a forward stance. Your body has to learn to relax.”

The physical side of barefoot running wasn’t the only challenge he had to overcome. “There’s a big stereotype. You have to get over the fact that you don’t look like a traditional runner.”

To finish the race barefoot, Morgan said he was following a simple strategy; slow down. He said he can normally finish a 100 kilometers in 12 hours but wanted to finish this race in 20. “I’ll go the whole 30 if I have to.”

Besides a slower pace, he said he had a few other tricks up his sleeve. “The real secret to barefoot running is Super Glue.” Morgan said the sticky stuff helps to close up cuts and coat blisters.

The Disciple

Morgan said he took some of his inspiration from Barefoot Ted, one of the people featured in McDougall’s book. When he’s not running, Barefoot Ted is Ted McDonald, the owner of Luna Sandals, a company that manufactures a minimalist sandal for adventurers. He is enthusiastic about movement and excited about getting back to basics.

He started running minimalist almost a decade ago because he found himself stuck when it came to distance. He could only run for about an hour without injury and was convinced he just needed a shoe with more padding.

He went so far as to purchase a pair of shoes with springs attached to the bottom, but nothing helped until he did away with shoes completely. “It’s about learning how to operate the ancient technology we all embody,” he said.

McDonald says human ancestors were good at a few things that made them the dominant species on the planet; one of those was endurance running. He says there is good evidence to support the theory that before men hunted with advanced weapons, they got most of their meat by simply outlasting their prey in prolonged hunts.

“People today are making the incorrect assumption that they are broken by default.” While McDonald said he is not anti-shoe, he said he thinks people should look for the least amount of shoe that works for them.

During a speech to the racers on Friday, McDonald urged them to think back a half-century ago. “It wouldn’t have been anything special in the 1960s or in other parts of the world,” he said, pointing to the pre-Nike era of racing flats.

The Sage

Someone who’s been running without shoes for almost that long also spoke to the runners that evening. Barefoot Ken Bob Saxton is the author of Barefoot Running Step by Step and has been placing foot on pavement for most of his life. With a long grey beard and slightly round belly he likes to slap to make points about his fitness level, Saxton doesn’t exactly cut the figure of an athlete but in the ultra-running world, he’s right at home.

At extreme mileage, ultra marathons are an exercise in endurance and mental fortitude. They attract a varied set of competitors who come in many shapes and sizes. Saxton thinks barefoot running should have the same wide appeal. “It’s only for people who are born without shoes and have feet,” he said.

Saxton takes some of those gathered through a barefoot workshop where he encourages them to kick off their shoes and experience the world like a child. He said modern shoes invented to prevent injuries really keep muscles in the feet from gaining strength. “For some reason we think our feet are the only part of our body that won’t get stronger if we exercise it.”

He said that modern shoes allow people to run poorly because they make the pain bearable. “Avoiding pain isn’t about running through it. Barefoot running will teach you to run.” The short stride, forefoot strike and constant awareness of the environment may be slower techniques overall but will keep athletes running longer later in life, he said.

In his 50s, Saxton still gets out and runs. At this event, he finishes the 10-mile race without ever slipping a shoe on. Minutes behind him, Morgan checks off his first 10-mile loop on his quest for the world record.

The first 10 miles were not forgiving and he had five more to go. The backside of the loop proved more difficult than the farm roads near the starting line. “The course was far too rocky to go barefoot the entire time,” he said.

Morgan decided to call off his attempt and finished out the 100 kilometers in sandals – still the only runner to do so. But that doesn’t mean he has given up on his goal. “I plan to attempt the record this year. I would like to just go ahead and do 100 miles. I’m going to be doing some research on some good trails to do it on.”

While the minimalist divisions at the Born to Run Ultra Marathon were still a minority, it is impossible to deny that back-to-the-basics running has gained a foothold in the minds of many. Whether it is a passing fad or here to stay is a story yet untold, but when one considers the modern running shoe was born less than a half century ago, it seems a technology with eons of use behind it might just emerge the victor.

This article was originally published on May 19, 2011 in the Santa Ynez Valley Journal.

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  1. Pingback: What barefoot runners taught me about gear | Isaiah Brookshire

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