Even though June 21st will mark the official start of summer, to many the summer “season” begins now. This month, the first of the summer blockbusters will hit movie theaters, parkway traffic will once again become unbearable, and outdoor athletes across the garden state will saddle up on mountain bikes, launch kayaks, and lace up running shoes. Well, maybe not the running shoes part so much this year.
Runners will still be taking to the streets in droves this season; it’s just that a growing number of them will be leaving their shoes at home. Nationally, more and more runners, from elite ultra-marathoners to the weekend warriors at your local 5K, have been ditching the kicks and adopting a more minimalist approach, running barefoot.
The barefoot running “movement,” as it’s been called, started to become popular around the turn of the century, but running without shoes obviously dates back to the beginning of mankind. Proponents of this minimalist running argue that running shoes alter one’s natural movement and form, leading to a weakening of the foot muscles and, ultimately, injury. By relying only on the design of your perfectly evolved human foot, your form corrects itself to a more natural motion. Barefoot runners claim to gain strength, speed, and endurance, while reducing or even eliminating any number of physical maladies, from knee or back pain to migraine headaches.
Still more interesting are the claims that shedding your shoes and running "foot-naked" can be a transcendental experience. I guess that's what made me want to try it.
Having been a pretty devoted runner since I began helping my wife train for last fall's New York Marathon, I had yet to see the mental-spiritual benefits of my weekly miles on the road catch up to the physiological results. While I'd made notable strides in speed and endurance, I'd reached a plateau in regards to the clarity and balance I had hoped running would bring to my often-muddled mind.
If this barefoot thing could provide me with some much needed inner peace, I was willing to give it a go.
I started reading anything I could find on barefoot running, but the early prognosis was less than promising. Apparently, doctors and researchers say the jury is still out on the physical and mental benefits of barefoot running, and despite their rapidly growing numbers, minimalist runners are still considered to be on the fringe of the traditional running community. What's worse was that the majority of those professing the wonders of barefoot running, seemed to be from west coast hipster communities in southern California or the Pacific Northwest. I was beginning to doubt this would work for me given my right coast cynicism. Fears of becoming known as "that barefoot guy" during the Winding River Park 5Ks this summer, were almost enough to make me forget the whole thing and leave it to the granola eaters out west.
Then I came across something that gave me a glimmer of confidence, a sign that the barefoot running movement was already starting to spread to the Jersey shore and that maybe a hardened "easterner" like myself could make it work.
Earlier this month, Adam Gentile, of Fairfield, Connecticut, was one of the 11,000 who ran the New Jersey Marathon. What set Adam apart from the field was his footwear, or lack thereof. He traversed the entire 26.2 miles, which began and ended in Long Branch but meandered through a half-dozen shore towns, barefoot. After reading about his experience and impressive finish time of 3 hours and fifty-one minutes from his blog, which is appropriately titled "Barefoot Gentile," I contacted Adam to see if he had any advice for a barefoot novice like myself.
"Take it slow at first, work on your form, and have patience."
Gentile, 40, had been a runner for 20 years, but didn't try running barefoot until September 2009. Unlike a lot of other proponents of barefoot running, Adam didn't switch to the minimalist style because of past injuries. Plain old curiosity drove Adam to go foot-naked.
"On Labor Day 2009 I was running a 20k and decided right after that race, I am going to try barefoot running," Adam told me. "That was my last run in shoes. I took my first barefoot run, a half mile, and the rest was history."
He admitted there was a difficult transition period with a lot of aches and pains stemming from a lack of patience, trying to do "too much, too soon." Before long, however, Adam found that he was running more efficiently and, eventually, even faster than he had in cushioned running shoes. Soon, he was running 5 milers, half-marathons, and 20Ks with nothing between asphalt and the pads of his feet.
Then, I asked Adam, who said he regularly covers about 25 miles or more a week, about the spiritual advantages barefoot running is supposed to have over running with traditional footwear.
"Just being connected to the earth while running barefoot, you can say, is a spiritual experience." He was quick to add, however, that he wasn't seeking a religious experience through barefoot running.
"Being a religious person, living a spiritual life is nothing new to me; running barefoot didn’t really enhance any new spirituality my life," he said. "But as far as mentally, like I said before, running barefoot has made me want to run longer, and run more."
Before ending our conversation, I asked Adam if he could suggest a good pair of minimalist running shoes to help wean me from my bulky trainers (and save me a lot of stares from confused onlookers) before going full speed ahead into his world of barefoot running.
"I don’t really get caught up in all the minimal footwear," he told me. "I ran barefoot to lose the shoes not to gain more. "
He did, however, point me in the direction of the Vibram Five Fingers, something he's worn himself during winter months. If you haven't seen these things, imagine stretching a batting glove over your foot and duct taping a thin layer of rubber on the bottom for traction. Needless to say, my hopes for an embarrassment-free conversion were all but dashed with Adam's recommendation of these bizarre shoes. But I figured he knew what he was talking about, having just outrun a few thousand people on the streets of Monmouth County.
After researching vendors who carry the Five Fingers locally from the Vibram website, I headed over to the Jersey Paddler in Brick to get fitted for my first pair. Trying to slide each individual toe into its own compartment was as awkward as it sounds … at first. Once I got them on, however, I felt an almost paradoxical mixture of confinement and freedom. Sure it felt like I was wearing gloves on my feet, but I also noticed that my toes naturally spread out and gripped the ground when I walked. After a few light laps between the clothing racks, I figured, “what the hell” and made the purchase.
I hadn’t intended on breaking them in just yet, but on my way home from the Paddler, I had another “what the hell” moment and turned onto Fischer Boulevard. Remembering Adam’s advice to be patient and take it slow, I figured the soft-packed dirt of Cattus Island would be as safe a place as anywhere to give these babies a test drive.
Being the driest day in while, I wasn’t surprised to see the place full of dog walkers and bird watchers, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that the ninja assassin slippers I had velcroed onto my feet didn’t mortify me somewhat. But once I made it passed the welcome center and hit the trail, I didn’t care what I looked like. Within a hundred yards, I was a believer. After a mile, I was a full-fledged convert. Nearing the tip of the island, I made a sharp right and dug hard into the freshly laid mulch of the Hidden Beach Loop. With each twist and blind turn of the marsh-bordered trail, I pushed myself to go faster and faster.
When I emerged from the reeds onto open beach again, I stopped to catch my breath and assess my Five Fingers. Other than being winded, I’d had no other issues: no cramps, no aches, no pains. In fact, I felt better, running-wise, than I had ... ever.
I'm not going to pretend that Cattus Island turned into Walden Pond and suddenly the mysteries of the universe were unveiled to me, but, mentally, I was having more fun running than ... ever.
I took off again, this time at a comfortable pace, heading back towards my car. As I passed the walkers and watchers this time, I made an extra effort to draw attention to my feet, no longer self-conscious about my ninja shoes. Then, as I reached my car, I did something I'd never done after a long run before. I turned right around and hit the trail again.
To read more about Adam Gentile's barefoot running adventures, please visit: http://barefootgentile.wordpress.com/