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> Three Years Later

Three Years Later


I can't believe it's already been three years! Not much has changed. I'm still having fun running around town barefoot, often four or five miles at a time now. I ran the Bolder Boulder 10k once barefoot and twice in FiveFingers. Most recently I've been learning to shift my center of gravity forward so that I can go faster. The best I've done so far is a mile in 7:40, but right now it looks like it should be easy to make further progress.

And, my feet have become strong. When I say that, you probably imagine them being all bony and muscular, but in fact they just look plump.

The most exciting development is that over the past year or so there have been moments when I've felt like I could just keep running forever. In the past there have been a variety of limiting factors: maybe I'd get out of breath, or my calves would get tired, or I'd run out of energy. But now the only limiting factor is that after five miles of concrete the soles of my feet start to get a little sore. So, I'm planning to get some minimal running shoes some time and see how far I can really go! (But don't worry, I'm sure I'll keep running barefoot too.)

What about the FiveFingers? I'll talk about them later. Right now I want to share a few more ideas about running.

  • My natural tempo seems to be less than the three steps per second that I mentioned previously. That's fine with me—probably the right tempo varies inversely with size (height, weight, whatever), and I'm pretty tall. But, I'm also still experimenting with it.
  • Be that as it may, I find it very helpful to forget about the “per second” part and just think of my steps in groups of three. In other words, I like to run in 3/4 time. It's graceful, like a waltz, and it helps keep my feet balanced and symmetrical.
  • It's important to stop when you get tired. When you get tired, you'll run with bad form, and then it's easier to hurt yourself.
  • In particular, if you don't lift your foot enough, it's easy to catch the tip of your big toe on the concrete and get a bad scrape. Especially if you've cut that one toenail too short! (It's fine to keep all the other toenails short, though.)

Another thing I've been experimenting with is arm motion. The goal, I think, is for the arm motion to exactly counterbalance the leg motion so that the body as a whole doesn't twist from side to side. That sounds reasonable enough, but somehow from that premise I came up with the idea that the most efficient thing would be to keep my forearms pointed straight forward, parallel to the ground, like a robot. I did that for a while, and thought of a bunch of different hand positions to go with it.

  • You can make fists and imagine your arms are the pistons of a locomotive.
  • You can imagine you're holding a pair of ski poles and are cross-country skiing.
  • You can put your thumbs on top and imagine you're pulling yourself along on a pair of ropes.
  • You can hold your hands like you're about to clap, cup them a little, and then rotate them 45 degrees outward. It will feel like you're pushing forward with the base of the thumb.

That last position is my favorite, because something about that tiny rotation makes the chest and lungs open up.

More recently, based on a vague memory of something Michael Sandler said about chicken wings, I've tried bringing my hands upward and inward so that they move forward and backward in front of my chest. I like that a lot, although now I'm thinking that maybe the “inward” part is a mistake since it tends to close the chest and lungs.

Before that, I also tried running with two-pound weights in my hands. It was doable, and was probably good exercise, but I didn't really enjoy it. The most interesting thing about it was that since my arms effectively had more mass, the distance moved had to drop to keep the torque the same. It felt like the weights were attached to the air, and I was pulling on them to keep myself from twisting.

The weights did lead to one nice discovery, though. If I can carry a small weight, and I can run without bouncing too much, then I can run to the coffee shop and bring back a latte! I don't really do that very often, but it's fun for a change of pace.

That's all the ideas about running I have for now. Next up is the story of the FiveFingers. As planned, I bought a pair of them about three years ago. They were fun to mess around with, but when I tried to stop messing around and use them for longer hikes and other more serious activities, I was eventually forced to admit to myself that I didn't like them. The reasons depended on the activity.

Hiking in FiveFingers was a lot more doable than hiking barefoot. The protection from rocks and poky things was great. But, I still found it very easy, and very painful, to stub my toes, and I still had to spend too much time watching the ground. Also, since I was going further in FiveFingers than I had barefoot, some new problems emerged. First, I went significantly slower than usual, about two miles an hour instead of three. Second, my feet got tired. Yes, tired—not sore from stepping on rocks but tired from muscular effort. It's a frightening thing to be hiking and think that your feet might simply be too tired to carry you the rest of the way back! I can't remember ever having the same thought about my legs. Those problems both limited the hikes I could take, which was annoying.

Because of all that, and because my running shoes wore out, for the moment I've gone back to hiking in fairly traditional hiking boots. If you're curious, here are the criteria I used when picking them out.

  • Lots of room for toes.
  • Lots of protection for toes.
  • Light.
  • Plenty of tread.
  • No ankle support, seems unnecessary for day hiking.

What about trail running? Well, as I explained previously, I'm not a big fan of it even in normal running shoes, but I gave it a try in FiveFingers anyway just in case the experience was made better by some unforeseen factor. But, it wasn't. On the contrary, it was made worse by the ever-present possibility of stubbed or even broken toes.

What about ordinary running? Well, the FiveFingers did work well on short runs of two or three miles. As with hiking, the protection from rocks and poky things was great. The trouble was, on longer runs the FiveFingers tended to trap moisture (sweat) and then give me huge blisters. It was also a nuisance that I had to rinse or wash them frequently to keep them from getting smelly.

