Joining the cavemen

| 13 Mar 2019 | 01:06

    The making of a barefoot runner

    By Orion Russell Blake

    February 3, 2010. That’s when it started. I was catching my regularly scheduled infotainment and just before midnight, John Durant was interviewed on the Colbert Report. Those seven minutes have had a lasting impact on my life.

    Ten days later, I met Durant in person when his meat-share group and mine came to Glynwood Farm for a tour. Durant was a twenty-something Harvard-educated man making waves for promoting the wisdom of our caveman ancestors while living in New York City. This included the paleo diet, intermittent fasting, a style of exercise called MovNat (move naturally), learning to hunt and barefoot running. On Colbert, he had worn Vibram Fivefingers — like gloves for your feet — which I later found out is minimalist footwear, or as the slang has changed, human footwear.

    By spring, I was traveling all over New York City to join in meetups of Barefoot Runners NYC. I read Born to Run, the seminal barefoot bible, then met “Barefoot Ted” McDonald, the most colorful character from those pages, and Christopher McDougall, the author. They and others ran clinics for Barefoot Runners NYC back in that heyday, in what could be called the Barefoot Moment.

    Running with “BFT” filled me with enthusiasm. His vim and vigor reminded me of my ol’ cross-country coach, Saint Lawrence, in Warwick. You just wanted to be around the man. McDougall inspired me with grandeur. Once we went from Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem to a bookstore in Greenpoint, Brooklyn for a talk, crossing the East River on the Queensboro and Newtown Creek on the Pulaski Bridge. Can you imagine it? A troop of twenty-first century cavemen navigating the streets of the fashion capital of the world? It was incredibly invigorating.

    I remember meeting up with a friend after one of these runs. He was starting a rooftop farm in Brooklyn. Here he was, a Brooklyn native bucking norms in his own way, and he stared at me incredulously. “But what about used syringes? Or broken glass? Gum?!” Let me tell you, broken glass is a paper tiger. On asphalt, broken glass lies mostly flat. I’m not saying a shard never hangs on, but just stop and pick it out, don’t let it work its way in. This is yet another reason to land softly.

    Which brings me to the time another apprentice at Stone Barns observed me running to work from Tarrytown, remarking, “I was bounding like a gazelle.” I hope that was in my earliest days of barefooting, because although I enjoy the imagery, that would have been seriously bad technique. I imagine this is why for many, barefoot is a fad. I was lucky to have so many gurus and a community to buoy me along until I finally got it. One thing a runner typically does in shoes is bound, or bounce. They push off. And when they land from that parabolic arc, the impact affects every joint in their body. That’s why jogging became a term. Everything in your body gets jogged from running like that. Incidentally, that is the motivation for this piece. In the last issue, Dirt published When bad feet make good, which talked about “pounding up and down trails” — a phrase that made me wince.

    Hiker Pam Chergotis talks about her sky-high arches, extra wide balls and a bone spur, which she has counteracted with the help of a good podiatrist, pricey boots and pricier orthotics. I don’t have perfect feet either. They were deformed from years of wearing shoes too tight and small, my little toes tucked under the next, with hammertoes and part of the nails removed on the big ones. Even so, they were capable, and eight years into my journey, I would like to make sure that this message is being spread. Flat feet or high arches, I bet the reader, yes you, I bet your feet could too. Barefoot running is all about listening to your body and reducing impact forces to nil, avoiding many causes for injury and letting you run forever.

    The first thing any barefooter learns is to land on the forefoot, the ball of the foot, instead of the heel. However, it wasn’t until Ken Bob Saxton came to town that I adapted further. Saxton taught me how to glide by sitting into my stance, by acting suspended from a string, and use my knees more than I ever had. Doctor Daniel Lieberman, who runs the Harvard Skeletal Biology Lab, recorded Saxton running on a treadmill and described his footfall as a plane coming in for a landing. A pilot aims to kiss the ground when touching down. Come down with too much angle or force, and you crash. Or for your feet, you pound. That might be why when Game of Thrones writer George R.R. Martin describes barefoot septons wandering the seven kingdoms, their feet are “gnarled and hard as tree roots” or “horn.” Sounds like hooves! Those septons must never have stopped pounding. That’s not how habitually barefoot feet are, folks! They’re supple, they need to be, to respond and flow over the landscape.

    In addition to deforming your feet, shoes put unnatural strain on your body because of the cushioning under the heel. Minimalist footwear has no drop from the heel to toe. They often have wider toe boxes, encouraging your feet to splay out. Their soles are thin and flexible to allow your feet, crammed with more nerves per square centimeter than any other body part, to feel the ground. They mostly avoid punctures (if you aren’t looking where you’re going) and sharp edges such as loose gravel. However, as Saxton emphasizes in his book, you need to go truly barefoot before going minimal. You have to adapt before you get comfortable.

    For Dr. Lieberman, an evolutionary biologist and author of The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease, studying barefoot running — of Saxton and other hippies, and also of the famed Kelenjin tribe of Kenya — led to insights of our earliest ancestors. He became a proponent of the Running Man hypothesis, that homo sapiens and the form our bodies take, from the positioning of our buttocks to the length of our toes, evolved to run. Or as McDougall would say, we were born because we run.

    Growing up in the twenty-first century, you might be more familiar with the idea that human beings are weaklings in the animal kingdom. That if it weren’t for our big gooey brains, the lions, tigers and bears would have wiped us out the moment any dumb ape decided to drop out of a tree. But the Running Man theory offers another story. While many animals can beat us in a sprint, there is apparently tremendous evidence that we are the greatest endurance runners in the world. McDougall’s book goes into detail about an indigenous tribe in Mexico with individuals recorded running non-stop 435 miles, a distance from NYC to Detroit. There and in a few other pockets in the world are the last practitioners of persistence hunting, our oldest avenue for getting protein on the table.

    Maybe even before Prometheus stole fire, man chased down his prey to the point of exhaustion. A group of hunters chooses a target, and then relentlessly gives that animal no quarter until it collapses from overheating. That we do not overheat ourselves in the pursuit is due to the fact that man has a much better ability to thermoregulate through sweating than most other species. So, meat for dinner, no weapons or shoes required, humans survive and proliferate, build cities and eventually invent TV.

    And one day this Hudson Valley native sat himself in front of the small screen, and thought “Hey, I want to be a caveman” and ended up ditching his shoes.

    Blake is a barefoot runner by day, croupier by night. When he needs to, he slips on DIY huaraches (2mm Vibram soling) or Crocs to avoid no shoes, no service. He’s ordering black Softstar Primal RunAmocs to hopefully replace dress shoes at the casino. Don’t tell management. Inspired? Bubba Gump Barefoot Troop’s first meetup will be on the vernal equinox.