I do still wear the FiveFingers once in a while just to walk around town, but even for that purpose they usually aren't my first choice. The trouble is, if it's possible to wear FiveFingers, it's usually also possible to go barefoot and bring sandals, and that's more fun. Also, I really can't be bothered with shoes that take time to put on. Around fifteen years ago I got tired of shoes with laces, and ever since then I've just worn boat shoes, sandals, and whatever other odd things I could find. I particularly like Birkenstocks. It took me a while to get around to trying them, maybe because I thought they were too crunchy, but actually they're great shoes. Anyway, the point is, even though FiveFingers don't have laces, to my mind they're still too much trouble to put on.

Finally, here are some semi-random thoughts about feet.

First of all, feet like to be bare, to feel the fresh air and sunlight and receive all the other interesting and pleasant sensations that I talked about in Walking Barefoot. When they're confined in shoes, they tend to get all sweaty and smelly, but that isn't their natural state.

Speaking of the natural state of feet, check out the pictures in Uncontacted Amazonians (or just do an image search for, say, “uncontacted Amazon tribe”). What excellent feet! Compared with their feet, mine are deformed: the little toes are bent way inward and twisted about 45 degrees so that the nails face outward, and the big toes are bent inward so that they point straight forward instead of following the line of the tendon. It was a shocking realization, actually. I'd known there was a continuum of shoe-related deformity, with Chinese women with bound feet near one end and women who wear high heels somewhere in the middle, but I'd always figured I was solidly at the other end.

Speaking of high heels, I've found that it's always good for a laugh to lift up onto the balls of my feet, bend my knees a little, and walk like a faun (Mr. Tumnus). I also like to make footprints in the snow, as you may remember from Walking Barefoot. One day I happened to combine the two activities, and discovered that my footprints looked exactly like the pawprints of some large animal!

Speaking of snow, I've actually gone way beyond just making footprints. In the wintertime I'll go running if the temperature is above 40 degrees and the paths are free of snow, but then sometimes I'll get out there and discover that the paths aren't as free of snow as I thought. There might be, say, a stretch of 20 or 30 feet where the path is in shade and the snow hasn't melted at all. Well, guess what? I can just run right through that! It's not even unpleasant—it feels just like making a snowball with my bare hands, only less so because the soles of my feet are thicker than the palms of my hands. There's a limit, of course, just like there's a limit to how many snowballs you can make before your hands get cold. It's also a different kind of limit, because you can stop making snowballs any time you want, but if you get stuck barefoot in the middle of a snowy wasteland, you're in trouble. But, the tiny patches of snow that I'm talking about are nowhere near the limit. I bet I could run a mile barefoot in the snow if I wanted to!

It's important, here, that I'm talking about running in the snow, not just standing in it. If you're standing in the snow, your feet are going to get cold pretty quickly. Maybe you'll get some help from whatever it is that makes your palms warm up when you make snowballs, but still. If you're running in the snow, however, the effort of running will warm you up, and that in turn will warm up your feet. That's an oversimplified view, but what actually happens is even better. If you're sufficiently bundled up, running will make your body want to dump excess heat, and one of the ways it does that is by increasing blood flow to the soles of the feet. And, if that blood gets cooled efficiently, as it ought to in the snow, then that can improve your endurance a lot! My source here is a fascinating article about cooling glove technology that I happened to see.

That's all theoretical, of course, so please don't do anything stupid and give yourself frostbite. If I ever experiment with snow-running myself, I'll be sure to bring some shoes along and increase the distance gradually. Until then, here are the facts.

  • I can run across small amounts of snow.
  • It feels good.
  • Concrete and other cold surfaces feel good too.
  • If there's snow on the ground, I'll often stomp around in it after a run to cool down.

Also, here are a few notes about the sensations associated with snow and other wintertime things.

  • Thick snow can be really soft.
  • I had to try walking on ice because it was so transgressive, but now I've forgotten what it felt like. I think it must have been slippery.
  • Stepping barefoot into a slush puddle is pretty awful. Slush conducts heat a lot better than snow does.
  • Rock salt and other crystalline ice melters are the worst.
  • FiveFingers provide great insulation, but they don't stop slush from getting in between your toes.

That's all I have to say about snow, and also all I have to say about running barefoot. To wrap things up, let me go back to something I said at the very beginning: “I started experimenting a bit more to see what my feet were capable of.” What are feet capable of? I think I know the answer now, and the answer is that feet are capable of truly amazing things, things that at the start I would have found nearly unbelievable. And, remember, there's nothing special about me or my feet. I just wanted to find out what was possible.

In honor of Caballo Blanco, here's something he said (as reported in Born to Run) that has stuck with me since the first time I heard it.

“Think Easy, Light, Smooth, and Fast. You start with easy, because if that's all you get, that's not so bad. Then work on light. Make it effortless, like you don't give a shit how high the hill is or how far you've got to go. When you've practiced that so long that you forget you're practicing, you work on making it smooooooth. You won't have to worry about the last one—you get those three, and you'll be fast.”


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@ December (2014)